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Ironman star Heather Jackson sets her sights on gravel racing

American Ironman record-holder Heather Jackson will race gravel in 2020 as she builds towards the world championships in Kona.

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America’s fastest Ironman triathlete will race on gravel roads in 2020.

Heather Jackson, the current American record holder at the Ironman-length triathlon distance (8:39:18), hopes to compete in the Belgian Waffle Ride, Dirty Kanza 200, and other gravel cycling events before she races the Ironman World Championships in Kailua Kona, Hawaii, in October.

Jackson believes the gravel schedule will boost her motivation—and shakeup her annual training schedule—as she trains for the Ironman world championships, in Kona, Hawaii.

“I’ve been racing triathlon for 11 years and I remember the early days, the Wildflower [triathlon] days, the grassroots days, when everything was new and exciting,” Jackson told VeloNews. “When you’ve been in the sport this long it can feel like the same thing over and over again, and gravel has that new and fresh feeling to it.

Jackson racing the 2019 Ironman world championships. Photo: Brad Kaminski

“The whole vibe around gravel fits with what I am, and I want to be a part of it,” she said.

Jackson is racing as part of the new Wahoo Frontiers gravel squad alongside former WorldTour road racers Ian Boswell and Peter Stetina, and gravel racers Amity Rockwell and Colin Strickland. Last week she was in Boulder, Colorado for the recent Old Man Winter Rally, which was cancelled after just 15 kilometers due to heavy snow.

A former pro road cyclist, Jackson said the steady-state pacing of long-distance gravel events is similar to the long, steady miles that she pedals as preparation for Ironman events. As Jackson looked at her 2020 schedule, she saw gravel events as an ideal way to prepare for triathlon in a competitive and low-pressure environment.

“These events are about settling into a certain pace and then just trying to grind it out—for me, I think that could be more beneficial to use these races as my hard training days as opposed to just doing long intervals,” Jackson said. “We’ll see if it elevates me and brings me more emotional stimulation. I know how to train for Ironman—long ride Saturday and then run it off, and then every Sunday is a long run. Now I get to crush a long bike.”

Indeed, Jackson’s steady and strong biking boosted her to a fifth place finish at the 2019 Ironman world championships. Jackson blazed through the 112-mile cycling leg in 4:46:45, the third-fastest bike leg in the professional female division. She was the top American finisher that day, crossing the line 14 minutes down on winner Anne Haug of Germany.

Jackson will race Belgian Waffle Ride and other gravel events in 2020. She also hopes to participate in the Dirty Kanza 200. Photo: Brad Kaminski

Why break up her routine after such a strong finish in Kona? Jackson said the desire try something new for 2020 stemmed from the 2018 Ironman world championships, where she struggled on the run and finished in 14th place. Unlike road cyclists, top Ironman athletes often compete just a few times a season, spending the rest of their year logging long miles in preparation for the world championships.

“You’re grinding away every day. In [2018] I had the perfect preparation, I was so fit, and I nailed it and mentally I was just fried,” Jackson said. “It’s totally a mental thing. If you’re not ready to fight on that day, you’re screwed. For me, [racing gravel] is about getting mentally fresh before I lock down for Kona.”

Jackson qualified for the 2020 Ironman world championships by finishing second at Ironman Arizona this past November. With her Kona spot secured, Jackson said she had the freedom to try something new. Her gravel racing schedule will run through July, at which point she will revert back to full-time triathlon training until October.

What will be the most difficult part of her transition to gravel?

After each race, Jackson will likely have to go for a short run.

“I’ll have my running shoes with me,” Jackson said.