IronWar – 20th Anniversary

This month is the 20th anniversary of my first win in Kona back in 1989, on a day that has been called “Iron Wars.” As many of you know, it was a side-by-side battle with the guy who defied limits at the Ironman and dodged defeat for years, at a race where he owned exclusive rights to the champion’s lei.

I’m talking about six-time Champion Dave Scott. His invincibility seemed to be endless on the Big Island. I had pitched up at the start line six times prior to that fateful day and had walked away with exactly zero wins. My family and friends, the press, everyone was saying, “Don’t do it! Don’t go back. Stick to the races where you have had success. Go to the places you know you can beat Dave. Ironman is too hot and long for you.”

I was so close to saying they were right. But there was one thing inside me that was still burning, that gave me reason to go back for attempt number seven. You see, I had not had my best race there and until I did, I needed to go back. I was unsure if my best was as good as Dave’s, but I had a personal quest to see what my best day looked like, and I had not had it yet.

Armed with some new training and an attitude that was less caring about victory than personal perfection I spotted Dave at the swim start. We spent the next eight hours covering the course that lay ahead like Siamese twins. He sped up, I sped up. He slowed down, I slowed down. He was the best and knew how to race the course like no other human alive, so why not do like the best and just see what happened.

As we closed in on the half marathon point of the run we also began to separate ourselves from the rest of the field. We were on a pace that was going to shatter Dave’s three-year-old Ironman record. Unfortunately for me, he was at his best and getting stronger throwing in surges that dropped the pace down to a 6-minute mile. I was near the end of my tolerance to pain, to his relentless pace, and to the weight of a 0-6 record.

But then it happened…

Just as I was about to give up, the image of an old Huichol Indian shaman that I had seen two days earlier in a magazine came back to me. It was a revered elder named Don Jose, and in his picture he had a look that said “I am happy just to be alive”. Suddenly I was happy just to be next to the best in our sport. No one else was giving him a run for his money. There were still 13 miles left. Something might change for the better.

Drawing strength from Don Jose, the face of the race changed. I could feel energy surging through my body. I could also see that Dave was tiring on the uphills. So to plant a decoy, when he would slow, I would slow even more and drop behind him just a few paces in the hope that he might feel like he was actually stronger than I.

This cat and mouse game went on for over 12 miles until we came to the final uphill before town, the last chance to really make a break. I surged. Dave couldn’t respond. In the space of about half a mile I put over 10-seconds on him, then another 10 and then even more. At the finish the gap had grown to 58-seconds, a very small difference on a very long day. Dave shattered his previous world’s record by almost 15-minutes. I did my best time to date by nearly 30. And the marathon I had to run to pull off victory still stands as the fastest ever in Hawaii at 2:40:04, which includes the transition time from bike to run!

That was the watershed moment for my career. I went on to win six titles matching Dave’s total. I also began to study the wonderful tradition of the Huichol Indians with Don Jose’s grandson, Brant Secunda, and learn what gave him that zest for life and used that as a starting point for victory in the years that followed that first Ironman win.

On the outside it was the victory after so many losses that seemed to be the most significant part of this 20-year-old piece of history. But much deeper than that was my first true moment of experiencing a fit soul and a fit body. It was the end of one journey, the quest for victory, and the birth of another as the door to studying with Brant and a connection to the Huichol tradition was opened. I would meet Brant shortly after that race and begin, in earnest, learning and experiencing the wonder of this tradition and finding a way of understanding life in a way I had been searching to experience since I was a young boy. Six years later Brant would help me erase the biggest deficit in Ironman history for a comeback on the marathon that as commentator Phil Liggett says, “defies description”.

Life for me today is no longer concerned with finding race perfection. But I definitely continue to search for those moments of personal perfection as a father, as a student of Brant’s and as someone, who like each of you, is enjoying time filled with the health and happiness that living a life of Fit Soul, Fit Body can bring.