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In his fascinating new book How Bad Do You Want It?, coach Matt Fitzgerald examines more than a dozen pivotal races to discover the surprising ways elite athletes strengthen their mental toughness. Each chapter of How Bad Do You Want It? explores the how and why of an elite athlete’s transformative moment, revealing powerful new psychobiological principles you can practice to flex your own mental fitness.
In this chapter, Ironman triathlon legend Paula Newby-Fraser has abandoned the training method that carried her to the pinnacle of her sport for a new and trendy approach: pile on the miles. Her ambition may bring her ultimate racing glory—or disaster.
Republished from How Bad Do You Want It? Mastering the Psychology of Mind over Muscle by Matt Fitzgerald with permission of VeloPress. Learn more at Velopress.com/howbad.
Chapter Eight: The Answer Is Inside You
A buzzing crowd of sun-toasted spectators pressed against sagging blue safety fencing on either side of Ali’i Drive, challenging the boundary between grandstand and racecourse. The dense gauntlet of sweaty humanity terminated at a makeshift arch spanning the width of the simmering street. At the center of the arch hung a large digital clock, which briefly displayed a nice round figure—9:00:00—before moving on. Nine triathletes had passed under the clock so far, most recently a little-known Japanese pro named Hideya Miyazuka. The seething multitude now waited restlessly to see who would round out the top 10 finishers of the 1988 Ironman World Championship.
The serpentine shape of Ali’i Drive and the tight clustering of shops and restaurants in the village of Kailua-Kona kept approaching athletes out of sight until they were quite close, heightening the anticipatory drama. Presently a runner came around the final bend and into view. He wore a Speedo and matching singlet, his race number (10) identifying him as Pauli Kiuru, a rising star of the sport who hailed from Finland. The crowd erupted in a rapturous ovation, but it wasn’t for Kiuru. It was for the runner right behind him, who wore an aqua-and-magenta one-piece racing suit, multiple earrings, and shoulder-length hair gathered in an elastic hair tie.
That runner was Paula Newby-Fraser, and she crossed the finish line at 9:01:01, only 12 seconds behind Kiuru. The 26-year-old Zimbabwean expat had broken the women’s course record by a jaw-dropping 34 minutes and 24 seconds and had come within a hair of finishing 10th overall in the world’s most competitive triathlon. Among the many elite male racers whom Paula had beaten was future Ironman champion Greg Welch, who finished 5 minutes behind her.
Paula was no upstart. She had placed third in her first Ironman World Championship in 1985. The following year, she won the race. By the start of the 1988 season, Paula was considered one of the top three female triathletes in the world. But nothing she had done previously had prepared the sport for her stunning performance at the 1988 Ironman, where she established herself as one of the best triathletes on earth, period. Her winning time would have made her the outright winner of every Ironman World Championship held through 1983, and the mark would not be surpassed by any other woman for 20 years.
Having reached the pinnacle, Paula built a throne there. She won her third Ironman title in 1989, finished second to arch-nemesis Erin Baker in 1990, and then went on a tear. In 1991, Paula beat Baker by 17 minutes. The following October, she lowered her course record to 8:55:28 and won the race by 26 minutes. In 1993, she put in another sub-nine-hour performance, and in 1994 she won her fourth consecutive Ironman title, her seventh overall.
The more Paula achieved, however, the less satisfied she became. The burning amazement that her dominating victories had once inspired in triathlon fans and journalists had given way to coolly admiring nods of reconfirmed expectations. They called her the Queen of Kona, a title that, although appreciative in spirit, made Paula feel somewhat taken for granted, as though her winning Ironman were not an achievement anymore but a birthright. Even the people close to her looked at Paula as some kind of invincible Cyborg.
“Friends said, ‘I don’t even need to wish you good luck,’” Paula recalled in a 2010 interview. “‘It won’t be any trouble for you to go and win.’”
They thought it was easy. But it wasn’t. In 1993, an ankle injury severely restricted Paula’s run training. It took everything she had to win that year’s Ironman, but her grit attracted little praise; the credit went instead to her matchless talent—to the dumb luck of having won the genetic lottery at conception.
