Paula Newby-Fraser: “It’s not so easy.”
Please enjoy Chapter 4 from the book 17 Hours to Glory: Extraordinary Stories from the Heart of Triathlon by Mathias Mueller with Timothy Carlson. From the moment the starting gun is fired on Kona’s sandy beach at the Ironman® World Championship, triathletes have 17 hours to cross the finish line. It’s a feat marking the ultimate achievement in the sport. 17 Hours to Glory is one of only a few books to commemorate this dramatic quest. Seventeen compelling chapters tell stories that allow readers to experience the competition first hand, revealing tremendous athleticism, unbelievable capacity for suffering, and true strength of character.
The greatest Ironman triathlete of all time was born in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe), and raised in Durban, South Africa. “I was a good girl growing up. A very good girl,” Paula Newby-Fraser told writer TJ Murphy about her childhood. Her father was a wealthy industrialist who owned a paint factory. Her mother was a university lecturer in psychology and social sciences. Newby-Fraser studied hard, got good grades, and excelled at ballet and swimming.
Her government-controlled all-girls school was strict. “The choices were limited. You did what you were told. You just did,” she recalled. At school the girls lined up every week for inspection, shortest to tallest. No talking, no earrings, no makeup. Lengths of skirts and fingernails were checked.
The outlet she found was sports. “Because there were no boys around, we didn’t have the social dimension to think about, to take up our energy,” she said. “Instead we focused on things like sports.” Girls who performed well at games were praised at assemblies and cheered by the crowd. But a career in sports was unthinkable. Proper girls married well or became teachers.
Ever practical, she embraced the discipline of her early schooling and studied social sciences at the University of Natal in Durban. After graduating in 1984, she ditched academic life and embraced the town’s active party scene. When a friend said she was getting fat, they started running together and lifting weights. Sparked by her increasing fitness, Newby-Fraser checked out a local triathlon with her boyfriend. Though she thought the challenge was slightly ridiculous, her boyfriend convinced her to give the event a try the following year, and they bought bicycles and began training. Only 8 weeks after buying the bike Newby-Fraser won her first triathlon, setting a new women’s record for the course. She also finished 4th among the men, giving a hint of her power to come. Three months later she won the women’s division of the South African Triathlon and won a free trip to Hawaii to compete in the famed Ironman Triathlon.
There, in 1985, virtually unknown and relying on raw talent (she had never swum 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles, or run a marathon), she placed 3rd. Moreover, she finished just 5 minutes 42 seconds behind the women’s winner, Joanne Ernst. That performance, along with what she had learned in preparation for the race, convinced Newby-Fraser that additional training could give her the tools to win.
On her way to Hawaii Newby-Fraser had stopped in San Diego—triathlon’s original mecca—and found a collective passion for the sport among the pioneers. In a story in Encinitas magazine, she said, “I planned to visit San Diego because of the great athletes that were there, like Scott Tinley, Mark Montgomery, and Colleen Cannon. I stayed at a friend’s in Leucadia and started doing all the famous workouts: the Tuesday run in Rancho Santa Fe, the Wednesday bike ride, swimming and track workouts at UCSD.”
When Newby-Fraser returned to South Africa she couldn’t shake Encinitas from her mind. “All I could think of was that I had to get back,” she said. After talking it over with her parents, she flew back to America with $1,000 in her pocket and moved into an apartment with fellow triathletes Linda Janelli and Maggie Smeal. During those first months she met the man who would become the lasting love of her life, Paul Huddle, an elite triathlete now recognized as one of the best triathlon coaches in the world.
In her second Hawaii Ironman in 1986 she eased into history when 1st-place finisher Patricia Puntous was disqualified for drafting and Newby-Fraser, who crossed the line 2 minutes later, inherited the victory. She was awarded the $10,000-plus top prize, the first year the event offered a pro purse. When she heard that she had won, Newby-Fraser seemed stunned. “I just feel that I have no control over the situation,” she told journalist Mike Plant. “I feel for her, but I have no control. I’m pleased that I’ve won now, but that’s just the way it goes.”
While her victory may have felt anticlimactic, Newby-Fraser’s winning time was a clap of thunder announcing the arrival of professional women to the sport. Her 9:49:14 mark broke the previous record by 36 minutes, and she was the first woman to break the Ironman 10-hour mark. Her finish would have won the men’s division in the first two Ironman contests and would have placed 2nd to the top man in the 1980 and 1981 events.
