The rivalry between legendary triathletes Dave Scott and Mark Allen in the 1980s was among the most compelling rivalries in the history of sports.
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
It was not great only because the two men engaged in numerous epic battles at Ironman, beginning in October 1982 (there was also a February 1982 Ironman) and culminating in the greatest race ever run, known as Iron War, in 1989. It was also great because Scott and Allen were such fascinating figures individually and such stark opposites in their personalities. That they were able to reach the same exclusive summit from opposite sides of the mountain, so to speak, is a powerful object lesson in what is essential to achieving greatness in triathlon—and what is not essential.
Dave Scott was a classic jock of the no-pain, no-gain school. He believed that the way to win was to outwork his competition in training and outsuffer it in races. “I had this idea that if I trained more than anyone else, I was bound to succeed,” Scott said in 1987. “If I found out that Scott Tinley or Mark Allen was working out fifty hours a week, I’d work out fifty-one.”
Dave Scott did not concern himself with the little things. He did not stretch or get massage or monitor his heart rate or practice visualization or fuss over his bike—all things that Mark Allen did. Instead Scott focused on the one big advantage that, in his view, was all that mattered: a strength of will that no other triathlete could match.
Mark Allen could not have been more unalike his nemesis. He was a big believer in balance. He trained at low intensities most of the time and carefully picked his spots to go hard. He took a complete month off from training after Ironman each year and wasn’t afraid to take a day off at any time when his body asked for it. A deeply spiritual man, Allen actively worked to overcome self-doubt through introspection and spiritual self-exploration. He preferred holistic medicine to traditional. They called him the Zen Master.
History shows that it is possible to reach the pinnacle of Ironman competition with either of these antipodal personalities: Dave Scott’s “yin” or Mark Allen’s “yang”. I spent more than a year investigating how two such dissimilar athletes were able to attain the same unheard-of level of performance on October 14, 1989, for my newly published book, Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress, 2011). In this process I discovered that, for all their differences, Dave Scott and Mark Allen were alike in one crucial way: each man had the courage and independence to find his own way to become the best he could be.
In the 1980s, most of the top professional triathletes trained in large groups, and they trained extremely hard. Day after day, these groups would gather and see who could go the fastest or the longest. Dave Scott recognized that such an approach would not work for him, because he would lose focus, control, and ultimately confidence. So throughout his career he trained stubbornly alone in his hometown of Davis, California, whose withering isolation and harsh elements helped hone the mental strength he needed to prevail each year in Kona.
“I think I have the mental perseverance to outendure anyone in this race,” Scott told ABC in 1983. “The topography and the terrain are mentally stifling. I think that most people lose their concentration after about five hours. They give up. It’s not physical; it’s the mental concentration. If you’re used to having a partner to train with, or a nice pretty setting to work out in, you come over here to Kona, it’s like training on the moon.”
By contrast, Mark Allen chose to train in groups with the other top racers of the day (excluding Scott), but he maintained his independence within that context. Allen was coached by Phil Maffetone, who believed in a training philosophy that can be summarized in the slogan, “Go slow to get faster.” To get the full benefits of this approach, Allen could not allow himself to be sucked into effectively racing his friends every day in training. So he steadfastly did what he had to do, putting his ego aside and allowing others to ride and run away from him in some workouts, and then he turned around and crushed those same people when it mattered most: in select workouts where he was supposed to push himself and, of course, in races.
Each triathlete is unique in physiology and temperament. For this reason, each triathlete must find his or her own ideal path to maximum improvement. Take a lesson from Iron War and trust yourself enough to do things your way as an athlete. Doing so does not require that you forego all guidance. Fortunately, although retired from racing, Dave Scott and Mark Allen now teach other triathletes what worked for them as exceptional coaches. If you think you have a little Dave Scott in you, why not learn from him? If you’re more of a Mark Allen type, try his “Go slow to get faster” approach. Find out more at davescottinc.com and markallenonline.com.
Matt Fitzgerald is the author of Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress 2011) and a Coach and Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. Find out more at mattfizgerald.org.