After the 1994 Ironman, Paula decided to make a change. She yearned to blow people’s minds as she had six years earlier. She wanted to break her Ironman course record—demolish it, actually—and once again challenge the top men in the sport, who had gotten a lot faster since 1988. But to achieve these goals, Paula decided, she could not just train the way she always had. She would have to try something different.
Before she’d left Africa to start her career as a professional triathlete in the United States, Paula had come under the influence of Tim Noakes, a renowned exercise scientist at the University of Cape Town. Noakes had advised her to take a minimalist approach to training, doing the least amount of work necessary to win. Paula had heeded that advice throughout her career, and it had served her well.
Her less-is-more training regimen put her out of step with most professional triathletes of her era, who were locked in an arms race of ever-increasing training loads. In 1984, two-time Ironman champion Scott Tinley told Triathlete, “It seems every year the ante goes up. A few years ago, we did 300 miles [a week] on the bike and that was plenty. Last year it was 400. Now it seems like 500 is the magic mark. Each of us feels we have to do more than the next guy. I’m not so sure that’s the right way to train, to improve. No one really knows.” When she started training for the 1995 season, Paula abandoned the methods that had worked for her in the past and joined the arms race. “I thought if I wanted to race like the men, I was going to train like the men,” she told Inside Triathlon. She had also decided that her next Ironman World Championship would be her last, so why not pour everything she had left into it?
Paula’s winning formula in previous years had consisted of 11,000 to 13,000 yards of swimming, 200 to 250 miles of cycling, and 50 to 55 miles of running per week. In 1995, she increased her cycling volume to 375 to 425 miles per week and bumped up her running volume by 20 percent. She completed individual rides as long as 150 miles, not alone or with athletes of equal ability but with Mark Allen, who had won Ironman five times himself and whose men’s course record of 8:07:45 was a full 48 minutes faster than Paula’s best time. Although she rode in Allen’s slipstream, these rides were still far more challenging for her than they were for him.
The first real test of the effectiveness of Paula’s new program came at the 1995 Wildflower Triathlon, a half-Ironman event, where she faced three-time and defending champion and course record-holder Donna Peters. Paula won the duel and then went on to record commanding victories at Ironman Lanzarote and Ironman Germany. Once again, the press predicted a cakewalk for Paula in Kona, but this time the premature coronation did not bother her. The pundits of the sport thought she could no longer surprise them. They had another think coming.
A couple of days before the race, Paula sat down for an on-camera interview with NBC Sports. “I’ve broken all the rules of training this year,” she said with a sly smile. “So either I’m going to go out there and feel great or I’ve put myself so far down a hole I’m never coming out again.”
On race morning, Paula arrived at the start area at Dig-Me Beach before dawn, dressed in an oversize white painter’s cap and a loose, sleeveless linen top. An NBC Sports camera rolled film as a young female volunteer penned the number 33—Paula’s race number, but coincidentally also her age—on her upper arms. Her smile showed no trace of nervousness.
Paula then made a short walk over to a VIP area on a cement pier adjoining the beach. Her training buddy, Mark Allen, was already there. The two legends went through their last-minute pre-race preparations together but mostly in silence, ignoring the brace of photographers snapping photos from the other side of the fence. Paula removed her street clothes, revealing a black two-piece racing suit underneath. She stretched a yellow swim cap emblazoned with the Gatorade brand name across her scalp and hitched a pair of goggles over the cap.
The sun rose. Paula left the pier and entered the 84-degree water of Kailua Bay to loosen up. At seven o’clock, a cannon boomed and the race started. Paula stroked her way into her usual spot among the second-tier male pros and the top male amateurs. The swimmer closest to her right flank, however, wore a yellow swim cap like hers, denoting another female pro. Its wearer was Karen Smyers, the runner-up to Paula in last year’s Ironman and the reigning world champion at the shorter Olympic distance. Like Paula, Smyers owed her success to a minimalist approach to training. Unlike Paula, she had not abandoned the formula that had always worked for her.