In 1987 Newby-Fraser started strong, holding the lead for 21 miles of the marathon, but then faded in the brutal heat. Two-time winner Sylviane Puntous of Canada, Patricia Puntous’s twin, was stalking her all day, and New Zealand star Erin Baker, a superb 2:36 marathoner and excellent short- and long-course triathlon star, caught both of them at mile 22. Newby-Fraser was tapped and could not fight back. Puntous, as was her habit in the early years of the sport, walked through the aid stations while the fierce newcomer Baker, shocked at the Canadian’s lack of warrior ethic, stormed past to a new record time of 9:35:25, with Puntous 1:32 back. Although she had broken her own 1986 course record by 9 minutes, Newby-Fraser fell to 3rd.
Afterward, Plant wrote, Newby-Fraser realized that winning the Ironman would demand her full attention. For her part, Baker said, “I had to concentrate like hell to get to the finish. I didn’t have anything left. I couldn’t smile.” From that point forward, every woman knew she would have to run every mile of the marathon to prevail.
Newby-Fraser’s remarkable Ironman finish in 1988 was the shot heard ’round the world of sport. Rival Erin Baker upped the ante tremendously, topping her year-old record by 23 minutes with a 9:12:14 finish. But Newby-Fraser slaughtered Baker by 11 minutes and her old standard by 34 minutes with a 9:01:01 finish. Indeed, Newby-Fraser appeared to be in a league of her own; her greatest rivals were men. She finished 11th overall, just a breath over 30 minutes behind the men’s overall winner, Scott Molina, and along the way she bested a string of certified men’s stars, including her boyfriend, Paul Huddle, by 3:45; Greg Welch by 6:13; Jeff Devlin by 9:53; and Peter Kropko by an amazing 20:36.
For all Joan Benoit Samuelson’s greatness, she never finished near the top 11 at Boston or in the Olympics. Florence Griffith Joyner would not have qualified for the men’s Olympic team. Only Ann Trason, who finished the 1995 Western States 100-mile trail run just 5 minutes behind the men’s winner, was in the same area code as Newby-Fraser in women’s remarkable push toward equality in endurance sports.
But Newby-Fraser, who maintained a highly disciplined, scientific approach to the sport throughout her career, was never carried away by the hype over her 1988 feat. “That year I had a good performance, and the men lagged,” she remembered. “The next year I went just a little bit quicker, but I was 51 minutes back of [men’s winner] Mark Allen. Had Mark been winning the race in 1988, the gap would not have been as small as it was.”
Over the next three editions of Ironman Hawaii, Newby-Fraser racked up similarly impressive results. In 1989 she topped women’s runner-up Puntous by 21 minutes. The next year, on a hot day, she proved she was human and lost another duel to Erin Baker, 9:13:42 to 9:20:01. She came back in 1991 to beat Baker by nearly 16 minutes, giving her four wins in six years—a record that many an athlete might happily call a career. Yet all of these performances were but a buildup to one of the most remarkable years recorded by any athlete in triathlon.
Newby-Fraser started her 1992 campaign by winning the three-quarters-Ironman-distance Nice International Triathlon. Two weeks later she won her fourth Ironman Japan in 9:16:13. Just a few days later she told Huddle she felt surprisingly good. As recounted by writer Ken McAlpine, Huddle replied, “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” Indeed, Newby-Fraser thought she could win Ironman Europe at Roth, Germany. Thirteen days later she did, in a then-world-record time of 8:55:00. While even the best triathletes take weeks to recover from the pounding and the energy-sapping dehydration of just one Ironman, Newby-Fraser had just won three Ironman-proportion events in five weeks, recording perhaps the greatest high-intensity stretch in Ironman history.
A mere 13 weeks after the European Ironman, she stepped across the finish line in Kona to take her fifth Ironman Hawaii title, setting an 8:55:28 course record that stood until 2009 and winning the women’s title by the biggest margin of the modern era, 26 minutes 12 seconds, the triathlon equivalent of Secretariat’s 31-length Belmont Stakes win.
By this time Newby-Fraser, working with superagent Murphy Reinschreiber, had built an empire of sponsorships, appearance fees, and business deals that was estimated by Inside Triathlon to bring in half a million dollars a year. It was peanuts by the standards of pro golf, tennis, and running superstars but groundbreaking in terms of the tiny niche occupied by the still emerging sport of triathlon. And in contrast to the pampered rich of mainstream sports, Newby-Fraser remained modest, utterly approachable, and without a shred of arrogance.
