The Road from Kona to an Ironman Arizona PR | Heather Jackson Reflects
My biggest take away from this season is that there is no perfect lead-in to a race, no magic formula for what will deliver a special day where everything comes together. I honestly thought that I had nailed my Kona lead-in this season: Wattie and I made our trek down to Tucson from Bend in mid-August and we went straight to work. I hit every single session I was given and saw numbers and times for splits or efforts that were better than I’d ever seen before. We had friends (thank you again Corbs, Bagg, VT, Purple Tiger, and Matty for the daily motivation, company, positivity and great camp environment!!!) come down this year, primarily to provide a great swim environment, which helped tremendously. I was swimming the best I ever have in the month of September. Most importantly, in my head/mentally, I felt motivated, inspired, and ready to push every single day of the eight weeks. I think that resulted from our approach to the entire season: having a pretty laid-back start to the year and building all the way through until Kona prep began. I felt more ready to hit that final block hard than I’d ever felt before. In prior Kona lead-ins, I’ve had random blocks of two or three days where I was just over it. I would be ready for Kona to be there so that I could get it over with and have an off-season. That didn’t happen at all in the eight weeks before this year’s Kona. I also didn’t have one single hiccup, which was new. In 2016 (the year I got third in Kona), I got sick midway through the final block. I could feel it coming, and so we took two days completely off and then another two days of very light training. Just moving, really. Last year, I hit a couple different speed bumps: food poisoning one night, which meant the entire next day off and then a lighter day or two, and then another brush with sickness where I took a complete day off and then a lighter day the next day. So for both 2016 and 2017, I thought my preparation hadn’t been perfect because I didn’t hit all of my training. I also didn’t do as much overall training volume in 2016 and 2017 as I did during this lead in, so in my head, I felt that this year’s Kona prep was incredible and was sure to lead to a great race day.
We flew over the Tuesday before race week in order to get settled, get over any travel issues, make sure my equipment was all set, and get most of the pre-race media interviews out of the way before race week. Usually I get to Kona and step off the plane and I can’t believe it’s here: my favorite couple of weeks of the year! This year, that spark didn’t seem to be there. I just felt tired. I literally fell asleep every day in the final two weeks before the race. I am a BIG napper, but usually only during the end of big blocks of training and then I come around. When I taper for a race, I usually take a nap in the first few days of lighter training/the taper, but by day three or four, I’ve come around and I am raring to go. So having arrived in Kona the Tuesday before race week, 12 days before the race, I knew I was in BIG trouble when I couldn’t keep my eyes open at 2 pm the day before the race and fell into a 45-minute nap. My coach and I are still working through where we could have shifted things, at what point, etc. but most everyone who is reading this probably saw the race unfold, so I’m not going to go into the actual race in Kona. I will just say that I felt flat—I had no spark in me, and I just felt off the entire day. I did not put together the race that I felt I could have given my training and the progress I had made in swimming, biking, and running.
Anyone who has had a bad race or a bad day in any sport or event you’ve dedicated so much time and effort into will relate to what I’m about to describe: sadness, frustration, confusion, anger, tears. I’ve had off-days in the past at races where I know exactly what I wish I had done, or what I would have changed. The weird thing about Kona was that I was just kind of confused. I couldn’t process for at least a week where we had gone wrong. I had come in SO fit and so mentally prepared to leave it all out there and it was one of the worst races I’ve ever had. I am NOT saying it was one of my worst races because of the end result/my placement by any means—I mean it was one of my worst days in terms of the effort I was able to put out on the day compared to the training and progress I had seen leading in. I was so confused what had happened. During this first week following Kona I didn’t know what I was going to do, if I would race again or not in 2018. I signed up for Ironman Arizona but wasn’t sure I could handle—mostly mentally—toeing another start line.
Following Kona, I did NOTHING until the following weekend. We were in Kona for a few days after and then flew back to Bend. The weekend following Kona Wattie and I rode our gravel bikes for a couple of hours, getting off the grid onto the dirt roads and trails around home. I still couldn’t sense if I could mentally come around for another Ironman, but I certainly knew I didn’t want to end 2018 on my Kona performance. In the end, I committed to Arizona after another week in Bend that included a couple of ninety minute gravel rides, three swims of about 2k, and a couple of 45-minute jogs: so not much training at all. I also focused on fully recovering from my race in Kona to make sure physically I could be ready for AZ. To be fair, I would say that I only ran about 16 solid miles of the marathon in Kona, so my legs were not as damaged as running a solid full marathon, or even as damaged as some of my final few long training runs prior to Kona. But I was still using my MarcPro every day for any of the time I wasn’t out on my gravel bike to keep blood flowing, coupled with lots of stretching and foam rolling and taking lots of epsom salt baths.
The temps dropping and the breweries tempting, Wattie and I flew back to Tucson for the final three weeks leading into Arizona. After getting back down to Tucson, my coach put the final three-week block of the season into Training Peaks. Without getting into too many details because this would turn into a whole book, haha, I will just say that this training block was very “loose.” To be perfectly honest, I was not motivated to train. I had trained harder than I ever had in my life before Kona and had a horrible day. So each day in this block was a battle to just get the training done. I wasn’t in it mentally. I was just going through the motions to keep my body moving and keep my fitness up but I really wasn’t motivated by Ironman Arizona itself. I was motivated to make up for such a bad day in Kona. I felt I had let everyone down: my sponsors, my family and friends, my coach, so I was doing the training and physically working hard and hitting numbers but wasn’t really that into it. I had left everything I had in Kona.