Smyers’s plan was to shadow Paula through the 2.4-mile swim leg of the race, follow Paula’s rear wheel from the beginning to the end of the 112-mile bike leg, and stay glued to her hip through the early miles of the 26.2-mile run before attempting to drop her. At the halfway point of the swim, marked by a collection of party boats crammed with journalists, race officials, and special guests, Smyers remained within touching distance of her rival. As they approached shore, Paula lifted her pace and Smyers fell into her wake to gather herself for a final push. In the closing meters, Smyers pulled wide and sprinted past the seven-time Ironman champion to reach the exit ramp just ahead of her. Paula scrambled to her feet faster, though, and overtook Smyers on the ramp.
The rivals grabbed number-marked bags of cycling gear off crowded metal racks and hastened into the women’s changing tent. Smyers exited first and received her bike from a race official. But she struggled to get her feet strapped into her cycling shoes, which she had pre-clipped onto the pedals, and Paula, who had put on her shoes before mounting the bike, passed her again at the transition area exit. The two women had exchanged the lead four times in the span of 3 minutes.
Standing on her pedals, Paula charged up a steep, three-quarter-mile hill leading away from the shore and then made a left turn onto the Queen Kaahumanu Highway, which would lead her into the searing lava fields of the Kona coast. She settled her forearms into the aerobars, put her head down, and began picking off the 51 athletes who had finished the swim in front of her. Less than 3 miles into the bike course, Paula passed Germany’s Ute Mückel, one of only two female racers who had swum faster than her. A couple of miles later, she passed the other—fellow San Diego resident Wendy Ingraham— and became the women’s race leader.
Karen Smyers was close behind, but not for long. As they left the protected topography of Kailua Village and entered the exposed lava fields, the riders were walloped from the right side by a vicious crosswind. The dreaded Mumuku winds are a factor in almost every Ironman World Championship, but on this day they were unusually fierce, gusting up to 60 miles per hour. Smyers suddenly felt as though her bike had gained 20 pounds, but Paula seemed impervious. The effort it took to stay on the defending champion’s back wheel was too great; Smyers was forced to let her go.
Paula was not, in fact, impervious to the wind. She knew it would wreck her hopes of setting a new course record. But it would not stop her from winning the race by a record margin, so she focused on gaining as much time as possible on Smyers and her other pursuers. With each passing mile, Paula increased her lead by 10 to 12 seconds. By the time Smyers reached the Waikoloa Beach Resort at 24 miles, Paula had receded to a dot on the ribbon of asphalt ahead. When Paula turned left off the Queen K onto Route 270 some 10 miles farther down the highway, she had long since vanished from Smyers’s sight.
Paula now embarked upon a lengthy, rolling climb toward the turnaround point in the tucked-away little town of Hawi. She fought gravity aggressively, her rear end out of the saddle once again, her unblinking gaze piercing through a light rain that had begun to fall in this lush nook of the island. At Hawi, a giant inflated Gatorade bottle marked the turnaround point. Paula was welcomed with warm cheers befitting Ironman royalty. She made a brisk loop around the oversized marketing prop and started the return trip to Kailua. Her lead over Smyers had grown to 5 minutes. Mückel and Ingraham were even farther back.
When Paula reached the outskirts of Kailua at 99 miles, her lead had doubled to 10 minutes. But she did not relent, leaving the saddle yet again to attack the last hill on the Queen K before swooping back down to the coast. The home stretch of the bike course was a southward push along Ali’i Drive to the Kona Surf Hotel, located 7 miles south of Dig-Me Beach. Paula padded her lead by another 90 seconds between these points to start the marathon 11:45 ahead of Smyers.
Paula’s boyfriend, Paul Huddle, was covering the race for local television. When the magnitude of Paula’s advantage was reported to him, he told viewers, “In the Ironman, it’s never over till it’s over. But with a lead like that, with Paula and her history, it’s over.”
The day had grown hot—90 degrees—and humid too. When she reached the first drink station on the run course, Paula, now wearing a cap stamped with the Mrs. T’s Pierogies brand logo—grabbed every cup offered to her, as though intending to hoard them. But they were put to immediate use, the cool water going over her head and under the bib of her racing suit and the Gatorade down her throat.