The following year’s preparation for Ironman Hawaii did not begin auspiciously. Newby-Fraser suffered an overtraining injury to her ankle, and the women’s field began to believe an upset was in the cards. “This year I was forced to take three months off from running and a month and a half from the bike,” said Newby-Fraser before the race, displaying a small wrap on her ankle. “This is the least prepared I have ever been for the Ironman. I just hope my years in the sport and my strength can carry me through.”
Erin Baker, the 1987 and 1990 Ironman women’s champ, wasn’t buying the “poor Paula” routine. “It would be stupid to think Paula won’t be tough,” said Baker. “But,” she added, “I expect a much better run out of myself.”
Baker herself had seemed like a prohibitive long shot, as in May she had given birth to a child. A few months later she had started training again and felt her strength return. Then Reebok offered her a three-year contract she couldn’t turn down—her husband, 1988 Ironman champion Scott Molina, was out of commission with a bad back, and Baker felt the need to take the sponsorship to support her family. She got retired Ironman champ Dave Scott to design a new training program for her Ironman. “I used to come to this race just feeling wasted,” said Baker. “But now Dave has me running shorter distances and faster times. I don’t just go out for 4-hour bike rides anymore. I run and ride shorter, faster intervals. And I feel fresher.”
Baker claimed she was stronger and more flexible since the birth of her son, Miguel, and said she was now blessed with a higher red-blood-cell count. “The birth has had the same effect as training at altitude,” she said. “All mothers get that at birth, and the increased red-blood count typically lasts nine months. And this is soon enough so it’s still true for me.” Baker added, “The most important thing is I am running harder at a lower heart rate in training. I am readier than I have ever been.”
Baker was kicked in the head right at the swim start and fell 5 minutes behind Newby-Fraser’s 53:29 swim. On the bike Newby-Fraser set a still-standing record of 4:48:30, topping Baker’s bike split by 1:36 and her own bike-split record set the previous year by 8 minutes. On the run, fighting exhaustion and lack of training mileage due to her injured ankle, Newby-Fraser held on grimly for a 3:16:54 marathon, which rewarded her with her second sub-9-hour Ironman and a final 3-2 edge in head-to-head Kona encounters with her not-so-friendly rival Baker.
In the race, Newby-Fraser had intrigued 1993 Ironman rookie Karen Smyers, the 1990 International Triathlon Union (ITU) short-course world champion from Massachusetts who had tested the waters of the Ironman with some trepidation and a touch of naive optimism. After finishing 4th, Smyers emerged with a deep appreciation of Newby-Fraser’s skills and toughness. “Paula? Geez. I know it was irrational, but part of me said if I can beat her by 2 minutes in a short race, in a long race I could beat her by 10 minutes,” said Smyers. “I had never done a long course, so I did not know what the times meant. So Paula blowing away the competition there didn’t mean much to me until I saw her beat Erin Baker, who had won the first ITU World Championship and was nearly unbeatable in short course. I have the utmost respect for Erin Baker. Erin went undefeated one year at all distances. That gave Paula’s Ironman record the most credibility with me.”
Afterward Newby-Fraser let down her guard a little about just how tough it had been. “I lost a part of myself, a part of my soul, out there on the run,” she said. “I think it’s still out there.”
Lost in the excitement that accompanied the Greg Welch duel with Dave Scott coming back after 40, Newby-Fraser won another predictable dull-from-the-outside, gutsy-from-the-inside race in Hawaii in 1994. With Baker gone forever from Kona, Newby-Fraser’s closest challenger was now Karen Smyers, one year wiser about the demands of Ironman.
From the beginning Newby-Fraser’s 54:19 swim gave her an unexpectedly large lead over Smyers’s 58:22. On the bike Newby-Fraser’s 5:02:25 added another 8:30 to her lead. Starting with 12 minutes in hand, Newby-Fraser showed she was hurting with a 3:23:30 run, 18 minutes off her best time. Nevertheless, that subpar performance gave back only 4:37 to runner-up Smyers.
“I don’t know why it was such a tough day,” Newby-Fraser told Bob Babbitt of Competitor after the race. “I worked hard on the swim, and I had a terrific swim and bike ride. But I paid for it on the run.” She felt terrible starting the run and stopped 12 miles into the marathon. “When I got out of town, I stopped at an aid station on the highway and had a talk with myself,” she said. “Come on. Get it together. I’m having a hard day. Everyone has a hard day,” she told herself.
