Jennifer Spieldenner grabbed an Ironman title during her first attempt at that distance in Louisville, and she is thrilled about that title. But it has not been an easy path. Many hours of training and racing other distances along the way were needed to get her to the point, and she also had to be mentally strong for more than one reason.
When athletes and their family members arrive in Kona for the Ironman World Championships they tend to compare themselves to all the fit and lean physiques they see running up and down Ali'i Drive, but usually there is also a moment of reckoning that this is not an important or real measuring stick. Often however certain physical standards are forced onto folks at an early age, and that type of body shaming seemingly follows folks through life. That is also true for Jennifer Spieldenner who first encountered that as a 13-year old swimmer.
I chatted with Jennifer about her success in Louisville, training and racing in general, and also that body image topic that she had brought up on Facebook a couple days ago.
Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time Jen.
Jen Spieldenner: Thank you! I appreciate the opportunity.
ST: As we are reaching the end of the year, do you still have anything big on the calendar?
Jen: I do not. Louisville was my last race for the year. I would have loved to race one more time, but Louisville took quite a bit out of me and we decided to shut it down for the year.
ST: I believe this was your first Ironman.
Jen: You are correct. Ironman Louisville was my first Ironman. I told Paulo at the beginning of this year I wanted to do an Ironman, but we did not decide on Louisville until mid August.
ST: Did you basically just want to feel that distance out, or is that something you want to move to?
Jen: I was curious. I always wanted to do an Ironman, I just didn’t know when I would do one. The last two years I did ITU Long Course Worlds, which is a distance in-between a half and a full. This was a good introduction for me into an Ironman. Moving forward, I want to focus on both 70.3s and Ironman.
ST: The swim that day was shortened to 0.9 miles. Was that the correct call or do you feel you could have handled the 2.4 mile swim?
Jen: I think the race organizers made the right call shortening the swim, as the current was really strong. As a strong swimmer, I am always disappointed when the swim gets shortened or cancelled. I knew they made the right call when I saw that the second buoy was a moving target. When I went to swim around it I had to put my arm out to stop the buoy so I could get around, and when I did that I got sucked under and tangled a bit in the ropes. A bit scary, to say the least!
ST: Since it was not a full 140.6, does that take anything away?
Jen: I don’t think it takes anything away. Since it was my first full Ironman, I was personally a bit bummed that it wasn’t the full 140.6 distance. But as some friends reminded me, I still ran a marathon. [laughs]
ST: Talk about your day.
Jen: The conditions of the day were quite brutal with it raining and being in the 40s-50s. I’ve always thrived in miserable conditions so I welcomed what mother nature delivered on race day. Besides the buoy situation, my swim was uneventful. I had a little drama in T1 with my aerobar bottle cage breaking off the mount when I grabbed my bike, which meant that I lost that bottle. I also broke the zipper on my cycling vest while putting it on. This was not ideal as then I was only wearing some cotton gloves and arm warmers. I was pleasantly surprised how quickly the miles on the bike went by. It was very cold during the first 60 miles. I kept telling myself over and over again that I was not cold and tried to focus on feeling warm. During the second loop of the bike my mind was occupied by more traffic and cyclists on the road, which help keep my mind off being cold. The marathon was hard. Since this was my first time running a marathon there were a lot of unknowns. Those last 10 miles were not fun. I felt fine aerobically, but muscularly my quads felt like they were shredding. Honestly, the last 5 miles all I focused on was right foot, left foot, looking forward, and not running slower than 7:45/mile because I knew the girls were closing in on me. I was told the finish line at Louisville was amazing and it lived up to all of its hype! Grabbing the tape and winning is a feeling I never take for granted. This win meant a lot to me and is one I am very proud of.
ST: I guess you will have to return to defend the title, or do you not think that way?
Jen: I always love to return to races to defend my title and I really loved the Louisville course, but I may be somewhere else next year around that same time racing a different Ironman. [laughs]
ST: During a heavier training week how much do you now swim, bike and run and how different is that now from when you raced shorter distances?
Jen: Do you mean shorter distances as Olympic distance or 70.3? I would say Olympic distance and 70.3 training is pretty similar. I actually only had a three-week training block focused on Ironman training leading into Louisville. When focusing on 70.3, my volume has ranged from 24-30 hours depending on the time of year. That is typically split with 3-5 swims per week, 10-16 hours of cycling, and 40-60 miles of running. For the Ironman training the hours ranged in the upper end - 28-30 hours per week. The bike volume was between 15-17 hours, run volume was between 60-70 miles, and swimming 3 times a week averaging around 5-5.5k per swim. So as you can see the training between half and full isn’t much different besides there being less overall intensity and the key bike and run sessions are longer.
ST: Would you mind talking about one of your harder swim sets and describe it?
