The 1989 Kona Ironman was a Competition to Remember

The ultimate one-day test of endurance saw its greatest moment on October 14, 1989, now forever known as “The Iron War.” That was also the day that the rivalry between Mark Allen and Dave Scott reached its pinnacle of intensity. Mark finished with a time of 8:09:14, with Dave just 58 seconds back at 8:10:13. The greatest Ironman triathlon race happened on the magical Big Island of Hawaii. It was a battle of heavyweights, similar to Ali v. Frazier at “The Thrilla in Manilla.”

The Kona Ironman world championship consists of a 2.4-mile swim in a calm bay in downtown Kona; a 112-mile bike race through the barren black d fields, climbing up the lush mountain road with green grass to the small town of Hawaii; then back down, through the lava fields to the Kona Surf Hotel outside of Kona. Lastly, the athletes put on their running shoes for a 26.2 mile run out to the airport and back. If that’s not enough of a challenge, factor in the local heat, humidity, wind, and desolation.

The Competitors and the Race

The Germans had started to take an interest in the race, with pros like master swimmer Wolfgang Dietrich, (48:13 swim) and fast bicyclist Jurgen Zack participating. But Kona was still dominated by Dave Scott, from Davis, California. From 1980 to 1987 he won in Hawaii six times. He was known as “The Man” because of his dedicated training regimen and unrelenting race performances. Dave’s race season always peaked in Kona. Enter the challenger, Mark Allen from San Diego. Mark had finished second to Dave Scott five times. But 1989 would be different.

First, Mark Allen trained on New Zealand’s South Island with triathlon legends Scott Molina and Erin Baker. Molina won Hawaii in 1988. Mark lived a simple life there. Second, Mark adopted a new strategy. Like a sage matador in a bullfight, he let the race come to him. Mark shadowed Dave on the swim and on the bike.

A historic shot of Mark Allen and Dave Scott captured by the author’s friend during the 1989 Iron Man, forever known as the ‘Iron War’. Photo courtesy of Richard L. Duquette.

During this time, aerobars and bladed spoked rims with sew up tires were used. RAAM winners like Pete Penseyres and his friends had developed alternative position handlebars. Greg LeMond jumped on this advancement in aero positioning, using aerobars to beat Laurent Fignon by eight seconds in the July 1989 Tour de France.

Thus, the importance of aerodynamic handlebars was firmly established by October of 1989. At that time, the fastest bike split (of an overall winner) was three-time Olympian bicyclist John Howard, of Encinitas who won the 1981 Kona Ironman with a 5:03:29 bike split. (In 1980 John’s bike split was 4:28, but he finished third).

With improved aerodynamics and evolving training methods, Dave Scott and Mark Allen’s bike splits were only one second apart in 1989. Mark 4:37:52, and Dave’s at 4:37:53. (The current bike split record is held by Norman Stadler, at 4:18:23.) Both Mark and Dave used aerobars in 1989.

Mark’s nickname is “The Grip,” because once he takes hold of the lead, he never lets it go. Mark Allen and Dave Scott ran shoulder-to-shoulder and stride-for-stride for about 22 miles. It’s been said that no words were exchanged, just a stoic mental march to the finish running six-minute miles. At four miles to go, there is a slight hill before descending downhill past the “Pay and Save” store. That’s when Mark accelerated and pulled away. Dave was unable to answer or catch Mark as both flew down the hill across the finish line, under a minute apart! The image I never forget is Mark carrying the American flag on a stick striding down the finish chute, fist pumping in victory!

The two superstars of the 1989 Ironman, Mark Allen (left) and Dave Scott (right). Photo courtesy of Richard L. Duquette.

So, you may wonder how I got the photos of Mark and Dave just before they ran up the hill. A friend, Sue (who I photographed the year before) snapped the pics while riding in a rental car driven by my free-spirited brother. Yes, my brother Dave acquired a ‘Wide World of Sports’ press placard, mounted it on the dashboard of the rental car, and proceeded to drive the entire race course, with Sue in tow as the official photographer.

That year, 1989, I finished two Ironman races, New Zealand in the spring and Hawaii in October. I dedicated them to my Grandfather who passed away in 1988 of throat cancer. A few other friends also did Kona that year, Julie Moss, Jon Black, Corky Ewing, and Jeff Timpson, all San Diegans. Best wishes to all the triathletes out there and may all your dreams, athletic and otherwise, come true.

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