These changes were complemented by a deepening of Paula's long-standing involvement in Buddhist practices. While she did not engage in daily meditation sessions, she read Zen literature and engaged in nonjudgmental self-observation during solitary activities such as gardening. She was beginning to see that her development as an athlete was tightly bound to her personal growth.
"Obviously, I am not ready to sit still and contemplate some of the big issues in my life," Paula told a writer for the Buddhist magazine Tricycle. "I sit for short periods and deal with the more external things, but there are other issues that require deeper work."
Through her spiritual explorations, she was becoming more centered in herself and less reactive to external judgments and expectations, an evolution that she was certain was helping her as a human being and that she hoped would help her as an athlete also.
While the steps Paula took at this point may have been small ones, her public statements demonstrated a growing self-awareness and self-acceptance. In Hawaii, she sat down in front of a video camera for a pre-race interview to be shown during NBC's coverage of the 1996 Ironman World Championship. Her tone was strikingly different from the year before. "I'd like to think I'm a little wiser and just a little softer towards my sport," she said. "I don't feel I come at it in such a hard way. You know, 'I have to go sub-9 hours. I'm here to set course records. I'm here to dominate.' It's okay not to win."
Sunrise on race morning revealed whitecaps on Kailua Bay. When the starting cannon thundered, more than 1,400 racers hurled themselves into choppier waters than Ironman had ever seen. Smyers was back to defend her title, and she handled the rough seas better than Paula, who reached the boats marking the turnaround point of the swim course more than 30 seconds behind her rival. By the end of the swim, the gap had swelled to 1 minute and 19 seconds.
In the transition area, Paula strapped on a helmet decorated with an American flag graphic, a tribute to her new status as a U.S. citizen. She moved without hurry despite having been apprised of her usurper's lead. Paula had gone less than 10 miles on her Felt B2 when a race official flagged her for following a male racer too closely and ordered her to dismount before continuing the race. Paula would have to sit for an additional 3 minutes inside a penalty box at the bike-run transition. She shrugged off the setback and kept going.
At 20 miles, Smyers took over the race lead. After turning around in Hawi, she met Paula head-on and was delighted--and more than a little surprised--to discover that her 79-second advantage at the start of the bike leg had grown slightly.
Paula had been holding back, however, and on the return trip to Kailua she began to push. As she approached the 70-mile mark, Smyers heard a helicopter moving ever closer from the rear and knew Paula was coming. The Queen of Kona sped up as she made the pass in a bid to demoralize Smyers, but Smyers knew the game and wasn't fazed.
When Paula wheeled into the Kona Surf Hotel parking lot, she handed her bike to a race official and calmly walked into the penalty box, where she drank Gatorade, stretched, and even answered a few questions for an NBC Sports reporter. While Paula was relaxing in the "sin bin," Smyers came into transition. She was still in the changing tent when Paula entered. They did not speak.
Smyers started the run 20 seconds ahead of Paula, but she was not the race leader. A rookie competitor, Natascha Badmann, had blasted through transition more than a minute earlier, having recorded the fastest women's bike split of the day. A 29-year-old former smoker with a teenage daughter and no prior athletic background, Badmann, who wore a girlish smile continuously as she ran and offered frequent thumbs-up and hang-ten gestures to spectators and fellow competitors, was a complete unknown to Paula.
In the previous year's Ironman, Smyers had felt almost magically strong on the run course. On this day, she did not. Paula passed her at 4 miles. Two miles later, Paula passed Badmann, noting the uncharacteristically strained grin the Swiss parvenu gave in response to her collegial nod. By the time she had passed through Kailua Village and reentered the lava fields, Paula was 45 seconds ahead of Badmann and 4 minutes ahead of a drain-circling Smyers.
Things seemed well in hand. But at the halfway point of the marathon, Badmann skated by Paula as effortlessly as Paula had earlier overtaken Smyers on the bike. Lead changes during the Ironman run leg are usually permanent. Indeed, in her 10 previous Ironmans, Paula had never taken the lead back from a woman who had passed her during the marathon. Knowing this, she now had to make the most important decision of her career. One voice, that voice, told her that she'd better go with Badmann--that if she let her get away, she would never see her again. But her instincts, her deepest intuition, told her to continue running her own race, guided by perception of effort--to stick to the highest speed she felt capable of sustaining to the finish. She let Badmann go.
Over the next several miles, Badmann stretched her lead out to a full minute, singing quietly under her breath at one point as her waifish body glided over the hot pavement. Badmann and Paula met face-to-face on an out-and-back spur of the race route. Badmann's smile was now easy and unforced. Seeing this, Paula reminded herself that she had come here not to win but to do her best. And yet, doing her best meant trying to win, if she felt capable, so she dug deep to chase down the rookie.
Badmann's advantage stopped growing and then began to shrink. Paula caught her 5 miles from the finish line. Badmann lifted her pace, refusing to go down without a fight. The veteran surged several times over the next 3 miles, but she couldn't shake her younger challenger. If Paula was worried, though, she didn't show it. The very last hill on the course lay at the edge of Kailua village, 1.5 miles from the end. Paula threw everything she had left into one more surge and at last broke Badmann.
Minutes later, Paula came upon the spot where she had sat down on the curb in humiliated defeat a year before. As she passed it, she lifted her hands in the same "What the hell is happening to me?" gesture she had made back then, but this time she wore a self-mocking grin. She crossed the finish line at 9:06:49 to claim her eighth Ironman title.
It would be her last. After 1996, Paula's athletic focus broadened to encompass other interests, including trail running and mountain biking. When she took her final bow at Ironman in 2001, it was just to see what she could do at age 40. She finished a respectable fourth, well behind Natascha Badmann, who won her third of an eventual six Ironman titles that day.
In 2009, Paula's venerable Ironman course record was finally broken--Englishwoman Chrissie Wellington lowered the mark to 8:54:02. Four years later, Aussie Mirinda Carfrae took it down to 8:52:14. Prior to this performance, Paula had offered Carfrae some advice in a recorded conversation.
"To me the greatest lesson as an athlete and in training is just don't get greedy," Paula said. "Know that you have to get up and go again the next day. Always save a little bit. I think that is what's precluding a lot of athletes from longevity and causing a lot of injuries right now. Everybody wants more. And the media is going to push you and hype you. And so is everyone else. You have to just have faith in yourself, and faith in [your coach], and just believe. Don't keep looking for more. When it's working, it's working. Don't mess with success, right?"
It was the deeply felt counsel of an athlete who had learned the hard way to look for answers inside herself.
Republished from How Bad Do You Want It? Mastering the Psychology of Mind over Muscle by Matt Fitzgerald with permission of VeloPress. Learn more here.
- 5 Signs You're Ready to do an IRONMAN
- Lose the Belly Fat: Weight Management for Triathletes
- Indy 500 Winner Tony Kanaan on Triathlon, Training and Driving