Calm and calculating, Paula chose a conservative pace of 7:20 per mile, staying well within her perceived limit, out of respect for the heat. She had built a huge cushion—there was no reason not to rest on it in these conditions. More than a mile and a half behind her, at the Kona Surf Hotel, Karen Smyers did not enjoy the same freedom to adjust her effort to the weather. To have any chance of winning, she had to take some risks, and she did, tearing out of the bike-run transition at a 3-hour marathon pace.
A Princeton graduate, Smyers was good at math. She knew she would have to outrun Paula by almost 30 seconds per mile to overtake her before the finish line. When Smyers hit the 6-mile mark at the outskirts of Kailua Village on Ali’i Drive, she was 8 minutes behind Paula, having gained 37 seconds per mile. If she continued to close in at this rate, she would overtake the seven-time champion at 20 miles. But when she entered the lava fields, where the temperature at the surface of the Queen K Highway was now 112 degrees, Smyers was forced to slow down. Even so, she continued to gain ground. At 16 miles, Paula’s lead had come down to 5:25. The way things were going, the homestretch on Ali’i Drive was going to be interesting.
Just when Smyers was beginning to fear that she would run out of road before she could catch her prey, she got word that Paula was walking. And indeed she was. Despite the precautions she’d taken, Paula had begun to overheat, her body begging her to quit. Never in 10 previous Ironmans had she felt so spent so far from the finish line. But within moments she had resumed running, her desire to win trumping her misery.
With 4 miles to go, Paula’s lead was only 3 minutes. Her thoughts had become scrambled to the point where she could no longer figure out how fast she needed to go to have a realistic chance of keeping Smyers behind her until the finish. It was all she could do to keep from walking again. The next mile felt like a marathon in itself.
Not a moment too soon, Paula spied the oasis of an aid station on her left. She abruptly veered off the road and reached into a barrel containing sponges soaking in cold water. She grabbed as many as she could and squeezed them over her head as she darted back onto the Queen K. Head down, Paula ran smack into a burly male volunteer who was handing sponges to runners coming from the opposite direction. She caromed violently backward, landing hard on her bottom and rocking all the way back to her shoulders, curled into a fetal ball. The volunteer began to extend a helping hand toward her but then withdrew it, remembering he was not allowed to provide such assistance.
It wasn’t needed. Paula had already sprung to her feet, the violence of the prior moment unremembered. Her addled mind had entered a kind of dream state in which even the most bizarre and terrible happenings failed to surprise.
With less than 1 mile to go and less than 2 minutes of her lead intact, Paula stopped short and doubled over, arms dangling limply toward the seething asphalt, either stretching her hamstrings or perhaps making a gesture of confused surrender (or both). Just as suddenly, however, she righted herself and wheeled around, looking for Smyers.
It was a bizarre image: the leader and seven-time winner of the Ironman World Championship standing at a dead stop at the 140-mile mark of the 140.6-mile race, facing the direction she’d come. The alarmed driver of a motorcycle bearing an NBC cameraman urged Paula to continue.
“You got it!” he said.
“I got it?” she asked, pronouncing the words with a boozy inexactness.
She began to shuffle.
Paula was within sight of the last turn of the race when she pulled up once more, staggering as though she’d taken a stiff jab to the chin. Smyers was now right behind her. Paula raised her arms skyward as though beseeching the wondering throng of spectators lining the course to tell her what the hell was happening to her. At this moment, Smyers made the pass, placing a steadying hand on Paula’s back in the moment of eclipse.
As Smyers dashed away toward her first Ironman victory, Paula took a few wobbly steps, then bent over with her hands on her knees.
“Come on, Paula!” the spectators shouted. “You can do it!”
Again she tried to walk. The crowd struck up a thundering chant of “Paul-a! Paul-a! Paul-a!”
It fell on deaf ears. Paula sat down on the curb and robotically removed her shoes and socks. A bottle of Gatorade was handed to her and she guzzled it.
Paula was soon encircled by race officials, medical personnel, and fans. Many were still urging her to get up and finish.
“Just wait!” she said, irritably.
