Heather Jackson Reflects on her Professional Kona Debut & Breakthrough 5th Place Finish
- Images Provided By - Nils Nilsen
I’m a little behind in getting some Kona thoughts down on paper. This is due to a variety of reasons but primarily because Wattie and I just got back from our honeymoon!!!! Yayyyyy. After wrapping up a few post-race sponsor obligations on Kona, Wattie and I enjoyed a relaxing, indulgent (lots of desserts and beer), non-triathlon five days on Oahu. Then, after two days worth of flights, we made it from Oahu back to where the final hours of training to prepare for Kona went down: Tucson, AZ. Ideally, our car and everything in it could have been magically transported north while we were in Kona and we could have flown directly home to Bend, Oregon to get straight to the pumpkin beers that I know are available at all 18 of our breweries. Pumpkin beer haters: don’t hate! You probably haven’t tried 10 Barrel’s Pumpkin:) But Tucson, when not in complete training lockdown, has proven pretty cool and coming back here has brought my Kona 2015 journey full circle in a way.
Rewind back to a Saturday in early September as Wattie and I were layering up to embark on a six hour ride in Bend, Oregon. The temps weren’t THAT cold, granted, but Bend takes awhile to warm up in the day so when you leave early for a ride (7 or 8am), you start out in 40 degree temps. It eventually warmed up that day (think 3 or 4pm to the low 70s) but for the 6hours we rode in the morning, I couldn’t once get warm, not even doing my 30 minute hard efforts. The winds howled all day (great Kona prep!) but there were no positives in my head- I couldn’t feel my hands or feet and was just miserable thinking about how this wasn’t like Kona conditions at all. I wasn’t practicing my hydration/nutrition very well because I was too cold to drink… wah wah wah! Was I being a baby? Probably. But in my head, all I could think about was how I wasn’t doing everything I possibly could to get ready for Kona. Had we layered and layered our clothing? Sure. Had I been sitting in the sauna after my swims to “get hot”? Sure. But I did all these things before IM Texas earlier in May and had a catastrophic meltdown in the heat. Deep down, I knew doing all these little things really weren’t the best for my Kona prep. This was my biggest race of the year- the World Championships. It had taken me two years- 2 months out for injury, coming back from the injury, and then 3 Ironman races to qualify just to make it to the start line of Kona. This was the race I had planned my whole season around so I wanted to give everything I had towards the biggest race of my season. I wanted to make sure I was doing all of the little things right.
That Saturday afternoon after the freezing cold ride and an even colder run off, I got on VRBO and found a condo rental in Tucson. It was the only hot place (temps were reading in the 100s everyday) that I’ve been to before and know all of the run and ride routes. There would be no wasting time trying to find where the best training was. Our friend The Hoff (Ben Hoffman) was going to be there training too so I thought I could hook up with his swim group. Cliff English, my coach, lives there too so he would be there for some of the final big sessions. I booked the condo rental, we packed up our house, our car, and Wattie and I made the 18hour drive down to Tucson.
Fast forward through four weeks of hot, windy training in Tucson, a week and a half in Kona pre-race, race day, a week and a half in Hawaii post-race, a few days of travel, and Wattie and I are back to Tucson. The race, the Ironman World Championships, was a couple of Saturdays ago now and it’s just starting to sink in that I earned 5th place. This result was beyond anything I could have imagined. No, I didn’t win. I was not even top 3…but 5th place for me was way beyond my goal of earning a top 10 finish, so that was a like a “victory” to me. I fully attribute it to the incredible team around me that supports me. Thank you Wattie, Cliff, Peter Leavitt, Mel Hartigan, and all my sponsors who helped make my final training block in Tucson great with the sag, product shipments, emails of support, etc. Thank you to my friends and family and fans for all the notes of motivation, inspiration, and support (and kitten pictures) that kept me going each day. Being back in Tucson reminds me of all these little things that happened prior to Kona that made a 5th place finish possible for me.
