Heather Jackson's breakthrough

Now the tumult and the shouting have quieted down a bit. Second-year pro triathlete Heather Jackson of Exeter, New Hampshire has had a little time to recount her improbable five-year transformation from Princeton ice hockey player to English teacher at a private school in Thailand to audacious second-year triathlon pro dueling Mirinda Carfrae for the win at the Rohto Ironman 70.3 California last weekend. While she was overtaken in the final mile by the flying feet of the sport's greatest runner, Jackson's elation resonated with the fact that she had elevated her game and forced one of her idols to give her all.

After a typically slow 30:04 swim that gave away 4:08 to Carfrae, Jackson powered to a race-best 2:29:56 bike that carried her to third place starting the run -- 4:08 ahead of Carfrae. Jackson then unleashed a personal best 1:22:44 half marathon run that overtook two women and gave her the lead by mile 7 of the run. With only a half mile left, Carfrae caught Jackson and said "You're having the race of your life!" Jackson fought back and only trailed the three-time Oceanside champion by 10 seconds at the line. Afterwards, Carfrae paid tribute: "Heather made a statement today that she is a force to be reckoned with in 70.3 racing. And in Ironman if she chooses to."

Slowtwitch: How far back do you have to go to recall a time when, if someone told you that you would be an elite professional triathlete, you would have laughed and said no way!

Heather: Probably 2007.

ST: What were you doing then?

I graduated in 2006 from Princeton with a degree in Political Science and East Asian Studies. I speak Japanese and I lived in Japan my junior year. Then I chose to work teaching freshman English at a university up north.

ST: What are your feelings about the tragedy in Japan?

Heather: I emailed a lot of my friends over there. When I was in Japan I lived in the Southern island, so most of the people I knew weren't in the area that was hit. It was definitely heart wrenching -- it made you think how unimportant it is if you are complaining about a bad day or a cold. A tsunami could come right now and you would have no control over it. It definitely opened my eyes. If I start to feel sorry for myself now - 'Oh I had a bad training day' or 'Oh I had a bad workout,' -- I simply say to myself, 'Shut up. Who cares? People are dead over there.'"

ST: Even in 2007, you were a very accomplished athletes at Princeton. You played hockey and what other sport?

Heather: Mainly soccer. I was going to do both but my freshman year there was so much work I decided two sports were too much. So I played ice hockey through college.

ST: What were your ambitions?

Heather: I'd always dreamed of playing hockey in the Olympics. That ambition kind of coincided with my senior year.

ST: Were you really focused on it?

Heather: I think I was kind of all over the place through college. I wanted to travel and I would get on these kicks with my studies.

ST: You'd have 4 or 5 impulses simultaneously?

Heather: Yes exactly. So the focus that year kind of coincided with hockey. I made the Under 22 national team, then I was invited to train with the candidates for the national team. There are 22 members of the final Olympic team, but they started with a camp of 40 in early summer. And then they cut it down to 30 -- and I didn’t make it. So I didn’t come that close.

ST: If you were as scout evaluating you at that time, what would your verdict be?

Heather: I definitely didn’t have the puck handling skills and talent that a lot of other girls had. But I was probably one of the scrappiest and hardest working. They saw the heart and definitely the teamwork in the locker room. I've always had that side of things. I know the importance of your team out there. More so than maybe the more talented girls. But.. it didn’t work out.

ST: In 2007 were you completely off the radar in triathlon?

Heather: I had done a few local triathlons at home. And when I was in Thailand, I met some guys who were training for Ironman Malaysia. I thought: 'Ohhh! I'll do it with you guys!' I thought it was an adventure race. CHUCKLES

ST: Did you do any training for that Ironman?

Heather: I don’t know if I would call it training. I just did a little bit. I don't even know what my longest ride was. I didn’t have a computer on my bike. My sister Becca came over to visit me and brought an old bike over with her. She is from Exeter, New Hampshire and she is crazy (in a good way!) She is kind of a female Will Ferrell. She just got up and drove to Vegas and spent 24 hours there. She just got back to watch my race.

ST: It was quite hot in Malaysia. How did you survive it on so little training?

Heather: Hot. It was really hot. But I more did it, than raced it. I walked most of the run. My body hurt for a long time. I wasn't much of an athlete at the time. I was more into teaching English and one literature course. at the time. But the students there do it because it is a required course for their degree. They did not like novels. So the teaching part was discouraging because they had no interest. They had more practical concerns. So I quit teaching in April or May of that year. I had deferred my student loan and it was coming due and I had no income so I came home. I got a job teaching in San Jose California at a private school.

ST: When did you make that move?

Heather: I drove out to California in the summer of '07 and taught until I quit in June of '09. So, the first year I tried to train and improve in triathlon was tough because I was teaching 9th grade world history. It was tough for me. California is 75 degrees every day. Coming from New Hampshire, I always had this impulse, this voice inside was shouting 'Let's let’s go outside!' One other thing was a little bit strange - I was only eight years older than my students. During that time I was coached by Muddy Waters. He is one of the best guys in the sport and basically gave me everything in terms of coaching and emotional support those first two years.

ST: How did those first races go?

Heather: In 2009 I raced this Oceanside half and placed 10th overall and qualified for Kona. My half Ironman times were around 4:40 to 4:30 then. And I out-biked the pros by 7 minutes!

