by Brad Culp 

Ed. Note—this is our third piece in a series of checking in with Wattie Ink. professional triathlete Heather Jackson. Miss parts one or two? Check them out via the links above. Editor Brad Culp checked in with HJ at her pre-Kona informal training camp in the Arizona desert.

When we last checked in with Heather Jackson, she was entering that critical part of the season she calls “lockdown mode.” That means two months of swearing off beer, a bedtime that’s earlier than most toddlers, and no more easing off the gas in training when things get tough. It’s the hardest two months of the year, but it’s also her favorite part of the season. It’s when motivation is easiest to come by, and it’s when the bricks are laid that she hopes will have her back on the podium for the second time in four races in Hawaii. Coach Joe Gambles has one last big workout planned for Jackson, and it’s a doozy: Two hours of riding at race pace followed immediately by a one-hour run at race pace—and then she’ll do the whole thing over again a second time with no rest in between. She’ll perform this six-hour suffer-fest in Tucson before hopping on a plane and heading to Kona on Monday.

Jackson finished with her fastest time ever in Hawaii last year, but after placing third in 2016, her fourth-place showing stung a bit. She remembers vividly the moment Sarah Crowley passed her for third place and her legs just couldn’t respond. “I can still picture Crowley running away from me out of the Energy Lab,” she says. It’s still fresh in my mind—seeing the podium go away up the road. That wasn’t fun.”

As much as it wasn’t fun going from third to fourth in the final miles of the marathon, it’s motivated Jackson during the home stretch of training for this year’s race, and it also has her coming in with a fresh, relaxed perspective. “I felt pressure to get back on the podium last year—I was racing for a place all day,” she says. “I’m trying not to think too much about that this year. 2015 was fun because I didn’t feel that pressure. I was out there having fun all day. I’m more relaxed this year because now I know the race; I know how it usually unfolds. I just want to go out there and have some fun.”

The swim is typically the part of the race where Jackson doesn’t have any fun, but she has a new card to play this year thanks to a big technique breakthrough last month—as well as a new swim training partner in the form of triathlon legend Matty Reed, who has been keeping Jackson company in the pool. With Reed alongside for swims that have been as long as 8K, Jackson has a confidence in her opening leg that’s been missing throughout her career. “Basically I’ve been holding my breath while I swim for the past ten years,” she says. “I’ve finally learned to exhale underwater. It’s something Joe and I have been working on for a while, and it finally clicked a few weeks ago. I’m no longer going full-lactic while I swim.”

The swim may be the least significant part of the race in terms of total time, but it could make all the difference between second and fifth in a race that’s expected to be one of the closest in Kona history. Jackson lost nine minutes to runner-up Lucy Charles in Kailua Bay last year, and ultimately finished three minutes behind her. If that deficit is only six or seven minutes this year, it could make all the difference.

But it’s not just Charles she’s chasing. With all of the top-seven women from a year ago returning, as well as speedy rookies like Sarah True and Anne Haug in the mix, this will be the best deepest field in race history.

“Last year it was so close among the top five, and that’s how I think it’ll be among the top ten this year,” Jackson says. “It’s all about who can dig deep in those final miles. On race day, anything can happen.”