Regarding “all the little things” - a majority of those things are all thanks to Wattie and I dedicate my performance in Kona to him, without whom my race would not have gone as it did. Thank you Wattie for driving 90% of the long drive down to Tucson so I could stretch my legs out; for going to the grocery store and cooking for me in the weeks prior so I could have my feet up or be stretching; for having my bike ready 2 weeks out from Kona for full testing on my final two 6hour rides; for taking care of all of my pre-Kona sponsor and media engagements very strictly so that everything was done by the Wednesday of race week; for carrying extra bottles in your jersey and on your bike for me to practice my nutrition even when it meant you finished a six hour ride with no drink! In the lead up to Kona, I would say: “Oh, it’s not that big of a deal, I can run to the grocery store.” Wattie would stop me and say no, get off your feet and on the couch now. To have that kind of support is indescribable. It made a 5th in Kona possible and I could never thank Wattie enough.
During those 4 weeks in Tucson, Wattie also took care of all the little things regarding the equipment I would use for Kona. I am so grateful to Cannondale for offering me the opportunity to have a custom-painted bike, as I am to Knight Composites for offering me custom-painted wheels, and Herbalife for the custom-painted helmet. These little touches of support don’t just happen overnight. It takes weeks of correspondence, organizing the shipping of frames and parts, the actual painting- thank you JoAnn Bortles, and then building the entire bike- thank you Wattie! Thank you to my incredible sponsors for making that happen weeks prior to Kona- Cannondale, Knight, Shimano, ISM Seat, Speedfil.… My new Cannondale was waiting at my coach Cliff’s condo upon our arrival to Tucson, so I was able to test out the bike and have it completely dialed to how I would ride it on race day. I rode it with my race wheels all of my training sessions in those final weeks. This was the same with my incredible, custom Wattie Ink. Contender Tri Shorts and Contender Aero Jersey, hand-made at the Wattie Ink. factory and shipped to me for testing weeks prior. For over a month, I trained and trained in my race kit and on race equipment and so come race day, it just felt like another training day to me.
Similarly, Wattie helped organize all of my sponsor and media engagements weeks out from Kona. I had a spreadsheet of my meetings and/or interviews and Wattie had every single one of them finished by Wednesday morning, so I had nothing besides the pro meeting on Thursday and bike check in on Friday in the final few days before the race. I was able to stay in our condo with my feet up. Again, I can’t thank my incredible sponsors for understanding and helping with this. Kona is probably the biggest week in long-distance triathlon in terms of athletes being in the same place with all of their sponsors and so it’s usually the time most want to capitalize on doing videos or photo shoots. Unfortunately, it’s also the week athletes shouldn't be out in the sun and on their feet all day. Thank you to Herbalife who sent a video crew out to Tucson two weeks prior to Kona to do some filming. Thank you to GoPro who filmed the Thursday, Friday and Saturday prior to race week. And thank you to all of my other sponsors for keeping things to early in the week and so brief. I’m truly grateful and it contributed to race day more than you might realize.
Being back in Tucson reminds me of all of these little things that were taken care of prior to even getting to Kona. The support/sag from Wattie and Cliff on my long days- loops and loops of Pistol Hill followed by TT efforts up Mt. Lemmon. It reminds me of Wattie carrying three bottles of Herbalife in his jersey and three on his bike during miles and miles down the river trail, up Craycroft, along Sunrise…Wattie constantly drilling into me everything I’ve learned from Jesse Kropelnicki about fueling: “Are you drinking enough? You haven’t had to pee yet…Keep drinking!” Wattie handing me bottles at exactly every mile during my long 20+ mile training runs. It reminds me of daily text messages of motivational quotes and inspiration from my friend and huge supporter Ron Johnson. Tucson is where Wattie, Cliff and I had various meetings, discussions, dinners, etc. of the upcoming race- how to approach it, my race strategy, etc. Tucson reminds me of all of this and makes me smile. I have a newfound respect and love for this town. The training in Tucson is hard. It was in the 100s for most of the 3 weeks prior to Kona, the winds blow from all directions, the roads are rough and bumpy and not forgiving near the end of 120mile rides. Training here got me ready physically for Kona and I am grateful for that. All of the other little things were taken care of here as well, little things that added up to an incredible Kona 2015 journey for me and I think of Tucson fondly for that.
I’ll try to keep the following brief. Regarding my actual race in Kona:
Uggggg! So frustrating. I know I can have a better swim than I showed in Kona. I essentially swam with people around me for about 4minutes and then an hour alone. I found some hips to draft off of, some feet to chase, and then all of a sudden everyone was gone! I settled into a long, lonely hour of swimming, hating life and just trying to stay positive. I pictured my long solo swims in Tucson and just kept turning my arms over and moving forward. Fortunately for me, the day could only get better from there.
