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November 6, 2014

Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen, and the Greatest Race Ever Run

Matt Fitzgerald: Iron War In 1989, the two biggest long-distance triathletes in the world met head to head at the Hawaii Ironman—the most prestigious triathlon in the world. Dave Scott had already won this race six times. Mark Allen had dominated everywhere except Kona; although he had gone up against Dave Scott at the Hawaii Ironman four times, he had never been able to win. In the 1989 race, called the Iron War ever since, they raced within metres of each other for eight hours, building a three-mile lead on the rest of the field, with neither able to break away. The winner broke the course record by nineteen minutes.

How did these two athletes put on such outstanding performances? Are they aerobic mutants? Were they driven by ferocious inner demons? Matt Fitzgerald explores the science of exercise capacity and finds that it is an athlete’s mental gifts that make the difference. It seems that people stop exercising when the mental strain of persisting in the face of perceived effort—suffering—is too great, and that a specific part of the brain (the part that handles response inhibition and conflict resolution) is involved in exercise endurance. But even the most accomplished sufferer needs a perceived reward to motivate him. Fitzgerald digs into Mark Allen’s and Dave Scott’s respective pasts to explore what makes them tick and why they found what they were looking for in triathlon.

Supposedly the idea of combining a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run arose from a recurring argument about who was fittest: swimmers, cyclists, or runners. Whoever finishes first, we’ll call him the iron man. This book is as much a celebration of the peculiar sport of long-distance triathlon as it is about Dave Scott and Mark Allen. Triathletes will enjoy reading about the people who took the fledgling sport and pushed it farther than anyone had imagined. Fans of sport stories will discover a strange new world.

If fatigue is caused by a mere perception why can’t athletes simply override it by an act of will? This objection reflects a common misunderstanding about the nature of mental phenomena. Intuitively, most people regard perceptions as nonphysical and therefore as lacking the power to exert deterministic control over physical functions. But perceptions are physical—they are specific patterns of electrical and chemical activity in the brain—and they have as much causal power as a punch to the gut.

While there are zillions of stories about not quitting, few tellers of such tales ever really explore the source of the will to endure, the substance of trying harder. Most raconteurs of sport just take it as given that any seer or hearer of a story of outrageous persistence can be inspired to try harder . . . Modern science has enabled us to put this kind of courage under the microscope as never before, and the results have not been kind to the myth of the communicability of will. Scientists . . . have demonstrated that the bravery of the likes of Dave Scott and Mark Allen is a physical thing subject to physical laws and cannot be freely chosen by just anyone.

Further reading

Reviewed from my own copy of the book.

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