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  • Jennifer Vollmann

Ironman World Championships St. George Race Report


Now that was a race! Hills, heat, wind and a World Championship field, I knew it would be a day for strong athletes, physically and mentally. I know I am a gritty athlete, I know I can ride well in wind and run well in heat. I qualified for Kona at Ironman Coeur d’Alene last year when it was 104. I knew this was a race designed for me. Which feels amazing and exciting and also scary as fuck.


If you have followed me on Instagram for any length of time, you know I do not shy away from putting myself out there. My training, wins, losses, excitement for this race. On so many levels I wanted to do well, for my daughter, for my coach Marilyn that came to watch me race, for all my friends, but most importantly, for me. I wanted to show me that I have what it takes to race at a high level and compete with the very best in the sport.


Qualifying for the World Championship in Kona and StG (long story on why there are two, in short - Covid) was a serious dream of mine for 5 years when I first started triathlon. But the real spark happened when I first saw the coverage on NBC when I was 12. I stumbled on it one afternoon while bored channel surfing. I was hooked instantly. It looked totally insane what these people were doing and I couldn't look away. It was probably the longest I had ever consecutively watched any sporting event on TV. Something tapped me that day and said “you could do that.” I immediately dismissed it. I was not an athlete, terrible at all organized sports and clearly not insane like the people on TV. But still… that tapping never fully went away. It stayed dormant until my first triathlon and it has been a deafening drum ever since.


So I did it! I was at the World Championships. Now I had to actually race it. Hmm. I hadn't gotten past qualifying in my dreams, this was totally new ground now. While I am confident in my abilities, the thought of showcasing them on such a hard course on such a hard day was daunting. What if I have an awful swim (that one came true)? What if I think my bike handling skills are better than they actually are? What if I bonk on the run because it's too hot? Or what if I just don't have it on that day. So much fear. But it is the fear, the desire to really test my abilities, and put my mental and physical strength in a position where they grow or fail, is why I am so in love with the full 140.6 miles of an Ironman. It is a day of showing up, of working through challenges and asking yourself for more. There is no way to know what the day will bring until you are in it and even then, crossing the finish line is never a sure thing until you actually cross it!


This race asked me to bring my very best in every way and I did just that. I was a different person from when I started the race to when I crossed the finish line 11:55 later.




PRE-RACE

This is my first World Championship so I cannot compare it to Kona, but it was awesome! Everything was just so much bigger! It's always fun to see triathletes take over a town and the buzz was electric.


By far the smartest thing I did to prepare for the course was ride the massive descent from Veyo to the 2nd loop. I rode it on Thursday with my race wheels (Enve 7.8), little wind but even then, I had to get out of aero when the speed got above 40mph to maintain stability. With the wind predicted on race day to be about 20mph crosswinds when I got to the section and the descent after Snow Canyon that we do twice, there was no way I could stay in aero for it. I decided to change the front wheel to my training wheel (Bontrager Aeolus Pro 3s). 100% best choice. They also climb way better.


The rest of the days were spent eating all the carbs, drinking The Right Stuff, and trying to keep the nerves down. I got an amazing surprise when Jaime decided to drive up from Phoenix with Azella and my dog Luna. Luna does a lot of runs with me, she is the best training partner so it was extra fun to have her there. It was a great boost knowing they would be on the course!


RACE GOALS

I got asked so many times what my goal was for the day. On a course like this it is just impossible to predict. Really in any Ironman, the day is so long, time goals are almost irrelevant. My goal for the day instead was answer this simple question:

“Am I showing up as my best self in this moment?” In that moment, was I doing what I needed to do to race at my full potential. That is the only thing I focused on for the entire race.


RACE DAY

Shuttled to T1 then waited for what felt like 3hrs to start the race. Actually, it was literally 3 hrs from shuttle to race start for me. One positive part of starting the day later is all the bathrooms were empty. But it did make for a longer race day and higher temps. Oh well, it is what it is.

Shuttle time. This is what 3am wake up call looks like!

