Iron War (Boulder, CO: VeloPress, 2011), by Matt Fitzgerald, is the story of the infamous 1989 Hawaii Ironman triathlon race, but it goes much deeper than that. Part history, part psychological profiling, part sport science, the book weaves seemingly disparate elements into a cohesive whole.
“Within their minds a pitched battle is being waged between unimaginable suffering and an equally intense desire to resist that suffering and win. The pain in their thighs, especially, is so severe that in any other context they would find it impossible to walk a single step. Yet each continues to run sub-six-minute miles because each still believes the pain is worth the hope of winning.”
“Who is ultimately stronger? The answer is undetermined. Dave does not know, nor does Mark, nor do the spectators who trail them in a reverent hush. One of these two men must soon break the other—in body, mind, or spirit. Who will it be? Not necessarily the faster man. The battle being waged now is about will as much as skill. Already both men have pushed deeper than ever before into the inferno of suffering that stands between every racer and his final performance limit. The winner of this fight is likely to be the man who dares to push deepest. Eight hours of racing are culminating in a game of chicken.”
It’s a fascinating book, more so because the men profiled are not just still alive, but actively participating in the multisport world as coaches. I’ve read some comments in various places that neither Dave Scott not Mark Allen were happy with the resulting book, but it appears that Fitzgerald was pretty thorough in terms of interviewing the men, their rivals and fellow athletes, and then extrapolating mental states, motivators, and results. Perhaps too much liberty was taken. I couldn’t find anything definitively stating that.
Interestingly enough, what actually interested me the most was not the actual story about the race, but the side tangents into sport science, specifically the idea of control entropy and improving the running stride. I don’t profess to really understanding control entropy – here’s the definition from the book: “Control entropy refers to the variability or unpredictability of the behavior of a physical system.” For running, as exhaustion nears, form should fall apart. However, studies showed that, as exhaustion neared, the subjects actually became more robotic in stride, with less variation in form. This then, also plays into people trying to change their natural form to mimic what is considered a “perfect form.” Studies though, show that this is less efficient than simply racking up the miles in order to make one’s natural form more efficient. Fascinating stuff!
It is a long and thorough book and, while there were times when I wanted to put it down, it kept drawing me back in. Recommended for any student of the sport but also for any endurance athlete who has an interest in what mentally and physiologically can make one stronger.
About Matt Fitzgerald: A New Hampshire native, Matt became a runner at the age of eleven, after running the last mile of the 1983 Boston Marathon with his father (who had run the whole thing) and his two brothers. Although he never intended to marry his passions for sports, fitness, and writing, that’s how it worked out. Matt’s byline has appeared in a long list of national publications including Bicycling, Maxim, Men’s Fitness, Men’s Health, Men’s Journal, Outside, Shape, Stuff, and Women’s Health. The son of a novelist, Matt has a special passion for writing books. His best-known titles include Racing Weight, Brain Training for Runners, and Triathlete Magazine’s Essential Week-by-Week Training Guide.
(Disclaimer: I was sent this book for free to review on my blog, courtesy of VeloPress. I did not pay for the item, receive payment for this review, or agree to give a positive review. Aside from information gleaned from the company website, the opinions are my own.)
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