by Brad Culp 

“I feel like Oceanside hit and it’s been nonstop ever since.”

Each tri season goes by in a hurry, especially for pros such as Heather Jackson who have goals of winning Kona. When the season kicks off in the spring—always at Oceanside 70.3 for Jackson—Hawaii is a distant mirage and October feels like an eternity away. Then, all of a sudden, the middle of summer is approaching and it’s time to make sure your ticket to the Big Island is punched and you’re ready to start the monster training block that will give you an edge on your competition come October.

So that’s where we are—smack-dab in the middle of the tenth season of Jackson’s professional career. It’ll be her fourth professional rodeo in Kona, and at 34, she’s beginning what should be the prime of her career. It adds a bit of pressure, sure, but it also adds excitement to the season and makes motivation easy to come by. After spending most of the spring in Tucson, Jackson and Wattie are back in Bend, Oregon, getting ready for Ironman Lake Placid on July 22nd. It’s a race she needs to finish to put the stamp on her Kona qualification, but she’s sitting pretty on points, so she’s not feeling the pressure of having to win. But she also knows every Ironman is a valuable learning experience.

“It’s about validating first. But I’m also trying to figure some things out on the marathon,” she says. “I won’t ease up on the swim or bike, but I want to have a solid run, mentally. I’m not worried about the time because it’s not a super-fast course, but I want to be able to feel strong mentally and build through the marathon.”

Getting stronger throughout an Ironman marathon is just about the hardest thing there is to do in triathlon, but Jackson has a pretty good teacher in her coach, Joe Gambles, who’s made a career of doing just that. 

“For me it’s always been about trying not to fade too much and to fight through the tough patches,” she says. “I’ve never really been able to build throughout, but Joe does that. He can negative split an Ironman marathon—no one does that. So we’ve been working on some things in training and that’ll be a big focus in Placid.”

After a couple of easy weeks post-Placid, it’ll be time to start the hardest part of the season—which also happens to be Jackson’s favorite time of year. She’s a masochist like that, which you pretty much have to be to race at her level.

“By that second week in August, everything is on lockdown,” she says. “It’s the only time of year that I’m really able to do that. Something about Kona getting closer makes it easy to focus and get motivated. It becomes an exciting countdown everyday for me and the focus just builds and builds.”

While she might enter “lockdown” mode as Kona draws near, that tunnel vision doesn’t mean she isn’t paying attention to her competition. She’s a self-described super-fan of the sport, and she’s always keeping tabs on what the rest of top women in the world are up to. It’s as much about being a fan as it is playing out potential race dynamics in her head. Kona plays out differently every year—at least it has since Chrissie Wellington retired—and Jackson wants to rehearse as many potential scenarios as possible. She knows Lucy Charles will be out front from the cannon. She’s pretty sure it’ll be Daniela Ryf and Sara Crowley driving the chase on the bike. And we all know Mirinda Carfrae will come mowing through the field at some point on the marathon. Then there are wildcards like Anne Haug. It’s a lot to think about, but it’s part of the fun for Jackson, and it’s something to do while she’s swearing off beer and going to bed at 8 pm for all of August and September.

As quickly as the season is flying by, Jackson and Gambles have kept their aim squarely on the second Saturday in October, treating every race and workout as just another stepping stone on the way. She takes time to celebrate the little victories—like winning a grueling back-and-forth battle with Meredith Kessler at Chattanooga 70.3 earlier this month—but she spends a lot more time looking forward than back.

“I know it’s four weeks to Placid, but we’re really looking at it as being 16 weeks from Kona,” she says. “It’s all about the steady build. I’m looking forward to a few easy weeks after Placid—to enjoy a couple beers and maybe go camping—but then it’s lockdown time.”