During Ironman Arizona race week, it hit me that I was actually about to do another Ironman. Now I started to get super nervous. I couldn’t get what had happened in Kona out of my head and thought it was going to happen again. I kept picturing another horrible race and totally embarrassing myself. On top of these feelings, I woke up Saturday— the day before the race!—with a full-blown head cold. I had a major headache and coughed up some odd green phlegm. Wattie and I earnestly discussed pulling the plug, but we decided to see how I was when I woke up race morning. I didn’t get out of bed all Saturday except for an interview I had to go do.
Race morning I woke up to more green phlegm and a headache but nothing too terrible. I thought about Mike Krezza, the firefighter who was killed during his final big ride in preparation for AZ. He would give anything to be toeing the line and I wasn’t going to race because of a minor head cold? No.
I will refrain from a full-blown description of the race itself, as most people may have watched it. I can confidently say that it was the best-executed race of my triathlon career. I had a solid swim (for me) in 57:30, which could have probably been about 30 seconds quicker as I was swimming with Skye Moench and Christen Brown until about the final 1000meters, where I got a nasty calf cramp in the freezing cold water. I honestly thought I was going to have to stop swimming and tread water for a kayak, but I was able to stop kicking on that side and it subsided after about five minutes.
Onto my Argon 18, I went to work executing my plan and only my plan. I wasn’t concerned with the four girls up the road—I just watched my Wahoo ELEMNT Bolt to drink my Herbalife24 CR7 Drive every five minutes. I got two and a half bottles down by the 60-minute mark, exactly what I was aiming for. I made it back into town for the start of the second lap in 1:33 and hit the lap button on my Bolt. The first lap had felt easy and very controlled. “Okay, time to pick it up just a fraction for this 1:30ish lap,” I thought. I stayed on my fueling and also had to pee, which is a great sign of hydration, and also part of the plan. I made it back to the turn around in 1:32, so just a bit quicker! Time for the third lap, which was when it was time to turn it on. I picked up my effort level even more knowing I only had an hour and a half left to go, but I also stayed on my fueling, something I didn’t do a good job at in Kona. I made it back to transition feeling fueled and not too thrashed (I’ve definitely over-biked before in past races), but I had biked solid. By that I mean that I put a solid effort in. My main goal in the Ironman distance has been to run a faster marathon than I’d run in the past (I had been targeting a 3:00 goal pace) but I wanted to do that off biking well: not purposely biking easier in order to run better. My Ironman AZ bike time: 4:35
On the run I went to work on the first lap pretending that I only had a half-marathon to run. I told myself it was like racing Oceanside 70.3 or any other half and I should just get the legs moving fast until they come around. It took about five miles or so to settle into a groove and I just started ticking off two-mile intervals. At this point, Carrie Lester was still ahead of me by a couple of minutes but I was just trying to focus on my race and my pacing. I must have nailed my Herbalife24 nutrition on the bike because I had absolutely no stomach issues the entire run and didn’t have to use the porta-potties once, which has NEVER happened. My HOKA ONE ONE’s were amazing: so light and quick. And I had support crew ALL over the course—thank you so much to each and every one of you for breaking up every single mile with a friendly face to see. I made it through the first lap sticking to my own run pacing and then continued to feel solid through the second lap, something that has also never happened. I usually fade around the 18-20mile mark, which I think I did slightly, but nothing crazy. In the end: 3:00:49. FINALLY!!!! I couldn’t believe it!!! I had reached the goal I had been targeting for 2 years. Crazy what sticking to your own personal race plan and focusing on what you and only you can do! 🙂
If you’ve never seen the Ironman Arizona course, I’ll describe the run course: 80% of it is a cement path, so the second I stopped moving at the finish line, I knew I would barely be walking for at least a week. On top of a harsh course, my left calf was still completely knotted/sore from the cramp I got in the swim. I spent the three days after the race rotating between hot epsom salt baths and elevating my legs with my Marc Pro on. I could barely walk so at least my MarcPro was keeping the blood flowing. I also slept using the Marc Pro for the first three days after the race just to try and keep some blood flow through the night! The end result? Although my legs WERE trashed, by the end of the week following Arizona I felt like I’d returned mostly to normal. It’s really nice to have a tool that allows you to recover while you’re basically doing nothing (except watching House Hunters or catching up on work for the business).
It’s now been about a month since Ironman Arizona and so a month of unstructured training and trying to take a complete mental break from the sport of triathlon, something that can be pretty tough to do. I did absolutely nothing for the first week after the race and enjoyed the Thanksgiving holiday with our friends and family in Bend, OR. The second week I did three or four short jogs, three or four hot yoga classes with my Mom, and a cold snowy gravel ride with Wattie. The third week after IMAZ, I got back into the pool a couple of times for 2-3km, as well as three or four jogs and a couple of spins. All of these were when I wanted to do them and for however long I felt like. The “off-season” break can be a tricky one, as the season is fresh in our minds and we can be tempted to want to get back into a schedule to work towards new goals we may have in mind. I’ve definitely woken up to those days over the last week or so motivated and ready to train, but there are also days that I wake up and want to do absolutely nothing. I don’t even want to think about swimming, biking, or running. That’s how I know I’m not fully mentally recharged yet and it will only make it worse to force anything right now. Right now is key to listening to your own mind and body and knowing when you are ready to fully commit again.
Currently, Wattie and I are in San Diego visiting our Wattie Ink. headquarters before we head up to spend a few days at Herbalife this week. Then we will continue on to Sacramento to visit a new Argon 18 shop at the end of the week before making our way back up to Bend for the holidays. The goal is to fully recharge this winter with lots of skate skiing and snowboarding. If Mt. Bachelor gets hit, you will find me on the mountain this month, as we missed a snowy winter last year having stayed down in Tucson. I just want to say the biggest thanks to all of you for reading, and supporting, and hope that everyone has a wonderful holiday season.