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“It feels very surreal” – Heather Jackson on Western States and Kona comparisons

Heather Jackson on Kona and Western States.

Staff Reporter
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Heather Jackson says she feels “those same feelings” she did before the IRONMAN World Championships, as the former professional triathlete prepares to run at the iconic Western States for the first time.

During her days as a leading professional triathlete, the American finished in the top five at the world championships on the Big Island four times, along with a multitude of titles and podiums elsewhere, but has now set her sights on new challenges.

She is less than a year into a blossoming trail running career but has already made a significant impression on the sport, finishing second at Black Canyon Ultras 100K before bagging a maiden victory in the Canyons Endurance Runs 50K.

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Dream come true

It is a pinch yourself moment for Jackson ahead of Western States, one of the most coveted events in the sport, and it takes her back to her first days competing at the pinnacle of triathlon.

“It feels very surreal,” she told RUN247. “I don’t want to say [it’s like] competing in Kona for the first time because I had already been going to Kona with Watty (Sean Watkins), my husband. He worked in the triathlon industry long before I started racing Kona so I would go with him every October.

Heather Jackson at Canyons Endurance Runs by UTMB
Heather Jackson at Canyons Endurance Runs by UTMB. [Photo credit: UTMB]

“It was that excitement and awe of just watching Kona and being there. Then I was there as a pro in 2015, so I had that experience there of the lead-in and build-up to when I finally raced it.

“But with Western States, I’ve watched it online before, I’ve watched coverage. To be able to be a part of it and race it, it’s still sinking in. It was just exciting because that was my passion and goal for so long. To have it again is just awesome.

“I have the same feeling and I have that same excitement that I had towards Kona those first two to three years that I raced there as a pro.”

No expectations

Jackson explained that she is relishing her journey into the unknown at Western States – just as she did all those years ago in Hawaii.

“In 2015, I went into Kona for the first time and I was just so excited to be there,” she added. “I had absolutely no expectations whatsoever. I was just like ‘I get to go and race this’.

“I’ve run the last, I think, four miles of the course and that’s about it. I’ve watched all the YouTube videos and listened to so many podcasts, but I have no idea about the first 90 miles of the course.

Heather Jackson (USA) - 2nd at IRONMAN Lake Placid 2022
[Photo credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images for IRONMAN]

“It’s going to be this huge adventure the whole day, and that’s exciting. With Kona, you start to learn the course by heart, you know every little thing about it, you plan for it all year. It becomes your whole year, versus going into something for the first time and not knowing it, it’s just this wide open canvas. Anything could happen out there and that’s what’s super exciting.”

Different nerves

The nerves were yet to set in for Jackson on Wednesday – three days out from Western States – but she is anticipating a different kind of anxiousness to her triathlon days, when her swim weakness often left her playing catch-up.

“The nerves haven’t kicked in yet,” she said. “I’m sure I’ll start to get nervous, but I think it will probably be a different type of nervous compared to Kona. Kona is so intense, what swim group you make, that could make or break your race. 

“The race strategy at Western States isn’t necessarily about that. It might be that if you don’t fuel right in the first 20 miles, you’re going to feel in the 80 miles later. It’s different things that I’m getting nervous about and making sure I execute. I know how to do them but there’s just different things you have to stay on top of.”

Always learning

Jackson went on to explain how she has developed during her short time in trail running, and reiterated how differently races unfold now she can attack from the start.

“It’s the same with triathlon,” she said. “You learn something new every single time you race and especially in a new sport.

“Whether it’s how I’m going to carry my fuel – am I going to carry handhelds or a pack- what shoes to use. I adjusted my training a little after the first ones I did, incorporating more downhill work to really work on the quad strength.

Heather Jackson take victory at Canyons Endurance Runs by UTMB.
Heather Jackson take victory at Canyons Endurance Runs by UTMB. [Photo credit: Patrick McDermott / UTMB]

“Every race, I’ve definitely brought some new things into training and considerations for Western States. I’m still trying to fathom how these top women in the sport do it – they have their pace dialed or they know what to do or they have this idea. I guess after doing so many 100-mile races you do probably dial that in better.

“For me, coming off of triathlon, literally every single race was a matter of what I was going to hear coming out of the water. Was it six minutes back? Eight minutes back? 15 minutes back? That was always the case for me, not having that swim. It was just a day of chasing people down, trying to make up for that weakness.

“Now, with the trail running, I’m not starting 10 minutes back out of the water. I get to be in the race from the start. Sometimes at the start of these races I get carried away thinking I’ve got to stay near the front because this is what it feels like to be a Lucy Charles-Barclay.”

Tomos Land
Written by
Tomos Land
Tomos Land is a triathlon & running journalist whose expertise lies in the professional world of short course & long distance triathlon, though he also boasts an extensive knowledge of ultra-running.
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