Paula then slumped off the curb onto the road and lay flat on her back, arms spread wide.
Paul Huddle came sprinting from the temporary television studio that had been constructed at the finish area, where, three hours earlier, he had declared the inevitability of his girlfriend’s victory. When he saw her now, his eyes widened in shock.
“Let’s get an ambulance right now!” he shouted, his voice cracking. “Nine-one-one! Who’s got a cellular?”
A woman standing close by produced one and handed it to Paul. “I think I’m going to die,” Paula said as Paul struggled to make the zucchini-size device function.
By this time, the crowd around Paula was blocking almost the entire road. The race marshals at the scene made no effort to restore the integrity of the course boundaries. Their attention was completely absorbed in the spectacle of the greatest female triathlete of all time lying supine on the pavement almost within view of the Ironman finish line. Becoming more lucid, Paula kept up a steady dialogue with the medical personnel, and at one point she let them know that she had decided to finish the race after all—but she wouldn’t be rushed.
“I have all day,” she said.
Twenty minutes after she sat down, Paula stood up. The crowd applauded and Paula took a small, ironic bow.
She began to walk, still barefoot. The crowd walked with her down the middle of the street, blocking the progress of the few racers coming through. Paula was 15 feet away from the finish line when Fernanda Keller blasted by to claim third place. (Isabelle Mouthon had long since taken the runner-up spot.) Karen Smyers was among the first people to greet Paula behind the finish line. They embraced, Paula smiling wanly, Smyers close to tears.
In the immediate aftermath of her meltdown at the 1995 Ironman, Paula Newby-Fraser blamed the incident on a late-race nutritional blunder. With Smyers closing in on her, she told interviewers, she had panicked and rushed through aid stations without drinking enough. But later she would admit that she had lost the race before it even started.
“I got greedy,” she told one reporter. “It’s an old flaw in human nature: If you have success, you want more. So you think more is better instead of looking back at what has worked for you. I had a style. I knew what worked for me. But all around me, everyone was doing something else. That new philosophy for 1995 paid off on the bike. But then it bit me at the end when I collapsed.”
Endurance athletes learn early on to equate hard work with improvement. It’s a universal experience: The first bit of hard work a beginner does yields better performance, and a little more hard work produces even better results. But there is a limit to how much hard work an athlete can benefit from. Many lose perspective and exceed their limit. They come to see hard work as the only path to improvement. If they lose a race or fall short of a goal, they respond by working harder. If they begin to feel lousy in their training as a result of working too hard, they work even harder. Hard work becomes a kind of security blanket, a reflexive answer to every question, every doubt.
The problem with drawing an absolute equivalence between hard work and improvement is that it encourages athletes to ignore how they feel. According to the psychobiological model of endurance performance, remember, an athlete cannot improve except by changing her relationship with perceived effort. Training yields improvement by reducing the amount of effort an athlete experiences at any given speed. When an athlete’s training is on track, therefore, she should find that she is able to go faster and faster at the same level of perceived effort. Inevitably, there will be days when the athlete feels lousy and even brief periods of challenging training when everything feels hard, but the overall trend should be toward less effort at the same pace. A trend in the opposite direction indicates that the athlete is training too hard and becoming chronically fatigued. If the athlete ignores this warning and refuses to reduce her training load, her competitive performance will suffer.
In a 2002 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Asker Jeukendrup of England’s Birmingham University put a group of cyclists through six weeks of varied training. During the first two weeks the athletes trained at their normal level. In week three, they were subjected to a massive increase in training load that continued through week four. At the end of that fourth week, the cyclists’ perceived effort at a power output of 200 watts (a relatively low intensity for these individuals) was 8.9 percent higher than it had been three weeks earlier, indicating severe fatigue. Not surprisingly, their time trial performance was down 6.5 percent over the same span.
Any athlete who was silly enough to attempt such an abrupt increase in training load on her own could use the spike in perceived effort that ensued to catch her mistake and then give her body a chance to recover. This was shown in the third part of Jeukendrup’s study, in which two weeks of reduced training caused perceived effort at 200 watts to drop to a level 9.5 percent lower than it had been after week one.
