Jenn is one of the hardest working, dedicated, and disciplined athletes we’ve had the privilege of coaching. Her journey to a Kona-qualifying performance is a textbook study on continuously working to improve…everything. Jenn has been chasing this goal for years and simply did. not. give. up.
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. After ten years in the sport, eight Ironmans and three not-quite-Kona-qualifying podium finishes it was time to try something different if I was to outright qualify for Kona. I turned to Coach Patrick for advice on course selection. Texas? I gave him the virtual raised eyebrow. I’d never even considered it. A swim in muddy water, flat bike course, hot and humid run, plus the magnified logistics of flying put the race squarely outside of my comfort zone. Well, that’s where the growth happens, right? And so, before WTC could say “cha-ching!” Ironman #9 was to be Texas. Let’s rodeo.
The build to the start line was, as it always seems to be, a series of great learning opportunities. I’d penciled out a pretty aggressive plan that added a lot of running and volume in general. All was ticking along nicely until early February when I truly struggled to juggle life, family, a full time job and training. I often felt I was falling short as what looked good on paper just wasn’t happening. Turns out I’m a good juggler (who knew?!) and by April I was back on track and finding peace with letting some workouts go. The silver lining is as I pencil out my next build, I know more clearly what my limits are. I’ll start from what ACTUALLY got done in this build and work backwards from there with the confidence that it is, indeed enough!
Soon enough race week was upon us and I found myself leaving the comfort zone of the beautiful Pacific Northwest for *ahem* lovely Houston, Texas. I spent the week bustling about with Steve and Heidi as we checked off the usual registration, reconnaissance, workouts and race prep amid a few sleepless nights. Mark flew in Thursday night, donned his Husband Hero cape and went through my bike ‘till it was purring nicely. Finally, a good night’s sleep, bike check in and it was go time!
Swim 2.4 Miles: 1:10:20
The swim course had been changed two days before the race due to water quality with little impact to my approach. It was still going to be a swim in warm muddy water, I was still unsure of how my time would fare in my first non-wetsuit Ironman swim and I was still going to give it my best! The rolling start was no drama-mama and we were off with just a touch of body contact to keep things interesting.
About halfway back I inhaled roughly two-thirds of Lake Woodlands. “Just keep swimming.” I told myself. Nope, my lungs were gurgling. “You’re fine!” I told myself. “No you’re not!” said the brain that wasn’t getting enough oxygen. I took a few strokes of breaststroke and tried to cough most of it up. A kayaker eyed me warily. “Keep moving forward, keep moving forward”. Eventually the lungs cleared enough that I could carry on and by the swim exit I’d returned most of Lake Woodlands to the lake.
They say you can’t win it on the swim but you can lose it. Seems this result fell right into that category. It wasn’t embarrassingly slow or going to put me out of contention but it wasn’t exactly stellar. I’ll take it.
Bike 94? 95? Miles: 4:10:01
After months of drama surrounding the bike course, on race day we were left with a 94 (95?) mile, 84 turn course. Naturally I was bummed that the leg that is considered my strength was the one was shortened. Swims get cancelled occasionally, bike courses get shortened but geez, why don’t they ever shorten the run?!? My bike power was about the same as the prior year but I was about 8-10# lighter on race day so that bode well for a strong split. A reconnaissance drive had produced no epiphanies except for some car sickness and affirmation that Steve and Heidi are two of the funniest people on the planet. So, with sore-from-belly-laughs abs it was time to channel Zen mode and let it be what it would be.
Coming out of the swim my heart rate was very high, as is typical. The race plan called for holding power at about 160w until the heart rate came down to about 140-145 BPM then build to 170w. I knew I’d have to concede a few heartbeats to the heat but was confident my legs were strong enough to push the wattage.
Quickly enough the entire field was getting into a groove and it was clear the course wasn’t nearly as choppy as it looked on paper. I had to brake into about ½ of the corners but was able to stay aero most of the time and the bike was humming along like a dream. I was getting in most of the nutrition I’d intended to and staying hydrated as the day heated up. I rolled into T2 a full 20’ earlier than anticipated!. Even though my bike split was very high in the female field (I even beat quite a few pros!) I honestly didn’t feel like I overcooked it and was looking forward to the run.
Run 26.2 Miles: 3:56:05
Although the run got the job done, there are lots of opportunities for improvement and lessons learned. Coming off the bike with an average HR of 142 I should have really capped the start of the run about there. Instead, I let it stay at about 148 which is where it was after I came out of transition. I felt FANTASTIC. If I was a betting person I’d have bet on being able to hold that for 26.2 miles. Good thing I’m not!
