Dave Scott, Mere Mortal
Outside magazine, October 1992
Dave Scott, Mere Mortal
He virtually invented the sport of triathlon. He became its first pro, won its biggest race six times, set unassailable standards for preparation and athletic passion. There’s only one thing the original Ironman never figured out about his calling: how to let it go.
By John Brant
It’s nap time in Boulder, a little before two o’clock on a June afternoon of shifting winds and slowly massing thunderheads. With Ryan and Drew finally sleeping, the phone momentarily silent, and his plans fixed for tomorrow’s coaching session, Dave Scott decides that for the first time since coming to Colorado from California ten days earlier, he can afford a bike ride.
Scott prepares slowly, somewhat fumblingly, taking time to trade jokes with his wife, Anna, and his sister, Jane. Just a few weeks ago, after months of waffling and agonizing, he announced his retirement from a 12-year career as the world’s preeminent triathlete. Now, with no apparent race to point toward, no Ironman looming at summer’s end, Scott exercises out of desire rather than necessity, a shift in his life of profound, enduring, and often unforeseen consequence.
“Look at these hairy legs,” he scoffs while slipping on cycling shoes. “I’ll be the laughingstock of every triathlete in Boulder.”
“So go ahead and shave them,” Jane says. “Who’s going to challenge you on it?”
“I couldn’t do that,” Scott protests, only half facetiously. “If I shaved my legs everyone could see that I don’t have any muscles down there.”
Anna, sitting at the kitchen table, shakes her head and rolls her eyes. “My husband,” she says softly, so as not to disturb her sleeping children, “has more problems with body image than a 15-year-old.”
Bearing his hairy legs (professional triathletes shave body hair to cut water and wind resistance), divided heart, and low-grade neuroses, Scott pushes away from his sister’s modest north Boulder house and sets off for the mountains. In part this ride is professionally motivated; Scott’s new enterprise is coaching pro triathletes, and he is scouting sites for time trials. Mostly, however, he rides to satisfy an inner hunger.
The 40-mile route he plans vectors north from town in the shadows of the Flatirons and foothills, traces a rough square on the far-western rim of the Great Plains, then makes a dagger thrust up Left Hand Canyon into the eastern slope of the Rockies, eventually cresting at 10,000 feet. A year ago this ride would have represented a bare-minimum workout for Scott. More typically he would have ridden at least twice as far, and cycling, moreover, would have been just a portion of his labors. In his competitive prime Scott always ran, swam, and cycled every day; if he couldn’t do all three sports, he rarely bothered doing any. His workouts blended passion, precision, volume, and quality in a combination often emulated but never matched. For a number of important reasons, Dave Scott was recognized as the first genuine triathlete, a man who stamped his imprimatur on the sport, who not only defined triathlon but redefined the way people think of human endurance and potential.
Watching him work, even knowing of his struggles during the last few years, it becomes clear why Scott still finds it difficult to think of his career in the past tense. He appears at least a decade younger than his 38 years. Injury, illness, family demands, the inexorable advance of age–the factors that combined to drop the curtain on his racing days–all seem in abeyance. Yet no more, barring an unforeseen comeback, will Scott hammer the Queen Kaahumanu Highway along the Kona coast of Hawaii’s Big Island, fusing his fate with that of triathlon’s signature, showcase event. Scott won six Hawaii Ironmans and finished second in two others. Mention the triathlon to the average Venezuelan or Australian, Dane or Japanese, Israeli or American, and the image conjured will be that of Dave Scott pounding relentlessly through the heat, wind, and lava fields of Kona, mastering the seemingly insane distances of the Ironman in a thoroughly sane yet thoroughly compelling manner.
No more, apparently, will Scott commend himself to the harsh dictates of the Ironman. Yet in a less dramatic but still crucial sense, he will labor to lead the way. What happens to triathletes when they grow old? Or as others might put it, what happens to triathletes when they grow up? Dave Scott will live out the answers to these questions.
