From Iraqi Kurdistan to my first Ironman
Updated: Jul 2, 2019
by Jennifer Connet
On race morning I woke up to a glittered poster - pictures of my cheering team sent in from Beirut to the jungles of Colombia - pasted together by my Mom. A year ago, I had been with these friends on vacation in the Philippines. We had all flown in from different places - Lebanon, Iraq and Morocco - for our annual reunion. At the time, I was based in Iraq managing humanitarian aid and early recovery programs in communities affected by the war with ISIS. On my flight leaving the Philippines, an Ironman triathlon branded backpack worn by another passenger sparked an inspiration. I spent the two day trip back to my remote posting in Iraq dreaming of taking time off to complete one these endurance races myself.
I spent the spring and summer training in Iraqi Kurdistan. While the temperature was still cool enough, I started a running club at my office - which was really just a few local colleagues I convinced to come out to the desert to ‘run’ with me, in exchange for a proper Kurdish picnic. When they realized that what I meant by running was faster than a walk and lasted more than 10 minutes, they started to bring their bikes to ride alongside me for support. Truck drivers would slow down to offer me a bottle of water or cheer me on with a wave. On weekdays I woke up early to run the quarter mile loop around the perimeter of my gated neighborhood. When the summer came, 120-degree heat forced me inside for training on a treadmill.
After Iraq, I took a break from work to move back to California and learn how to swim, get back on my bike, and train for Ironman Santa Rosa. I joined the Santa Cruz Triathlon Association (SCTA), where I met local triathlon coach Martin Spierings and joined his squad of athletes to prepare. Being a part of this triathlon community in the lead up to Ironman Santa Rosa was hugely important to supporting my goal, keeping me focused, and easing my work/life transition after having spent 10 years away based in the Middle East. When I needed a motivation boost, I reminded myself of my gratitude to be able to swim in the ocean and to run and bike outside safely, in the mountains, wearing shorts, breathing clean air. From January to race day May 11, I swam 120,000 yards, biked 1,560 miles up and down Highway 1 and ran 380 miles in the Santa Cruz mountains.
On race morning in Santa Rosa, I was pumped to make it to the start line feeling like I had fully committed myself to the training plan I’d been given and in the company of the new friends I’d made. After a 4am coffee and oatmeal, and with renewed inspiration from my international cheer poster, I drove to downtown Santa Rosa to catch one of the first buses to Lake Sonoma for the swim start.
Not having a lot of swim confidence, I was expecting to start off the race defending myself against friendly punches and kicks in the water from 2000+ fellow competitors. But with the rolling start - where athletes self seed themselves based on their predicted time - I was relieved to swim uninterrupted to the first buoy. It was coming around each turn where swimmers would converge and I would get my beating and resign to the back of the pack. I would take note of any color on the wetsuits and after the turn I would catch up before refocusing on staying calm and keeping my sight and my thoughts on the next buoy. Out of the water, everyone around me started to walk. I knew it was a long way to get up the steep, winding road to the transition area. With a lot of time to lose here and feeling surprisingly steady, I jogged my way up to transition area, only stopping for the very cheerful wetsuit strippers who told me to get on the ground with my legs up so they could pull my wetsuit off.
I rode out of transition on my bike and prepared to take the cold descent down from Lake Sonoma easy to catch my breath. Crossing the bridge over the lake, I passed the first bump in the road and saw the entire hydration system and water bottles pop off the bike in front of me. I laughed in surprise and felt grateful I wasn’t weighed down with 2 or 3 rear mounted bottles of my own, as they would soon be littering the bumpy 112-mile course. After making it to the bottom of this first descent, I forced myself to eat and then settled into my aero bars for the ride. Having trained up and down the coast and in the Santa Cruz mountains, the hills on the Santa Rosa course felt fun and manageable. I had worried most about the bike and what I would do mentally for 6 hours. I had planned to fill this time with thinking about my future steps, about the last year in Iraq, my motivation. Instead the time flew by as I counted down each 10-mile segment, rewarded myself with a water refill at each aid station, and focused on eating, drinking, breathing, repeat. When I realized three hours had gone by and I was halfway through the bike, I consciously reminded myself to look around and enjoy the moment - the day I had worked towards for months was passing quickly.
Coming into T2 off the bike I was excited that my mind and legs felt ready for the marathon. I quickly changed shoes in the transition tent, and was grateful for the kind volunteers who emptied my transition bag, clipped on my race belt, and handed me my hat. After running through downtown Santa Rosa with cheers from my family and the crowd, I settled into my planned running pace and took off along the dusty out and back trail. For 2 miles I felt great and ran on my target pace. Then reality hit with stomach cramping and a realization that I was really running a full marathon – a distance I had only run once before in a trail race. I spent a moment laughing at myself for not having fully grasped the craziness of running 26 miles after a 2.4-mile swim and 112-mile bike until that moment, and then embraced the pain and loved it even more. I slowed down, focused on my breathing, one mile at a time, and the excitement that I was really out there doing it. I looked forward to a routine of jogging through each aid station, pouring water on myself while I chugged cups of Coke and Gatorade. Looping through downtown Santa Rosa twice before the finish was a good mental break in between the long segments on the trail where I would alternate being in a deep mental focus and then looking around and picking up energy from other athletes.
With two miles in the race to go, I dug deep and picked up the pace to run hard to the finish to meet my coach, teammates and family. I was in such a zone I didn’t notice the Ironman red carpet at the finish line or my name being announced as an Ironman. It didn’t matter to me because I was already excited to do it again and to get faster and stronger for the next time. I was grateful to replace the challenge of working for a humanitarian organization overseas with the challenge of training and racing an Ironman to help transition to life back in the States. And to that woman on the plane with a backpack that sparked a crazy idea.
Jennifer finished 13th in the 30-34 age group at the 2019 Santa Rosa Ironman at her first Ironman attempt in a time of 12 hours and 24 minutes.