Meet The Ultra Woman

Duane Thomas put the pompous Super Bowl in its place back in 1972 when the moody Dallas Cowboys running back asked, “If it’s the ultimate game, why are they playing it next year?” Katie Paulson, a 41-year-old Dallas attorney, is not big on the NFL. Tom Landry and his fedora may be turning in his grave, but Paulson isn’t even particularly fond of the Cowboys. Says the long-distance triathlete, “I don’t plan my Sunday afternoon by what time the Cowboys come on.”Yet she can relate to Thomas’ famous line.

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Nine times Paulson has crossed an Ironman-distance finish line, slicing her time down from 13:44 to 11:37. She has raced every WTC Ironman North America event – save Hawaii – and she flirted with reaching Kona, coming within two spots of qualifying at Arizona in 2006.

But in all the times she has thrust her arms skyward jogging down finishing chutes, something was missing.

“People talk about when they finish an Ironman feeling a rush of emotion, feeling they conquered the world, that it’s the end-all, be-all,” says Paulson. “I just haven’t felt that experience yet, that I left everything out there.”

Come Thanksgiving weekend, Paulson will chase that sensation yet again. Her quest will take her to the Big Island, for an event called the Ultraman World Championships. Three days and 320 miles by water, bike and foot.

Day 1: a 6.2-mile swim, followed by a 90-mile ride around the southern tip of the island, up Volcanoes National Park. Elevation gain: 7,600 feet.

Day 2: a 171.4-mile ride. Elevation gain: 8,600 feet.

Day 3: a double marathon, 52.4 miles.

Participants face a 12-hour deadline each day. To minimize the impact on locals, the Ultraman field normally is limited to 35 athletes, accepted after submitting an application. Because of the demand, this year’s field has been lifted to 40. Entry fee: $1,000. In the past 16 years, 293 people have finished the race.

“I want to be one of those people that have done that race,” says Paulson. “It’s not like Ironman, where 2,000 people every weekend become an Ironman. It’s out there. It’s definitely fringe.”

One other item about Paulson: she’s no lithe, Natascha Badmann clone. She’s six feet tall. Weighs 170 pounds.

“I’ve tried starvation diets,” says Paulson. “But when you’re training for Ironmans pretty much year-round, it’s hard not to eat. I’ve tried the protein thing and no-carb thing, Atkins, some South Beach stuff. I’ve just come to the conclusion it is what it is. This is the body I’m stuck with. It’s just big. It’s not fat. It’s just big.”

Playing basketball at Illinois State wasn’t enough, so Paulson joined a sorority, plus did research for a professor. Earning a chemistry degree wasn’t enough. Knowing she needed an advanced degree to bump up her paycheck, Paulson attended law school full-time at SMU and worked full-time.

“I like to have a full plate,” Paulson says. “I don’t like to be bored. Maybe I’m ADD, I don’t know.”

There is a limit to Paulson’s multi-tasking skills. Exercise was put on the back burner while juggling law school and working as the environmental manager at Lennox International, a heating and air conditioning company. Paulson, who’s single, now serves as an attorney for Lennox – specializing in reviewing contracts. A friend kept a similar hectic schedule while attending law school and likewise she gained a pound or two.

“We’re 30, getting kind of lackadaisical, drinking martinis, studying the last three years,” Paulson told her friend. “We probably need to get off the couch.”

They decided to attend a recruiting meeting for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team-in-Training triathlon program. Work forced the other woman to back out. Paulson showed up to the meeting, planning not to commit.

Then came the heart-tugging video of bald kids battling cancer. Then came an Athena-sized woman giving her triathlon testimonial. Wiping tears from her eyes and swallowing the lump in her throat, Paulson signed up.

That was Spring 2001. She completed an Olympic-distance race four months later. Come May 2002, she finished a half-Iron-distance event. By October 2002, she knocked off an Ironman. From July 2005 to September 2006, Paulson started four Ironman events, finishing three of them. Can you say type A?

“I’ve proven that anybody can get off the couch and do an Ironman,” Paulson says. “I totally believe anybody can do an Ironman, if they commit to training. I’m not certain anybody can do an Ultraman. I’m not certain I can do it.”

Ultraman was created in 1983 because three men – two from the Big Island, one in California – decided that completing Ironman Hawaii had lost its luster. From 12 finishers in its 1978 debut, the race swelled to 720 finishers in 1983 – thanks, no doubt, to Julie Moss’ crawling finish captured by ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”

“OK, people have done this,” current Ultraman race director Jane Bockus says the original organizers were thinking. “What do we do next?”

