“Champions keep playing until they get it done right.” – Billie Jean King
It was 1989, I was 17 years old and ABC’s Wide World of Sports was on television. Some of you may be “young” enough to remember the tagline: “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” I was watching the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. An Ironman consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon run. The Ironman World Championship starts at 7:00 am and if you don’t cross the finish line finish by 11:59:59 pm, you don’t finish.
I was intrigued that day by “The Iron War” showdown between Mark Allen and Dave Scott. They were running neck-and-neck for the marathon at a 6:06/mile pace. Allen won, with a total time of 8:09. What fascinated me even more was seeing the first-place female, Paula Newby-Fraser, finishing in nine hours flat (pictured below).
As a “non-athletic” girl from Whitewater Wisconsin (population 10,500), I told my mom, my grandpa and the rest of my family that I was going to do THAT Ironman by the time I turned 30. Seeing the World Championship race that day triggered a spark in my mind and in my heart. That spark has stayed with me ever since.
My first sprint triathlon was in 1993 in Janesville, WI. A sprint distance is generally a 400-800 meter swim, a 12-15 mile bike and a 2-3 mile run. I was a lifeguard at the time who taught swimming lessons, so I was very comfortable in the water. My mountain bike was my standard mode of transportation, so I was comfortable riding too. But I truly did not like running, so I grabbed my Nike Air Pegasus shoes and just started to run.
I ran one mile through the center of town and then headed back to my mom’s house. That was how I started training for my first triathlon. Later, when I crossed the finish line that first time, I was hooked. I knew I would achieve that goal I’d set for myself four years earlier. From 1993-2002, I competed in roughly 25 triathlons of varying lengths. I ran more. I replaced the mountain bike with a road bike, then the road bike with a triathlon bike. Eventually I got a triathlon coach to get ready for my first Ironman.
I am proud to say that on September 14, 2002, six weeks prior to my 31st birthday, I did my first Ironman Triathlon in Wisconsin.
Completing an Ironman Triathlon has got to be one of the BEST feelings in the world. Why? To me, it was the defining moment of being an athlete. In high school and college, I never considered myself “athletic.” In the triathlon world, whether I was a male or a female, whether I finished in eight hours, 16 hours and 59 minutes, or any time in between, I was accepted as an athlete because I crossed the finish line of an Ironman. As triathletes, we all encountered the same distance, dealt with the same weather elements, and had the same desire to cross the finish line after 140.6 miles and hear those famous words from Mike Reilly (the voice of Ironman Triathlon): “You. Are. An. Ironman.”
While I did my first Ironman when I was 30, I still remembered what I told my mom, my grandpa and my family–I was going to do THAT Ironman, the World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. To get there, I had to qualify. As a female triathlete, I needed to be in the top two of my age group at an Ironman Triathlon sanctioned race. There are over 40+ Ironman Triathlons to qualify at. I had to find one where I felt I could do it.
As I started aging up, it started getting harder! My competitors’ times were getting faster. In the sport of triathlon, a lot of athletes focus more on what they want when they get older. They become “smarter” physically and mentally. If you compare the times from my first Ironman in 2002 to my 12th in 2017, I have improved by almost three hours.
2002 – Ironman Wisconsin (12:58:12)
2004 – Ironman Brazil (I was 84 seconds off from a slot to Kona at 11:56:00), Ironman Florida (11:37:46)
2005 – Ironman Western Australia (On my honeymoon, 12:04:22)
8-year sabbatical–let me explain: After the death of my dad and multiple miscarriages, the thought of being on my bike or running for hours on end made me hate the sport. What I realized after these tough moments in my life was that I still needed to take care of myself, both physically and mentally. I didn’t want to be spending hours a day getting ready for ANOTHER Ironman. I found CrossFit instead and drank the Kool Aid. With CrossFit, I finished working out within an hour, I got stronger, lost weight that I needed to and loved the community that I was in. It kept my mind off of things that I really didn’t want to tackle at the time.
Then in 2012, I actually went to Ironman Kona and witnessed my husband Chris participate. The fire inside me was lit once again, just like in 1989.
