Still on the Run: An Interview with Paula Newby-Fraser

A distinguished athelete with nine years of competitive experience, Paula Newby-Fraser is known among a growing circle of fans as a "Zen triathlete." Often called “the ironman competition” because of its great demands on physical endurance, a triathlon is a long-distance race which combines swimming, bicycling and running. Triathlon will be formally recognized as an Olympic sport at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

Born in Zimbabwe in [TK], Newby-Frazier’s childhood in Durban, South Africa included years of classical ballet training. Her interest in Buddhism began when her mother, enamoured of Asian and African religious culture, took her to a lecture by a Tibetan lama. Newby-Frazier, who describes herself as a "total dabbling yuppie buddhist beginner," practices with a Tibetan lama and is an avid reader of Buddhist books. Presently she lives in Encinitas, California, where she owns and operates athletic training camps which emphasize "practicing right regimen".

This interview took place in Encinitas and was conducted for“Tricycle”by Allan Hunt Badiner.

In the zone? Yes, but it is also one long struggle with yourself.

Do you feel that same struggle when sitting? Is it your mind or your body which finds sitting the most painful? It's both. When I'm sitting I'll get uncomfortable and want to move, and my mind goes, "this stinks--I don't want to be doing this--I want to move." It's the same in races. I'll be going along and it will start to hurt, and I go, "why am I doing this? I just want to stop. I want to get off my bike and sit there in the shade and have a cool drink."

You describe yourself as an "incredibly disciplined person." And you have all this training, and have cultivated habits of sticking to it, etc. Does it strike you as a little odd that you find it hard to muster that when it comes to sitting? Obviously, I am not ready to sit still and contemplate some of the big issues in my life. I sit for short periods and deal with the more external things, but there are other issues that require deeper work. I have not reached the point where I am really willing... because I'm still on the run, literally.

Do you see sports, or triathalon in particular, as a path to enlightenment? It can be. It can also be a path to destruction! Last year I had an injury from pushing too hard. Since it is an endurance sport, unlike one hundred or four hundred meter races, it requires that you spend time with yourself. If you choose to take the challenge of some of the bigger races, you really have to face parts of yourself that you don't see on a regular basis. When you're out on that highway after twelve or thirteen hours, and it's blistering hot, and you have ten more miles to go, you are definitely in touch with another part of yourself that you don't see in day-to-day life.

How did you get injured? My injury was a stress fracture in my ankle, and you acquire this kind of injury from being excessive. I was trying to run too much, to do too much. I did exactly what I teach my students not to do, I pushed too hard and lost all balance. I became consumed with my performance, running [THIS HAS TO BE “RIDING”--CHECK] over one hundred miles every day, and obsessed with races. It was my first injury that took me out of the game, and it was a hard lesson. I had to stay at home. I had to sit. I realized I was trying to say that I was invincible.

Injury is also the only legitimate way to take a break in this sport. But what this experience said to me was that I was lacking spirituality; that I had focused totally on my body to the neglect of my mental development. I was out of balance, and it is the Buddhist teaching of balance, the middle path, that means the most to me. Integrating spirituality with all of my activities.

How does Buddhism speak to you as a woman? Has it been a relevant factor in that way? It has helped me see the basic inequalities between the sexes in this sport in a more positive healthy way. Women do not get paid as well as men for exactly the same amount of work. We start at the same starting line, we do the same job in terms of performance, media exposure, sponsors, etc. but we are paid considerably less.

The key for me is to see that I am not separate, and that it is useless to compare myself with others. The fact that my male peer is making ten times what I make doing the same thing doesn't matter. I know that I'm happy to be compensated well for what I enjoy doing and that's enough. I always come back to why I'm doing it, and how I got into it in the first place. I love the lifestyle.

What about the conflicts that must come with aggressive self-marketing? Buddhism has helped me put a limit on how important secondary gain is. For me, racing needs to be more about the personal challenge, and less about the money and recognition. I have to keep it in the context of personal growth and challenge. I have to keep the energy within myself and not be directed outward to the distractions and attractions of secondary gain. I've had my greatest races when I've had that state of mind.

What are you planning to do after you retire from competition? I'll probably sit back for a few years and think about it. This is how I approach life. My involvement in this sport just unfolded. I have no doubt that the universe is conspiring for you to do what you should be doing, and I have no doubt that what I should be doing will unfold exactly as it's meant to.

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