SWIM

Let's talk about the swim! A perfect 64 degrees for me, wave start. I swam a ton going into the race and I felt confident in my swim until the first 100 yds and I could not breath. I am used to the lung constriction that happens in cold water so I figured I would adjust, but it got worse and worse to the point I had to stop swimming and try to exhale hard a few times. I am 5 mins into my World Championship race and I am breast stroking trying to get air in my lungs. WFT. I could not think of a worse way to start off the day. At first I was so mad at myself, “why can’t I figure this out,” “its going to be a hard day!” The mind was looking for evidence to show me I should back down and it got it! Then I paused and came back to my goal for the race - “Am I showing up as my best at this very moment?” My answer was “no! I am freaking out!” So I slowed, found my rhythm and after a few more 100s I could swim at my normal pace. I knew I swam slow but I was horrified when I saw 1:19. 11 mins slower than my “typical” IM swim. 11 mins is a lot of minutes! What I decided to think next determined the rest of my day. I could have thought “I am so behind, racing well is out the door”, or “I need to catch up on the bike”, or “screw it, I will just go chill for the day.” Instead, I chose to think “I have no idea what anybody else swam, it is over. Now it is time to bike.” That was the very last time I thought about my swim. I let all judgments go and I was laser focused on riding smart and fast on the course.


Time: 1:19

My "11 mins is a lot of minutes!" look

BIKE

I love to ride! Love it! And I love to ride long and fast! But that was NOT my strategy for this bike course. This is a hard course in general. Add a post ride marathon + heat + wind and it became pretty epic. Luckily, epic riding is my thing (see Pura Vida Cycling Challenges for evidence on how much I love epic riding). I knew if I could stay conservative, ride the road smart and distribute my watts when it mattered, I could pull off a decent time and have legs left to run. When I rode here last May, I overrode and blew up my run. I was determined to not do that again. My game plan was nutrition, hydration, steady riding and kamikazing the descents.


The real riding doesn't really start until 60ish miles and the 15 miles up to Veyo. Before that it was some fun rollers and flatish roads. Once you start up to Veyo the road turns rural and the climbing gets real. There were a few pitches in the 12%+ grade range. Lots of fun if you ask me :) But there were more than a handful of people walking their bike up the climbs. I took the climbs steady and made sure I carried my momentum into the downhill. It was a new experience for me to start in the back of the race. With all of the men starting before all of the women, I had the interesting experience of riding past literally 1500+ men and some women. Riders were starting to get tired, hot and sloppy. Aid stations ran out of gels which had many athletes justifiably freaking out. When some of the fastest age group women can’t even get on course nutrition, there is a big problem that needs to be addressed. Riding in the back/middle of the race added a new element I had not experienced before. I like being in the front, I like riding with many other faster riders, I like when I feel like the momentum is moving me ahead. Riding and navigating through athletes and feeling like I am “behind” in the race was a mindset I had to keep working on. I spent more time checking my thoughts on that than any other cycling element.


We got past Veyo and it was time to boogie. I changed my front wheel just for this section and I took full advantage of it! I was able to stay in aero and fly down to the turn around. Almost everyone around me either eased up or sat up when the winds hit. I kept a strong aero position, tucked in and held on for the ride. I put in a ton of time on the field just by being able to control my bike in the wind. I was very thankful for the wise wheel advice (thank you Lewis and Marilyn) and all the many rides I have had in the strong Arizona wind.


By the time we hit the Snow Canyon climb at around mile 102ish, it was hot! About 90 degrees. I planned on climbing around 190-200 watts but backed way off and instead focused on getting in as much nutrition and hydration as possible to make sure I was ready to run. Then it was back to the massive descent when I once again settled in and bombed down. I am still amazed by the huge amount of time I was able to put into the field all because I could stay in aero and handle my bike. Lesson: Aero gear is not always faster and bike skills matter!


I got off the bike and I was ready to run! I knew I conserved the bike. I had consumed the best case scenario of hydration and nutrition (about 400 cal/hr) and I love hills. It was my time to shine!


Time: 6:10

Nutrition:

Skratch Super Fuel - 1 bottle/2hrs

2 The Right Stuff packets (best salty sweater solution ever!)

2 packets Skratch chews

6 Cliff Blocks

6-7 SIS gels (regular and beta fuel)


I ❤️ Snow Canyon

RUN

I felt good, really good when I started the run, but 26.2 miles is a long time so I broke the race up into 8 parts. Basically you run up 2 miles, down 4, up 4, down and flatish 3, repeat. I rarely looked at my pace or even heart rate, I ran mostly by feel. I love hills and I trail run almost weekly. I know I can do hills. The key was going to be managing myself and not get too excited, especially on the downhills on the first loop. It was the downhills on the second loop that really destroyed the athletes that were first loop over zealous runners. Just like IM CdA, I walked every aid station, poured ice everywhere and drank water and eventually coke and gatorade.


