JackRabbit: You have a varied athletic journey to Ironman triathlon. You’ve played division one soccer, ice hockey, and track cycling. What did all the sports in your bring to your performance in triathlon?
Heather Jackson: I played so many different sports growing up: soccer, ice hockey, gymnastics, tennis, softball, basketball, horseback riding, lacrosse…actually I guess one of the only sports I didn’t compete in when I was a kid was swimming!
I think my background across so many different sports made me really in tune with my body. A lot of triathlon training and racing is about knowing how hard you can push and for how long, or determining what your body needs at a given moment in a race, or what your body needs in a given training week i.e. more or less rest.
I am very self aware and I think this has helped me in triathlon, which is actually the first individual sport I’ve gotten into. It’s me making decisions about my body rather than being on a team surrounded by 30 other girls. I think the different sports also taught me a lot of mental toughness in sport that maybe someone just getting into triathlon without an athletic background doesn’t have. I have so many images, mantras, or just key thoughts I can draw on to push to another level.
JR: Patience is key in endurance sports. You race both Ironman distance (140.6 miles to those who are counting!) and half Ironman (70.3 miles for those who don’t want to do the math). What physical and mental lessons have you learned from transitioning between the two?
HJ: I race both distances in triathlon and each definitely have their own physical and mental requirements. I think the 70.3 distance is more a physical test of your body because the fastest girls are racing these anywhere from 4 to 4.5 hours depending on the difficulty of the course. You can really dig deep for that amount of time across the 3 different sports and leave it all out there.
I think you can train to race the half Ironman distance hard and fast and really test yourself physically. I think this is partly because they are a little less scary. Worst case scenario, you’ve pushed yourself to your max and you are just getting onto the run, or maybe you are a few miles into the run and you are cramping and have to walk. At the end of the day, it’s only (I know to some this is still quite long!) a half marathon that you have to walk/jog/shuffle/make your way through to finish the race.
I think the full Ironman distance is more of a mental race than physical. Sure, you have to be physically fit, although I know plenty of individuals who were not that fit and just hopped into one to complete it.
Ironmans are such a long day that it’s more a test of your mental will to stay focused and aware and patient throughout the whole day to keep your body moving forward as fast as it can over about 9 hours (for female professionals). It’s more a mental journey with yourself constantly checking in on if you’ve fueled enough, hydrated enough, can you push any harder? It’s just self-talk all day.
I think I’ve learned that physically, the half Ironman distance is harder. The training is faster, more intense, more anaerobic efforts to get you quicker and fitter. Ironmans require more mental strength (I believe). Because sure, at 20 miles into the marathon you need to be fit enough to finish the 6 left, but most likely you are. It’s more a mental test of your own will to not stop and walk because your legs are sore.
JR: Triathlon is a summer sport. Which means heat, heat, a little more heat with some humidity added in for the most part. What’s your game plan for competing 9 hours in such intense conditions?
HJ: Well, currently I am down in Tucson, AZ and the temperature outside is 104 degrees. It’s 8 weeks out from Kona right now and so we’ve come here for my final block, as we have done the past couple of years.
It takes about a week to 10 days to acclimate to this kind of heat and be able to train somewhat decently in it; I’ll just put it out there that the last 3 days have wrecked me!
I’m talking walking home from what should have been a standard run! But after spending two months here, I get to the big Island and it feels cool compared to Tucson.
JR: You’re known for the edgy style you bring to the tri game. How does that represent you as an athlete, and as a person?
HJ: It’s funny because I was never that edgy when I was younger and I still don’t think of myself as that edgy, haha. I was definitely a goody-two-shoes all growing up (ask my siblings), went to a boarding school that required a certain dress code every day, and then went to Princeton University for college; more khakis and polo shirts.
So I think it was just twenty years of that built up and then I moved to California after college and met my now husband, Wattie, who was the total surfer, flat-brim hat-wearer, covered in tattoos. I remember the first time I saw him I just thought, “Wow, just like the surfer Californians you see in movies!” hahaha!
It was really Wattie who encouraged me to have a bit more of an open mind of who I was. I remember before I got my first tattoo I was wicked nervous that my Mom was going to murder me! But at the end of the day, we have one life to live.
What’s a little ink on your skin representing something about you? Or, what’s cutting your hair super short for a new style or coloring it? First off, you can always change it back. Secondly, how you look, what you wear, or anything about your appearance doesn’t change who you are as a person.
It doesn’t change how kind you are, your character, if you have compassion, are a nice person, or anything like that.
JR: You’ve traveled extensively before triathlon (Heather spent time in Asia) and now with your racing. What does a global perspective bring to your mindset?
HJ: I spent part of my junior year in college studying in Japan at Fukuoka University and then I taught English for a year in Chiang Mai, Thailand after college. Those were definitely two very different cultures but both huge eye-openers for me, along with some of the other countries I’ve been fortunate enough to get to visit through triathlon.
