Here at 8,500 feet, a woman is dancing beside the road. She is
wearing a multicolored wool cap and baggy blue-and-white-striped
boxer shorts emblazoned with an enormous Tigger and
Winnie-the-Pooh. She has long mauve fingernails, which are
entwined high above her head, cutting tight circles in the blue
Colorado sky. Her arms are rigid, elbows locked. Her hips
swivel. Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger go round and round.
The summer wind, sweeping up from the pan-flat Boulder Valley
3,000 feet below, makes the aspen leaves flicker in the bright
sun. The boom box at Paula Newby-Fraser's feet throbs. "Stayin'
alive, stayin' alive"--whump, whump, whump, whump--"Stayin'
aliiiiiiiiiiiiive." Newby-Fraser high-steps with glee, feet
crunching gravel, hands out in front now, throwing sharp punches
to the beat. She says, "I love this stuff!"
The 10-mile run she has just finished, leading 24 beet-faced,
gasping campers through a morning training session, hasn't bled
a step from her strut. A few of the participants in the five-day
Ironman School of Champions triathlon camp wearily try to keep
pace with her, but soon Newby-Fraser is alone, sashaying back
and forth beside the continental divide.
Alone is where the 35-year-old Newby-Fraser, perhaps the
quintessential Ironwoman, has been for most of her career as an
endurance athlete, though solitude is not something she
especially enjoys. "The Zen isolation thing," says Newby-Fraser,
"sucks." Whump, whump, strut, strut. "Hey! Who's coming on the
afternoon run with me? We're going to do strides at the track!"
October 5, 1997
Dave Scott and Mark Allen each won six Hawaii Ironman triathlons
before the grind of preparing for a 140.6-mile race wore them
out. Newby-Fraser has won eight Hawaii Ironmans. And on Oct. 18
on the Big Island of Hawaii, she will cheerily bid for No. 9,
armed, if you believe her, with the same who-gives-a-hula
mind-set that marked her 1985 Ironman debut. Then, unknown and
unprepared (she had never swum 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles or run
a marathon), she placed third.
Why, at this point, should she care? "I've won so many races
that winning doesn't matter anymore," she says crisply, in the
teatime enunciation of her very proper upbringing in South
Africa. "I'm just out here now to see what I can do."
This isn't conceit; it's logic. Over 12 years Newby-Fraser has
won 21 of 26 Ironman races she has entered around the globe, and
dozens of shorter races too. She swears she is phasing out of
racing. Before the 1995 Hawaii Ironman she announced that that
race would be her final one. Then, last spring, she won Ironman
Australia in 9:08:22, her fastest time on that course.
When the 5'6", 117-pound Newby-Fraser stands next to the
campers, their frames overwhelm her. "That somebody that small
can swim, bike and run like she does is amazing," says Don
Little, a triathlete from Prairie Village, Kans. "How in the
hell does she do it?"
Her competitors often ask the same question. Karen Smyers, one
of the few women to beat Newby-Fraser in an Ironman, remembers
concocting a simple plan one year in Hawaii: Come out of the
swim close, catch Newby-Fraser early in the bike, then cling to
her like lint on Velcro. Smyers came out of the water a minute
behind Newby-Fraser. "I went all out for 15 miles, and she was
still pulling away from me," says Smyers, who is one of the most
feared cyclists in her sport. "I was flabbergasted. Sometimes it
seems like she races faster for 112 miles than she does for 40K."
Newby-Fraser has been an athlete almost since she could walk.
Born in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe), and
raised in Durban, South Africa, she swam competitively and
danced ballet seriously enough to hate them both and quit at 16.
For the next six years she pursued less rigorous
interests--beaches, bars and boys--and probably would have
continued doing so merrily had a friend not pointed out that she
was getting fat. They started running together. Newby-Fraser
discovered triathlon, won her first three races in South Africa
and in 1985 entered the Ironman in Hawaii, where spectators
blistered their fingertips riffling through the program in
search of her name.
Though Newby-Fraser has won plenty of short races ("People
forget that," she says), it's her distance feats that astound.
