IRONMAN's 40-Year Legacy Began With Dave Scott

By Bob Bergland | Oct. 09, 2018, 4:17 p.m. (ET)

Dave Scott racing IRONMAN

In 1978, Dave Scott was not there for the inaugural IRONMAN race, although he had won the Waikiki Rough Rider swim, the course that became part of the original IRONMAN held on the island of Oahu. He wasn’t there in 1979 either, but reading about Tom Warren’s win in a landmark Sports Illustrated article sparked an interest in him. 

“I read the article and said, ‘I’ve got to do this.’” 

That interest would transform the sport forever. Although the IRONMAN World Championship celebrates its 40th birthday this week, it was Scott’s overwhelming victory and the first televised broadcast of the event on ABC’s Wide World of Sports in 1980 that really put the race on the map. Prior to Scott participating, the event was about survival, with winning times of 11:46 (Gordon Haller, in the first race) and Warren’s 11:15 in 1979. In 1980, Scott made it a race.

“We were all neophytes, green, didn’t know what to expect,” says Scott, now 64. “But, I never thought of the race as a survival skill, as ‘I just want to finish.’ The premise I had was, ‘I’m going to go as hard as I can and let’s see what happens.’”

What happened was Scott demolishing the previous marks, finishing in 9:24, a whopping 111 minutes faster than Warren’s record. He completed the 140.6-mile course over an hour better than the second-place finisher. Despite that dominant victory, Scott immediately knew he hadn’t reached his full potential.

“I crossed the finished line, and within 30 minutes, I said, ‘I’ve got to do this again. I can do this a lot faster.”

And he did. En route to winning the race five more times — his last win coming in 1987 — he shaved nearly an hour off of his PR. His fastest race came in 1989, when he lost by a minute to long-time rival Mark Allen, finishing in 8:10:13. To understand how impressive of a time that is, consider this: In spite of the significant improvements in shoe and bike technology, nutrition and training since 1989, that time would have won 17 out of the last 20 World Championship races.

Changes over the years

In addition to the increased competitiveness since that 1980 race, one of the biggest changes in the event since those early years is the number of competitors. Only 108 people lined up for that event, the last to be held on the island of Oahu, compared to the approximately 2,500 who will participate in Kona this year. And, worldwide, there will be an estimated 96,000 people signed up for 41 IRONMAN-branded events in 2018, according to Dan Berglund, director of communications for IRONMAN. Those numbers were unimaginable back in 1980, when Scott says it wasn’t a given that the race would continue.

“I don’t think anyone in the early ’80s would see it growing the way it has,” Scott says. After that first race in ’80, I said ‘I want to do this again if it’s still around.’ I knew there was one in ’78 and ’79, but I didn’t know if there would be a fourth or fifth race. And in my myopic view, I thought if it gained traction, it would only be an American sport.”

The increased number of participants — including many international athletes —has been a welcome change, as has an enhanced athlete experience, according to Scott.

“The choreography of the event has changed tremendously,” Scott says. “It was pretty rudimentary back in the old days. The transition areas, the finish line, the aid stations are all much better.”

The biggest change over the years in terms of technology has come in the bikes, which have come a long way since the steel bike he first raced on. While Scott has parted with most of his old triathlon equipment, his bicycle from that 1980 race still hangs in his office.

“When people see that dinosaur, they say, ‘How did you even ride that thing?’” jokes Scott, who later had a line of bicycles bearing his name. “At the time, I thought it was a rocket. It was 22-23 pounds, all-steel frame, no aerodynamics on the wheels, but it was state of the art back then.”

Another big change in the sport is the prize money now available to athletes. While Flora Duffy raked in $297,703 from her races last year, all Scott got in 1980 was a T-shirt.

“Certainly the early guys in the sport never thought they could reap the financial benefits,” Scott says. “The first four IRONMANs there was no prize money, only T-shirts.”Dave Scott runs in IRONMAN

What hasn’t changed

While the IRONMAN race has changed greatly in terms of technology, money and number of participants, the core of the sport is still the same, Scott notes. The IRONMAN still brings with it the same motivations, the same sacrifices, the same self-doubts as it did at its inception.

“Nothing has really changed as far as the anticipation of the event — the anxiousness of the event — to see the competitors with their stomachs turned inside out. The inner turmoil. The fear of failure or success,” Scott says. “The drive that people have hasn’t changed. People go into it with same reservations, the same optimism, sometimes the same level of pessimism, the same approach: ‘I’m going to give it my best shot, and I’m going to accept the results.’ The freshness of the event is still untouched.”

As mentioned before, the times have also not changed as much as Scott had anticipated. The magic eight-hour barrier still hasn’t been broken at Kona. While the carbon fiber, more aerodynamic bicycle frames have allowed for faster bike splits, the marathon times coming off the bike have not been as impressive, says Scott, who notched a 2:45 marathon split in his runner-up finish as a 40-year-old.

“I sense with a lot of the pros that the run is more of a survival, and not a race,” he says.

The key to improved times is not necessarily in a greater amount of training, Scott believes. Noted for his high-volume training during his peak years, he now espouses more high-intensity workouts and allowing for adequate recovery.

Will he do another Ironman?

Scott finished fifth in 8:28 in 1996, his last completed Kona. Back troubles forced him to drop out in 2001, and while he holds camps in Kona as part of his coaching business, he has not been back on the start line there. Racing again has crossed his mind, but about two and a half years ago, he was diagnosed with atrial flutter and atrial fibrillation, and the atrial fib still persists. That heart issue, combined with the lingering effects of a bike accident in his mid-50s, leaves him doubtful about his chances on doing another IRONMAN.

“I feel like I have to get my heart in order,” says Scott, who thought he was ready to race when he was 56, but a bike accident changed those plans. “I’m waiting in the wings now to see if my health normalizes, whatever normal is these days. But, I’m still an exercise dog. I still love to run, bike, swim.”

Bob Bergland, a veteran of one 140.6 and several 70.3 races, is a freelance journalist and journalism teacher from St. Joseph, Missouri.