Heather Jackson is just a few days away from racing in the Ironman World Championships in Kona. HJ shares how she sets the same Kona goal each year (she’s already got 5 under her belt!) and what it’s like to train with a bunch of competing pro triathletes… what?! that doesn’t happen in triathlon. Or could it be a thing now?
Zealios: Hey Heather, thanks for carving out time for a Zinc Out Loud! Interview.
So you have been down in Tucson for the past month soaking up the heat and training for Kona.
Heather Jackson: Yeah, we’ve been down here in Tucson for about 4 weeks now.
Z: You’ve been spending quite a bit of time down there during the year. Do you consider Tucson your home away from home or is Bend now your home away from home?
HJ: I still think of Bend as home, but we love Tucson. It’s one of the best places to train, it’s got everything you need.
And the more we [husband, Sean Watkins, founder of Wattie Ink] explore Tucson, we realize we would probably come here regardless if I wasn’t training.
Z: You are currently going through your last training camp leading up to Kona and it looks like there is an all-star crew of people down there training with you. What’s the vibe like as you build up to October?
HJ: It’s been good. I usually swim with people, but don’t usually train with people. But this year, Joe Gambles, my coach came down for a week.
Joe did everything with me, he paced me and did every workout from mile repeats to laps in the pool. He’d say “get on my shoulder, follow me” when running and keep picking up the pace or “don’t lose my feet” when doing sessions in the pool. Plus, we had a full race day simulation.
Then, Linsey Corbin came down right after Ironman Wisconsin. She said she was still in recovery, 5 days out from an Ironman, but she was training hard. Same thing, “stay on my hip,” and we’d knock out these paces, running 6:30’s just ticking them over.
Photo cred Wattie Ink
(Pssst...Linsey Corbin not only won Ironman Wisconsin, she set a course record of 9:12:39)
Chris Bagg and VT are down here. Chris has been great on the bike, rode with me on one of my training rides on Mt. Lemmon. He and Wattie have been alternating cooking dinners too!
Matt Reed also came out to check out Tucson. He’s been running our swims and pacing. He can literally lap all of us.
We have someone for everything!
Z: Sounds like an amazing training party!
HJ: Exactly. And Rachel McBride gets here this weekend. She’s obviously a strong swimmer and biker.
It’s been awesome. It doesn’t feel as high-stress or like I’m in full lockdown mode. We’re all fully focused and pushing each other and enjoying it.
Z: It’s a very cool concept and makes a lot of sense.
Do you find training with other pros and pros training for the same race, that a competitive side comes out even though it’s just training?
HJ: That’s what I always feared about training with people and why I never really have. I’ve always had it in my head that it, maybe not necessarily will make you weaker, but there’s this mental side and the fear of what you mentioned, the competitive side coming out.
Linsey is such an accomplished runner, she’s run a 2:54 marathon and has the running experience. The first time running with Linsey in Tucson at an effort, she was helping me through the pacing saying “relax your shoulders” or “you don’t need to push it”. She was helping a lot.
Then in the pool, Linsey is trying to stay on my hip and stay with me. It’s a good back and forth with people’s strengths and it’s worked in this given scenario.
Z: Did you attack this year differently than any of the previous years as far as training or race schedule goes?
HJ: The goal is Kona every season. So I was focused on how do I get to Kona feeling the most fit and prepared mentally and physically.
Last year I raced Ironman Boulder in June as my full because I thought the earlier I completed my full I’d recover better. But I think it was too far out. You lose the feeling physically, for sure, but also mentally for the full distance.
After Boulder I raced a few more 70.3’s then went into Kona prep.
Two years prior, I raced Ironman Lake Placid only 9 weeks out to Kona and the race was super fresh in my head. Recalling what worked and what I need to work on.
So, I went back to that plan this year and raced Ironman Lake Placid which was 10-11 weeks out from Kona. I’m still remembering Placid and going straight into Kona.
I love 70.3’s, but it’s such a different mindset. The longer stuff for me is the most difficult. I feel like I could race the halves and go hard all the time, it’s the marathon pacing that’s my weakest part.
And this approach worked well when I took 3rd at Kona two years ago.
Z: Yeah and Kona AGAIN! It doesn’t take much to get excited about Kona, but is there anything special that has you excited about Kona this year?
HJ: I’m obviously super excited. I don’t want to put this out there, because who knows what will happen... but I feel like I’ve had a breakthrough the last month in my swim. So I’m pretty excited. But it’s also nerve wracking, because Kona’s my test day it’s not like I’ve swam in a race and open water. I’m hoping I can find a jump in the water which has always been my weakest. So, Kona will be my first place to test it out!
Z: What better place to test it out?!
HJ: Ha, right?! Hopefully it pans out!
Kona is the biggest race. I think the women’s field is the deepest it’s been in the last 5 years. I think it’s going to be completely different than the past couple of years.
And there’s a new dynamic because there are 3-4 more runners now. Usually it’s like, “okay, how far back is Rinny?” because she’s coming! Now there are 3-4 girls with the same caliber.
You have people coming back that have been solid the last couple of years and people coming back from pregnancy, Rinny (Mirinda Carfrae), Liz Blatchford and Meredith Kessler. The women’s field is super deep.