She can swim and bike for 114 miles at near-world-class pace,
slap on running shoes, splash a sponge across her face and run a
3:05 marathon. There's something else, too. In recent years
triathlon has attracted a new breed of athlete, supremely fit
and fearless, who can turn even Ironman distance races into near
sprints. This exacts a terrible toll. The day after races, even
the fittest pros walk as if Kathy Bates had just rapped out The
Anvil Chorus on their ankles. Not Newby-Fraser. Take 1992, just
after she won her fourth Japan Ironman, in 9:16:13. Lying in her
bikini in the backyard of her Encinitas, Calif., home, she
called to her fiance, former professional triathlete Paul
Huddle, in the kitchen.
"Paul? I went for a run this morning, and you know something? I
felt really good."
Huddle, who has lived with Newby-Fraser for most of the last
dozen years, knew where this was going. "Are you saying what I
think you're saying?"
"I think I could win Ironman Europe."
Unbelievably, 13 days later she did, in a then-world-record time
of 8:55:00. Never mind that two weeks before Japan she had won a
96.8-mile triathlon in Nice, France. Thirteen weeks after the
European Ironman she won her fifth title in Hawaii, setting the
8:55:28 course record that still stands.
Not that Newby-Fraser hasn't suffered. The problem with seeming
invincible is that eventually everyone believes you are.
Newby-Fraser wonders if, subconsciously, she was trying to show
people they were wrong when while leading the 1995 Hawaii
Ironman with only eight miles left in the run, she started
passing the aid stations without taking food or water. No one
does this; it's the nutritional equivalent of resting your head
on train tracks. Soon a lurching, wobbly Newby-Fraser stopped
thinking. "The only thing I remember," she says quietly, "is
that nobody said, 'Stop.'" So she didn't, not until she was 500
yards from the finish. Moments earlier Smyers had passed her.
Newby-Fraser walked for a minute more. Then she sat down to die.
The sun beat down and supporters crowded in, gently cajoling
her--"Come on, you can do it"--in the way of people who don't
know what to do. Newby-Fraser felt things starting to go black;
she was suffering from dehydration. First her feet disappeared.
Then it was black, black, black up her body. Then someone was
pouring cool water over her head, and Huddle was squatting next
to her, looking into her face. Sick on the inside, he smiled.
"How many times," he said, "have you dreamed of just pulling
over and sitting down?" They both laughed.
When she was ready, Newby-Fraser stood and walked to a
fourth-place finish. "Crawling," she says, "was not an option."
So she isn't invincible, but she's damn close. She returned to
Hawaii in 1996. She led Smyers and Natascha Badmann, a talented
Swiss newcomer, after the swim and the bike but was assessed a
penalty for blocking. Before starting the run Newby-Fraser sat
in the transition area for three minutes. She watched Badmann
and Smyers come and go. She passed Smyers four miles into the
run, Badmann two miles later. Badmann clung to her for the next
seven miles before storming past. Newby-Fraser, a
self-proclaimed "yuppie Buddhist," has integrated certain
Eastern tenets into her life. With a mantra running through her
head--"Now is all there is, now is all there is"--she let
Badmann go. With three miles left, she passed Badmann for good.
The sun is lower now as Newby-Fraser and two campers, Don Little
and Julie Kling from New York City, are doing sprints on the
University of Colorado track. They run down the red Tartan. Then
they bend, grab their knees and huff. "Too old," wheezes Little.
"Never too old," says Newby-Fraser.
Another woman is on the track, running with smooth economy.
Newby-Fraser knows her. In Newby-Fraser's absence, Sue Latshaw
won Ironman Europe a few days earlier. "Eight hours, 59
minutes," says Newby-Fraser to no one in particular.
"Is that the record?" Kling asks.
"Uh-uh. I have the record. Eight-fifty."
Kling says something else, but Newby-Fraser doesn't hear. Her
hands are still on her knees, but her head is up and she is
Freelance writer Ken McAlpine, from Ventura, Calif., is a
frequent contributor to SI.