The bike played out pretty much as I had imagined it for weeks and months prior to race day, so there really were no surprises for me. I knew I would be out of the water way back (although I didn’t think that far), the first 20 miles or so would seem a bit fast (it did) as groups settled in and then it was time to ride my own race. I definitely played the bike very conservatively at the start and then I realized that it was possibly too conservative. I was in a group of girls and this was slowing things down as no one really wanted to go to the front. Everyone was just kind of pacing off each other (legally), which happened to be way slower than the girls 15 minutes up the road in the lead group.
Eventually, I decided to pass the group and pick it up for a bit so as not lose anymore time. I made the left at Kawaihae and then veered right to start the climb to Hawi. I put my head down and knew I could make up time on both the climb and descent. I pictured my training rides of TTing up and then back down Mt. Lemmon in Tucson. I passed girls on both and was back down in Kawaihae making the right onto the Queen K for the final stretch. Again, as imagined for weeks and months, the final 30 miles of the bike were the worst. No matter how much you can prepare, sure enough, that final stretch can be quite a downer. It’s hot, you are over being on the bike, you are riding straight into a headwind, and all you can think about is “Really?!?! I have to run a marathon now?” I definitely had some low points in that final stretch but tried to stay focused on keeping pressure on the pedals and my fueling.
The whole bike I just drank and drank and drank. I started out with five bottles total of Herbalife CR7 Drive- two on my Cannondale frame, one in my Speedfil front bottle, and two bottles in my Wattie Ink. Aero jersey (one of the main reasons I have switched to a jersey for full distance racing). I was through two bottles of Herbalife before the first aid station so I could toss the two bottles from my jersey pockets. The rest of the bike I would grab as many bottles as I could at each aid station, getting in approximately two bottles of electrolytes an hour and using the water only bottles to keep myself drenched and cool the whole day. I took in my salt and a few gels and just. kept. drinking. This is what I had practiced in all of my long training rides and the entire bike leg I was just picturing the long loops of Pistol Hill in Tucson that Wattie and I had ridden over and over again.
I finally made it back to transition. It took about a mile to ease into the run and then my legs came around. It was just like all of my runs in Tucson. I pictured that I was back on the river trail ticking off the miles. I could hear Wattie every few miles yelling to drink and get ice. I was keeping my aero jersey wet constantly with water and ice sponges, and continuously pouring cups of ice down my jersey. This kept my core temp cool the entire run. After a few miles, I made a pass on a girl and I heard someone yell that I was in 10th place! I was in the top 10! This had been my goal coming into Kona and a few miles into the run, I had met my goal. Anything after this was going to be icing on the cake.
I got super excited! I was in the top 10! I had to control myself. I still had over 20miles to run. I think I passed one more girl along Ali’i drive and then made the climb up Palani onto the Queen K. As I had pictured over and over, this is when the race would really start. This is where positions would shift. My watch beeped, signaling I had gone through the 13th mile and I thought to myself, “Oh nice! Only a half marathon to go! Just like a 70.3!” Let me clarify- there were PLENTY of training days of long Sunday runs where the line of thinking was exactly the opposite: “Oh cr%$. 13 more miles!?!?!?! I can’t do that.” Fortunately, this didn’t happen in Kona. I picked it up a bit and just kept doing everything I had done in training: I grabbed cup after cup at every aid station- electrolytes in, water over the head, ice in my jersey and shorts, sponges over my head. Over and over and over all run. I passed a few girls in the Energy Lab and found myself back out on the Queen K heading towards town and the finish line. Only 4 miles to go, then 3… I kept charging as best I could. I’ve watched this race so many times and anything can happen. A girl up the road could have been walking, so I kept running as hard as I could. I wouldn’t end up passing any other girls as I descended down off the Queen K, down Palani and then towards Ali’i Dr. I made the right to head the quarter mile towards the finish line and it was everything I expected. The fans were screaming and cheering! I saw so many friends- Eurostar, Honey Badger, Karin and Dusty, Ron and Chela….Billy, Lauren and Kwait of Cannondale…Jesse Thomas…I saw them all but didn’t. I was in a bit of a daze as I rushed through the finish line (I was still picturing someone coming from behind and sprinting past me at the line). I saw Wattie and jumped into his arms. 5th place!