During the first stages of today’s ride, whirring along north Broadway past Boulder’s mushrooming subdivisions, auto traffic, and armies of hardworking citizen runners and cyclists, Scott appears at once tentative and steady, befitting both his long layoff and his vast reservoir of base fitness. He follows Broadway until it empties onto Highway 36, the route connecting Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park, which in its booming two-lane traffic and stark, wide-open beauty resembles certain stretches of the Queen K. Highway in Kona.
Here, not coincidentally, Scott starts to find his stroke, and his singular style begins to emerge. It is not the flashing style of a Mark Allen, who dethroned Scott in the 1989 Ironman and has since gone without a serious challenger at races of that distance, nor is it quite the rippling, muscular style of a Mike Pigg, the most prominent male triathlete of the sport’s second generation. It is steadier, more deliberate, more implacable. Partly this is a function of technique: Scott always geared his bike higher than most other triathletes, so he turned his pedals more slowly. In similar fashion, he tailored his running stride and swimming stroke to take advantage of his daunting strength and compensate for his comparative lack of natural speed. The result was a pulsing yet controlled motion that, for all its studied power, seemed achievable by the common woman or man. Not the least aspect of Scott’s genius for the triathlon was his ability to make it coherent to the average athlete, the average fan.
As Scott finishes the flat portion of his ride, the sky turns from patchy blue to denser pewter, and faint volleys of thunder report down Left Hand Canyon. Two miles into the ascent, at around 8,500 feet, big, cold, plashing drops of rain begin to descend. A mile farther and a few hundred feet higher up the mountain, the storm clamps down for fair. Thunder peals and booms, the leaves of creekside aspens turn and whiten and shudder, the high tips of lodgepole pines creak and toss in the driving wind.
Scott counters by slipping on a rain shell and hunkering lower over the bar. For another minute he keeps beating into the teeth of the storm, and then, after a sudden tight pivot, he is slaloming back down the road at 50 mph, now trying to outrace the weather he challenged a moment ago.
Today the weather wins. Scott stops and signals to the driver of a trailing car that he is calling off the hunt. He breaks down his bike, straps it into the trunk, and, high-colored, exultant, dripping sweat and rain, climbs into the passenger seat.
“That was fun,” he says quietly, with the easy, pleasing inflections of a native Californian. Shorn of the fighter-pilot mustache of his racing years, Scott’s face seems slightly fuller and decidedly more open.
“If I were still an athlete, I’d still want to be out there,” he says, looking out at the rain. “But now that I’m a…a what? A coach?”
Scott issues a bright fusillade of laughter. He is a gifted and infectious laugher. He punctuates his conversation with laughter like another man might with nail biting or lip pulling.
“Now that I’m a coach, I’ll take the ride.”
For a few moments, with bright, avid eyes, Scott admires the storm working on the mountain. Then, in a more subdued voice, he says, “Funny thing is, now that I’ve finally decided to stop racing, my knee feels better than it has in three years.”
Another ruminative minute passes. The car exits the valley; the rain advances along the plains toward Denver. “You start working out,” Scott says, “you start getting ideas.”
Only in recent years has the relationship between ideas and exercise become a source of conflict and ambiguity for Dave Scott, rather than delight and release. For more than a decade, as he labored over the roads around his lifelong home of Davis, California, Scott’s ideas flowed clearly and strongly, products of his steadily accruing strength and the confidence that he was following a peculiar but correct vocation.
This stretch of California’s Central Valley is a place of bitter and abiding winds, Scott explains, gesturing beyond the windshield of his Toyota to where the Sacramento River sloughs stretch northwest from Interstate 80. The prevailing westerlies cross San Francisco Bay, 40 miles distant, are suctioned and condensed as they pass through the Carquinez Strait, then howl across this flat, mostly hot corner of the San Joaquin valley. In the winter, Scott continues, other winds ride down from the Sierra, mix and swirl with the prevailing westerlies, and create bone-cold maelstroms that can knock automobiles, not to mention runners or cyclists, from one lane of highway to the next.
