A distinguished athlete 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 that combines swimming, bicycling, and running. The triathlon will be formally recognized as an Olympic sport at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
Born in Zimbabwe in 1962, Newby-Fraser spent her childhood in Durban, South Africa, studying classical ballet for many years. Her interest in Buddhism began when her mother, enamored of Asian and African religious culture, took her to a lecture by a Tibetan lama.
Newby-Fraser, 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 that emphasize “practicing right regimen.” This interview took place in Encinitas and was conducted by Tricycle’s Consulting Editor Allan Hunt Badiner.
Tricycle: Are you an Olympic hopeful?
Newby-Fraser: Not at all. My days of doing sport for God and country are long gone. I am a triathlete because it is how I make a living and because I enjoy the sport. In any event, I’ll be retired by the next Olympics. That’s something for the younger athletes.
Tricycle: I understand that there is something special about the Ironman competition in Hawaii. What is it?
Newby-Fraser: It’s the most challenging international competition and it’s in a spectacular setting. There’s an active volcano and a fascinating spiritual history of the island and its people connecting the energy of the volcano to a spirit called Pele. Several of us have noticed that people who do not connect with this legend and are not respectful of this tradition do not do well in the race. I’ve seen the best athletes fall apart there time and time again. You need to connect with what is going on there, and it is a whole different energy. You have to go there with a respectful manner. It really has moved me toward a more spiritual life.
Tricycle: Was it transformation and salvation that motivated that movement, or was it another technology for winning the race?
Newby-Fraser: I’m not sure. When I first went there it was winning the race. But continuing to win requires more. Every year it is different and more challenging.
Tricycle: How big an influence was your early exposure—through your mother—to Buddhism and Indian festivals in Durban?
Newby-Fraser: It opened my horizons a bit, but I always thought it was peculiar. We would go somewhere, and my mother would be wearing a sari. Then she became more focused on Buddhism and used to disappear some weekends to a Buddhist retreat center. My brother wrote his thesis on Buddhism and psychotherapy and then disappeared into a Buddhist monastery in Scotland.
Tricycle: Do you think that your growing interest in Buddhist practice will in any way threaten your ability to compete or lessen your desire to win?
Newby-Fraser: No. Because I’m really not all that consumed with winning. When I go to those long races, it’s not about winning. It’s more about giving up on myself.
Tricycle: Giving up on yourself?
Newby-Fraser: There is a certain feeling that you strive for—effortlessness. You are cruising along and it’s effortless. That’s what I go after. I don’t need to be concerned about where someone else is. If I can get to the point of effortlessness, both physically and mentally, then I’m probably going to have a great race.
Tricycle: Now that you are on a break for a couple of months, do you continue to work out?
Newby-Fraser: I don’t have to train right now, but I do continue to run. I like to get up in the morning and go for a run. Running is the thing I like best.
Tricycle: It’s beyond enjoyment isn’t it? Aren’t you hooked on runner’s high?
Newby-Fraser: Oh, yes! But it’s not just that. Running is really a grounding experience. I love the fact that you can just put on your running shoes and walk out your door and start. With biking, have to worry about equipment and traffic; with swimming, you have to drive and find a pool, and then you get wet and sometimes cold.
Tricycle: Do you have a daily practice?
Newby-Fraser: Not sitting meditation, although I go for occasional weekend retreats and meet with the visiting lamas. But I do daily moving meditation. Being in my body completely as I run is a deep practice for me. I read the book about the monks of Mount Hei in Japan, and I know what it is to run twenty-five miles in a day. My practice of Buddhism is to keep a balance in my life. I also like to develop my concentration and ground myself by working in the garden. I spend a lot of time in the garden. I have a Buddha image there.
Tricycle: Do you find sitting meditation difficult?
Newby-Fraser: Very difficult. I will explore this further one day. I’m sure the space will come soon because I will be retiring from competition, and I’ll have the time and motivation to break through. But I still have a hard time sitting for an hour. I’m learning about the little tricks, the different cushions that keep you supported. But a lot of the problem is the inactivity of it.
Tricycle: Because you are such an active person?
Newby-Fraser: When I’m alone and running for, like, two and a half hours, I feel it is a meditation. Some of the races I do take me nine hours. I have nine hours with myself. Sure there is stuff going on, but there are stretches out there where you are—
Tricycle: In the zone?
Newby-Fraser: Yes, but it is also one long struggle with yourself.
Tricycle: Do you feel that same struggle when sitting? Is it your mind or your body which finds sitting the most painful?
Newby-Fraser: 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.”
Tricycle: You describe yourself as an “incredibly disciplined person.” You have all this training, and have cultivated habits of sticking to it. Does it strike you as a little odd that you find it hard to muster that discipline when it comes to sitting?
Newby-Fraser: 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.
Tricycle: Do you see sports, or triathalon in particular, as a path to enlightenment?
Newby-Fraser: 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.
Tricycle: How did you get injured?
Newby-Fraser: 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 over one hundred miles every week, 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.
Tricycle: How does Buddhism speak to you as a woman? Has it been a relevant factor in that way?
Newby-Fraser: 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, and so on, yet we are paid considerably less.
But 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.
Tricycle: What about the conflicts that must come with aggressive self-marketing?
Newby-Fraser: 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.
Tricycle: What are you planning to do after you retire from competition?
Newby-Fraser: 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.