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Review of Iron War

December 27, 2011

Over Christmas weekend, I read Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen, & The Greatest Race Ever Run, by Matt Fitzgerald. I definitely recommend it to anyone training for an Ironman, but more generally to anyone interested in the inspiration behind endurance athletes. The book tells the story of the 1989 Ironman World Championship, an epic battle between two top athletes. Mark Allen had challenged Dave Scott for the IM championship several times in past years, but never quite succeeded. In 1989, Dave and Mark were within sight of each other the whole race, and shoulder-to-shoulder on the run until less than 2 miles to go. Mark won the race by less than a minute!

More than just telling about the 1989 race in exquisite detail, the book also detailed the history of the Ironman, the personal history and training habits of Dave, Mark, and several other key athletes, and what the people involved have done since 1989. It talked about past races between Dave and Mark (both Ironman and other triathlons) and gave details of how they trained and why. There was more discussion of training science than I would have liked (I read plenty of that elsewhere), but overall I could not put the book down.

I enjoy reading books like this. I have at least half a dozen other books about athletic feats, mostly rowing. But why do I enjoy them, and why are they inspiring? In some sense, my inspiration has to come from inside of me. Reading about Dave Scott and Mark Allen leaves me in awe of their achievements, but it’s not going to give me what it takes to push through my own training. But reading about Dave Scott and Mark Allen helps me gain perspective on what drives me in my own training. It helps me better understand how I can push myself.

In that respect, this book had two key takeaways for me. First, it really emphasized how much of training and competition is mental and psychological. At some point our bodies do present physical limits, but most of us never get to those limits. Mark Allen fought with inner demons during many races. In his early career, he would often be leading in a race until he convinced himself he couldn’t win. And then he would lose. And in the 1989 Ironman, these demons threatened to derail him again. But he held on. Dave Scott treated every workout in training as a race of sorts. As much as physically training, he wanted to train to handle the mental stress of the Ironman.

Two, training is not about gadgets. For how much we rely on the latest exercise science, whether it’s new training plans, new heart rate monitors, gps units, or other gadgets, new swimwear, new bikes, new shoes, new running forms, we’re not dramatically faster. Yes, record times are faster now than they were then. But not dramatically faster. Which is a relief for a newbie like me, who can’t afford all the expensive gear and fancy training plans. That’s all icing on the cake. I can do the core training, which matters a lot more than anything I could buy.

If you want to race hard, you need to train hard. Last night, when I was doing my 8 x 500 meters on the erg, I got to apply the lessons of the book. My average speed through the first 5 pieces was about 1:46.5, slightly faster than last week. But I was really beginning to hurt. I was struggling to physically hold my pace. I knew last week I slipped on the 6th and 7th pieces. This week I got in the right mental place. I refused to let my average slip. I think my 6th and 7th pieces might have been around 1:47. Slightly slower, but no significant slip. And after sprinting hard on the 8th piece, my overall average was 1:46.4. Faster than last week, with 15 seconds less rest in between pieces!

327 days till Ironman Arizona.

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One Comment
  1. Great review. Mental training…I need to start that right now. I think I got this book for my brother so I am going to try and borrow it back! That is the nice thing about having friends and famiy triathlons. Was thinking of starting a book swap in my tri group. Too bad you are not closer, I’d loan you the ones I have. Happy Training! Beth

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