“My other calling was to be a weatherman,” Scott says with a wry smile. It is early May, a few weeks before Scott will establish summer quarters in Boulder. He is driving from Davis to Sacramento, where he will address a team of high school swimmers. “The wind and the weather can get crazy out here, and I’m known as something of an expert on both. People would always call up and ask what the weather was going to be.”
Scott’s weather eye was honed during the prodigious hours he spent training over the sere, cheerless ground around Davis. It was by soldiering down the valley’s windblasted roads, sweating past agribusiness fields, and humping over baked, treeless hills that he built his strength. The factors that other triathletes found repellent about Davis–its heat and cold, its winds, its relative remoteness and monotony–were the very things that Scott embraced. Antaeus-like, he drew power and sustenance from his native ground.
“Dave had a concentration level that was just amazing,” says Mike Pigg, one of the few top triathletes who trained with Scott in Davis. “Day in, day out, he did it by solo training. There’s only one highway you can take out of Davis, and Dave could tell you every bump and crack on it, because he’d been over it a thousand times.”
Scott recalls countless nights of returning to town after an 80-mile time trial on the bike or a hard two-hour run, and being greeted only by a changing traffic light. “Before I was married, when I was still working, I usually wouldn’t finish exercising until 11 or 11:30 at night,” he says. “Then I would go to the salad bar at Straw Hat Pizza, eat while I wrote out my next day’s training, then crash into bed.” Scott’s monastic routine was moderated after his marriage to Anna in 1985. Still, the great bulk of his professional life was conducted in solitude.
In San Diego or Boulder, of course, Scott could have commiserated with the scores of other triathletes who gather at those favored and fashionable places. Indeed, after he won his first few Ironmans, he might have lived anywhere he pleased. He chose to remain in Davis. Through the years, people in the sport have endlessly speculated on that decision. Some have attributed it to a reclusive strain in Scott’s character, and others to a Machiavellian one. Those of the latter opinion hold that Scott was deliberately trying to intimidate his opponents with his solitary habits, that he sought to create an air of mystery. Scott, however, says he remained in Davis partly because its climate and terrain closely resembled those of Kona, but mostly because it was home, because he had come to accept and regard the place on its own terms.
While the valley yawning around Davis might be unremitting and, to the eyes of most, unappealing, the city itself is a pleasing medium-size community, a quietly shining diamond in what is often considered Northern California’s rough. Founded as a trading nexus for surrounding farms, Davis blossomed after World War II as the site of a campus of the University of California. Situated midway between San Francisco and the Sierra, it is a city with a strong and informed outdoor ethic. Bike lanes are ubiquitous and well traveled. Graceful oak and walnut trees give shade and deflect the heat.
Scott’s parents migrated here in 1948. His father, Verne, served for 40 years on the university’s civil engineering faculty. Dave, born in 1954, enjoyed a high-California childhood of wholesome family activity, much of it centered on sports, particularly swimming. In high school he swam the 200 and 400 meters (“They could never get any event long enough for me,” he recalls) and excelled in water polo. At UC-Davis he majored in physical education and exercise physiology and continued with swimming and water polo, earning All-American status in both sports. After graduation in 1976, he went to work full-time as coach of the city’s masters swimming program.
“I was always amused to read articles describing me as a recluse because I stayed in Davis,” Scott says. “In the masters program I was working with 400 people a day, and for a lot of them I was more of a counselor than a coach. The articles said I was a hermit, but I felt more like Johnny Carson.”
Those were the first flush days of the fitness movement, and after work, not content with the miles he had swum and the weights he had lifted during the day, Scott would head out on 11-mile runs. He began entering and winning long-distance swimming events, including consecutive victories in the 2.4-mile open-water swim at Waikiki, the race that inspired the swimming portion of the Ironman. It was at the Waikiki awards ceremony in 1978, in fact, that Scott was first invited to enter the fledgling Ironman, the first edition of which had just been completed.