Such a MASSIVE congrats to Daniela Ryf for her dominating performance and taking the female victory. Also a congrats to Rachel Joyce, Liz Blatchford, and Michelle Vesterby for incredible races and to all of the other professional women for pushing each other all day! And a huge congrats to everyone who raced- it was an extremely hot day out there!
It’s crazy how you can focus so intently, be so disciplined, and put so much thought and energy towards one event or day or moment and then it’s over. Done. It’s really over already?!?! :) It’s such a huge build up for one day. But I walk away from my Kona 2015 journey with many lessons learned of what worked, where I need to focus, and even more motivation to improve in the upcoming years. I think about all the little things that went into my preparation. I went into Kona ready and knowing and believing I had done everything I possibly could have to prepare for that race. I had absolutely no excuses or anything we could have done differently or better. It was just up to me to execute to my physical capability and put it all together on race day, just like it was another training day with the same gear and equipment I use everyday. This was only possible because of the team around me and to them I am so grateful.
Another thank you again to my incredible sponsors for making this possible…for supporting me in the best possible way and believing in me as an athlete. I feel truly grateful for your support as a sponsor but just as much for your support as friends. Thank you to all of you who were there on race day and to those who sent texts or emails of good luck. Herbalife, Cannondale, Knight Composites, GoPro, Wattie Ink., Urban Design and Development, S7, BlueSeventy, ISM Seat, Speedfil, Fuelbelt, Oakley, Shimano, Rebound Physical Therapy…thank you so much.
Thank you to the people that deal with me on a daily basis:) Wattie- You make this journey possible and I could never thank you enough for that. I love you so much. To my friend and Coach, Cliff English- thank you for everything Cliff. It has been quite a journey and I know there’s a lot more to come. To my friend and doctor, Peter Leavitt- thanks Pete for all your support and belief in me…For always keeping me healthy and for dealing with my nonstop text questions about the slightest cough or sniffle… :) And Jay at Rebound who also fields my texts constantly about the slightest niggle- thanks Jay! To my Mom and Dad- I love you. Thank you for being there for me on race day and always. Devon and Lil Chris, thank you for the meals and massage work! And Bobby and Biffy who weren’t there, I got kitty pics from both of you the night before!!!! LOL. To my friends who made the trip over for race day (Ron+Chela, Rachel, Bagg+VT, Doris, Colleen, Eurostar, Honeybadger, Dusty+Karin, Ryan, Brennan…and everyone else, I apologize for not naming everyone here)- thank you all for being out there cheering like crazy! Even if I didn’t acknowledge it at the time, I heard you! To my friends who weren’t there but sent notes of good luck and/or kitty pics: thanks to all of you!!! To my friends and training partners in Bend- thank you for all your support and help (especially swim friends!!!) all summer. I missed you in the final month of training! But thank you for your help all year. Jesse Kropelnicki- Thank you for all of your nutrition help and helping me dial it in for the Ironman distance. Thank you Mel for all the massage work in Tucson and to Scott in Bend for the massage work.
To my fans, supporters, followers from near and far- thank you for your continued support and following of my triathlon journey! I am truly grateful for all of the friends I meet each and every race and humbled at the messages of love and support I receive. Thank you all so much.
It’s already been 2 weeks of off-season for me and it has been pretty relaxing. Oahu was a blast and Tucson has some cool trails, areas, bars/restaurants we weren’t able to explore when every second of the day is focused on training or recovery. It’s been awesome to get back out on the mountain bikes too. After one more day here, we are off to San Diego to put in some work at the Wattie Ink. factory, including product development and prototyping of some new fall and winter gear! Stay tuned! We will have a Wattie Ink. expo booth at Ironman Arizona and then Wattie and I will be back north to Bend for the upcoming holiday season. I’ll be working out the schedule for next season soon but in the meantime, the offseason will be as much about the little things as my Kona prep. Getting back into the weight room. Bands before swim. Staying on top of hydration, even in the cold winter months. Getting PT, stretching and staying healthy… I know I can find a few more minutes in Kona and I’ve got a little over 11 months to find them :)
Wishing everyone much luck in any remaining races and/or to have a relaxing, refreshing off-season before the 2016 triathlon season. If you will be at Ironman Arizona in a few weeks, swing by the Wattie Ink. tent and say hi!!!!
Thank you all so much for following!
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