Heather Jackson Is Ready to Go the Distance

This article originally appeared on Trail Runner

Heather Jackson admits she's not great running on technical trails, but it sure beats swimming long distances.

To understand the context of that statement, you have to know a thing or two about Jackson, who, up until last October, was a pro triathlete. For 15 years, she was known as a relentless training fiend and a gritty, high-energy competitor who was strong on her bike, fast on her feet, but, admittedly, not a great open-water swimmer.

She retired from triathlon last October after finishing 16th in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. After that, she backed away from swimming and more or less jumped right into trail running and gravel bike racing with huge success.

"No, I don't miss swimming," Jackson said with a laugh after winning the 50K race at the Canyons Endurance Runs by UTMB on April 29 in Auburn, California. "But I love trail running."

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It certainly seemed that way as she crossed the finish line with her trademark wide smile and the same exuberant vibe that she brought to triathlon for so many years. She was greeted by her husband and longtime endurance co-conspirator Sean "Wattie" Watkins, and their dog, Stevie.

Although the 50K wasn't the marquee event of the Canyons Endurance Runs, Jackson dominated the race amid scorching heat, outrunning a strong field of women that included Ireland's Caitriona Jennings (4:17:47), a 2012 Olympic marathoner who placed third at the 100K World Championships and second at the JFK 50 last year, and fellow American EmKay Sullivan (4:17:50), who will be representing Team USA in the 44K race at the World Mountain and Trail Running Championships in Innsbruck, Austria, in early June.

"I did not expect this," said Jackson, who recorded four top-five finishers at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii as well as numerous half-distance Ironman 70.3 victories. "I mean, for me it was more just like something new and I was gonna give it a try for a year or two and kind of just slowly transition out of triathlon. But it’s just been amazing. So, yeah, now I’m hooked."

Jackson, 39, has only three trail running races under her belt, but she's gotten better at retooling her training to focus on both relatively high-volume running and gravel bike racing. Splitting time between Bend, Oregon, and Tucson, Arizona, she's continued to train between 20 and 25 hours per week as she always has, but now that includes 60 to 70 miles of running and about 300 miles of biking, plus extensive strength sessions a couple of times every week.

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In her first race, she turned heads with an impressive fifth-place finish at the Javelina Jundred 100-miler in McDowell, Arizona. After that race, Hoka offered her one of their sponsor entries to the 2023 Western States 100. She accepted, but then, after immersing into her new training regimen, she went out and justified her entry by finishing second in Arizona's Black Canyon Ultras 100K on February 18, less than 3 minutes behind women's champion Keely Henninger.

As her triathlon career evolved, she became known for her big smile, vibrant energy, numerous tattoos, short-cropped color-tinted hair, and bright--and sometimes flashy--racing kits. But she also earned a reputation for running fast and chasing runners down on tired legs at the end of Ironman triathlons, as her 26.2-mile run splits were typically in the 2:59-3:10 range.

"She's a legit runner," said Hoka global sports marketing director Mike McManus. "She's having fun and it's a much more comfort-level wheelhouse for her. It's been fun to watch her have fun with this. She's brought a real nice, healthy and fresh attitude to trail running."

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See You At States

Jackson is excited and respectfully nervous about running Western States. But Before she can fully focus on running to another finish line in Auburn, she'll switch back to gravel biking as she prepares to race the 200-mile Unbound Gravel race across central Kansas on June 3. The Canyons 50K was just a chance to familiarize herself with some of the terrain of the course and dial in her nutrition strategy while getting into another strong race effort on the trails.

As a means to recover from running, Jackson says she'll focus more on riding as she immerses in the final training for the gravel race. But so far, that kind of pivoting has worked well for her. By alternating heavy training segments between running and cycling, she's excelled at both sports. Two weeks before running the Canyons 50K, she won the 85K Belgian Waffle Ride gravel race in San Diego.

A typical Saturday of training has included a six-hour ride followed by an hour run on tired legs. After racing the Unbound Gravel race, which she figures will take 9-10 hours, she'll go out for a long run the following day as one of her last key training runs for Western States three weeks later. She was happy to drop swimming from her routine, but she admits it is not yet an easy mix.

"It's funny, it's almost harder to balance just two because I'm so focused on one--whatever is coming next," Jackson says. "I'm more conscious of not wanting my legs to be tired for a bike race. So I've let up on running more than I would’ve leading into a race in triathlon. But then after the bike race, I do a lot more running two to three days after to make up for the week leading into the bike race. So it’s a little different than triathlon, I guess, because now the focus is either bike racing or it's trail racing, and I just want to give the priority to what's next."

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Jackson admits she's still learning the finer nuances of trail running. At the Black Canyons 100K, she started the race wearing a pair of Hoka Rocket X 2 road racing shoes, but switched at an aid station to a pair of Hoka Tecton X 2 after slipping too much on the trail surface. Although she's done most of her run training on gravel roads for years, she admits she's still adept at running on moderately technical trail surfaces, as evidenced by the ankle she rolled in the Canyons 50K.

While Jackson might lack the ultrarunning experience of some of the runners she'll face at the Western States 100, she obviously has the athleticism and the mindset to compete in ultra-distance trail races. But after just eight months in the trail running scene, does she feel like a trail runner?

"Yeah, I think so, but I don't know," she says laughing. "It's so funny because all my triathlon career, I still never identified as a triathlete. I always found myself as a hockey player who was doing triathlon. I've played ice hockey for 20 years, and I always felt like I was a hockey player making it work in triathlon. Now I guess I'm like a triathlete doing some trail running. I’ll start to shift the mind soon because now I'm a trail runner and a gravel racer."

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