“I looked at this flier advertising a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run,” Scott recalls with a laugh, “and thought that sounded like a really neat three-day workout.”
When informed that the stages ran continuously on one day, Scott was more challenged than awed, and in 1979 he set out to take the Ironman’s measure. He felt confident about his swimming ability, but cycling and running were still largely terra incognita. For cycling help, he turned to his friend Pat Feeney, whom he coached in the masters swimming program. “Dave hadn’t done anything hard up to that point on the bike,” Feeney remembers. “We went out for 70 miles over some good-size mountains. Dave was riding this rusted old 40-pound hulk of a bike, but from that first ride I could see that he had grit and he had resources. I could see that he was just very strong, mentally and physically.”
As a runner, on the other hand, Scott was self-taught. After impressing himself by running a ten-mile time trial in 60 minutes, Scott ran a 2:45 marathon that September, just a few months before the February 1980 Ironman. He was continuing with his swimming, meanwhile, trying to parlay all his training so that the triathlon would be a culminating rather than a cataclysmic effort. At the same time, he was experimenting with a high-complex-carbohydrate, low-fat diet, which at that time was still considered radical.
“When I first started, there wasn’t anything to read about the triathlon, no books or manuals, and no coaches,” Scott explains. “It was just a question of how far I could go: 400-mile cycling weeks, 65 miles a week running, 20,000 yards swimming. Eight or ten hours a day. More was better, I always used to think.”
All that remained was to simulate the Ironman in a single day’s training. This Scott accomplished by bookending a local century bike ride with a 5,200-yard swim in the pool and a 21-mile run on the roads around Davis. That evening, coming back into town near the end of his run, he still felt fresh and strong. When he saw some friends on a street corner, he greeted them euphorically. “At that moment,” Scott says, “I knew the Ironman was not going to be just a matter of survival.”
That seemingly obscure moment on the dark streets of a quiet California town was in fact pivotal, perhaps the pivotal moment in both Scott’s career and the development of the sport: From that point on, the Ironman was a race. An unaccomplished, unassuming young swim coach had taken the white whale of the Ironman and systematically studied how to harpoon it. He had dared to approach training as an essentially continuous enterprise. Before any physiologist or other human-performance specialist, Scott intuitively understood the Ironman distance and how his mind and body could be adapted to its demands. To this day, with the possible exception of Mark Allen, nobody has understood it better.
The seeds of that understanding sprang from favorable genes and an intellect remarkably attuned to applied exercise physiology, but they flourished because of emotion. Scott and others ultimately equate his success with his passion.
“Nobody could train with the same passion I had,” Scott, by nature the most modest and self-effacing of men, states flatly. “I didn’t need to have a coach prodding me and an entourage around to pat me on the back. Nothing makes me feel better than exercising for a series of days and knowing I’m getting stronger.”
“Dave always raced with a little bit of rage,” reflects Bob Babbitt, editor and publisher of Competitor magazine and a leading authority on triathlon. “He comes across as this brick, but he isn’t. He had to fuel his rage somewhere. At the Ironman, his attitude seemed to be that his competitors were trying to take the bread and butter out of his family’s mouth. Almost a ‘this guy’s out to kill me, so I’ll kill him first’ mentality. You never saw Dave Scott tapping anybody on the butt when he went past. I remember a comment Scott Molina made about Dave back in ’85: ‘That guy’s racing with sincerity.'”
He also seemed to be racing with fate. Scott’s first Ironman, in 1980, was also the first to be televised. A nationwide audience watched him recast the race in his own image, slashing the course record from 11:15:56 down to 9:24:33 and transforming what had been generally regarded as a bit of masochistic exotica into a legitimate and riveting sporting event. After Scott had broken the Ironman’s code, distances that once engendered awe were approached with confidence. Scott’s performance made the Ironman and other endurance events analogous to spacewalking: They had no sooner been dared than they seemed to become commonplace.
