”Impossible is a great victory taking shape“

Ironman 1990 | Lather, Rise, Repeat

My career was on a roll. I hadn’t lost a race since my three-flat Ironman in 1988. After that I won everything I entered including my first victory at the IRONMAN World Championship in October 1989. To be honest, I could have very easily called it a career and retired right then. Fortunately there was another part of me that was curious. Was it a fluke? Could I win it again? I had to find out!

This year’s championship came with an unexpected twist. Once again Dave Scott would not line up on race day, his second no-start in three years. In 1988 his absence lulled me into believing my victory was guaranteed. I would not repeat that mistake! I’d race like every competitor out there was Dave Scott, quite the opposite from two years earlier when I thought I had it in the bag without him.

The run course had changed. For the very first time we ran into the brutal heat and desolation of the Energy Lab. Going in was the easy part with a slight downgrade and a headwind coming off the ocean that cooled me just a bit. Coming out was supremely intense with a long unforgiving upgrade made even more lethal by a tailwind blowing at exactly the same speed I was running, which provided zero amount of cooling. My core temperature started to skyrocket. But momentum was carrying my legs through the survival override switch that was trying to get me to slow down.

The run course had changed. For the very first time we ran into the brutal heat and desolation of the Energy Lab. Going in was the easy part with a slight downgrade and a headwind coming off the ocean that cooled me just a bit. Coming out was supremely intense with a long unforgiving upgrade made even more lethal by a tailwind blowing at exactly the same speed I was running, which provided zero amount of cooling. My core temperature started to skyrocket. But momentum was carrying my legs through the survival override switch that was trying to get me to slow down.

I surged back out onto the Queen K Hwy where the breeze was just enough to my side to start cooling me with the sweat covering every inch of my body. No one was close enough to contest me for the lead. The remaining six miles to finish seemed like a welcoming friend. For years I’d looked out at that same stretch of lava almost wanting to yell out, “WHY! Why does it have to be so brutal and stark and unforgiving out here?

This year I looked out over that exact same lava and saw beauty because it was so raw. I felt how its intensity was critical for teaching me how to be strong, how to keep going until I left struggling and the sense of impending disaster behind. It taught me that if I hung in there long enough and gave all I had that everything in front of me would feel like running toward freedom and awe rather than trying to outrun fear and doubt. The lava through its intensity was crafting the greatness of this amazing day. I saw how anything less intense and vast and the Ironman would just be another race.

But the strength work masked the fatigue because I was actually getting better. I was stronger than I’d ever been in my career. Hills were a piece of cake. I felt bullet proof running. I was faster than ever in all three sports. Think of it this way. If I gained 10% from the strength, but lost 5% from the underlying fatigue I’d still be 5% better. I didn’t see it coming, but it was festering under the surface.

October was my month. It was my New Year’s Eve. Of course, the celebration, or if necessary the recalibration, wouldn’t start until after both feet crossed the Ironman finish line. I’ll admit I was pretty excited for the race. It felt like coming home when I arrived in Hawaii. I relished the depth of what it would take to have a great day rather than being intimidated by it like in my early years racing there. I knew there was so much I’d have to wait until race day to figure out and I was excited to have that chance.

The final 10k defined the race for me that year. I’d led the Ironman before at that point, but never really knowing if the lead would be enough. I didn’t take the lead the year before until the closing moments of the run, and really only had the stretch along Ali’i Drive where I could embrace the experience, the feeling of leading one of the greatest races in endurance athletics.

This year was different. It was humbling. I felt like I was opening the doorway that would make the day possible for everyone else follow and fulfill their dreams. It was like I had the honor of clearing the path for our sport to be another degree greater, to write the first words in the next chapter in triathlon history. It was not personal. It was for everyone.

I gave everything I had. That was my way of trying to honor the position of leading the greatest race in our sport. And I had that last 10k to soak in the depth of what it takes to win in Kona. It’s not just a race of numbers and splits. It’s so much more. It’s human. It’s emotion. It’s spiritual. I could feel the complexity of the race and the demand of performing at my best on the Island of Hawaii. I felt the privilege of leading every step of those final six-miles.

I won my second IRONMAN World Championship that day. Two-time IRONMAN World Champion Scott Tinley came in second. My winning margin of 9:33 would be the greatest of all my Ironman victories. This became my 21st straight triathlon win since the streak started in late October of 1988. That string would become part of my legacy along with my Ironman victories. The streak would eventually end as all do. But for the moment I allowed myself to bask in its blessings.

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