To some, IRONMAN can seem unforgiving to the point of being cruel. But in reality it’s indiscriminately fair. Play on its terms and you’ll have one of the most memorable Saturdays of your life. Try to override that and run it on your own plan and, well, it will still be memorable, but painfully so. In 1995 Paula Newby-Fraser learned that stingingly rough lesson.
She came into the race on top of the sport. Paula was the defending 7-time IRONMAN World Champion. She was going for number eight. The Queen of Kona had one more title than the great Dave Scott, and at the start line in Kailua Bay that year Paula as two more than I did.
Smug and careless are two qualities the IRONMAN does not like to see out on the race course. Paula seemed to be equal parts of both this particular year. Yes, a good dose of smug or carelessness and IRONMAN is guaranteed to do something to wake you up and put you in your place. Newby-Fraser commented:
“Going in the race in ’95 it was supposed to be my 8th victory. Everyone including myself expected it! Anything other than a win, was a failure.”
“All was fantastic through the bike and onto the run. I was so vested in my confidence of winning that I somehow forgot the basics. I completely neglected my nutrition and hydration.”
“It was as if I didn’t have to bother with it. And the worst part was that as an experienced professional, I didn’t recognize the huge core mistakes I was making.”
She was fading, slowing. Second place Karen Smyers was charging. Nothing was inevitable for either woman until Paula was steps away from making the final turn onto Ali’i Drive. Here’s a video showing the intensity of this moment:
Even an IRONMAN World Champion is not immune from the extremes of the race.
IRONMAN is not just about the days that turn out the way we hope. It’s a reminder to all of us IRONMAN’s duel personality. The day can bring elation and celebration. It can uncover strengths you never knew you had and help you overcome your deepest fears and doubts. It can also slap you to the ground and break your dream for the day into unrecognizable pieces. Yes, even a great champion is not immune to both sides of the day’s character.
It was this stark reminder that makes Paula Newby-Fraser’s 1995 race one of the Top-40 Greatest Moments At IRONMAN. Really going for it in Kona puts things on the edge. Sometimes the payoff is like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s greater than you could ever imagine. But that great moment, as we saw in Paula’s race, is also just a sidestep away from slipping into a place that can be nearly impossible to exit.
“I was crushed under expectations – internal and external. This was a totally self inflicted meltdown. At no point did I take internal stock of what was happening. I was too busy worrying about winning and the gap closing from behind. If I’d even have taken a one-minute pause at an aid station somewhere to refuel and rehydrate, the job would have been done.”
“I look more cynically on this year than others. It was a glaring example of not taking care of the race basics or my emotional state. None of it was what IRONMAN requires to have your best race. I was devastated for months afterwards, and to be honest it really took coming back the next year to get past it.”
Get past it she did. In 1996 Paula won her 8th and final IRONMAN World Championship title, a record that is likely to stand perhaps forever.
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I am the Founder and CEO at Mark Allen Coaching. I am proud to have been voted in an ESPN global poll "The Greatest Endurance Athlete Of All Time." During my multi-sport career I won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship six time, the inaugural Triathlon World Championship at the Olympic Distance in Avignon, France, and at one point in my career I won 21 straight races across every derivation and distance. It was a great career, but that's all it would ever be unless I was able to share all of the experience and methodology we invented long before smart watches, power meters, and flashy uniforms. That's why I started Mark Allen Coaching, as a way to return to others at least the part of the gifts I received.