A Nuun Ambassador since 2013, Jennifer Schaffner is currently preparing for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, which will be her ninth Ironman since 2010 and her second trip to the Ironman World Championships. When not training, Jennifer practices law and spends time with her husband and nine year old twins. Jennifer lives in the foothills west of Denver.
The Four Secrets of Ironman Success
By: Jennifer Schaffner
With the Ironman World Championships quickly approaching, I thought I would share my personal secrets to a successful Ironman performance. Whether you are tackling 140.6 for the first time or gunning for a Kona slot, I think the keys to a successful race are the same. Those “secrets” are consistency, familiarity, experience, and the tricky one–luck.
I started training for my qualifying race, Ironman Boulder, back in September 2013. At that point, I didn’t even know I would race Boulder, but that’s when I started working with my current coach and focusing on trying to improve my bike and swim. I have always been a relatively strong runner, but improvements on the bike and swim have been elusive.
After a disappointing race at Ironman Whistler last year, I realized there was a lot of hard work to be done if I wanted to try to compete with the top girls in my age group. For the bike, this work mostly took place inside my house, at least three days per week, sitting atop my Quintana Roo, going nowhere. Spending a lot of hours on the trainer is not exciting, but in doing this, I finally started to make some gains. Not only did I mostly ride the trainer to prepare for Ironman Boulder (and am preparing the same way for Kona), but also I repeated the same handful of workouts, which allowed my coach to make an apples-to-apples comparison of my fitness week to week. Regardless of your goals, it is the day in day out work that matters and it is nearly impossible to “cram for the exam” by trying to stuff six months of work into the final weeks leading up to the race.
The second secret of Ironman success is familiarity with the course. If you are lucky enough to have an iron distance event close to your home, you should consider racing that event because you will have a huge psychological advantage over competitors who are flying in for the race and most likely have not seen the course before.
I learned this lesson the hard way. In 2012, I raced Ironman St George without having looked at the bike course beforehand. The bike was physically very challenging, but it was also more mentally challenging than it needed to be because I didn’t know what to expect. I think it’s invaluable to know what you’re in for on race day. Eliminate as many surprises as possible!
For Ironman Boulder, I rode the entire bike course in training on two separate days, each of which had different conditions. Because of that, I knew the course could either ride fast or slow depending on the wind. Going into the race, I had several conversations with a good friend who was also racing and lives in Boulder. I told her what I had been telling myself for months: we know these roads really well and we won’t let anyone beat us in our backyard!
In preparing for Kona, I think familiarity with the course will be a huge help. In 2011, even though I had seen the race on television many times and had previewed the run and bike course before race day, it wasn’t until I was out there, that I understood what the cross winds on the way to Hawi were like or what it was like to run in the heat of the day up the gradual hill coming out of the Energy Lab. Once you have ridden or run a course, you understand it much better than if you just see it from the car. If I don’t have time beforehand to pre-ride the course, I try to ride or run one or two of the challenging sections to bolster my confidence and eliminate surprises.
The third secret of success is experience. Other than some recovery time here and there, I have not taken significant time off from training in over four years. I believe that training and racing are cumulative, and by the time Ironman Boulder rolled around, I had a very good idea of what I could do on the course given my training. I am also pretty good at pacing and managing my nutrition at this point, which can be two huge areas that less experienced athletes need to tweak. Some people can hit it out of the park on their first shot, but I think those people are genetic outliers and their experiences are more the exception than the rule. More commonly, it takes a few races to figure out your best way to train for and race Ironman.
The fourth and final secret is luck. This one is frustrating because it involves things that are largely outside of your control. One of the reasons I like Ironman so much is that race day is like a giant puzzle to solve. Things are constantly happening in the race that forces you to reassess or change your plan on the fly. I try to prepare for an unlucky situation by telling myself that I will try to remain positive all day, regardless of what happens. I also try to minimize bad luck by checking and re-checking my gear obsessively and only racing with gear and products I have tested in training.
Whether you maintain a good attitude or beat yourself up mentally can have everything to do with how you will regard the day. I hope to not have anything unlucky happen to me in Kona, but one of my main goals for the race is to have a plan for managing my attitude. If I can remain positive and keep things in proper perspective, I have promised myself that I will view the day as a success, regardless of the time on the finish clock. This time around, I am also much more appreciative and grateful for the opportunity to race in Kona because I now realize that each race is not necessarily going to be a Kona-qualifying day and I appreciate how much hard work it took to get to the start line.