ST: Why did you have such a strong bike?

Heather: Hockey. I was still 20 pounds heavier. Mainly muscle. I am 128 now. Back then I was 145. The power helped me on the bike and hurt me on the run.

ST: How did you meet your very supportive boyfriend Sean Watkins?

Heather: In 2009 Wattie [who then worked for Triathlete in advertising and sales] and Brad Culp came up from San Diego to do an interview on Muddy's group. They were going to feature this other girl I was training with. She was good in all disciplines, but she could really run. We all went on the Wednesday ride and I dropped Brad and Wattie. So then Wattie was thinking: 'Who is this girl?' Afterwards, we stayed in touch and I saw him at Kona. He was going through some difficult times. Then I saw him early in 2010 at the Amgen Tour of California. That was a rough period for him. And that summer I knew I was going to quit teaching. It was too much for me and I was bored with it. I couldn't focus on the work, so I quit and I had really nowhere to go. Wattie had gotten me a Colnago at that point.. We had stayed in touch and he said there are a bunch of triathletes down here if you want to come down. So I came down and he found me a place to crash.

ST: So as the police inspector said to Bogie at the end of Casablanca, 'This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship?'

Heather: CHUCKLES We started hanging out in the summer of '09..

ST: In the summer of 2010 you started knocking on the door of the elites. What was the performance that let you know you belonged on stage with the best?

Heather: That moment was probably Timberman 70.3 at end of August. The first part of the year it was not happening. But at Timberman I got third to Chrissie [Wellington]. CHUCKLES She is so good she doesn’t count. So it really seemed like I was really 2nd to Angela Naeth, who was going strong all year [Naeth placed 2nd at 7 half Ironman distance events in 2010] .

That was the first race where I actually felt like I was racing it. Because I was catching Angela on the run..

ST: Angela Naeth is a helluva biker.

Heather: She beat me a minute or two on the bike. Up to that time, I'd gotten to the point where I just didn't care everything about the bike. Before, after I finished my typically slow swim, I thought 'Whatever, I'll just crush it on the bike.' And then I would be horrible on the run. This time I composed myself and felt like I actually had a strategy and a plan for the run.

ST: What helped you to become a runner?

Heather: It just seems to be there for me. I don't know how to explain it. I could feel myself getting faster when the weight dropped off. I know I still have work to do. I know that. But I my times come down when know the weight comes off. And the weight comes off when I run more. Early this year I started running 50-60 miles a week and it paid off.

ST: Did you have a coach analyze your stride?

Heather: Recently I have been running a bit with Richard Vernay of 2XU. He lives here and he is awesome. The most important thing he's taught me is to just keep relaxed. Also, when I first moved down here in '09 I worked for a tiny bit of time with Sergio Borges. He said to work on running at as high a cadence as you can. I've always kept that in the back of my mind. Then I see someone like Caitlin Snow running and it clicks. So I just try to do that.

ST: What did you run at Clearwater? What was your best split for the half marathon in a triathlon?

Heather: I think my best has been a 1:24. Of course I was getting better. But with Rinny and Kelly running 1:16s… CHUCKLES. But I ran a 1:19 in an open half marathon. That gives me hope.

ST: what did you feel when you finished 5th at Clearwater at IM 70.3 Worlds? That was definitely a step up.

Heather: I was ecstatic. I finished with a lot of good people.

ST: Why did it go so well?

Heather: It wasn't the biggest thing on my mind. That week my grandmother Janet Schur passed away. She and my grandpa Robert helped raise us kids. I actually missed her funeral. But she would have preferred me to be racing. So I didn’t care so much about the race at that point. It is a similar perspective check that we all got when we heard about tragedies like the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. There are so many more important things, bigger things, than this race or this sport. And I think that took all the pressure off. So it ended up being one of my best days.

ST: What are you aiming at this season? What could be the best result you could have in 2011 - after Oceanside - in any way you want to define it.

Heather: I'd obviously love to win a half Ironman. I'm really trying to come into this year again relaxed. At last year's race I was just trying to get experience. I am hoping it will feel similar this year. No pressure.

ST: How do you look at your career now?

Heather: I am only 26. Wattie tells me every day 'It's not like you are racing with a big target on your back. No one cares. There is no pressure on you. So if you come out and you have a great day and you win one - great.'

ST: When will you have to face the pressure? Many people build a career and then they feel great pressure to defend it.

Heather: Good thing I am young. I am going to enjoy the next few years until, hopefully, I do progress. Then the pressure will come. CHUCKLES.

ST: Any chance Wattie inspired you to get a tattoo?

Heather: I would say so. When I first saw him… I'm from a small town in New Hampshire. You don’t really see too many like him. CHUCKLES . When I saw him I thought 'Oh my God. He. Is. So. Cool! He is cool.'

ST: What does that tattoo on your shoulder mean to you?

Heather: This section of (birds ) symbolized one for every member of my family. My mom Diane Jackson, my father Chris Jackson, my brother Bobby and my sister Becca, plus my grandparents Janet and Bob Schur. They are always with me.

ST: Who was the artist?

Heather: We went to a man named Charlie in Venice Beach in the LA area. I was just going to get some old school sparrows based on this painting I love.

ST: Are you going to follow Wattie's extraordinary all-body coverage and become the Illustrated Woman?

Heather: We talked about doing more. but this may be enough for me.