Then, foreshadowing the next year’s race, she said, “It’s not fun to have someone like Karen Smyers coming up from behind.” With 4 miles to go, Smyers was 7 minutes back. But, talking to herself all the way, Newby-Fraser ended up maintaining the 8-minute lead she had on the bike to take her seventh win.
When asked if she would come back in 1995, Newby-Fraser was ambivalent. “Mentally, I don’t know if I can make those kinds of sacrifices. I have to put so much of my life on hold for this race. I’d like to come back and do this race again. But I don’t know if I’ll make the same kind of commitment.”
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.’”
After 10 years in the United States, Paula Newby-Fraser became a U.S. citizen in July 1996, which, along with her solid relationship with Huddle, seemed to lend some permanence to her idyllic existence in Encinitas. With a few months’ distance from her disaster, Newby-Fraser regained equilibrium and a renewed mastery over the emotional and mental side of her sport as she approached Ironman Hawaii 1996.
By this time Newby-Fraser had adopted Buddhist principles and gained peace of mind by, as she described it, “living in the moment.” Early in the year she withdrew her declaration of retirement from the sport and vowed to make one more charge on Kona. Nevertheless, she vowed, “I have no expectations” about Hawaii. She didn’t want the pressure of being the favorite, and she didn’t want to feed the expectations to lead. Instead, she said, “I just want to mix it up with the girls.” She had won Kona seven times and did not want to put the weight back on her psyche.
During the year Newby-Fraser won Ironmans in Australia in April and Canada in August despite throwing up and staving off a collapse in Penticton. If she had allowed triathlon success to remain an obsession, she might have fretted over her coming clash with two fast-rising rivals, Karen Smyers and Natascha Badmann. Defending Kona champion Smyers was coming off a rare double, as she had wrapped up 1995 with a win at the ITU short-course World Championship and then, in mid-1996, won the ITU long-course World Championship. She had also become faster in all three sports at the Ironman distance.
Badmann, meanwhile, was a late-blooming Swiss star who had won the prestigious Powerman Zofingen long-distance duathlon world championship with a devastating bike. Badmann and her New Age coach and partner Toni Hasler’s philosophy was tied to nature, and their attitude toward her Kona debut mirrored Newby-Fraser’s in its deflation of expectations. “I just want to finish it and enjoy it,” said Badmann.
Newby-Fraser’s attitude adjustment came to the test midway through the 1996 encounter in Kona.
At the start, Smyers’s 54:11 swim led Newby-Fraser by 79 seconds and Badmann by 6:30. On the bike Smyers took the lead from Wendy Ingraham and held off Newby-Fraser until mile 70 and Badmann until mile 90. At that point, Smyers recalled, “Natascha blew by me like a rocket and looked so fresh I was shocked.”
Newby-Fraser beat Badmann (who clocked a stunning 4:53:47 bike) into T2 by only 18 seconds but had to serve a 3-minute drafting penalty. Newby-Fraser didn’t mind. “To be honest, I didn’t want to be leading out on the run,” she said. “I stretched, put my feet up, did an interview.” Newby-Fraser felt even more at ease when she saw Smyers come in fatigued 2.5 minutes later. “I knew Karen had pushed herself and I’d get her on the run.”
At the Hot Corner in downtown Kona, where runners turn right on Palani Road for the steep uphill to the Queen K, Newby-Fraser had regained the lead from the Swiss rookie and was looking relaxed. She was 45 seconds up on Badmann, whom she had passed 15 minutes before at mile 6. And, in the surprise of the day, she was 4 minutes up on Smyers.
Smyers had made up a minute on Badmann in the first 3 miles and said, “I was desperately trying to regain the feeling I had last year, which lasted the entire race.” But after mile 3, when her feet got sluggish and slow, “I knew it wasn’t my day.”
While Smyers came unraveled for good by mile 4 of the run, Badmann’s race was full of surprises, which the newly calm Newby-Fraser handled with equanimity. “I passed Natascha at mile 6 of the run, but coming up on mile 13 she blazed by me going maybe 6:30 pace, some 30 seconds per mile faster,” Newby-Fraser later recalled. “I was surprised because I didn’t know she was closing. I just let her go. I didn’t panic. I didn’t say, ‘I need to go with her.’ It was a big rookie mistake, and I knew it wouldn’t last.”
