In triathlon circles, Dave Scott is simply, respectfully known as “The Man”.
Scott is widely recognized as one of the top ironmen in the sport’s short history. That’s saying something when you think of what a triathlon involves: three grueling events — a two-mile swim followed by a 100-plus mile bike ride. Then a 26-mile marathon.
For most people, just finishing one triathlon event would rank as an achievement. Not for Scott, who is a six-time Ironman Triathlon Champion and the first inductee into the Ironman Hall of Fame.
“Dave was born with a powerful inner compulsion to test the limits of his physical and mental endurance,” says Matt Fitzgerald, the author of the book Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & the Greatest Race Ever Run.
“Long before Ironman existed as a sporting event custom-fitted to such a person, Dave pushed himself relentlessly to — as he so often put it — see what his body could do. His ability to outlast others became a point of pride and ultimately a credo. Dave recognized that he was not as talented as some other athletes but believed to his core that, by dint of his refusal to ever quit, he could be the best anyway,” Fitzgerald says.
Scott may have benefited from the energizing effect of his vegetarian diet. He stopped eating meat when he was studying physiology at college, making the leap partly for environmental reasons – particularly the over-propagation of the beef industry.
But Scott also saw that his body worked better without his usual intake of fried bologna sandwiches and burgers. Back in the day, Scott would eat five burgers in a row at 11 pm and then feel awful the next morning. When he turned vegetarian, instantly he noticed that he had more oomph – no more need for mid-afternoon naps.
The virile vegetarian got into triathlons indirectly, through what he calls “a curiosity for training”, and built self-belief through sticking at it. He caught the triathlon bug at the dawn of triathlon when it emerged in the 70s.
For a while, success eluded him. But, showing his almost superhuman capacity for perseverance, Scott snapped up his first Hawaii Ironman title in 1980 – and made it a habit, repeating the feat in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986 and 1987.
“Consistency is huge,” he told the mental training journal Podium, adding that it dovetails with another key trait, tenacity.
“Those two go hand in hand. The third one involves dealing with adversity and/or how you turn adversity into a positive,” he said. Triathletes have to learn to handle all kinds of mishaps such as breaking their goggles during the swimming stretch.
The all-purpose athlete became the first inductee into the Ironman Hall of Fame in 1993. Instead of basking in glory, Scott emerged from a long retirement and steeled himself to race in Hawaii again. He was 42.
But Scott duly eclipsed a formidable field of professional athletes — many in their 20s, placing second overall. The feat won his Scott his cool, two-word nickname. “The Man” may well be one of the world’s toughest athletes.
Scott, whose father was a professor, still coaches and acts as an ambassador for the adrenaline sport run on wheels, water and land. When doing the marathon, influenced by the fluid style of Kenyan runners, he envisions his feet floating on water.
Smooth technique matters because the marathon is the hardest part of triathlon, according to Scott. Even if you come from a running background, toward the 26-mile running race’s end, you get rubber legs and feel “humbled” by the intensity, he said in an ESPN chat.
“Mentally,” he said, “you just completely collapse. When I cross the line, I just have this huge feeling of thank goodness, I did it. You’re pretty darn spent. That feeling stays with you about an hour or so after the race.”