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 M?ckel, 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. M?ckel and Ingraham were even farther back.