When Jennifer Jabson was younger, she used to watch Ironman competitions on television, and when she saw people cross the finish line, she would be overwhelmed with emotion.
“I’d cry, I was just so inspired,” she said.
Jabson, a doctoral candidate in public health at OSU, was fascinated by the endurance and athleticism demonstrated by the competitors, but it never occurred to her that she’d one day be taking part in such an event. In high school in Bend, she was into choir and speech rather than sports, and struggled with asthma.
But in 1999, after returning to college as a non-traditional student, with her asthma under control and a new healthy attitude about life, Jabson started thinking about marathons, and decided she’d try to participate in one, just to try it out. So in 2001, she walked in the Portland marathon and decided she liked the atmosphere of big group competitions.
“It’s fun to be in that energy,” she said.
After several years running marathons, when a friend mentioned they were thinking about participating in the Ironman competition in Madison, Wisc., Jabson decided that it would be an exciting challenge. But she didn’t really know what she was in for.
“I didn’t have a bike, never had a swimming lesson,” Jabson said with a laugh, but it never occurred to her to be intimidated by the biking and swimming portions of the competition. Participants must register a year ahead of the competition, and the entry fee is quite high, but in September 2007 she had her $575 ready to go. Once she was registered though, the reality sunk in.
“I thought, ‘What have I done?’”
So Jabson bought a Trek bike, took swimming lessons at the YMCA, and started training. Which for the Iron Man, meant she was riding 100 miles on the weekends, spending three nights a week swimming and running whenever she could. This was in addition to teaching, taking classes for her PhD and preparing her dissertation proposal.
The entire time, she was wondering if she could truly participate in an Iron Man competition, but she was determined to go, even though it seemed an impossible goal.
“I’m peasant stock,” she said. “I’ve got some meat on these bones. I am not the vision of an endurance athlete.”
She was so proud of sticking to her physically grueling training schedule that it really felt possible she’d survive Iron Man, but once she arrived in Madison in September 2008, she began to have doubts.
“I had this myth that Wisconsin was flat,” she said. Then she saw the course she’d be running and riding. That’s when she says she went into denial about what was ahead, and decided to just go for it.
The crowd gathered on the morning of the event to watch the swimming competition overwhelmed Jabson.
“It was a really powerful experience as a non-athlete,” she said, as she climbed into the water along with 2,500 other participants.
“There were people with signs and ringing cowbells, taking pictures, it was very magical,” she said.
Jabson had a moment of doubt when she was in the water, but then the gun went off to mark the start of the race, and she just went.
That was the theme of the day for Jabson, just going forward and trying not to think of how much she had ahead of her.
The first task was two and a half miles of swimming, which she completed in an hour and 27 minutes, a record for her. When she got out of the water, volunteers stripped off her wet suit (she had a bathing suit underneath) and she ran back to the starting point to get into her biking clothes and jump on her bike for the second leg.
The 112-mile bike ride through the countryside was intense, with thunderstorms and big hills and the occasional equipment malfunction, like when her bike chain fell off at one point. A spectator ran out to help her put the chain back on, and then pushed her up the hill to give her a jump start.
“People were so supportive,” she said. It was that kind of attitude from the crowd that kept her going despite pain and fatigue.
At the end of the biking portion, her mother was waiting to see her, astonished that her daughter was participating in such a grueling race. The sight helped propel Jabson toward the last leg of the race, the 26.2 mile marathon.
“All I could think was ‘I love my mom!’” she said.
She was at the back of the pack when she started the running portion.“For me, it was plodding,” but she knew she had a full seven hours to complete the race, so she took her time and focused on simply finishing.
It was then that Jabson realized that she was thinking about nothing other than the present. As a doctoral student, she said her brain is usually focused into the future.
“I wasn’t thinking about my dissertation, or the finish line. I was in the moment,” she said. It was a transformative experience. She knew she couldn’t complete the course without taking it moment by moment.
“It was step by step,” she said. “Which is a profound metaphor for life.”
A little after 11 p.m., after hours of running in the dark, Jabson saw a glow in the sky that she realized was the lights around the finish line. Getting closer, she could hear the cheering, and as she got even closer, the crowds appeared. People began shouting her name, which was printed underneath her racing number, but Jabson was so tired she just assumed that somehow everyone knew who she was.
“I thought, ‘I’m a rock star!’” she said. “All I could think of was ‘This is the thing you’ve been dreaming of since age 6.’”
Jabson still tears up when she talks about crossing the finish line and being greeted by her friends and family.
“It was a really emotional, intimate experience,” she said. “It was life changing.”
Coming back from the race, Jabson said she brought with her the realization that she can commit to huge, life altering projects and succeed, and that competitions like the Iron Man aren’t just for young, fit athletes.
Now, when she tries to make up excuses for not going on a run or a bike ride, she realizes she can no longer say she can’t do it, because she’s proven she could do more than she ever thought herself capable of.
“It gave me a window into myself.”
There are 55 Ironman events that take place around the world each year, culminating in an Ironman Championship held in Kona, Hawaii.
Below is a video featuring Jabson crossing the finish line in Madison, Wisc.
~ Theresa Hogue