By this time, the crowd around Paula was blocking almost the entire road. The race marshals at the scene made no effort to restore the integrity of the course boundaries. Their attention was completely absorbed in the spectacle of the greatest female triathlete of all time lying supine on the pavement almost within view of the Ironman finish line. Becoming more lucid, Paula kept up a steady dialogue with the medical personnel, and at one point she let them know that she had decided to finish the race after all--but she wouldn't be rushed.
"I have all day," she said.
Twenty minutes after she sat down, Paula stood up. The crowd applauded and Paula took a small, ironic bow.
She began to walk, still barefoot. The crowd walked with her down the middle of the street, blocking the progress of the few racers coming through. Paula was 15 feet away from the finish line when Fernanda Keller blasted by to claim third place. (Isabelle Mouthon had long since taken the runner-up spot.) Karen Smyers was among the first people to greet Paula behind the finish line. They embraced, Paula smiling wanly, Smyers close to tears.
In the immediate aftermath of her meltdown at the 1995 Ironman, Paula Newby-Fraser blamed the incident on a late-race nutritional blunder. With Smyers closing in on her, she told interviewers, she had panicked and rushed through aid stations without drinking enough. But later she would admit that she had lost the race before it even started.
"I got greedy," she told one reporter. "It's an old flaw in human nature: If you have success, you want more. So you think more is better instead of looking back at what has worked for you. I had a style. I knew what worked for me. But all around me, everyone was doing something else. That new philosophy for 1995 paid off on the bike. But then it bit me at the end when I collapsed."
Endurance athletes learn early on to equate hard work with improvement. It's a universal experience: The first bit of hard work a beginner does yields better performance, and a little more hard work produces even better results. But there is a limit to how much hard work an athlete can benefit from. Many lose perspective and exceed their limit. They come to see hard work as the only path to improvement. If they lose a race or fall short of a goal, they respond by working harder. If they begin to feel lousy in their training as a result of working too hard, they work even harder. Hard work becomes a kind of security blanket, a reflexive answer to every question, every doubt.
The problem with drawing an absolute equivalence between hard work and improvement is that it encourages athletes to ignore how they feel. According to the psychobiological model of endurance performance, remember, an athlete cannot improve except by changing her relationship with perceived effort. Training yields improvement by reducing the amount of effort an athlete experiences at any given speed. When an athlete's training is on track, therefore, she should find that she is able to go faster and faster at the same level of perceived effort.
Inevitably, there will be days when the athlete feels lousy and even brief periods of challenging training when everything feels hard, but the overall trend should be toward less effort at the same pace. A trend in the opposite direction indicates that the athlete is training too hard and becoming chronically fatigued. If the athlete ignores this warning and refuses to reduce her training load, her competitive performance will suffer.