20 Years of ITU - 1989 Avignon Race Report pt.2
Continuing from the women’s Avignon race report yesterday, we present the men’s race report today, told by the athletes who were there…
By Timothy Carlson
While it is hard to realize now, at the time of the inaugural ITU World Championship at Avignon, Mark Allen arguably did not enjoy quite the same dominating reputation among the men that accorded Erin Baker in the women’s domain. While Allen had earned six Nice International Triathlon victories at the long distance, and was in the midst of a 20-race undefeated streak when he came to Avignon, he and his rivals were very much aware that Allen was great – but not invincible.
After all, Allen was undergoing six frustrating lean years at Ironman Hawaii during which he could never beat rival Dave Scott and every so often ended up in the hospital. “The year before Avignon, I had my worst Ironman Hawaii finish ever,” recalls Allen. “I had two flats and was way out of it. (Scott) Molina (Erin Baker’s husband) won and I was 5th.”
The month after his 1988 Ironman Hawaii debacle, Allen went to a Nice-distance event in Reunion Island as a gesture to his main sponsor Nike. “I went because it had a famous surf break,” recalls Allen. “But it turned out to be a terrible experience. It was one of the hardest courses I’d ever done (although he won). The organizers paid for everything in cash and it all spilled out of my bag at the race. So there was all this bad luck at the end of 1988, and I guess I got it all out of the way.”
During the northern hemisphere winter, Allen traveled to New Zealand to train with Molina and Erin Baker to start the 1989 season. “Things started to turn around there when I saw what real training was all about,” recalls Allen “I saw what you could so without outside distractions and how powerful it was to live a simple lifestyle – training, enjoying nature and beauty. I obviously got really fit and by the first race of 1989, I could tell things were very different. So I was on a roll by the time I got to Avignon.”
Allen’s biggest rivals in the early 1980s on the USTS short course circuit were fellow U.S. stars Dave Scott, Scott Tinley and Scott Molina, who with Allen comprised what was known as The Big Four. But by 1989, Scott and Tinley were focused more on long course racing and Molina’s days of short course domination were also slightly on the wane. Allen’s biggest threat was Mike Pigg, who had finished second at Kona in 1988 and starred on the USTS circuit, But Pigg suffered an intestinal infection early in 1989 and was struggling that summer. So, in keeping with triathlon’s growing international flavor, Allen’s toughest opponents at the 1.5k swim-40k bike-10k run format were four emerging European and Oceania talents.
Glen Cook of Great Britain was a former national class swimmer started winning national triathlons in 1984 and 1985 and soon decided to make a pilgrimage to train in triathlon Mecca San Diego. Cook did well in USTS races in the States and with a 30:20 10k pure run PR, he won a European Championship half Ironman race and took 4th at an unofficial ‘world championship’ Olympic distance race in Kelowna, British Columbia in 1988.
Rick Wells was a top New Zealand swimmer (1:55 for the 200 free) and Surf Lifesaving competitor through 1985 who started dabbling in triathlon in the early 1980s and starred in several USTS series races. In 1987, Wells beat all of the America’s Big Four legends winning a sprint distance ‘world’ title in Fremantle Australia, and added a Nice Triathlon title along the way. Rob Barel of the Netherlands twice finished second at Nice and won a European Olympic distance Championship in 1988, and Miles Stewart was a young Australian sensation with a big future.
On race day in Avignon, Ireland’s Garrett McCarthy and Wells blasted out front on the swim, which was obviously longer than the advertised 1.5km. “The race started on the Rhone River that runs through town and the current was controlled by a series of locks,” said Allen. “They didn’t want the swim to be 10 minutes, so they slowed down the current and very likely set the course long to compensate for a fast current.” Whatever the issue, the fastest swims were at least 8 minutes slower than average times and McCarthy and Wells exited the water in 26:37 with Glen Cook a few seconds back. Up and coming Australian Brad Beven was one minute back while Miles Stewart, Mike Pigg and Mark Allen trailed by 1 minute 45 seconds.
“I came out of the water way behind and thought this was a big gap for a short race, especially when racing in Europe against a lot of guys who were great swimmers and excellent cyclists,” said Allen. “I just didn’t feel like I was in rhythm and when I got on the bike I felt I had no reason to hope.”
Wells remembers the pre race bus ride to the swim start was a struggle in the heat. “They packed us in buses where outside temperatures were 35 degrees Celsius and it felt like a sauna where wrestlers were trying to make weight,” said Wells. The swim start, added Wells, “was unbelievable. It was real narrow and they had something like a motocross gate that went down and we had a real fight for the first 200 yards.” In a prearranged strategy, Wells’ Kiwi teammate Brett Marshall redlined to forge a lead out front and Wells settled in on his feet.