In the real world, athletes seldom double their training load from one week to the next, but they do routinely train a little too hard and ignore patterns of rising perceived effort even in low-intensity workouts. Each athlete has her own optimal training formula that is defined by individual physiological limits. Getting the most out of the training process requires that these personal limits be respected. An athlete gets herself into trouble when, instead of listening to her body and its intuitions, she begins to worry about what her competitors are doing and tries to “outwork” them. The answers to the most pressing questions that athletes face in their day-to-day quest for improvement (“Should I push? Should I back off?”) lie within them.
A coach may either help or hinder this train-by-feel approach— hinder it by forcing a one-size-fits-all methodology on every athlete, or help it by encouraging athletes to share how they feel and by saving athletes from themselves when they are tempted to do too much. But even the best coach cannot completely take the place of an athlete’s gut instincts.
Bernard Lagat is a good example. He began his running career in his native Kenya, where nearly all promising young runners are subjected to severe, unindividuated training that causes large numbers of them to burn out quickly (a system that undermines to some degree the benefits of group training discussed in the next chapter). But instead of putting himself through this meat grinder Bernard chose to emigrate, attending Washington State University, where he was coached by James Li, who shared Tim Noakes’s philosophy of doing the least amount of training that sufficed for goal attainment. Li’s measured program delivered three NCAA Championship titles to Bernard in his final year as a Huskie.
After graduating, Bernard surprised many by staying with Li and continuing to train rather gently by elite standards. Unlike most of his peers, he ran just once a day, and every fall he took a five-week break from training. This balanced formula resulted in a remarkably extensive record of achievement that included 11 world championship medals between 2001 and 2014, and Olympic medals in 2000 and 2004. Bernard improved year after year without training harder, recording a career-best 12:53.60 for 5000 meters at age 36 and three years later becoming the oldest runner to win a world championship medal in a distance event, taking silver in the 3000-meter indoors.
In a 2011 interview for Flotrack, Bernard credited his prolonged greatness to moderation in training. “My coach always tells me, ‘We do not need to do unnecessary mileage,’” he said. “‘We do only the mileage that is going to benefit you.’ My body reacts so well to that kind of training. I feel strong the entire way. At the end of the season, I feel,
‘I can still do this, I can still run,’ because I did not burn myself out.” How do athletes like Bernard Lagat manage to avoid the trap of the “hard work security blanket” while others, such as Paula Newby-Fraser, get suffocated by it? Research by Michael Mahoney of the University of California and other psychologists has shown that certain personality (or coping) traits are more common in athletes who allow themselves to become overtrained. One of these traits, perhaps not surprisingly, is compulsiveness; the other is perfectionism.
Psychologists distinguish two types of perfectionism: adaptive and maladaptive. Adaptive perfectionism is a never-satisfied mind-set that can have a positive influence on performance. Maladaptive perfectionism, on the other hand, often leads athletes to engage in self-destructive behaviors such as overtraining. This variety of perfectionism is known to be associated with low self-esteem and insecurity. Athletes who harbor a general feeling that they are never good enough are prone to overtrain in their unending quest to prove their worth. Confident athletes tend to be much more able to shape their training on the basis of rational internal observation.
Bernard Lagat and Paula Newby-Fraser both conform to this pattern. Bernard, as anyone who has met him will attest, radiates self-assuredness. Paula, however, has battled insecurity throughout her life. A lack of self-confidence fed into her disastrous 1995 training experiment, and she knew it.
“Parents and schooling turned me into a total archetypal overachiever,” she said in a 2010 interview for slowtwitch.com. “I came from a totally different culture. Back home in South African schools, every flaw was exposed. You were held to such a high standard. My mother was a very accomplished person and I was always filled with insecurity. I didn’t think I was good enough. I always felt like I could not live up to my parental influence. If I did well, I thought, ‘Shoot, I have to do it again.’ I do not think my success [in triathlon] was a fluke. I was not a one-off. But a little voice kept insisting that maybe I was.”
