A year ago they barely knew each other, and this year Eric Engel and Jacki Cronin are living in very close quarters and driving the AltRed van and trailer across the country from venue to venue while attempting to train and race. It has been quite an adventure for the two who briefly met in the 2016 IRONMAN Wisconsin Kona sign-up line.
Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time Eric and Jacki.
Eric Engel: Thanks for having us. We appreciate you taking the time to talk with us about our life on the road.
Jacki Cronin: You’re welcome. We’re excited to talk with you!
ST: Jacki, where are you two currently as we speak, and which event is next for you two?
Jacki: We’ve spent the last week and a half in New Hampshire where my parents recently moved to. My brother is currently serving in the Air Force over in Japan and he was home for his wedding last weekend!
This weekend I’m flying to Raleigh 70.3 and Eric is driving the van to work and race at Rev3 Quassy.
ST: The two of you are driving the AltRed van and trailer across the country. How and when did that come about?
Eric: Jacki actually roped me into the idea last fall. I wasn’t working for the company at the time, but Jacki presented this “2018 Grand Tour” idea to her boss and it actually got approved. I came on board officially a few months later.
ST: The two of you met for the first time after IRONMAN Wisconsin in 2016. Did either of you think that day that you would ever meet again?
Jacki: Not at all, the only conversation we had that weekend was Eric telling me and my mom that I shouldn’t buy an IRONMAN jacket and that I should save my money for Kona instead.
Eric: I didn’t think too much of it at the time, but she definitely caught my eye at the awards ceremony.
ST: What were both of you doing as a day job back then?
Eric: At the time I was working in Madison as the Digital Marketing Director for Endurance House.
Jacki: I had just graduated from Calvin College in May 2016 and had spent the summer being a nanny in Grand Rapids, MI. I started with AltRed part-time in July, before we even had a name or product to even sell.
ST: What were your times and places you finished in Wisconsin to get the Kona slot?
Jacki: I finished in 11:07 at Wisconsin which was my first real IRONMAN race, placing 1st in my age group and was the 11th female amateur. I was shooting for 12-12:30, so my family ended missing me at nearly every single place they planned on cheering for me.
Eric: I finished 3rd overall with a time of 9:31, which put me 2nd in the Men’s 25-29 age group.
ST: Jacki, what do you mean by real IRONMAN. Had you done a fake one before?
Jacki: By real I mean IRONMAN branded. My first attempt was Michigan Titanium, which was shut down by a thunderstorm. 3 weeks later I finished Rev3 Cedar Point, which was a full-distance event.
ST: Did you enjoy Rev3 Cedar Point less?
Jacki: When I started Michigan Titanium I had been cleared just days before the race to actually do it because I had Mono. I felt so much better and was able to enjoy Rev3 a lot more than the 1/2 of Michigan Titanium that I'd completed. It was a good first Ironman distance race but now that I've done an IRONMAN branded race, I don't think I could go back. The organization, the crowds cheering, and how special they make you feel when you reach the finish line just can't be beat! I definitely enjoyed IRONMAN Wisconsin a lot more than Rev3 Cedar Point.
ST: Eric, you had already raced in Kona in 2014 and 2015, how did that go and what were you hoping to get done in 2016?
Eric: I had a love-hate relationship with Kona. Both years, I went into the race with very high expectations, which I fell short of both years. I decided not to try and qualify for Kona in 2016 and focus on racing IRONMAN Wisconsin instead. I needed to get some “mojo” back. I grew up in Wisconsin and had lived in Madison since 2006, so I wanted to have a good showing in front of the home crowd.
ST: Jacki, I think Eric cyber stalked you on Facebook after Wisconsin. Is that a fair statement?
Jacki: Stalk is a little strong, but he reached out asking if I needed any advice leading up for Kona. Personally, I think it was just an excuse to talk to me again :)
ST: Eric, when did you finally meet again?
Eric: I posted on Facebook later that fall looking for a place to crash for the Boston Marathon. A few hours later, I got a message from Jacki saying that she and some friends were staying at her parents home near the Boston start line and that I was welcome to join. A few months later, I hopped on a plane and flew to Boston on Friday before the race. We met at Faneuil Hall for lunch before heading to packet pickup.
ST: What times did you both run in Boston and how do you feel about that effort?
Jacki: This was my worst marathon ever by nearly an hour. I finished in 4:15 after puking three times during the race and spending almost 30 minutes in the med tent at mile 21. I blame this on my poor choice of eating a pizza bagel from a Faneuil Hall shop the night before.
Eric: Boston was a struggle from the start. I had come off an injury a few weeks prior and never really got back in a good rhythm. My PR coming into Boston was 2:47 so I was looking for something similar to that. I remember my coach telling me to keep my HR below 145 for the first 5 or so miles. At mile 1 I remember looking down and seeing 172 on my watch. I ended the day with a 3:00 marathon.
ST: Jacki, I think you also raced in 2013 and narrowly avoided the bomb.
Jacki: Yes, I take back my previous answer. Both Bostons were my worst marathons by nearly an hour. I was lucky enough to finish about 6 minutes before the first bomb went off. Since I had grown up near Boston, I had a lot of friends in the area and I went back towards the finish line to say hi to a few of them. Within 30 seconds of turning and walking to get my medal and space blanket, the first bomb went off. I was close enough to know it was something serious, but far enough away to only see smoke fill the street immediately. Eventually, I was able to borrow a cell phone and locate my parents on a nearby street corner.
ST: Has either of you Boston on the mind again?
Eric: For sure! The race atmosphere and crowd support was so amazing. I’m really looking forward to being able to go back when I’m healthy and fit!
Jacki: Absolutely. So far I’m 0 for 2. I need some redemption on the course. It’s where I grew up so I’d love to go back and have a great race!
