Heather Jackson finished third at the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona and thus became the first female American since 2006, when Desiree Ficker finished second, to grab a podium spot at this coveted event.
Slowtwitch: Heather, thank you for your time.
Heather Jackson: Of course! Thanks so much for wanting to interview me
ST: What have you been up to since the race?
Heather: The first few days after the race were pretty busy with media obligations and interviews but by Wednesday of last week or so things calmed a bit. So, I got to spend some time in Kona with my family who had traveled over to cheer me on, as I didn’t really see them much before. On Saturday, Wattie and I flew over to Honolulu for a little vacation so we are still here putting in some good beach time.
ST: German Patrick Lange had a fantastic course record breaking run and he also finished third in the race. But with Frodeno and Kienle on the top podium spots he was also the third German. Yet I believe he was already invited on various TV shows in Germany. You were top American in third place, and the first American female since Desiree Ficker in 2006 on the Kona podium. Has any TV show called on you?
Heather: Haha, I was hoping to get a call from Ellen but unfortunately my phone hasn’t rung yet!
ST: Is that more so an issue of Germany embracing the sport and the USA being super focused on football, basketball and NASCAR?
Heather: Yeah, I think so…I’ve never been to Germany for a race and to experience their love for the sport of triathlon, but I’ve heard it’s absolutely incredible, so it’s definitely on my bucket list to get over there.
ST: Going into Kona, how did you feel, and when did you actually arrive?
Heather: Coming into Kona this year, I felt great both physically and mentally. In terms of training, I had a completely injury-free year (knock on wood), which is so huge. In the final 4 weeks prior to Kona, Wattie and I went to Tucson to get used to the heat. We came to Kona the Tuesday prior to race week, so I had about 10 days to train in the humidity that Tucson doesn’t have. Those ten days before the race were really good for me too, as my coach, Joe Gambles, traveled with us the same day and so he was there to help me with my swim leading into the race. He took me out on the swim course and just drilled into me swim starts and swimming on someone’s hip or feet, getting pushed around a lot and surges, all things I’m not really comfortable with in the swim, so that was so helpful for me mentally once race day arrived. So, all in all, I felt good and was just excited for race day to get there, as those last few weeks are always just a lot of waiting around thinking about it.
ST: Compared to other years were you out in public less, more or the same?
Heather: I think that I had less engagements leading into the race this year. In fact, I think I only had 1 or 2 commitments on Monday and Tuesday of race week, so that was awesome. All of my sponsors were very understanding of how stressful race week can be and for a lot of them, we did photo or video shoots about 4 weeks out while we were training in Tucson. I was invited to do the press conference this year, so that was cool! But that was really the only additional engagement. I have to thank Wattie, my husband, as he is so good at keeping things extremely minimal on race week.
ST: How did you feel about your swim?
Heather: I was so stoked on the swim! I was actually in a pack of girls and I didn’t swim completely alone fearing I was going to get eaten by a shark the whole time like last year. [smiles]
ST: Last year you swam 1:04:36, this year 58:56, and others including Daniela Ryf and Michelle Vesterby also swam around 4 minutes faster. So was the course shorter in your view?
Heather: I didn’t even think about that! Actually, this year, I was only about 6 minutes behind the front pack of girls out of the water and I booked it through transition, so by the time I got on the bike, I was only about 5:40 to the lead. In fact, Wattie yelled “5:40 to the lead!” to me and I was in complete astonishment…I think I yelled out “to the lead?” Last year, I was about 8:30 minutes down from the lead, so for me, this was about a 2-2:30minute improvement even though the times were overall quicker. Also, you probably don’t want to ask me to judge a swim distance because I can seriously swim in a pool for 4-5k and not be positive if I am swimming meters or yards and think I’m just crushing my workout or having an absolutely horrible day depending on which one it is.
ST: Once on the bike how fast were you in a rhythm?
Heather: The first few miles on the bike are always pretty fast, as everyone is sorting out where they are and who’s around them. I found myself in a group this year that included a number of really strong cyclists, like Yvonne Van Vlerken and Tine Deckers, as well as Kaisa Lehtonen. Those three girls were really pushing it for about the first 30 miles, so much that Kaisa took off at one point and she was gone into the distance. Then, a bit later, Yvonne did the same thing and I just couldn’t match their paces. We had a really strong headwind on the way out on the Queen K and that is always a bit demoralizing, coupled with getting passed and being unable to go with them, I thought I was having a bad day. So, I didn’t feel like I got into a rhythm until really the turn towards Hawi when the climbing starts. My plan was to push a bit harder there all the way to the top and when I did that at the base of the climb, my legs felt great and I started to feel way better than I did during that headwind all the way out. Once you start to have a positive mindset and realize your legs are doing what you want, it gives you confidence and momentum and you can get into that rhythm.
ST: How did you pace yourself on the bike to ride that fine and second best 5:00:31?
Heather: Thanks so much! I have trained with my Pioneer power meter this season, whereas last year I didn’t use power at all, so I think it helped me in the first half of the bike with not going too hard. I’m not one to just stare down at my computer though, as numbers can vary so much depending on heat, or certain conditions. So, I would glance down at it occasionally to see if I was in a certain range, but I primarily rode by feel with the goal of being able to push the last 30 miles of the race, or at least not fade at that point. With about 30miles to go I felt good, so I was just really trying to stay on top of my nutrition for the run. Then, around the airport, I caught sight of a group of three girls (3rd-5th), and that motivated me to keep pushing for those final ten miles and I was able to get up to them with about a mile or two to go. I guess that’s one benefit of always coming from behind- having carrots up the road to chase
ST: What are your thoughts about that super fast 4:52:26 of Ryf?