Five more Ironman titles followed, in ’82, ’83, ’84, ’86, and ’87. Those victories–all of them televised–signed Scott’s name indelibly upon the triathlon, which during those same years was growing exponentially. The men’s elite competition was ruled by the “Big Four” of Scott, Mark Allen, Scott Tinley, and Scott Molina. While the latter three were far more successful than Scott over shorter courses, he, by dint of the Ironman, remained far better known.
“My career was always like this,” Scott says, making an oscillating line in the air with his hand. “I wasn’t nearly as consistent as Allen and Pigg. I had a lot of distractions during my career, but starting every August 1, I was always able to shut everything else out and focus on the Ironman.”
That focus was manifested in the pool in Davis and on the straight, blazing roads of the Central Valley. The heat and winds toughened him, and the intimately familiar landscape provided abundant, reliable cues for measuring his progress. In Davis, Scott could work with rapt and solitary concentration, cultivating a deeply felt but unpretentious relationship with his native place. A reporter once asked Scott what he thought about during all his lonely hours working in the valley. “My rhythms,” he replied, “and my lunch.”
Now, driving the same valley toward the Sacramento high school, Scott looks back longingly at the fierce simplicity of those days and thoughts. Today, crowding 40, with two growing children, an uncertain agenda, and a body no longer leaping at his bidding, Scott travels with a teeming brain often at war with itself. His chief source of frustration is not the recalcitrant pain rising from his left knee, nor is it the time, energy, and sleep devoured by child-rearing, nor is it his absence from the limelight, nor is it even the fact that the corporate sponsorships that sustained him so robustly in his racing prime have dwindled; it is that without hard training, without the organizing principle of the Ironman, his life seems to lack structure and coherence.
“I’m an angry, frustrated man,” he says, threading his car through the thickening afternoon traffic. Scott tries to cushion his words with a dissembling boom of laughter, but the strain in his voice is evident. “My whole life has revolved around being fit–being superfit. Since my one Ironman-length race last year [a fifth-place finish in the Nice Triathlon], my ratio of nontraining to training days has probably been three or four to one. And I’m not talking about hard training–I’m talking about any exercise at all.That’s been very debilitating to my self-esteem, my sense of self-worth. Whenever I used to go someplace, I was always known as Dave Scott the triathlete. Now it’s Dave Scott…who am I now?”
While retirement has forced Scott to confront such issues directly, he has never seemed to possess an unshakable sense of self. This insecurity, perhaps, has served as the engine of his competitive drive. Scott talks often of the commingled exhilaration and anxiety with which, at age 26, he set out on a completely uncharted professional course. He always enjoyed his family’s support and blessing, and he made good on his gamble, but throughout his career he couldn’t help comparing his mercurial progress with that of his father, who for 40 years followed an established profession of unquestioned worth. Triathlon, on the other hand, has always struggled to be taken seriously, even in comparison with other sports. The best runners, swimmers, and cyclists go to the Olympics and world championships; the best triathletes go to Hawaii, where they wear flowered shorts and funny sunglasses, call their reason into question by pursuing stupendous distances, and, for their trouble, suffer indignities ranging from broken derailleurs to incontinence.
“It wasn’t until the last few years,” Scott says in a rather startling admission, “that I could tell people I met in airplanes what I did for a living. I would always say I was a fitness consultant. People could seem to relate to that. But a triathlete? What’s that? Is that really an occupation? You can make a living doing that?”
Scott flicks on his turn signal, gliding across three lanes of freeway toward his exit ramp. “I never had a mentor, someone to follow,” he says matter-of-factly. “All through my career I was the first. The first to make the sport a profession, the first to have an agent, the first to do a book and video. I was always paving the way, and that was always my choice. But now…” His voice trails off as the school comes into sight. “Now, sometimes, I just wish I had somebody telling me what to do.”
