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.