The coping skill that is required to avoid overtraining is self-trust. An athlete must base her decisions on whether to push or back off on the messages that she receives from her own body rather than on what other athletes are doing or on a generalized fear of resting. This can be difficult for athletes who are lacking in the coping trait of self-assuredness, but understanding the psychobiological dynamics of overtraining—its true cause and cure—makes it easier. If Paula Newby-Fraser was to walk away from the sport of triathlon on top, she would have to draw the right lesson from the lowest moment of her career and start trusting herself.
Paula wanted to get as far away from triathlon as she could after the 1995 Ironman. That meant getting far away from San Diego, her adopted home and the center of the triathlon universe. A decade earlier, Paula had spent a year in London, and she remembered it fondly. She decided to return. She rented an apartment in the city and spent a month riding the underground, attending the theater and the ballet, and neglecting her training.
The time alone—and away from her usual routine—gave Paula space to reflect, and reflection brought her heart and mind to a new place. London did not cure Paula of insecurity (she says she still struggles with the issue to this day), but it did grant her enough self-insight to know what her next step should be—what felt right. Paula realized how lucky she was to have a job as a professional triathlete, a rare and fleeting opportunity that she wasn’t quite ready to give up. But no longer would she race to impress others or allow insecurity to influence her training.
At the beginning of 1996, Paula announced that she would go back to Kona, but with “no expectations.” She dusted off her old, minimalist training methods and found a more appropriate daily training partner in her friend Heather Fuhr. The young Canadian pro was a weaker cyclist than Paula, but instead of forcing Fuhr to ride at her tempo, Paula slowed down. In return, Fuhr, the stronger runner, held back for Paula when they ran together.
These changes were complemented by a deepening of Paula’s long-standing involvement in Buddhist practices. While she did not engage in daily meditation sessions, she read Zen literature and engaged in nonjudgmental self-observation during solitary activities such as gardening. She was beginning to see that her development as an athlete was tightly bound to her personal growth.
“Obviously, I am not ready to sit still and contemplate some of the big issues in my life,” Paula told a writer for the Buddhist magazine Tricycle. “I sit for short periods and deal with the more external things, but there are other issues that require deeper work.”
Through her spiritual explorations, she was becoming more centered in herself and less reactive to external judgments and expectations, an evolution that she was certain was helping her as a human being and that she hoped would help her as an athlete also.
While the steps Paula took at this point may have been small ones, her public statements demonstrated a growing self-awareness and self-acceptance. In Hawaii, she sat down in front of a video camera for a pre-race interview to be shown during NBC’s coverage of the 1996 Ironman World Championship. Her tone was strikingly different from the year before. “I’d like to think I’m a little wiser and just a little softer towards my sport,” she said. “I don’t feel I come at it in such a hard way. You know, ‘I have to go sub-9 hours. I’m here to set course records. I’m here to dominate.’ It’s okay not to win.”
Sunrise on race morning revealed whitecaps on Kailua Bay. When the starting cannon thundered, more than 1,400 racers hurled themselves into choppier waters than Ironman had ever seen. Smyers was back to defend her title, and she handled the rough seas better than Paula, who reached the boats marking the turnaround point of the swim course more than 30 seconds behind her rival. By the end of the swim, the gap had swelled to 1 minute and 19 seconds.
In the transition area, Paula strapped on a helmet decorated with an American flag graphic, a tribute to her new status as a U.S. citizen. She moved without hurry despite having been apprised of her usurper’s lead. Paula had gone less than 10 miles on her Felt B2 when a race official flagged her for following a male racer too closely and ordered her to dismount before continuing the race. Paula would have to sit for an additional 3 minutes inside a penalty box at the bike-run transition. She shrugged off the setback and kept going.
At 20 miles, Smyers took over the race lead. After turning around in Hawi, she met Paula head-on and was delighted—and more than a little surprised—to discover that her 79-second advantage at the start of the bike leg had grown slightly.
Paula had been holding back, however, and on the return trip to Kailua she began to push. As she approached the 70-mile mark, Smyers heard a helicopter moving ever closer from the rear and knew Paula was coming. The Queen of Kona sped up as she made the pass in a bid to demoralize Smyers, but Smyers knew the game and wasn’t fazed.