Sure enough, on the Energy Lab Road the gap slowly shrank. Newby-Fraser caught Badmann in the first mile past the Energy Lab and then played cat-and-mouse with her in a duel. “I pulled in by her side, but she didn’t like that, so she tucked in behind me because it was a bit of a headwind. So I swerved to the middle of the highway, and she swerved with me. That gave me the sense that she was trying to hang on to my energy. So I thought, Let’s see how bad it is. I knocked off and started to run an extremely comfortable pace. She still didn’t come up and run with me. She allowed me to lead.”
By then the aid stations started to play a role. “I led through the aid stations and it was difficult for her because by that time most volunteers are looking the other way, and after the first runner goes through it is difficult to get enough water,” said Newby-Fraser. “She wasn’t getting the water she needed. We ran like that for a good two or three miles with all the motorcycles around us.”
As they approached the hill at mile 24, made famous as the spot where Mark Allen broke away from Dave Scott in their epic 1989 race-long duel, Newby-Fraser stepped up the pace and steadily pulled away to the finish. Her time of 9:06:49 was the sixth-fastest for women on the course. Badmann, obviously suffering from lack of water at the aid stations, struggled in 4.5 minutes behind Newby-Fraser despite having been virtually tied with 2 miles to go. Newby-Fraser’s 3:09:45 marathon had closed the deal.
That 1996 race marked the end of Newby-Fraser’s Hawaii wins and presaged the beginning, two years later, of Badmann’s reign as Kona’s queen. It also marked the true winding-down of one of the most impressive records in sports history.
In 1997 Newby-Fraser started the race but, feeling cooked in some of the toughest conditions in memory, dropped out 16 miles into the run. “I was going backward, and after what happened to me in 1995, I knew what lay ahead,” she said. “It would be a death march; I would be entering a place where I would be subjecting myself to serious injury.” Most impressively, Newby-Fraser admitted, “I was finally free of the ego or the fears that people would say I was a quitter. I was quite comfortable retiring out on the Queen K because that was the place where I had left so many pieces of myself in the past. I didn’t need that again.”
Now, more than a decade after her long good-bye from a fully dedicated professional triathlon career, Newby-Fraser’s accomplishments loom over the sport like a comet whose bright aura cannot be dimmed even by the arrival of the sensational Chrissie Wellington. In a professional career that extended from 1986 to 2004, she won 24 Ironman races; the next closest, her friend Heather Fuhr, won 15. Newby-Fraser took the crown jewel at Ironman Hawaii eight times; the next best—Mark Allen, Dave Scott, and Natascha Badmann—have won six each. In 1988 Newby-Fraser’s 11th overall finish against the men was labeled “the greatest performance in endurance sports history” by the Los Angeles Times.
On the way she was named “Greatest All Around Female Endurance Athlete in the World” by ABC Sports and the Los Angeles Times and named as one of the top five professional female athletes in the world from 1972 to 1997 by the United States Sports Academy. Sports Illustrated listed her as number 60 among the greatest female athletes of the twentieth century. Until Wellington broke her course record at Kona in 2008, Newby-Fraser held the top six times in the history of Ironman Hawaii. By 1999 she had won 21 of the 26 Ironman races she entered around the globe.
And yet if you simply look at the numbers and the résumé and accepted her apparent invincibility without seeing the human heart and soul behind it, you would be missing the essence of her greatness.
In 1998, when Newby-Fraser crossed the Kona line in 11th place in a humbling 10:03:44, she was bathed in loving applause. “I realized today that people cared about me for who I am and did not care where I finished, only that I was OK and happy,” she said.
And just to remind the sport of her prodigious talent, Newby-Fraser had one more impressive result to log at Kona: a 4th-place finish in 2001.
Thank you for reading this chapter from the book 17 Hours to Glory: Extraordinary Stories from the Heart of Triathlon by Mathias Mueller with Timothy Carlson. From the moment the starting gun is fired on Kona’s sandy beach at the Ironman® World Championship, triathletes have 17 hours to cross the finish line. It’s a feat marking the ultimate achievement in the sport. 17 Hours to Glory is one of only a few books to commemorate this dramatic quest. Seventeen compelling chapters tell stories that allow readers to experience the competition first hand, revealing tremendous athleticism, unbelievable capacity for suffering, and true strength of character.