Outside magazine, October 1994
Last May, spectators at the Gulf Coast Triathlon in Panama City, Florida, witnessed a curious thing. There was Dave Scott, arguably the greatest triathlete ever, whizzing into the ride-to-run transition area, hopping off his bike, and...flopping onto his stomach?
Competing in his first race after a three-year "retirement," Scott had excited the crowd by splashing out of the water among the leaders. But cramps had knifed him during the bike leg, and he'd fallen far off the pace. Then, attempting to run, he collapsed. As he wormed around near the bike racks in obvious agony, bug-eyed racers trotted past, looking as if they'd just seen Joe DiMaggio sleeping one off in the doorway at Cooperstown. Twenty minutes later he hobbled forth. There was a time when no one ran away from Dave Scott. That day 119 people did.
For better or worse, Panama City was the start of a comeback quest that will culminate, as every season has for Scott, at triathlon's premiere event: the Hawaii Ironman, which takes place on the 15th of this month. Scott made his name at this race, a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and marathon run that plays out in grueling steambath conditions. He won it six times in the eighties, thanks largely to his ability to outsuffer everyone else. Thus his return, at 40, is occasion for both anticipation and anxiety. Will he pull it off? Or just push himself to a final, humiliating stumble?
"Do I worry about embarrassing myself?" says Scott, anticipating the question. "I worry about it a lot."
Not enough, however, to stifle a nagging sense that he had left something undone when a knee injury and mental burnout prompted him to call it quits in 1991. Scott decided to return to racing this past January--in typical fashion. On his 40th birthday he ran 20 miles, rode 100, swam five, and then came home with a question for his wife, Anna: What would she think if he started racing again? Of course, he admits, by then he'd made up his mind. "I had a feeling he'd come back again," Anna says resignedly.
Some suggest that Scott, who for the last three years has been working as a personal trainer for triathletes in Boulder, Colorado, is returning for the ego massage and the money, but he insists that what he's really after is "finality."
"In the history of the sport there's never been a 40-year-old who's been the best," he says. "I want to see how close I can get."
After the disastrous season opener, the hope for a world-class performance at the Ironman might seem ludicrous--especially given the stiff com- petition, which will include perennial contenders Pauli Kiuru of Finland (second last year), Wolfgang Dittrich of Germany, and Greg Welch of Australia. Notably absent will be defending champ and five-time winner Mark Allen, who's skipping the event this year.
But there is a fairly convincing case that Scott has more than a sentimental chance. He says his problem in Panama City wasn't a broken-down body, but a hasty decision to ride a new bike that, as it turned out, didn't fit. Forced into an awkward hunch, his legs knotted so badly that he had to ride the last 15 miles standing up.
Oddly, Scott thinks the bike leg, undoubtedly his weakest, might work out to be an advantage. In recent years, split times for the Ironman bike have plunged. Top riders like Kiuri cover the 112 miles in under 4.5 hours--almost ten minutes faster than Scott did in his prime. Problem is, with their legs shot, the front runners reel into the mar-athon like drunks exiting a merry-go-round. Some get their legs back; some don't. Scott feels he can still run a sub-2:50 marathon. If he can stay close on the bike, he could pick his way through the pieces and pull off an upset.
Hopefulness aside, Scott is lowballing his chances. "Let's just say I have high expectations," he says. "At 40 I have to be very, very coy."
"Can he win?" Mark Allen says more bluntly. "I don't know. But I think the real question should be, will he be happy with however he does? If he needs to win to feel good, I don't think he should go back."