When Paula wheeled into the Kona Surf Hotel parking lot, she handed her bike to a race official and calmly walked into the penalty box, where she drank Gatorade, stretched, and even answered a few questions for an NBC Sports reporter. While Paula was relaxing in the “sin bin,” Smyers came into transition. She was still in the changing tent when Paula entered. They did not speak.
Smyers started the run 20 seconds ahead of Paula, but she was not the race leader. A rookie competitor, Natascha Badmann, had blasted through transition more than a minute earlier, having recorded the fastest women’s bike split of the day. A 29-year-old former smoker with a teenage daughter and no prior athletic background, Badmann, who wore a girlish smile continuously as she ran and offered frequent thumbs-up and hang-ten gestures to spectators and fellow competitors, was a complete unknown to Paula.
In the previous year’s Ironman, Smyers had felt almost magically strong on the run course. On this day, she did not. Paula passed her at 4 miles. Two miles later, Paula passed Badmann, noting the uncharacteristically strained grin the Swiss parvenu gave in response to her collegial nod. By the time she had passed through Kailua Village and reentered the lava fields, Paula was 45 seconds ahead of Badmann and 4 minutes ahead of a drain-circling Smyers.
Things seemed well in hand. But at the halfway point of the marathon, Badmann skated by Paula as effortlessly as Paula had earlier overtaken Smyers on the bike. Lead changes during the Ironman run leg are usually permanent. Indeed, in her 10 previous Ironmans, Paula had never taken the lead back from a woman who had passed her during the marathon. Knowing this, she now had to make the most important decision of her career. One voice, that voice, told her that she’d better go with Badmann—that if she let her get away, she would never see her again. But her instincts, her deepest intuition, told her to continue running her own race, guided by perception of effort—to stick to the highest speed she felt capable of sustaining to the finish. She let Badmann go.
Over the next several miles, Badmann stretched her lead out to a full minute, singing quietly under her breath at one point as her waifish body glided over the hot pavement. Badmann and Paula met face-to-face on an out-and-back spur of the race route. Badmann’s smile was now easy and unforced. Seeing this, Paula reminded herself that she had come here not to win but to do her best. And yet, doing her best meant trying to win, if she felt capable, so she dug deep to chase down the rookie.
Badmann’s advantage stopped growing and then began to shrink. Paula caught her 5 miles from the finish line. Badmann lifted her pace, refusing to go down without a fight. The veteran surged several times over the next 3 miles, but she couldn’t shake her younger challenger. If Paula was worried, though, she didn’t show it. The very last hill on the course lay at the edge of Kailua village, 1.5 miles from the end. Paula threw everything she had left into one more surge and at last broke Badmann.
Minutes later, Paula came upon the spot where she had sat down on the curb in humiliated defeat a year before. As she passed it, she lifted her hands in the same “What the hell is happening to me?” gesture she had made back then, but this time she wore a self-mocking grin. She crossed the finish line at 9:06:49 to claim her eighth Ironman title.
It would be her last. After 1996, Paula’s athletic focus broadened to encompass other interests, including trail running and mountain biking. When she took her final bow at Ironman in 2001, it was just to see what she could do at age 40. She finished a respectable fourth, well behind Natascha Badmann, who won her third of an eventual six Ironman titles that day.
In 2009, Paula’s venerable Ironman course record was finally broken—Englishwoman Chrissie Wellington lowered the mark to 8:54:02. Four years later, Aussie Mirinda Carfrae took it down to 8:52:14. Prior to this performance, Paula had offered Carfrae some advice in a recorded conversation.
“To me the greatest lesson as an athlete and in training is just don’t get greedy,” Paula said. “Know that you have to get up and go again the next day. Always save a little bit. I think that is what’s precluding a lot of athletes from longevity and causing a lot of injuries right now. Everybody wants more. And the media is going to push you and hype you. And so is everyone else. You have to just have faith in yourself, and faith in [your coach], and just believe. Don’t keep looking for more. When it’s working, it’s working. Don’t mess with success, right?”
It was the deeply felt counsel of an athlete who had learned the hard way to look for answers inside herself.