San Diegan Mike Rouse’s endurance resume includes 200-plus marathons, 43 50-mile ultras, 17 100-mile ultras, four 24-hour runs and 11 Ironman-distance triathlons. He’s finished the Ultraman the past three years.

“It’s spread over three days, which is kind of a Catch 22,” says Rouse, 56, the director of sales for Zoot Sports. “You stop and sleep six or seven hours. It becomes very difficult mentally. Your body gets so stiff. By the third day you are devastated physically. You’re at the bottom… and you’ve got to run a double marathon.”

As to crash-and-burn tales, Rouse recounts last year when another San Diegan, Trevor King, then 27, committed an eating blunder. King planned to rely strictly on energy bars and a drink supplied by a sponsor. Rouse, who devours hot dogs throughout the event, said King needed to eat more solids. King passed.

Through two days, King was fine. Running with Rouse through 10 miles of the double marathon, King complained that Rouse’s pace wasn’t fast enough. “Dude, there’s 42 miles to go,” Rouse warned. Rouse caught him at about mile 19. “I’m still going the same pace. How about you?” Rouse needled.

Rouse finished the run in 9 hours, 40 minutes. He plopped into a chair, got a massage, showered, hung out at the finish line. With 30 minutes remaining in the 12-hour deadline, Rouse drove on the course to try to coax King home. It was too late. “Literally, it was like a 90-year-old man with a walker,” Rouse recalls. “His feet were moving about six inches.” Rouse said it took King three hours to cover the last three miles. He pulled a DNF, finishing the 52 miles in 14 hours – two hours past the deadline.

Katie Paulson worries. Worries some wayward driver might send her crumpling to the asphalt before leaving for Hawaii. Worries she might crash during the race. Worries about mechanical failures. Worries her training might teeter toward injury. Worries her understanding bosses might hand her a pink slip.

“So much can go wrong,” she says.

Yet asked if she has enjoyed the journey so far, she says, “Absolutely. It’s back to the training. I like to push my body.”

A sample week of Paulson’s August workout log:

Monday: an 80-minute evening bike ride.

Tuesday: a 40-minute morning run; an 80- to 120-minute evening swim.

Wednesday: off.

Thursday: a 40- to 50-minute morning run; a 70- to 80-minute evening bike ride.

Friday: a 40-minute morning run; an optional 40- to 90-minute evening swim.

Saturday: a 6- to 8-hour bike ride.

Sunday: a 2- to 3-hour morning run; an evening swim or run.

Paulson’s longest bike ride preparing for Ultraman has been 145 miles – compared to 100 miles for an Ironman. Her longest runs have been two 50K ultras – compared to 22 miles for an Ironman. Logging the training during a Texas summer when triple-digit temperatures are routine requires exiting the door before dawn for long rides and running into the night.

Her body has held up well. She suffered slightly torn cartilage in her right knee, got an MRI, was told to stop running until the results came back, ran 16 miles anyway in the one-week interval and has been fine, since slipping an elastic brace around the joint.

Which makes you understand why her friends say Paulson can suffer more than anybody they know.

“I don’t like pain,” explains Paulson. “I consider the Olympic distance to be pain. I consider long distance to be suffering.”

One late September weekend called for the 145-mile bike ride on Saturday, followed by two Sunday runs: 12 miles in the morning, nine miles in the evening. Asked how it feels to know she has conditioned her body to withstand such pounding, Paulson says, “It feels great. At the same time, I question myself. I only ran 21 miles. How am I ever going to finish 52 miles if I feel like this after 20? It’s good and bad at the same time.”

You make sacrifices when you wander into the unknown, stretching your mind and body like taffy.

“I haven’t been on a date since I don’t know when,” Paulson says. “My friends say I don’t open myself up much to dating. If I’m not biking, running or swimming, then I’m working or sleeping. I don’t go to bars, although that’s not where I want to meet somebody anyway. Where to meet people? That thing I haven’t quite figured out yet.”

And?

“I haven’t opened my mail in a month,” she says. “Thank god I have a maid or I’d be living in squalor.”

Her goal in Hawaii?

“I hope to finish.”

To date, her tri career has been more quantity than quality. After Ultraman, she thinks that’ll change. Cut back the races. Inject more interval training. Qualify for Kona by 50. That’s the plan.

Unless …

There’s Internet chatter about a Deca Ironman next year in the United Kingdom, a 24.2-mile swim, 1,120-mile bike, topped by a 262-mile run.

Says Paulson, “I tried not to look at it so I’m not tempted.”

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