Monday, January 9, 2012

Iron War book by Matt Fitzgerald

I'm sure much has been written about the epic battle between Mark Allen and Dave Scott to win the Hawaii Ironman World Championships in 1989 but it can only be a reflection of the recent rise in popularity of ultra endurance tests that it has taken 22 years for someone to write a book on the topic. That "someone" is none other than Matt Fitzgerald, a fairly prolific sports science writer, here slightly out of his usual terrain. Nevertheless, it makes for a gripping read, as the fact that I managed to read it from cover to cover over the (long) weekend testifies.

Matt's thorough research is very evident as he brings back to life the events in such detail as if they were being told the day after by those involved. True to his science background, he is sure to cite all the references he used in the appendix so it is possible to discern what was actually said and done (supposing those interviewed have not since embellished things) from journalistic dramatization.

The book took the predictable but no less valid tack of contrasting the "No Pain No Gain" sheer brute force approach of Dave Scott with the holistic and meditational approach of Mark Allen. At times it seems like the book is biased towards Dave Scott - it certainly shows sympathy for this larger than life character who was prone to periods of self doubt and binging - but I suspect that this is more due to the fact that Dave wears his heart on his sleeve while Mark is battling his personal demons behind the privacy of his outer mask and is therefore much more difficult to read let alone write about.

In my opinion Matt overstretches his analysis in applying current theories of exercise science to an event that happened nearly a quarter of a century ago. While it was a gargantuan feat (Mark Allen still holds the record from that year for the Marathon split in an Ironman) I think the author is a bit presumptuous to paint it as the pinnacle of suffering across all sports. Still, I found some of the ideas quite interesting. While I was familiar with Tim Noakes' "Central Governor" theory - that fatigue is a mechanism that the brain uses to avoid overexertion, rather than a message that the muscles send back - I was not aware of a part of the brain that is apparently activated whenever an "impulse" has to be overridden. This is the same part of the brain that lights up when we are asked to perform a "Stroop test" - in which we have to name the colour in which words are printed, made more difficult by the fact that the words themselves are the names of (other) colours. For this we have to override our impulse to read the word as opposed to saying it's colour. According to research cited by the author, this is the same part of the brain - the Anterior Cingulate Cortex - that is invoked when we override fatigue. He goes on to postulate that Dave Scott was born with a powerful ACC which allowed him to push himself harder than anyone else, while Mark Allen developed this through his difficult relationship with his father. This is an entertaining idea (nurture versus nature) but perhaps taking things a bit too far. But wouldn't it be great if we could substitute running hard series for doing a Stroop test or two?

All joking aside, after two decades in which sport science seems to have finally equated "No Pain No Gain" with "No Brain", it seems as though a return to basics might be worthwhile. After all, to win a race (or even just beat a personal best time) takes mental toughness and this mental toughness is built up through training. Dave Scott trained intuitively, trying to build into his workouts as many challenges as he could so that he would have the confidence come race day to face anything that was thrown at him. Mark Allen would rest his body so that he could perform his hard workouts more effectively; Dave would relish doing hard workouts when he was most tired, so that he could build that mental toughness. It's also true that Dave got injured a lot more often.

In summary, definitely well worth reading. I have seen several videos of the Ironman World Championships and yet, only after reading the descriptions in this book, I feel for the first time the seeds of desire to compete in Hawaii. I will keep it in mind for when I make the 50+ age group (except, by then, the standards will no doubt have sky rocketed).

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