Jesuit High School, the site of today’s talk, occupies a giant parklike campus in an affluent suburb of Sacramento. Its athletic facilities, particularly its swimming pool, are worthy of many Division I universities. At five in the morning last winter, Anna Scott drove here to swim. At age 29, she was trying to make the U.S. Olympic team in the 50-meter freestyle. Technically she failed, finishing 19th in the trials (she had finished fifth in the ’88 trials), but that, as her husband suggests, pales in light of the attempt itself.
Scott’s talk, a staple of the fitness-consulting business that is now his primary source of income, forms a family thank-you for Anna’s use of the pool. Wearing a brightly colored floral-print sportshirt, fashionably baggy black slacks, and tasseled loafers, Scott takes the lectern in a sun-splashed classroom. His audience, 20 gracefully sprawling, chlorine-bleached teenagers, are raptly attentive. They see before them a trim, handsome, accomplished man, a world-famous athlete, an exemplar of health and fitness. Scott, accordingly, puts his diffidence and anxieties behind him and begins to exhibit the qualities that once prompted triathlon writer Mike Plant to observe, “Dave Scott has the interpersonal skills of a parish priest.”
Scott listens to these kids, encouraging them to share their struggles as athletes, and offering the stories of his own struggles in return. He describes his tong wars with Mark Allen at the ’86, ’87, and ’89 Ironman races. In those first two races Scott prevailed; the third was Allen’s first in his current three-year skein of Ironman championships. That 1989 race was also, by general acclaim, the greatest single competition in the sport’s history.
“Mark and I were together all through the bike and all through the marathon,” Scott tells the kids. “Whenever I surged, Mark would answer. We both felt great. I had a plan: At 24.5 miles of the marathon, I was going to throw in a surge and break him.
“At mile 23 I backed off just a little bit, gathering energy to make my move. But then it took me a whole mile of hard work to get back to his shoulder. Then, at mile 24, he exploded. Before I knew it he’d opened ten feet on me. My first reaction was, ‘Mark, come back here, I’m going to beat you!’ I tried to answer his surge, but I couldn’t. His lead kept widening, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. At the top of the hill going back into Kailua, Mark had a 30-second lead, and I knew that he had won–not that I had lost. I did an 8:10, which broke the course record, but Mark did an 8:09. I had a great race; he had a phenomenal one.”
What Scott doesn’t tell the kids are the events of the months leading up to the ’89 Ironman, which in many ways were more phenomenal than the race itself. That summer, at age 35, Scott flogged himself into an unprecedented pitch of fitness. In so doing he aggravated a long-standing knee problem, the same condition that had kept him out of the ’88 Ironman. Earlier, Scott had agreed to do the Japan Ironman at Lake Biwa in August, intending to train through that race in preparation for the Hawaii Ironman in October. Not until three days before the Japan race did Scott decide he would follow through on the commitment. The day before the race, he went out for a 40-mile leg-stretcher on the bike, got lost, and ended up pedaling 100 hard miles. Later the same day, again by mistake, a half-mile dip in the lake became a two-mile thrash. On race day, finally, Scott embarked on his supposed train-through and came back with a clocking of 8:01:32. That mark still stands as the fastest Ironman-distance triathlon ever.
Six weeks later, on a knee that Scott says was considerably less than healthy, he engaged in his epochal duel in Kona with Mark Allen. That was his last Ironman, his last superlative triathlon of any distance. Since October 1989 his knee condition (which Scott describes as a result of biomechanical imbalance, a tracking abnormality in his patella), once aggravating, has been debilitating. Over the last year he has also suffered from chronic fatigue and a painful inner-ear infection that is exacerbated by exercise. Whether or not these woes resulted from the extreme, almost surreal stresses of that remarkable ’89 racing season, those months epitomize the Faustian undercurrent that has always run through Ironman-distance triathlons. Because Ironwomen and Ironmen have become so relatively common, because their ranks now include grandpas and letter carriers, service reps and algebra teachers, it is easy to lose sight of the discipline’s radical nature. Such mental, physical, and emotional heights as Scott sustained do not come without some sort of bargaining.
