As defining moments go, the sport of triathlon might have hoped for something more grandly heroic, something a little less pathetic than this. Barely visible on the horizon in 1982, the Ironman Triathlon existed as little more than a wacky segment of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” a televised Swimsuit Issue: an excuse for the network to air pictures of scantily clad young men and women exercising in balmy Hawaii in the dead of winter.
It was the year the triathlon ceased being a video postcard and became an emblem of envelope-pushing endurance: A 2.4-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile bike race, capped by a marathon, 26.2 miles. It was the year that Julie Moss was winning then stumbled and collapsed on the brink of the finish line. Driven by instinct and void of her senses, Moss crawled across the finish line. The undeniably dramatic moment was beamed to a worldwide television audience.
In a manner that only television affords, the Ironman Triathlon moved into public consciousness, ushered by the insensate and wobbly steps taken by Moss. Paula Newby-Fraser well remembers her thoughts of 13 years ago, seeing Moss cross the line on her hands and knees and saying to herself, “I will never crawl across a finish line.
Newby-Fraser, a native of Zimbabwe and resident of Encinitas, has never needed to. In her career, she has never done anything less than rush triumphantly across the finish line of the Ironman, a race she has won seven times. This year’s race, held at Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, on Oct. 7, was to be Newby-Fraser’s last competitive Ironman. At age 33, Newby-Fraser wanted to scale back and let other competitors guide the sport she helped build into a new era.
Odd the way things work. Newby-Fraser’s farewell performance was strangely similar to Moss’ infamous race. While she held the strongest of leads, Newby-Fraser’s body shut down only 500 feet from the finish line. She went into convulsions. An ambulance was called. She sat by the side of the road for 20 minutes with her body retching and rebelling in every possible way. Then she tentatively got to her feet and walked across the finish line.
Newby-Fraser had something so golden, so close to a sure thing that even now no one is quite sure how she lost it.
Newby-Fraser and Karen Smyers came out of the water together. It was the last time Smyers saw Newby-Fraser for several hours. Newby-Fraser had a 12-minute lead after the transition from the bike to the run. It was nearly an impossible gap to make up. Or lose.
Newby-Fraser’s lead was built the way it always is, in the middle, on the bike, cranking out mile after mile at an unrelenting pace. It appeared the race was headed for a predictable end and Newby-Fraser would finish her Ironman career just as she had hoped.
On the course and at the finish line, experts smiled to themselves and thought, “It’s going to be just like it always is: She demoralizes them on the bike and builds a lead that can’t be eroded during the run.”
Television color commentator Paul Huddle, who happens to be Newby-Fraser’s fiance, assessed the race to that point and proclaimed on air, “It’s over.” Meanwhile, at the finish line, race announcer Mike Reilly advised the 20,000 gathered fans that they should at any moment expect to see Newby-Fraser appear on the crest of Alli Drive, half a mile from the finish line.
These were not reckless comments or groundless speculation from unqualified pundits. This was a reasonable projection based on a decade of performance. With Newby-Fraser in a race, her winning is a foregone conclusion. Smyers, 34, for some time hailed as Newby-Fraser’s heir to dominance in the sport, was candid about her rival’s invincibility: “In all honesty, you just sit there and try to figure out how many minutes behind her you’ll end up and who you might beat.”
Again, not false modesty but undeniable fact. The last time Newby-Fraser lost a race at the Ironman distance was 1991.
Yet the day of the race was cruel to Newby-Fraser and the rest of the competitors. The middle of the race, the bike segment, offered particular agony. One hundred twelve miles over a blisteringly hot tar road with a deceptively lyrical name--Queen Kaahumanu Highway--superheated by the day’s 90-degree temperature. The course headed north, across dry lava beds and a slightly undulating and endlessly bleak terrain.
Riders bent low over their lightweight bikes, striving to make themselves a smaller target for the Mumuku headwinds slashing off the Kona coast. Riders were buffeted by sustained winds of 30 m.p.h. and frequent gusts of 45 m.p.h. One competitor was literally blown off her bike.
The racers pedaled this way for 50 miles, human sails into a fierce wind, before the course turned back on itself and snaked once again across the lava beds. This time the wind shifted--not a tailwind, but a crosswind.
“The conditions were brutal, the worst I’ve experienced,” Smyers said. “It really took a mental toll just to keep going.”
Spotters along the course knew what television crews and fans at the finish line did not. Newby-Fraser was crashing. They were urgently radioing ahead this unexpected news: Newby-Fraser was one mile from the finish line and was beginning to stagger.
Signs were there to be read. Newby-Fraser approached the intersection of Hualalai and Alli drives, a course landmark, and threw up her hands beseechingly. Which way to go? Newby-Fraser was now obviously disoriented. Not only did she run into a volunteer at an aid station, but more tellingly, she did not take any of the fluids provided.
“At one point I looked down and noticed that I had not drunk any of my carbohydrate drink,” Newby-Fraser said. “I knew I was going to be in trouble.”
With a mile to go she was barely hanging on. Newby-Fraser willed herself up the last hill and hoped momentum or inertia would carry her the rest of the way.
“I started coming down the hill and I was weaving,” she said. “At the bottom I just crashed. I was completely gone. No one could understand that I was in trouble. I could not go on. I thought I was going to die.”
Behind her, Smyers had been patiently making up time. She was shocked to see Newby-Fraser, only 500 yards from the finish line, walking. Smyers gathered herself to sprint by. As she went by to take the lead, Newby-Fraser began to crumple and Smyers had to put out her hand to steady her. Then she kept on going to victory.
Newby-Fraser walked for a few more unsteady moments then, 200 feet from the finish line, she sat on a curb. Instantly, she was surrounded. Television cameras, race officials and volunteers and medical staff pushed in.
She sat down and ripped her shoes off--her feet, she said, felt as if they were on fire. Newby-Fraser began to go into seizure. She began to black out. For more than 20 minutes she sat there, waiting for an ambulance or even a stretcher to take her away.
In the confusion and hubbub, none came. Slowly, Newby-Fraser stood and, barefoot, she walked across the finish line in fourth place.
“I would have never, ever crawled across the finish line,” Newby-Fraser said recently, recalling the moment while resting at home and preparing for her next, shorter, race in Thailand. “I would have sat there for as long as it took, I had until midnight [when the course would be closed]. I would be dragged off the course before I would crawl.”
Newby-Fraser has recovered but is not reconsidering her decision to retire from the Hawaii race.
“If I were to return, it would be driven by ego,” she said. “It would be either ego or for financial gain. Those are very secondary reasons. I could never step on the line and know it was for ego.”
Newby-Fraser has discovered that others are taking her loss harder than she is. Her aura of invincibility was convincing.
“People are talking to me as if I have died,” she said, laughing. “I was out shopping and people I know came up to me and put their hands on my arm and said, ‘Are you OK?’ They speak softly around me. It’s funny. I’m satisfied knowing that I did everything I could, I left nothing out there on that course. I’m OK.”