Cook said his strategy was obvious. “Swim hard and if you can hang on to that sort of pace, you will get out of the water higher up. If not, you’ll get dropped and have a gap to make up.”
Once the men started on the rolling hills of the Avignon bike course, Wells and Garrett McCarthy broke into a lead. “Once on the bike, I pinned my ears back and went for it,” recalls Wells. “My philosophy was ‘Go til ya blow,’ and I biked my nuts off.”
While Wells and McCarthy disappeared, there was frustration and confusion behind. “Halfway through the bike, I was riding with Rob Barel about 45 seconds back and then Mike Pigg and Mark Allen showed up,” said Glen Cook. “That is when I latched on to them and we finished the bike together.”
Allen got his bearings when Pigg made up the 9 seconds he trailed after the swim. “When he showed up,” said Allen, “I thought, ‘Mike is so strong on the bike at this time, I will use this to my advantage.’ Then we started to work our way through the field.”
Allen recalls that the rolling hills of Avignon allowed him to “stretch out and get in rhythm.” The heat also started to get to everyone. “In Avignon, it was basically hot and sticky,” said Allen. “The air just didn’t seem to relieve you in any way, so I was struggling all the way through to the end of the bike.”
As soon as he arrived in transition with a 46-second lead on Allen and 56-seconds on Pigg, Wells knew he was in trouble. While he soon left McCarthy behind, Wells checked his body’s gauges and found his radiator overwhelmed. “It had been hotter than hell and I knew as soon as I got off the bike my legs were cooked,” said Wells. “When I started running I was in a Twilight Zone and I can’t even remember when Mark went by me. When Cookie caught me, I knew I had to hang on to his feet. Because when you go into survival mode, you’ll probably slip right back from 1st to 30th. It’s not a pleasant thought when you’re out on your feet and there’s not jack you can do about it. It was 3 in the afternoon in Provence on August 6th, and in my head I basically surrendered first and second place. But I was going to hang on to third or die because in a world championship you’ve gotta make the podium.”
Cook recalls catching Wells around 4k into the run, and says the Kiwi put up more of a fight than his New Zealand rival remembers. “We ran together quite a long time in second,” said Cook. “It was really hot – well above 90 Fahrenheit, and there wasn’t much shade. I think he finally asked how we were doing just before the run turnaround, so I put in a few surges and finally Rick did not respond to go with me.”
By the end, Allen ran a 33:06 to finish in 1:58:45 for a 78-second margin of victory over Cook. Wells, who held on for dear life with a 36:03 run, was another 52 seconds back, holding off Miles Stewart’s race-best 32:27 run by 42 seconds to hang on to the bronze.
Allen was particularly overcome with the moment. “It was a great first-ever Olympic distance World Championship,” said Allen. “To be first at something like that was really an honor and to do it in France where I had so many great races added to the whole experience.”
Allen was moved at the awards ceremony near the 14th century Palace of the Popes. “It was an amazing feeling,” said Allen. “We were in this beautiful old theater, like nothing we would ever find in the States. As I, Glen Cook and Rick Wells stood there; they raised our nations’ flags behind us and played our national anthem. I’m not the most overtly patriotic person, but this gave me a big feeling of pride. And it was a very interesting moment as I realized that we were all from different countries and had good respect for one another and were brought together through the sport we shared in common. At that moment we all felt we were part of a bigger picture.”
Now Allen, who is most famous for his six Ironman Hawaii wins, holds his Avignon win in very high regard. “That win is one I am most proud of in my career,” said Allen. “Most people know me for winning Ironman. I think that if the Ironman were the only world championship I won, not many people would be aware of what I did in short distance. That I won the ITU Olympic distance world championship to me was the ultimate stamp that said ‘Hey, you are also able to win short fast races as well as anybody in the World.’”
The Avignon win also came at a pivotal point in Allen’s career that might have taken him in a very different direction. “At that point, I really didn’t know whether to put my energy into the Olympic distance or the Ironman distance,” said Allen in a surprising revelation. “When I finally won Kona two months later, perhaps swept up in the excitement of my duel with Dave (Scott), I chose Ironman. But if my win had been a gold medal at the Olympics, the choice would have been a pretty equal game.”
Ultimately, Allen believes that his Ironman record and his ITU World Championship combined to make his record greater than the sum of its parts. “To be excellent at both distances at the same time seems harder now,” said Allen. “But I don’t think it was ever easy. There was never a lot of people who could manage it.”
Triathlon reporter Timothy Carlson takes a look back at the first world championships in Avignon, France, 1989.05:23 - 19 Oct, 2009