But Scott spares the high school kids these speculations, just as he spares them the dark litany of doctor’s appointments, missed races, and diminishing expectations. Nor does Scott describe the hard economic realities of triathlon. As long as he was racing, as long as his Ironman performances provided his 12 sponsors access to the mother lode of network TV exposure, Scott enjoyed a handsome income. The sponsors, in turn, had a willing and attractive spokesman for their product. For two years in the 1980s, for instance, the Dave Scott model Centurion bicycle was the top-selling racing bike in America. When the exposure ceased, however, so did the sponsors’ interest. Only Brooks Shoes, InSport (which carries a Dave Scott line of athletic clothing), and Serotta Bicycles still agree with Scott that, whether racing or not, he remains the most important name in the sport.
Scott spares the kids all these considerations, but he does share a story from early in his career. It seems that just after he crossed the finish line for his first Ironman victory, a reporter asked him, “Are you going to retire now?”
“Retire?” an incredulous Scott replied. “I’ve only just begun!”
The reporter’s question was no doubt asked out of combined ignorance and awe, yet it also seems to contain a prescient, if unconscious, wisdom that strikes close to the heart of Scott’s dilemma: “Your beginning was your climax,” is another way to put it. “What direction is there now but down?”
Coaching is a science, but it’s an art, too,” Scott explains, sitting at the kitchen table in his sister’s house in Boulder. It’s the day after his ride up Left Hand Canyon. The sky has cleared, domestic rhythms have been established, and Scott seems more relaxed and confident than he has in weeks. “I think I have something to offer in both dimensions. As far as the Big Four went, Allen was always known as the mystic, Tinley and Molina were the jocks, and I was the scientist. I know about muscle and blood physiology, and I know about what kind of decisions you have to make in the heat of competition. My real strength is in developing confidence in athletes, helping them develop tenacity.”
Scott explains that while he’s open to working with citizen triathletes, he has most to offer to professionals. That estimation seems accurate, but it is also fraught with irony. Scott, the self-coached recluse, the legend who trained alone in a cloud of valley dust and mystery, is now offering services of the most communal variety.
There is a geographical irony working as well: that Scott, anchored so securely in Davis, would seek to ply his trade in Boulder, with which he has always maintained a layered, ambivalent relationship. His sister, Jane Scott, is a masters swimming coach for the city of Boulder. In the summer, when triathletes fly in from around the world to train here, Jane directs the swimming workouts for her brother’s erstwhile competitors. This is characteristic of the genial, intense, somewhat incestuous world of big-league triathlon. Mark Allen’s summer digs, to cite another example, are just 200 yards down the street from Jane’s house. Dave stays with Jane whenever he’s in Boulder, but the two men rarely see each other.
“I don’t know if anybody really knows him well,” Scott says about Allen, who uses the exact same phrase in describing Scott.
During his racing days Scott typically came to Boulder for a few weeks each summer. In Colorado, however, he often remained as solitary and hidebound in his habits as he was at home. While other triathletes ran on the splendid mountain trails, Scott, to his sister’s embarrassment, liked to run on the flat fast-food strip of Diagonal Boulevard. While Allen, Molina, and Tinley went on weeklong, 500-mile bike tours through the Rockies, Scott always declined their invitations to join them.
“It was part of Dave’s mystique to train alone,” comments Bob Babbitt. “He would race poorly all season, and going into the Ironman you’d think there was no way this guy was in shape. Then in Hawaii he’d blow everybody’s drawers off. Nobody ever knew what Scott was doing, and that wasn’t accidental on Dave’s part.”
Scott acknowledges the inherent tension between his top competitors and himself. “I always got the media attention that goes with winning the Ironman, and that probably bothered the other guys,” he says. “When we worked out together, it tended to get too competitive. Or else I would notice something in their training I didn’t agree with and would feel awkward about saying anything.”