ST: What about Kona in 2017?
Eric: This was the first year where I got to fly out to the Big Island early and do some training. I was feeling pretty good leading up to the race and hoping to put down a solid performance. I had a great swim, but ended up dealing with a mechanical issue throughout most of the bike course. By the time I got to the run, my legs were fried. I gutted out the first 10 miles before walking up Palani and the next couple miles after that. I remember thinking to myself man this is going to be a long day if I walk the rest of this damn thing. That was motivation enough for me to jog it in to the finish. I’ve gotten slower each year at Kona, but I’m still hungry for putting together a solid effort on the big island in the future.
Jacki: Kona was the most expensive swim I have ever done. 3 miles into the bike, my headset became extremely loose but was able to flag down bike support at mile 18. When I asked them if they could just tighten it so I could be on my way, they told me that my steering tube had cracked and my day was done. This was a huge disappointment, after training for 13 months and being my first time at Kona. The only good part was being able to see Eric on the run. Every time he ran by I would hide because I knew he would worry about why I wasn’t out there racing. As Eric came down Ali’ Drive, he finally saw me and I jumped out and gave him a hug.
ST: Do you two need better bike mechanics, or were those mechanical issues self inflicted?
Eric: I’m Jacki’s mechanic, so she definitely needs a better one! My issue was something I was dealing with on and off all last season. After the race, I ended up sending my bike in and getting the frame warrantied. A bit of a frustrating situation, but it’s been resolved.
Jacki: We got my bike checked over before the race, so I can’t blame Eric. I really don’t think anyone is to blame, but a DNF at Kona is still a really hard pill to swallow.
ST: So now that you are fully busy with AltRed, how has that impacted your training and qualifying for Kona 2018?
Jacki: It’s definitely been tough not only finding the time to train, but also the motivation to do so. I’m hoping to qualify for Kona 2019 at IRONMAN Wisconsin this year. I’m currently dealing with a few injuries that have been lingering since last year, but I’m definitely motivated by the fact it’s my last year in the 18-24 or baby age group as I call it.
Eric: Man it has been quite the adventure. I’m a creature of habit when I train and not having that has thrown me off quite a bit. I’ve started working with a new coach this year, Bill Bishop out of Chicago, and he’s helped try to design a training plan around working race expos and living out of a van. One of the biggest challenges is finding new routes each week for running and biking. I end up doing about 95% of my riding indoors on my Hammer using my Bill’s workouts he uploads to Trainer Road. Despite the training challenges, I raced IRONMAN Santa Rosa 3 weeks ago and was able to pull out a Kona slot by 3 seconds. It wasn’t a pretty race by any means and it took a finishing chute sprint to pull it off, but I got the job done. I ended up 4th in my AG and was lucky enough to grab a roll-down slot.
ST: Eric, 3 seconds is cutting it close. Were you aware where you were in terms of race position?
Eric: I had a terrible swim, so throughout the whole bike I thought I was way out of Kona contention. Off the bike, I was told I was 6th in my AG and that 4th place was about 5 minutes up the road. I ran well for the first half of the race, but couldn’t tell if I had made up any ground. By the third loop of the run there were so many people on the course I had no idea where I was at. With about 3 miles to go, I passed a guy and later found out to be Travis Rose - 5th place AG, and he had a 32 on his calf. It was a rolling start, so you never know where a guy is in relation to you. After I made the pass, my legs starting to lock up a bit. I put a gap on him but was afraid of cramping up before the finish line. As soon as I could see the finish line, I gave it all I had, sprinting down the chute. After the dust settled, it was good enough for a 3 second edge.
ST: On average how much do you train in a week?
Jacki: Before the van I was training almost 20 hours a week. Since living in a van, it has been closer to 10 hours a week.
Eric: Average is a funny word these days. Every week is a completely new adventure in a new city. My typical training week is about 12-15 hours. I try to race whenever possible to help make up for some of the missed training time.
ST: Where do you swim and how do you arrange it?
Eric: Swimming has been the toughest of the 3 disciplines to maintain consistency. We have been doing a lot of 1-week free trials and gyms and health clubs or use our LA Fitness membership when we can. After reading your interview with Sam Gyde, I’ve been looking to the Vasa Trainer as a possible solution.
Jacki: Same here.
ST: The two of you went from barely knowing each other about a year ago to know being stuck together 24/7 and away from other friends and family. How has that played out?
Eric: Yes, a lot has changed in the past year. There’s definitely been a big learning curve going from living 2 hours away to now living 2 feet away from one another. We haven’t killed each other yet, which is a good sign! Fortunately, we got to spend some time with her family this past week and we head home next month for a couple weeks of R&R for the 4th of July holiday.
Jacki: I actually love living in a van. I was able to sell my car and apartment, so living with less has been great. I’m actually already making plans to design and build a tiny home to live in after this.
ST: Does anyone snore?
Jacki: Eric snores occasionally, but I’ve bought some earplugs to sleep with.
Eric: I wouldn’t know, I’m usually asleep.
ST: Who is more willing to give in?
Jacki: Probably me, because Eric is too stubborn
Eric: Well, she doesn’t like driving the 50 foot van and trailer so I think I’m stuck with it!
ST: Anything else we should know?
Eric: Just wanted to say thanks again for having us! I also want to send a big thanks to our CEO at AltRed, Jeff VanDrunen, for trusting us with this crazy adventure of being on the road full-time this year. It’s really a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’m glad we’ve been lucky enough to have his support. For anyone interested in what AltRed is and where we’re going to be next, check out the website at sur.co
Jacki: I’ll echo what Eric said and I also want to give Eric a shout out for trusting me to go along with this crazy idea of mine! Thanks so much for having us!