"What follows is part 3 of a 4 part series printed with the publisher's permission from "17 Hours to Glory: Extraordinary Stories from the Heart of Triathlon by Mathias Müller with Timothy Carlson." 17 Hours to Glory celebrates Kona’s Ironman® heroes—from ordinary people to true triathlon legends—with seventeen inspiring stories of unbelievable drive and true strength of character. The book is available in bookstores, tri shops, and online at VeloPress.com."
Newby-Fraser was 36 years old, and the expectations that she could continue to lead the sport were gnawing at her. Despite achieving a degree of dominance that prompted ABC Sports to call her “the premier woman endurance athlete of the century,” Newby-Fraser did not enjoy an emotional bond with her fans, largely because she played her cards close to the vest. After the fact, her victories often seemed too easy. In truth, though, those wins had come harder than the hype suggested. Baker had taken her down in 1987 and 1990, and in 1993 Newby-Fraser had to dig so deep in the heat to fend off Baker that she said, “I don’t know if I can do this again.”
And yet, of course, she did. At the start of her 1995 season, Newby-Fraser was on form once again with big-margin wins at Wildflower, Ironman Lanzarote, and Ironman Germany. “During the past couple of years it was hard work—not very exciting, but winning was everything,” she told Inside Triathlon. “The result was all important. I didn’t want to put myself through training and not win.” But always seeking to come closer to perfection, she soon found herself flying too close to the sun.
In midsummer she journeyed to Boulder, Colorado, triathlon’s new center of gravity, where she began training with Mark Allen. “I did things I thought I’d never do,” she told Deborah Crooks at Inside Triathlon as she embraced a new training blueprint incorporating high mileage and high intensity. “I thought if I wanted to race like the men, I was going to train like the men. If Mark was going to ride 500 miles a week, I’d ride 500 miles a week. I’d go with Mark on a 150-mile ride. I was doing long runs at altitude, at 8,000 feet. I was getting stronger. I was breaking new ground in training. The journey there was an accomplishment.”
Coming into Ironman Hawaii, the greatest Ironman triathlete of all time set the stage for a grand exit by announcing that she would retire from serious competition after this race, her eleventh Kona assault. She was confident, having arrived rested, trained, and without injury for the first time in several years. “There will be no excuses,” she said. “This will be their last shot at me.”
Just 20 miles into the bike, Karen Smyers was shadowing Newby-Fraser when the riders were blasted with the opening salvo from some of the most brutal headwinds in Kona history. When 1991 and 1994 men’s podium finisher Jeff Devlin and some other contenders came along, Smyers recalled, “These guys beat me on the bike by 45 minutes, so I thought, I’ll just back off and I’ll let them go. Then Paula followed and just tore into the wind like an arrow. Before I knew it there was a huge gap I could not make up.”
Newby-Fraser had followed her 53:45 swim with 5:06:04 bike—phenomenal in the terrible winds—and was in command of an 11-minute, 30-second lead on Smyers at the second transition. Her charge looked unstoppable. In fact, by the end of the bike leg Newby-Fraser’s seemingly insurmountable lead prompted Huddle, calling the race on local television, to break tradition and predict victory. “In the Ironman, it’s never over till it’s over,” he intoned. “But with a lead like that, with Paula and her history, it’s over.”
But it wasn’t. Inexplicably Newby-Fraser had stopped refueling. In her book Peak Fitness for Women, Newby-Fraser had laid out her winning strategy: “When I am racing, I am constantly checking every technical aspect of my performance. The efficiency of my swim stroke, my rpms during cycling, my leg turnover on the run. My nutritional requirements. I am constantly checking energy levels and monitoring fluid and solid food intake.” Yet that was not the case now.
The first outward sign that Newby-Fraser had abandoned her usual discipline came when she threw away her special-needs bag at the bike turnaround at Hawi. “I thought I was stretching myself on the bike, but as I started the run I thought I was well within myself,” said Newby-Fraser later. “I felt comfortable, and when I started running I actually felt pretty good. And you know the bottom line was that Karen had a spectacular run. She was bearing down on me the whole way. Logically she still shouldn’t have caught me but by the time I got out of the Energy Lab, I realized I was suffering from some heat exhaustion. So I ate a banana and felt better and thought I would be able to make it.”
Smyers, headed to a near-record Kona marathon of 3:05:20, was chipping away and had whittled the margin to 3 minutes leaving the Energy Lab. There were 6.5 miles to go. With her half-mile lead, Newby-Fraser thought she had the race under control, but her seamless facade was crumbling, and her nerves were frayed under Smyers’s charge. Newby-Fraser blew past the last few aid stations, dancing on the edge of meltdown. A crash into a careless aid-station volunteer with 3 miles to go—she fell hard and popped back up immediately—was another sign that she was running on empty.
With less than a mile left, Newby-Fraser had carefully doled out her energy cards and now held a 1-minute lead. ”I knew if I stayed on my feet, I could still win, although it might be cut down to 10 or 15 seconds,” she recalled.
Then the improbable became the impossible.
“I could feel it coming on, and I think it was the pressure of being in front,” she said. “Everybody was going, ‘Just put one foot in front of the other.’ I thought I would arrive at the finish line with a few seconds in hand. But I was just blowing through the last three or four aid stations, and when I came down the hill on Palani Road, I was weaving all over the road.”
