Heather's Arizona Knockout: Coach Gambles Reflects
by Joe Gambles
Ed. Note—What athlete hasn’t had a difficult race that didn’t go as planned, and what coach hasn’t had an athlete in that situation? Both parties usually want some “payback,” after an off performance, and today Wattie Ink. professional Joe Gambles discusses his athlete Heather Jackson’s turnaround from a rough day at Kona into a PR-performance at Ironman Arizona. Missed HJ's account of the race on Tuesday? You can always catch up here.
This year's Kona wasn't Heather's day. The race was a lesson for us both that near-perfect preparation doesn't guarantee a similar performance on race day. I was very proud of how Heather handled herself during the difficult race and afterwards: she was disappointed but never made a single excuse. She's a great role model for all athletes, professional or amateur.
After the race, I spent time with Heather and her support crew but didn’t talk much about how things had gone. We all gave her space to absorb her performance and let her come to her own conclusions. Often, the athlete will be the most disappointed, and they don't need someone else reminding them of the performance right away, and this was certainly the case: no one was more disappointed than Heather. The only thing I felt like I could tell her was that there would be some ups and downs over the next few days, and that we should talk later in the week once the feelings had settled a bit.
About a week later I got a call from Heather. “I’m racing Arizona," she said. “Great!" I replied. "I thought you might come to that decision.” The important part, here was, that the decision to race Arizona came purely from the athlete. If she hadn't come to this decision herself, it was going to end badly. We spoke about Kona for a while and I took some notes. The we discussed how we would tackle Arizona. Here is an insight into what we did:
First, HJ had just finished Kona so she needed some time to recover. This easier training had to come in the form of active (versus passive) recovery so that her body didn’t shut down and go into hibernation for the winter! Not only that, but it also had to be carefully balanced with her mental recovery from the pressure cooker of Kona. I advised that for the next ten days—which would take us up until three weeks out from Arizona—she should do two to three easy runs of no more than 40 minutes per run, two to three rides of no more than 90 minutes per ride, and as many easy swims as she could get her head around. The most important thing was that she would be mentally ready to ‘push’ for the three weeks going into the race following her physical and mental recovery period. That said, during that ‘push’ time it was likely that some sessions were going to be rough, but if she could get through the rough sessions and have a few good sessions along the way she would be ready to go come race day.
I definitely got creative with some of Heather’s key workouts in the lead in to Arizona. I wanted to provide her with something that was mentally stimulating and achieved the same physical response without diving back into "Kona-like" sessions, which she had just endured for the previous three months. Here's an example of a typical Tuesday leading into Arizona:
Morning: 3-hour threshold-style bike session with 45-60 minutes of quality work
Noon: 45 minute recovery swim and technique session
Afternoon: 90min run with 40-50 minutes at Ironman pace work
Heather and I spoke briefly the day before the race to talk about specific race tactics. I advised Heather to be really patient on the three-lap bike course and aim to even-split her pacing and effort. Ideally, I wanted Heather to push the same power over the second two laps as she had on the first lap. Watching live back in Boulder, Colorado, Heather executed her plan perfectly and closed the gap to Carrie Lester to under three minutes entering T2. We'd cooked up a similar, steady-effort plan on the run. Arizona provided a great opportunity for HJ to post a marathon PR and the best way to achieve this was to even-split the run. This is a very difficult thing to do and Heather came very close to doing it, taking five minutes off her previous best Ironman marathon. The takeaway, for me, was that she did an excellent job at breaking down the race into small achievable parts and staying in the moment, something that can be really challenging when racing for close to nine hours, at the end of a long season, when hoping to "make up" for a sub-optimal race at Kona.
Heather punching her 2019 Kona ticket early in the qualification process allows her some serious physical downtime, and most importantly, gives her a mental break before she starts her preparation for 2019. Other than the excellent set-up for next year's racing and training, Arizona gave her those things every coach wants for his athletes heading into the off-season: confidence and pride.