The 2:40 Marathon
I came across an article that has absolutely fascinated me for the last couple of days. In the 1989 Ironman World Championships (often called the iron war) the first two finishers, Dave Scott and Mark Allen, finished the marathon at 2:40 and 2:41 respectively, a marathon record that no one has beaten in Kona. There is an iconic photograph of these two guys that has been widely circulated.
Keep in mind that there were two key differences in the marathon during this era. Firstly, the total time on the marathon included the transition time, so they were probably running a little faster than their posted times. Secondly, the marathon course was slightly harder back then.
With all of our advances in technology and nutrition, no one has been able to beat these two guys at Kona in the marathon. To be very clear, their pace is not easy to achieve for anyone. They were between 6:00 and 6:10 splits which is the elite of the elite. Most runners won’t see that pace during an open marathon let alone after biking for 112 miles. This is even more impressive considering the bikes used in 1989 were junkers compared to today’s superbikes. In fact, every time you read about triathlon specific bikes they include some sort of reference to the idea that these bikes “save your legs” for the marathon. There may be some truth to that but that technology has not helped anyone beat the course record at Kona.
There have been a lot of ideas floated around as to why no one has beat the marathon record. Some say that it was because it was an unusually cool and calm day. Mark mused that it is because modern tri bikes might actually hurt the run. Also, he mentions that in his day, on the bike, people were allowed to fan out to avoid drafting. Nowadays people bunch up and drop back to avoid the drafting penalty. One might think that even though they were able to fan out, the super light bikes of today would more than make up for that.
When you read what Mark and Dave have said about their competition with each other and about Ironman in the late 80s there is an undercurrent of theme that I think should be mentioned out loud. They were tougher back then. They trained as long and as hard as they needed too and when it counted (at the end of the marathon) and they set records. It isn’t just that Ironmen were tougher, I think almost everyone was tougher back then than they are today. Do you think the average person (let alone athlete) would even mutter the words “gluten-free” or “low-carb” in 1989? Yes, this is a commentary on modern society and how we have generally become both physically and mentally weaker than we used to be.
Think about your professional life, how many people take unscheduled time off to handle their personal business? How often do you hear your coworkers talk about the drama in their lives? Could you imagine your parents or grandparents doing the same thing at their jobs? I am not suggesting that we have to “Man Up” (don’t get me started on that) more, what I am suggesting is that we need to evaluate our general levels of resilience in our culture.