Once she turned left on Kuakini, with a half mile to go, it got worse. “I stopped at one point and said, ‘I can’t finish.’ I was starting to lose consciousness. I know it looked like something out of a movie. I couldn’t believe it. Even now, as I look back on it, I think, Why couldn’t I have kept going another 300 yards? But there was no way.”
After turning right on Hualalai Road, Newby-Fraser said she was not really conscious of Smyers going by. Smyers said she only saw Newby-Fraser when she turned the corner onto Hualalai. When she saw that she was just 50 yards behind, Smyers accelerated as if she had been hit with a jolt of electricity.
As Smyers caught her, Newby-Fraser wobbled into her rival, and the challenger half caught her and prevented her from falling. “I was running very fast as I came up to her,” said Smyers, “and she stopped a couple steps before I got there and kind of fell into me. So I had to catch her and straighten her up. And to be honest I had been in this mode of ‘Go! Go! Go!’ getting 30 seconds on her here and there. So I could not get out of that mode of ‘Run fast and pass her!’”
Even 200 meters later, Smyers looked back to see if Newby-Fraser was coming back at her. “I had no idea she was feeling that bad,” said Smyers. “I knew she was struggling, but I thought for sure she would at least be able to jog it in. So I waited at the finish line for 5 or 10 minutes for her to come across and congratulate her. I didn’t know how bad she was.”
On the same spot a quarter mile from the finish where Julie Moss had fallen in February 1982, Queen Paula sank to the curb near Uncle Billy’s Kona Bay Hotel. And Newby-Fraser, who for a decade had been the cool, composed assassin of everyone else’s hopes, wondered aloud, “Am I dying?”
“When I sat down on the curb, I said to myself, ‘Just take another step,’” said Newby-Fraser. “But there was no way. I couldn’t move. I actually thought I had given my life to that race and I was going to die. I felt like I was going into seizure. There was a moment when I thought I was going to be taken away to a hospital, but even if I had to wait until midnight I wanted to finish.”
Huddle ran out to Newby-Fraser. “My gut instinct was, let’s call 911, call a doctor, get her to the hospital. But then I talked to her and I realized she was coherent,” he said. “She just wanted people to get away from her. But she was really dazed and told people to stop touching her and leave. It was like a car crash and everyone wants to see, saying, ‘Jesus is with you.’ Right then she didn’t need Jesus; she needed a doctor and some breathing room. She said, ‘I just wanted to get to the finish line. I may take until midnight and cross with [295-pound former NFL tackle] Darryl [Haley, whom Newby-Fraser had coached that summer], but I will do it on my own.”
Then Huddle got a laugh out of Paula. “I joked, ‘You’ve always dreamed about being able to stop and sit down by the side of the road at an Ironman,’” said Huddle. “She laughed and said, ‘That’s right. I just want to sit down here for a while.’ Then I knew she was okay.”
Twenty minutes later Newby-Fraser gathered herself and walked to a 4th-place finish, offering no resistance when Brazilian Fernanda Keller nipped her at the line for 3rd place. Her sole worry was that her dramatic meltdown didn’t “take away from what an awesome race Karen had.”
Smyers cried when she saw Newby-Fraser walk across the line. “After the joy and the ecstasy, I got a sort of a weird feeling; it was heart-wrenching to see her that broken down. Yet I felt proud for her in how she battled through. I don’t think I would have the mental power to endure so much.” Smyers took tremendous satisfaction from the victory nonetheless. “I know how important it was, not only for me but for all future Ironwomen champions to come, that Paula did get beat before she retired. If she had retired undefeated, it would have been hard for anyone who came later to be viewed as a true champion. Now there won’t have to be an asterisk on anyone’s win A.P.—After Paula.”
Afterward Mark Allen said, “Now you can see how daring she was all those years, how close to the edge she raced, how much of herself she gave to the race.” Indeed, the race revealed, perhaps for the first time, the true measure of Newby-Fraser’s intensity and grit. For years Newby-Fraser had been triathlon’s Joe DiMaggio—the classic performer who worked relentlessly in training to make it all look effortless on game day. She was so smart and planned so well, that surely many fans thought it was easy. Other competitors may have become beloved icons for stepping over the line and suffering the consequences. But this breakdown was, for Newby-Fraser, an inexplicable exception, and for her fans a telling—and perhaps endearing—one.
Typically, Newby-Fraser would accept the fact of it, but she would not brook praise for it. “It was just idiotic,” she said some years later. “There was no reason to lose the race other than rookie error. It was not a hard day, just stupid. There was nothing courageous about it. There was nothing anxious about it other than the excitement of the race. As a professional I didn’t tend to my nutrition and dehydration, and it was just a very, very stupid lack of concentrating on things I needed to take care of. That is all there was to it. Anybody who reads more into it and sees anything courageous about it is looking at it wrong.”
But in an interview with Crooks three months after the 1995 Ironman, Newby-Fraser opened a window into what might have been going on in her mind, exploring what roots might lie at the bottom of this mystery.
“In retrospect, I think a lot of what happened was mentally motivated,” she told Crooks. “On some subconscious level, I think I decided to do something stupid. People got the impression that it was easy for me to come there and win. In some very obnoxious way, I think I was saying, ‘Hey, it’s not so easy.’”
Part 3 tomorrow
Not all Paula Newby-Fraser images featured on slowtwitch will be found in the book.