Yes, it was hot but I’d been there before and knew what to do after the Goldilocks double of 2015. That year I’d done Ironman Coeur d’Alene which was wayyyy too hot at about 108 degrees and Ironman Canada which was wayyy too cold with pouring ass rain on the bike. Suffice it to say I had a plan, regardless of the weather! I’d enter each aid station starting with the two cups of water I needed to keep on my hydration plan. Next was two cups of ice that went down the top and the shorts. Finally as I left each aid station I’d grab sponges or more ice or water and douse myself as best I could. I wasn’t comfortable, but I wasn’t overheating so I put that in the “win” column.
The run is three loops and starting the second loop I realized that my caffeine tabs had been soaked by all the dousing and no longer existed. Also, my stomach was starting to revolt which is typical but highly uncomfortable, to put it mildly. I took a 90” pit stop in a port-a-potty. Time to call an audible. I started calling for Espresso GU (caffeinated!) at the aid stations with mixed success. When I found a volunteer that had them, I’d take a couple which saw me through to the next scheduled feeding. My stomach still wasn’t happy, but I wasn’t throwing up so I stuck to the schedule albeit with a new product.
By mile 18 it was starting to cool down a bit and I walked a few steps at each aid station to gather GU and regroup. In Endurance Nation we call mile 18 “The Line” and it’s where we anticipate the race to get really tough. This race was no exception. At first the cooler weather and even a spritz of rain was welcome, but then things got downright cray cray. The wind picked up. Rain started coming sideways. At one point I was running along the canal and looked up just in time to see lightning strike at the end of the canal as if in the photo of a perfect storm suitable for framing. The weather data shows it went from just over 90 degrees to 68 in an hour with wind gusts approaching 45 MPH.
By about mile 23 or so things were just ridiculous. We were running through 4” of standing water at times. Across the canal I saw a guy running and thought “Man, he’s in some tough weather.” then I realized I was in that weather too. Then it started to hail. The last aid station had essentially blown away and I heard someone say “I think they’re calling the race!”
I looked at my watch and I only had 1.5 miles to go. I can do anything for 1.5 miles, I told myself. I think. Right? I channeled my inner Lieutenant Dan with an “Is that all you got?” and kept moving forward.
I made the final turn to the finish line and it was a blustery ghost town. The barriers had been blown down and the clock was stopped. There were a few volunteers to catch me and I fell into the arms of what I imagine would be the perfect grandfather type. Strong, comforting and most importantly, WITH space blanket!
I looked up and two spectators had appeared: Mark and Heidi! There is no photo or video as the camera was down and Mike Riley had wisely taken cover. Although Mike didn’t call my name, he did post a photo of the finish line at the precise moment Mark and Heidi came running to greet me! That’s Mark running and we can just make out Heidi’s elbow to the left.
Immediately after the finish we had no idea how I’d placed. At last check I’d been second, but we didn’t know if that had held. After getting back to the hotel and warming up, the results came up and it looked like I’d held second. Knowing it was crazy town out there with trains and a storm, I refreshed the results occasionally until we left for the awards ceremony the next day but they never changed. Once at the ceremony we learned that the organizers were taking the time at the timing mat that the tenth person in each age group had passed at the time the storm hit. They used that time as the race time for Kona slots and age group awards. Of course they didn’t SHARE that data with us until our age groups were actually called on stage. I tried not to be nervous. My stomach was still churning. I queued up with the other ladies in 40-44 and held my breath. Finally, Mike Reilly came through. Yep, I was second!!!
Reflections and Moving Forward
A journey of this magnitude doesn’t happen without immense support. Mark sees day in and day out what it takes to make this possible. He’s integral in my success in almost every way. From joining me on swim dates, keeping my bike in tip-top shape to Sherpaing long runs on his mountain bike – he has almost as much time invested in the sport as I do. I truly could not do it without him. Thank you Mark – we did it!
Additionally I’m lucky enough to have a family who follow (and worry about!) me carefully. Even my “frugal” brother blocked out the Kona dates at his condo on Ali’i drive just in case I qualified without telling me so I wouldn’t feel undue pressure. My dear friends who have put up with more than a few tears, especially this season and my two tribes, Raise the Bar and Endurance Nation who believed in me even when I didn’t. THANK YOU!!!
How do I feel? Well, 10 years ago I was an 80# overweight hockey player. Now I’m an Ironman World Championship Kona qualifier. Surreal is an understatement! Onward to Kona!