Jen: We did some sets in Flagstaff this past August that were the hardest swims I have done in a long time. We did 16-20 by 50M on the 1 min send off. The effort was threshold, but we were swimming in a pack with 3 swimmers in front and 1 in the back. This set doesn’t seem like much on paper, but it really challenged me because I was swimming with some of the best swimmers on the ITU circuit, so it became a max effort for me. After this set we would go into some 100s threshold solo swimming.
ST: You recently mentioned on FB that you have had an eating disorder for over 10 years now and that that started relatively young when a swim coach body shamed you.
Jen: Yes, it is something that I am not ashamed or afraid to talk about, just haven’t really done it publicly before. I don’t really like to bring up things from the past, but I felt like something needed to be said after I was at an event and witnessed first hand the impact that adult comments were having on young girls. Also, if my story can help one person not go down the same path as me, then it is all worth being open and sharing.
ST: You also mentioned that this was not a one-time thing. In college your running coach also apparently failed along those lines.
Jen: Oh yes, this was not a one-time thing. In the beginning stages of my eating disorder I was anorexic which led to me being extremely thin. I was told over and over again “You need to gain weight; you are too skinny.” In the later stages of my eating disorder I starved myself and binged. After years of depriving myself of food, my body would store the food I binged on. This obviously meant I gained a bunch of weight. I was then told by my peers and coaches that I was heavy and it was impacting my ability to perform. Like I said in my FB post, our words and comments to others matter. It was very hard for me to have all these conflicting comments being said for over a decade. I understand that people are just trying to help and there is no ill intention attached to their comments, but they still hurt and can have the ability to impact someone in a very negative way.
ST: From what you have learned from others, how common is that in sport?
Jen: You are referring to the comments from coaches about weight or eating disorders?
Jen: I would say very common. It is disappointing for me to hear stories from friends of things their coaches have said to them. The world of high-performance athletics it is not inherently healthy. It is an extreme lifestyle when you are fully committed to becoming the best athlete you can be. Because of this I think it is so important to find a process that is healthy for you. This doesn’t mean it has to be a bad thing though. If you are in tune with yourself and can find a coach, environment and process that works for you, you can find a healthy and sustainable path to success.
ST: What about sponsors, athletes and other folks?
Jen: I personally have never had a sponsor say anything about my weight. As for other athletes and folks, yes I have received comments. I got made fun of all the time by my peers and even my friends’ parents when I was battling my eating disorder in high school. When you aren’t behaving in a way people deem “normal” you are always a target for ridicule. It is not cool. Your weight and how you look shouldn’t define you or what you are capable of. There is definitely an over-emphasis of this in the endurance sports. I would love to see a movement made to emphasize athletes being the leanest they can be while remaining healthy versus conforming their body into a shape that it is not meant to be.
ST: Do you think males also get such treatment as they grow up?
Jen: I think yes, but just not at the same level as women.
ST: How are feeling these days?
Jen: I am feeling great these days! I feel like I am finally in a place where I love who I am, confident, and believe in myself. I think, like most things in life, you always have a choice. Back in 2011 I came to a point where I was over allowing the eating disorder to control me and my life. I made a conscious decision to stop letting it control me, which was a process and that change didn’t come overnight. It took me a long long to get to a point where I had a healthy relationship with food. Once I was there it was amazing how my body just naturally settled at the weight it should be. This allowed me to train consistently without getting injured. Even though I am happy with where I am at now, I still struggle at times with negative self-talk around body image. An eating disorder is not something that just disappears, unfortunately it is with you forever. The key is when those thoughts pop up that may lead you into a bad cycle, you have to choose to not go down that path, and continually keep choosing that.
ST: What words of wisdom would you extend to younger athletes?
Jen: Believe in yourself. You are so much stronger than you ever think you are. Use coaches, training partners, mentors, role models, etc. for advice and guidance, but make sure to find your own process and take ownership of it. Since sport dishes out so many highs and lows, it is a lot easier to navigate it all if you are in the driver seat and have ownership of your career. When challenges are put in front of you, embrace them. I have found that going through a challenge allows you to learn about yourself, grow, and become a stronger person because of it. Lastly, surround yourself with people you trust, who support and empower you to be the best version of yourself. Have fun and enjoy the process, make friends, and love yourself for who you are.
ST: Anything else we should know?
Jen: I just feel incredibly grateful for all the support I have received in this sport from Paulo, my Triathlon Squad training mates, and all the friends I have made a long the way. The people in this sport are truly some of the best people you will ever meet! I can’t thank my parents, husband, and family enough for all of their unconditional love and always being there me no matter what. Many thanks to my sponsors and supporters: Blueseventy, Rudy Project, Polar, First Endurance, Dr. Lofquist at Flag City Sport and Spine, and Cyclewerks, for all their support and belief in me. And I have three dogs, London, Boston, and Tacoma, who always keep my life entertaining.