I think having seen these different cultures really helps me keep perspective at the end of the day in regards to my racing. I know how fortunate I am and sure, I get upset if a race doesn’t go as I’d like, but at the end of the day I get to compete in a sport every single day while there are so many millions of people across the globe just trying to find food and water each day.
JR: Technology now plays a role in triathlon from your gear to your data. Explain to us how much you rely on data and gear and how that enhances your physical talent and training.
HJ: I’ve started to rely more and more on data as I’ve progressed up to the full Ironman distance. Primarily, I use a watch for my runs that has pace and heart rate (I used to just use a basic watch with a timer) and a power meter on my bike rides, which records the power you are pushing, your cadence, heart rate, speed, and a number of other things.
I also use a little device each day called a Masimo MightySat, which measures your heart rate and your oxygen saturation level, as well as a few other measurements that help tell you if you are dehydrated.
A lot of this data is mainly for my coach, as he lives in a different city, so he needs all of this to judge exactly how a certain training day went or how I’m feeling and recovering.
For me, the pace/heart rate watch and my Pioneer bike computer have really helped nail my pacing in the longer distances, as I tend to go out way too hard. That is fine in the shorter distances, but it can backfire across a 9 hour day so I would say the biggest take away from the technologies is just to learn pacing.
I use these every day in order to report back to my coach, but I’m also not an athlete that dwells on the numbers or lives and dies by them. I trained and raced for so long without any of it, that sometimes you just need to get out there and ride or run at what feels hard without caring what your exact pace is or how high your heart rate has spiked.
JR: Let’s talk running! Especially what it feels like after biking 112 miles. What have you learned from your early days running on the soccer field and transitioning to marathon distance mileage for Ironman?
HJ: Oh yes, how I miss those soccer days! I actually love running like that; short, speedy bursts in soccer, or basketball, or tennis, etc. In my run training, I love the days where I have 1km repeats or shorter, hard efforts where you are just trying to give everything you have in a short time frame.
I still do a lot of that within my marathon training but when it comes to the marathon itself, it’s totally different. The marathon is more about being strong and not losing your form or letting your body break down to a point where it becomes completely inefficient and you are just sloppily trying to drag yourself forward. My coach (fellow Hoka One One athlete, Joe Gambles) keeps emphasizing “efficiency”… you need to be as efficient as possible to expend the least amount of energy. So we do a lot of strength work, both in the weight room but also running hills.
JR: Tell us about your Hoka One Ones and which styles you wear for training and racing and why they work for you?
HJ: Oh man! Tough one, as there are so many that I love. I guess my two main go-to’s are the Clifton 4s for training and the Clayton 2s for racing.
The Cliftons were the first Hoka’s I ever tried and fell in love with immediately. Each updated version that has been released has just been better than the last. I love training in them because they are a little bit bigger than a race shoe with more cushioning and support so I can do long, endurance runs, or even longer Ironman pacing efforts and I don’t turn up sore or thrashed. I can recover quicker and be ready for my next session that day.
I love racing in the Hoka Claytons because there is still quite a bit of support and substance to the shoe, but it is light and feels like a racing flat.
JR: You finished an amazing third at the Ironman World Championships last year. Kona has a huge legacy in the sport of Ironman; what did it mean to you to step onto the podium and what are your thoughts going into the race this year?
HJ: Making it on the podium last year was an absolute dream come true! It’s something you can dream about over and over and then it actually happened and I think it took a couple of months for it to sink in that I had actually stood there on the podium.
It would be an absolute honor to be able to stand on the podium again and that’s what I’m training day-in-and-day-out for. This entire season has been all eyes on October 14th and getting myself in the best shape physically and mentally I can be on that day and hope that that puts me somewhere near the front 🙂
JR: And finally, one question we ask all athletes. What are three songs that motivate you in life, sport and racing?
HJ: This might be the toughest one!!! Well, I obviously have to put a Pink song on here, if not all Pink songs 🙂 I will go with Pink’s “Raise Your Glass” because it’s currently the song I listen to before all races and tend to have in my head the whole day. I also just love the message of it. I could honestly put almost all of her songs on here though. I have to put 3 songs on that count as 1 🙂
Basically there was “Eye of the Tiger”, Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”, and Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” that we used to blare before every single hockey game at Princeton. It would be 30 girls in our locker room just getting pumped up, jumping around and getting ready, so any of those three songs make me think of those four years and still get me pumped and ready to leave it all out there.
And lastly, not because of anything to do with the song or what it’s lyrics say (which I’m honestly not even sure)…but Blues Traveler’s “Run Around” will forever remind me of driving to soccer practice and soccer games every single day for probably 5-6 years starting from when I was probably 10 years old. I played on about three different travel teams for soccer AND for ice hockey.
JR: Thanks Heather!