A year later Dave is healthy, and Mark’s rotten luck appears to be behind him. Both men have transformed the agony of their disappointments at the ’88 race into hunger for redemption. Both performed at the highest level of their careers in their summer buildup to this race. Mark went undefeated. Dave set an Ironman world record of 8:01:32 in Japan. Theirs were the only names mentioned in the obsessive “Who do you like this year?” conversations that ritually devour all other topics during race week in Kailua-Kona. Last year’s winner, Scott Molina, has not returned to defend his crown, writing himself off as a one-time opportunist. Two-time winner Tinley, it is agreed, has been surpassed. Sure enough, with two miles left in the race, Dave and Mark are three miles ahead, inches apart.
The conflict between the two men goes deeper than mere professional self-interest. Under the surface of their Ironman battles is a clash of opposing ways of being. Mark is a New Age spiritual type. He meditates and pays attention to auras. He trains smart and isn’t afraid to take a day off when his body needs it. Dave’s a good old-fashioned jock of the no-painno-gain school. He believes you win by outworking your competition in training and outsuffering it in races. Meditation? No, thanks.
Like many great athletes, Dave competes best when he competes angry. He feels that being pals with any of his rivals would weaken him as a competitor, so, in stark contrast to his peers, he trains utterly alone in his out-of-the-way hometown, the chief virtue of whose isolated desert environment, in his mind, is that it is not a place that is attractive to anyone else in the sport. It is Dave against the world, and he likes it that way.
Meanwhile, Mark trains with Tinley, Molina, Pigg, Souza—everyone, it seems, in triathlon’s hypersocial birthplace and epicenter: sunny, beachy San Diego.
Generally mild-tempered, Dave goes to great lengths to gather so-called bulletin-board material—insults, perceived slights, and signs of disrespect—to feed the anger that he depends on to race as hard as he does. In 1987 Kellogg created a breakfast cereal called Pro-Grain. Mark Allen’s face appeared on one version of the box along with the tagline “Ironman Food.”
“What a joke,” Dave scoffed at the time. “Mark has never won Ironman. And that cereal’s not even good for you!”
Proving his point at Ironman that year, Dave again chased down Mark on the run, erasing a four-minute deficit and blowing by him to win by eleven minutes. Mark spent the night in a hospital.
As in any great sports rivalry, enmity is mixed with intimacy. In training, Dave and Mark think about each other like targets. Their blood warms whenever their paths cross off the racecourse, as they did at a press conference just two days ago, where they never greeted one another, never even made eye contact, despite being seated in adjacent chairs. As they run together now, each senses clearly how the other feels—whether he is strong or weak in any moment.
Who is ultimately stronger? The answer is undetermined. Dave does not know, nor does Mark, nor do the spectators who trail them in a reverent hush. One of these two men must soon break the other—in body, mind, or spirit. Who will it be? Not necessarily the faster man. The battle being waged now is about will as much as skill. Already both men have pushed deeper than ever before into the inferno of suffering that stands between every racer and his final performance limit. The winner of this fight is likely to be the man who dares to push deepest. Eight hours of racing are culminating in a game of chicken.
Endurance racing is steeped in the art of pacing. Each man has to hold back something. But how little does he gamble holding back? As they blaze southward toward the finish line in Kailua-Kona, Dave Scott and Mark Allen are risking everything, running in a shared state of unmasked desperation, to win—or not lose—right now.