Heather: I think that is an incredible ride and what is even more impressive is running a 2:56 off of that! It just makes me more motivated to find my own limit on that bike-run. Like, can I push even harder on the bike, and then still be able to run without fully imploding? I’m sure the entire female professional field is thinking that, as Daniela has set a new standard that everyone will be spending the next 356 days trying to match.
ST: You rode that very distinctive custom painted Slice but not yet that new one with disc brakes. Was it just too close to Kona for you to switch?
Heather: Yes, Cannondale was extremely understanding with me in not wanting to change anything too close to race day. I am so picky with my bike, as in, don’t touch it! You could move something on my bike, like my seat, barely a traceable amount and I will still know. So, I will be getting on the new Cannondale now.
ST: I believe you started the run in third place with Beranek about 6 minutes up in second place, and Ryf about 14 minutes in front in first place. Did you have any idea if you were gaining on them and also who was behind you?
Heather: As soon as I got on the run, both Wattie and Joe were just yelling at me to race my own race. I had a pace in mind and my job was to stick to my own race plan and that would put me where it put me. There are always the fans and cheers from the sidelines yelling numbers of how far up people are though, so I had an idea that the gap was going down between myself and Anja. I also knew that Rinny was coming and I was also waiting for Mel Hauschildt to come flying by. So, I was aware, but I was also just focused on my pace, keeping my cadence up, and getting water and ice and sponges at every aid station.
ST: Did you have any low points during the run?
Heather: Yeah, I definitely had a rough patch just before Palani, which made running that hill pretty rough. I had to go to the bathroom and running a hill definitely does not help that situation. So, at the top of Palani I was just searching for the next porter potty but that aid station right there didn’t have one so I had to make it another mile or so and I was getting concerned. I was trying to keep my pace up, as by then I had Anja in my sight, but I definitely had to slow a bit. I finally made it to the next aid station and the bathroom stop cost me about 30 seconds. After, I felt way better for about 2 minutes but then I got a bit of a side stitch, and that lasted another couple of miles or so. Once it subsided, there were no specific low points but just the overall fatigue settling in near the end.
ST: Where did you catch Beranek and when did Rinny catch you? In either situation was there an attempt by the passed person to go with the passer?
Heather: I caught Anja on the hill down into the energy lab. She was moving quite well and it wasn’t necessarily a quick pass. Our paces weren’t that different so I definitely had to pick it up a bit to make it by her and try to settle back in again. The Energy Lab is so tough because it’s right around that 18-20mile mark in a marathon where most people usually hit that low point. You aren’t close enough to the finish to think, “Oh, I’m almost there!” And, conveniently (that’s sarcastic), they’ve provided an out and back on the Kona course. So, not only are you hurting and fading, but you can see someone like Rinny coming quick. So, I saw Rinny right after I had made the turn-around and she was heading in for it. You always think competitors are so much closer than they are though, as I was waiting for her to pass the entire rest of the Energy Lab. She didn’t get me until we were back up on the Queen K, and at that point I had a full camera crew around me for about 10 minutes leading up to the pass. So, I was just running along like, “Yeah, I know she is coming, thanks so much for this thorough camera coverage…” When Rinny passed, I am just so grateful to her, because she said something along the lines of “Great job, HJ, just keep pushing because there’s someone else coming…” and then bounded off like a little kangaroo. So that gave me a little oomph to pick it up because both Anja and Kaisa weren’t too far off and so either one of them could have found that extra gear and be making a final 4-5mile charge. So, I tried to hang with Rinny but it only lasted a few steps.[smiles] I was just using her as a focus point to try and keep my pace up and hold on for that last podium spot.
ST: At what point did you think that 3rd place was yours?
Heather: To be honest, I was still running scared all the way into the finish chute. I have nightmares about getting passed in the chute and I still wasn’t sure how close anyone was behind me because you get fans on the side yelling different splits that you can never necessarily trust 100%. I think I yelled to a few people, “Can you see anyone behind me?”
ST: How did you celebrate?
Heather: I have been celebrating for a week now. [smiles]
ST: So what is next?
Heather: I am actually off to the inaugural Challenge Aruba, which is this coming weekend. I received an invite near the start of this season, so it’s been on my schedule all year. I’ve never been to Aruba and it looks beautiful, so I’m pretty excited. I’m contemplating Ironman Arizona, only because if I can get my validation done now, then I could plan absolutely any schedule I wanted next year for my lead-in to Kona, which would be pretty ideal. Either way, we will be at Ironman Arizona, as Wattie will have a Wattie Ink. booth there and Joe is planning to race it.
ST: Anything else we should know?
Heather: Just a huge thank you to everyone for the support and messages I’ve received after Kona- I’m still making my way through them all but I am so grateful. Thank you to my husband Wattie for everything he does for me, to my coach Joe for his meticulous planning of this whole season culminating at Kona, everyone else in my support crew, and to my family and friends for being there for me at the race. And a massive thank you to my incredible sponsors for making this possible: Herbalife24, Cannondale, Knight Composites, Wattie Ink., Masimo, Hoka One One, GoPro, MarcPro, Rudy Project, BlueSeventy, Pioneer, ISM Seat, Shimano, Speedfil, Ceramic Speed, Zealios, and Rebound Physical Therapy.