2013 – Ironman Florida (11:24:04)
2014 – Ironman Coeur d’Alene (12:12:56), Ironman Florida (No swim, 10:46:34)
2015 – Ironman Mont Tremblant (11:44:52), Ironman Florida (11:06:34)
2016 – Ironman Texas (Shortened bike ride, 10:25:41), Ironman Florida (Placed 4th in age group, 11:12:30, no slot)
In January 2017, I received an email from WHOOP asking if I’d like try the device. Considering I was preparing for my 12th Ironman Triathlon in August at Mont Tremblant, Canada, getting WHOOP was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
From January through April this year, I struggled with some illnesses while I was getting ready for my first race of the season, Ironman 70.3 Texas in Galveston, TX (half the distance of a full Ironman). One of the first things I noticed with my WHOOP was my Strain from being sick. I was very conscious of my Recovery. If I needed to rest longer in between workouts, I did. If I needed to move a hard interval bike session to the next day and get a light recovery swim in that day instead, I did.
Going into IM 70.3 Texas, I wasn’t in my prime, but I still managed to set a Half Ironman personal record that day and place fourth in my age group (5:16:54).
As a triathlon coach, I have seen so many athletes try to get back to training as soon as possible after a hard-effort race. WHOOP helped me realize how big a mistake that can be. Below is a sample of my WHOOP data the week of IM 70.3 Texas, which was on Sunday, April 2. My total Strain that day was a 20.6 out of a possible 21! I was 93% Recovered on the morning of the race, but take a look at what that Strain did to my Recovery Monday (61%) and Tuesday (32%):
From April to July, I was getting primed for Ironman Mont Tremblant (my chance to qualify for Kona), but I also had another Half Ironman 70.3 in Lubbock, TX. As I used my WHOOP more, I became more aware of my habits and started sleeping better. I made a few modifications to my behavior heading into Lubbock that I have WHOOP to thank for:
At the end of June, Ironman 70.3 Lubbock was exactly what I needed for my body, mind and soul. I PR’d for Lubbock (5:11:45), placed 2nd in my age group (45-49) and qualified for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Chattanooga, TN. I was elated and I knew this was only going to help me heading into my 12th full Ironman Triathlon.
Here is what WHOOP showed after IM 70.3 Lubbock (Sunday, June 25). It took me three days to get my Recovery back to normal:
The months of July and August were crucial for my training as I prepared for Ironman Mont Tremblant. I trained hard–my Day Strains were consistently higher than my Recoveries:
However, as the Ironman neared, I cut back my training and focussed on being properly recovered. The week of the race, my daily Strain closely mirrored my daily Recovery. When race day came on Sunday, August 20, I was ready for a peak performance:
That day was truly epic for me. Here’s the shortened version of the 10 hours, 59 minutes and 31 seconds I spent on the course, a PR for me for an Ironman Triathlon:
I swam well during the 2.4-mile swim with a time of 1:13:54. I biked a smart race during the 112-mile ride, staying within my power and on top of my nutrition, a time of 5:53:32. I ran solidly during the 26.2 marathon with a time of 3:42:09, averaging 8:28/mile AFTER the swim and bike.
Something interesting that I’ve realized during the last three years of my training–I freaking LOVE the run in triathlons now. I’ve become good at it. Really good at it, unlike that kid who hated running back in 1993! The run is my JAM. I knew I could catch women in my age group when it got to that point and I did. I honestly had no idea where I was at when I crossed the finish line, but when I heard Mike Reilly say to me, “Jennifer Rulon. You. Are. An. Ironman.” I knew in my heart that I’d had the race of my life.
After the race, I saw my husband, my sister in law, Vikki, my nephew, Jaxson, and my niece, Taryn. They told me how amazing I was. Vikki asked if I wanted to know how I’d done. “Yes, please!” I said. She told me, “Jen, you placed 3rd in your age group and Chris, you placed 2nd in your age group.” I broke down into tears. Taryn asked me, “Aunt Jennifer, are you going to Kona?”
“I hope so baby,” I said. “I hope so.”
At the award ceremony the next day, I chatted with the ladies in my age group. There were two slots to Kona for my group. The women in first already had a slot. I learned that the women in second wasn’t planning to go to Kona. That meant I was.
When I went up on stage to receive my award, I knew I was on my way to the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in 2017, along with my husband, Chris, who also qualified. After the ceremony I got to tell my niece Taryn, “Yes baby, I am going to Kona.”
Less than an hour after the award ceremony, it was time to hand out the Ironman Triathlon World Champions slots. Over the PA system, Mike Reilly’s iconic voice asked people if they wanted the slot to Kona, Hawaii. After 12 Ironman Triathlons and 15 years of trying to qualify for the World Championship, I heard him say to me…
“Hey Jen, you want to go to Kona?”
Since that day, my training has been all about rest and recuperation. Yes, I have the World Championship coming up in less than five weeks, but I already did the hard part. I got a slot.
Ironman Kona is October 14. Stay tuned to see how I do.