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Heather Jackson has long been a fan favorite in the long course triathlon world. Her electric smile, shock of platinum blonde hair, and mosaic of tattoos make her hard to miss on race day.
Although Chelsea Sodaro officially broke the 26-year drought of an American woman winning the Ironman World Championship by breaking the tape in 2022, Jackson got the ball rolling on that quest by being the first American woman in 10 years to get on the podium by coming in third in at Kona in 2016. Jackson has a long list of other successes in the sport: numerous Ironman wins at marquee races like Ironman Lake Placid and Ironman Florida, fiery bike and run splits that put other pros on notice, and multiple World Championship finishes throughout her pro career.
Now, Jackson is ready for a new challenge: one that will take her off the beaten path, literally.
A Kona Farewell Tour
When the world shut down in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, athletes both pro and amateur had a freedom to explore new opportunities to adventure in ways they never had before. For triathletes especially, pool closures meant little-to-no swimming for over a year, throwing a bunch of highly-regimented people for a loop.
Jackson chose to embrace the chance to change up her swim-bike-run regimen that she had followed religiously for the past 11 years of her professional triathlon career.
“I saw a life in 2020 where I didn’t have to be at the pool every day,” Jackson said. “Paula [Findlay] and Eric [Lagerstrom] were down in Tucson with us for three months in 2020. We spent those three months camping, trail running, and riding off-road. It was amazing.”
Even before 2020, Jackson knew her years left at Kona were going to be few by choice. “In 2019 I finished fifth in Kona,” Jackson said. “It gave me confidence that I was still strong in the sport after a tough finish in 2018. But even back in 2019, I was starting to gain interest in some of the gravel bike events that had started popping up.”
Jackson quietly decided that, before the pandemic happened, 2020 would be her final year going “all in” on Kona. The off-road excitement of gravel was calling her name too strongly to ignore.
Of course, Kona was canceled in 2020. Jackson was willing to delay her farewell appearance to 2021…until 2021 was canceled, too. Jackson described feeling devastated and frustrated that her desire to foray into gravel would have to wait another year – she was determined to have a true goodbye to Kona and forgo the race that had been so important to her for the past decade. Finally, in 2022, Jackson got her chance to have a final shot at the biggest race of the year for professional long course triathletes. Jackson opted to make her build to Kona as fun as possible after feeling she had lost some of the enjoyment of the sport due to the multiple Kona delays over the past two years.
“The build to Kona started to feel a bit boring,” Jackson said. “It was like, ‘Okay, here goes another five hour ride with some 30-minute aerobic intervals.’ I didn’t want to feel that way heading into Kona, so I changed things up.”
Jackson mixed in trail running and gravel riding to her Kona build and even did Ironman Lake Placid on three weeks of training, for fun (as only triathletes can do).
“After switching up my build a bit, my goal was to have fun every session,” Jackson said. “I made sure to keep my attitude light and positive so I arrived in Kona feeling ready to go and not burned out.”
Despite toeing the line with a slight cold, Jackson ended her final run in Kona by placing 16th.
The Move to Gravel
Jackson wasted no time in getting into the gravel scene post-Kona. She raced the Big Sugar gravel race, a 100-mile bike race in Arkansas, on October 22 (just two weeks post-Ironman) and was the 14th female overall.
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Even more impressively, Jackson lined up to race the Javelina 100-mile trail run race the weekend of October 29 and 30, one week after Big Sugar.
“I signed up for Javelina because it is a big, scary challenge totally unlike triathlon,” Jackson said. “There are murmurs that I am trying to get my Western States Golden Ticket, but that’s not true. I just want to finish and have an entirely new race experience.”
Jackson finished the race as the fifth female overall and led the women’s race for 60 miles. No Western States golden ticket this time, but we don’t think it will be long until Jackson secures one if she so chooses to make that a goal.
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Jackson noted that her foray into gravel and trail running stemmed from a growing predictability with her triathlon racing and training.
“I would line up for an Ironman and think, ‘Here we go. Same old same old,’” Jackson said. “It wasn’t so much that I stopped appreciating the sport, but I felt that for me personally, there were other types of racing that were grabbing my attention more than triathlon.”
The newly-minted hundred mile trail runner gained confidence in her ability to continue to be a dominant athlete when she trained with close friend Paula Findlay. “Paula is one of the best triathletes in the world,” Jackson said. “To be able to keep up with her during many of our training sessions together was shocking – in a good way – to me and showed me that I still have more to give in sport.”
The unpredictability and dynamics of off-road racing are what most excite Jackson. “Gravel and trail races are a totally new world for me – and that’s exciting,” Jackson noted. “I’ll be racing in new places, meeting new people, learning new tactics and strategies.”
While she won’t have a coach for now, Jackson will likely bring on a veteran off-road consultant to help her plan future seasons and strategize her goals in this new arena.
After racing Kona, Big Sugar, and the Javelina 100 all in less than a month, Jackson is understandably taking a healthy offseason this winter. She hasn’t released her race schedule for next year, but we wait with bated breath.
In reflecting on her triathlon career, Jackson commented that what made her professional days so special weren’t necessarily the races or the podiums, but the relationships that helped her get to the many start lines across the years.
“What I’ll miss the most about triathlon is not so much the racing, but training with my group of close friends,” Jackson said. “The feeling of accomplishment you get from finishing a big training block alongside other triathletes also building to their big day is amazing. I’ll miss it for sure.”
Jackson knows all too well how common it is for triathletes to feel locked into a training regimen. “I hope to show other triathletes that if there’s something outside of triathlon you want to do, it’s possible to achieve it – and you don’t even have to leave the sport,” Jackson said. “I spent the first years of my professional career religiously ticking off my workouts. I now know it’s better to change things up mentally and physically than be so singularly focused for years at a time.”
Now that it’s the offseason for most triathletes, we can all take a page out of Jackson’s book and do some exploring. Whether you’re looking to get started in trail running, gravel racing, or even skiing or snowshoeing, don’t be afraid to skip the planned workout of the day every so often to pursue something that makes your internal fire burn brighter.