Z: The field looks extremely deep, it’s going to be a good race!
Let’s talk planning and prep for the trip. Is there anything out of the ordinary you pack for the trip?
HJ: I always bring all my pillows. I literally bring 4 pillows! And I always bring a mini speaker because I play white noise at night to help me sleep. And I bring little Trigger Point or Lacrosse balls for rolling.
We travel so much now that I literally have this packing routine.
Z: How early do you like to get out to Kona to get acclimated?
HJ: 10-12 days out to get settled. That second week you’re still training and after that you’re set because it’s race week which is pretty light for training for me. All about getting the training done and relaxing.
Z: We know that you like to shut things down once you get to Kona, do you have any pre-race rituals or comfort foods that you count on in that period leading up to a race?
HJ: Not really, I do pretty much the same thing every race week. So I know exactly what workouts I’m going to have. You just want to keep the body moving with a little speed thrown in there then get the legs up.
I do binge watch a lot of horrible TV shows.
Z: So part of getting dialed up for Kona is resisting watching shows until October so you can binge?!
HJ: Ha! Well, I was literally waiting for Linsey to come down so we could watch Hard Knocks on HBO! I only have a HBO subscription for these 2 months so I can watch all the shows. Then I cancel it after September.
Z: This will be your 4th year racing in Kona as a pro, 6th time overall. Do you feel like you pretty much know what to expect when it comes to the race or are there still things you feel you are learning?
HJ: I think it’s more like Oceanside or Wildflower for me. I know the course, how the winds act up. You can’t count on the winds in any direction. You think, oh it’s a head wind, we’re gonna have a tailwind back, nope, not the case. I know how the course can move from one extreme to another. Everytime you race it you learn new stuff.
Z: What advice would you offer athletes who will be racing Kona for the first time?
HJ: Like I mentioned with the winds, be prepared for super ups and downs. You think you’re in a lull then you’re stuck in a massive headwind and you feel horrible. The winds can literally bring you to 2 mph and then 10 minutes later they shift and you’re going 40 mph coming back. Remember everyone is going through the same thing and feeling the same right now.
And heat on the run. Try and stay as cool as you can. Some years there’s cloud coverage and others it’s blazing down on you. At every aid station throw water over the head and ice in your jersey. Just try to stay cool as much as you can because that’s what will zap you.
Z: A lot of people know the heat is coming, but the winds are something we don’t hear a lot about so that’s good advice.
Z: In the 3 years you have raced Kona as a pro, you have finished 5th, 3rd & 4th, respectively, which is absolutely amazing. Being one of the top triathletes in the world with these top finishes, how do you deal with the mental pressure that comes from the expectation to podium?
HJ: For me, I still think of it as ‘I got lucky again’ to be perfectly honest.
Every year I set the goal of placing in the top 10. Top 10 in the world is pretty legit.
If you have that mindset going in and you find yourself in 15th place, you can fight for those 5 spots. I think ‘I just have to tick off 4 more girls to get into the top 10’ and then you are in that positive mindset of being in top 10. It helps me keep that positive attitude, where things are going well.
For me, like most athletes, you get negative and down on yourself and things go backwards. Anything you can do to shift and find where you want to be. Everyone is going in like they want to win. Anything can happen on race day. If you set a top 10 goal it’ll keep you fighting all day. Whether you’re in 30 or 20th you can dig for that 10th spot, then you might see 9th and 8th.
That’s what happened to me the year I got 3rd. I had the top 10 goal and all of a sudden in the energy lab there were 4 girls running together and I went from 7th to 3rd.
Everything can change in this race so quickly, it’s crazy. I’ve seen people sitting on the side of the road… oh there’s 6th place and 5th and they’re about to pass out. People go so deep because it’s the World Championships and it’s in such extreme conditions.
Z: Do you have a favorite motivational cheer that you like to hear from a fan when you are racing?
HJ: I’m most motivated when it’s not about me or how I’m feeling in the moment.
At Chattanooga, I was battling with Meredith Kessler and Wattie was cheering “Do it for Daida!” Daida is my grandpa who was in the hospital. So it wasn’t about me, it was for someone else who couldn’t be out there.
The worst are the “Pick it up, she’s right there!” It’s like, “Um, I’m trying!”
Photo credit @justinmartinovich
Z: Last year, I remember asking your mom (Diane) what I should be cheering and she said to include “ice and water” in the cheer so the racer remembers to get ice and water.
HJ: Ha! That is a good reminder! At the aid station you can get so caught up in the race and if you miss that one time you’re screwed.
Z: What kind of mental space do you want to be in pre-race?
HJ: Be calm and don’t waste any energy. Run through your head what going to do then go do it. Be completely focused on yourself.
Z: Just talking about Kona with you has got me excited, can’t wait to watch the race unfold.
Z: Before we sign off, I have to ask what is your favorite Zealios product and why?
I use it ever race and during full Ironmans. 9 hours total and an hour swim and it’s still on my skin. I’ve never had a sunburn! I don’t think there’s anything else out there that compares.
Z: Awesome! Lather up in Kona! Thank you so much for your time. We’ll be cheering for you all day Sunday and wish you the best of luck out there.
Heather's in Kona and looking as ready as ever!
Photo cred Wattie Ink