I felt good. I might have been one of the few runners on the course that felt good. It was carnage out there. Of course my legs hurt, my body was tired but I was in the zone from the minute I got on the run course. I saw a friend at mile 2 who shouted “manage yourself” and I shouted back “I am, I have it!” From the moment I stepped on to the run course, I knew I had it, I had a great run in me. It was my job to stay on task and manage until mile 20 then I could really see what I could do.


I got a boost from seeing Azella, Jaime and my best running buddy Luna on lap two. My friends Stephanie and Joe that drove all the way up from Phoenix definitely win for best sign! I saw Marilyn around mile 15 and I looked at her and I said “I have it, I feel great!” She said “I know, you are running better than everyone else” that gave me a huge boost. It was hard to tell how other people were running, which loop they were on etc. I didn't know where I was in the race but knowing I was doing well was enough to help me pick it up just a hair when things got hard at mile 23. If I was running the best, all I had to do was keep it up. In the back of my mind I thought I might make the top 20.



When I turned around to head back uphill for the last time I decided it was time to pick up the effort. This is when shit hits the fan in an IM run. When you willingly put yourself deeper into the pain cave. When you ask your body to produce more than it is now. You ask your mind to sit in discomfort on a whole new level. This is the moment in Ironman that you find out what you have, what you are capable of. Even though I felt good and strong, I have done enough of these to know when I ask for more I might get a “hell no!” or even worse I might ask for more and run right into the preverbal wall.


It was time. This is what I came for, this is what I knew the day would eventually lead to. Did I have it? I took a breath and I asked for more. My legs delivered! I started to pass women that had passed me miles ago. At mile 23 I asked for even more and I started to fly (and by fly I mean an 8:30 pace going downhill, but on this course it really was flying).


I wore a new trisuit for the race, a hot pink cheetah print trisuit from Love the Pain. I have never stood out this much in a race. I have never loved wearing something so much in my life! I had so many cheers for the “cheetah girl’ and the last 3 miles I was getting cheetah roars and cat claw hand signs. The boost of having strangers invested in me was like a Mario power up. I locked into an effort and I was going to hang on to it if it killed me. I was a god damn cheetah after all.

I am a god damn Cheetah!

With a mile left I realized I had two women right behind me. I couldn't tell their age group but there was no way I was giving up a place after this long of a race and I picked it up. That was the longest and hardest mile of my life. I went deep in the pain cave. With .5 mile left I remembered the amazing speech Julie Moss gave at the Women for Tri breakfast. She talked about her epic race and said on the course she found her self worth, she deserved to be there and she was worth fighting for. That is what I focused on. I am worth doing what I love. I am worth digging deep inside to find out what I can do. I am worth sitting in this mental and physical discomfort because I want to cross the finish line as fast as I can and I am worth fighting these two women until the very end.


So I did just that. I barreled down the finishing shoot and body slammed my catcher. I turned around and saw one man on the floor barely conscious and two women sprinting as hard as they could. It was beautiful and I started crying. I finished the world championship and I shared the course with other amazing humans that know their worth. We all brought our best that day for no other reason other than we wanted to know what was inside, what was possible for us.


Time: 4:12

Nutrition:

8 SiS gels

Coke from mile 13

Some amount of gatorade


So much pain and so much joy!

I eventually learned I came in 15th! I was 16th until mile 23 when my extra cheetah push spurred me on. One of the women that I was racing until the end came up and thanked me. She said she was almost done with the day, but when she saw me she knew she wanted to try and beat me and it pushed her to run harder than she thought was possible. I could not help but shed another tear. We are all in this to be better. Seeing her try and run me down pushed me dig deeper than I knew was possible and my effort spurred her effort and together we learned that we were capable of so much more than we knew. For me this is the ultimate expression of respect and human connection. Whoever you are thank you for helping me dig deeper!


This is my favorite IM course and my best race ever. I am so damn proud of myself. I did what I wanted to do. I did not crumble in the heat or wind. I did not let a bad swim derail me for the day. I was smart, I managed, I knew what I could and when the timing was right, I asked for even more and I had it. I showed myself that I was worth it, that I can compete with the best. The 12 year old girl that had that first tap that she could race at the top level of Ironman all those years ago was screaming her head off at the finish line.


Ironman is a race, but it is so much more to me. It is my love. It is an example of what is possible when you can manage your mind to create what you want. It is a beautiful display of human vulnerability. Of triumph and loss, of grimaces and smiles. You are never the same when you start an Ironman as when you finish one. For better or worse, It leaves a mark on you. You get to decide what that mark is.


One more finish line photo because damn that was fun!