Growing up in the pre-ESPN era, a sports crazed youngster such as myself would spend many a cold winter weekend channel surfing in desperate search of a fix.  One February day in 1982, during that lull between football and baseball season, I happened across a sport so ridiculous it blew my mind.  Running had already gone mainstream and the idea of doing a 26.2 mile race no longer seemed like a form of lunacy.  But what I saw that day took it to a whole new level.  Started by a ex-military endurance junky, the Ironman triathlon also involved a run of 26.2 miles, but only AFTER swimming 2.4 miles and THEN biking 112 miles, all in the high winds, heat and humidity of Hawaii.  The announcer explained that the events were held in this particular order because if the swimming segment was held last, exhausted competitors may drown before finishing.

The reason I remember this particular afternoon so vividly is because of a graduate student named Julie Moss who was competing in the the Ironman to gather research for her thesis on exercise physiology.  Julie had little racing experience, but nevertheless took the lead in the women’s field.  She held on as the long day turned to night and was just 100 yards from the finish when her body completely gave out.  Here’s a clip:  Julie Moss-Ironman 1982

Watching her crawl towards the finish and then get passed in the final few yards is heart-wrenching.  Yet her performance on national TV inspired thousands to take up this crazy new sport.  One of those converts was a lifeguard from Southern California named Mark Allen, who would go become one of the great Ironman triathletes, not to mention the future husband of Julie Moss.

Though I’ve never completed in a triathlon(the swim has always been the deal breaker for me), I’ve remained intrigued by the sport.  A few weeks ago I happened across a copy of Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run.  For those of you not familiar with the protagonists, Dave Scott and Mark Allen are the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird of the Ironman triathlon.  These two guys are a big reason for the massive surge in growth the sport experienced in the mid to late 1980’s.  And like Bird and Magic, they had very different personalities and styles.  Dave was an old school “no pain, no gain” kind of guy, while Mark had a more spiritual, new age approach to training.  Both were extremely successful.  Mark won races  all over the world and had lots of big name sponsors, yet couldn’t win the one race that mattered most, the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.  And that just so happened to be the race that Dave dominated, so much so that the six-time winner was given the nickname, “The Man.”

In 1989, these two met at the peak of their careers and squared off in a race that would become known as the Iron War.  For 139 miles and more than 8 hours, they raced side-by-side, never more than a few feet apart, at a world record crushing pace.  These two rivals pushed themselves and each other to the limits of human endurance and mental toughness.  I won’t reveal who the winner was because I didn’t known myself while I was reading the book.  As tempting as it was to sneak a peak at Wikipedia, I held back and the book was more enjoyable because of it.

The author, veteran sports journalist Matt Fitzgerald, did a fine job of introducing us to these two superhuman athletes with all too human flaws.  The narrative arc of Iron War reminded me of John Brant’s excellent Duel in the Sun.  That book also focused on two men(Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley) and one race(the 1982 Boston Marathon)–a single day that changed the lives of these two men forever.  While I loved both of these books, Iron War had the added appeal of introducing me to the fascinating subculture of triathlons.  I’m now more than ever tempted to give it a try.  Maybe I should look into some swimming lessons.

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