Now, during the summerlong clinic he is conducting in Boulder, Scott’s business will be to point out such flaws. Some veteran triathletes will no doubt be skeptical of his methods and motives. Others, such as Scott Molina, welcome him as a full-fledged member of their community.
“For me, there’s only one coach out there I would consider working with, and that’s Dave Scott,” Molina says. “We all do clinics and talks, try to give advice to other people, but none of us has a background in exercise physiology like Dave’s. He understands training, he’s bright, and he’s been putting his knowledge to use for a lot of years.”
Complicating matters will be the questions and speculations that will inevitably swirl around town: Is Scott really retired? Is he really as out of shape as he says? Wasn’t he out hammering Left Hand Canyon yesterday? And wasn’t that Scott this morning, sharing a lane in the 50-meter pool with Molina, Tinley, Greg Welch, and Ray Browning?
It was, and just now, before heading out with client Colleen Cannon on a bike ride, Scott is drying off and powering down a bowl of whole-grain cereal. Ryan, not quite two, and Drew, age three, are barreling around the living room, Anna is on the phone with InSport discussing Dave’s clothing line, while Scott himself sits contentedly in the middle of it all. For a moment–with one hard workout under his belt, another one waiting, and other triathletes whispering about his progress–it seems like the old times have returned.
The early-morning swim had consisted of grinding sets of laps totaling 3,400 meters. A year or two ago Scott would have been out setting the pace, and the workout would have escalated–or degenerated–into a race. Today, however, he put less pressure on himself, allowing the others, mostly Molina and Welch, to pull the train.
Afterward, in the parking lot, the talk was of upcoming races in France and Japan. Clothes were hurriedly changed, one group of athletes heading off for intervals at a running track, another to take their bikes to the mountains. Scott looked on wistfully, perhaps more than a bit enviously. He, too, was heading for another workout, but one whose goal was the waxing of another athlete’s strength.
His present client, Colleen Cannon, is a blond, compact, cheerful woman of 32 who for the last few years has been one of the world’s top-ranked female triathletes. Although she’s been working closely with Scott for months, she remains the slightest bit star-struck. Cannon, like Erin Baker, Mike Pigg, and many other second-generation pros, was first drawn to triathlon by watching Dave Scott and the Ironman on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”
Their work today retraces the route Scott took yesterday up Left Hand Canyon. The heart of the session will be a six-mile time trial up the steepest part of the canyon, encompassing a rise in elevation of 2,300 feet. On the flat miles leading to the climb, Scott talks constantly, reaching over occasionally to adjust Cannon’s posture or suggesting a different foot position.
As they enter the canyon, Scott’s encouragement grows less frequent but more urgent. After just one day back in the saddle, his legs are already more attuned to the ascent. His instinct is to push ahead–to give vent to his competitive rage–but his coach’s mission is to stay at Cannon’s side. For a searing moment his inner conflict becomes palpable. Yet as quickly as it arises, it is resolved by the demands of the moment. Instead of attempting to squelch his rage, he finds a way to translate it.
Leaning close to Cannon through the heart of the climb, Scott shifts his instruction from technique to sensibility. It is confidence he is imparting, the impulse toward full extension, the art of setting and meeting a challenge by employing all of (but not only) one’s physical strength. If the question were put to him, Dave Scott might say it was passion he was communicating, a passion in which past achievement and future anxiety are exultantly, if fleetingly, put to rest.
Their ride back down the mountain is swooping, playful, and breathtakingly swift. Back at Jane’s house, while Cannon tends to her bike, she is asked whether, given more workouts like today’s, she thinks Scott might reconsider his fitful retirement. She responds with an exhausted, hopeful smile.
Scott, meanwhile, waves and gives a hearty farewell laugh. He turns to go inside to his wife and sons and the business end of a sport that it is his continued fate to pioneer, a hybrid, arduous, and still-fledgling sport in which, to Dave Scott’s credit and grief, no one waits to tell him what to do next.