Doctoral candidate finishes back-to-back Ironman races

first_imgSoon after crossing the finish line, Zaiss drove with friends overnight to Chattanooga, arriving at 7:10 a.m. on just four hours of sleep. In order to prepare for the event next year, Zaiss decided to compete in two back-to-back Ironman competitions in September. Ironman competitions consist of a 2.4-mile swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride and end with a 26.2-mile run. Zaiss had already competed in three Ironman races by 2019, so when a fellow competitor suggested that she consider participating in the Ultraman — a three-day race consisting of a 6.2-mile swim and 92-mile bike ride on Day 1, a 171-mile bike ride on Day 2 and a double marathon on Day 3 — Zaiss embraced the challenge. The plan was as follows: Zaiss would fly to Nashville, Tenn. on Sept. 25 before driving 755 miles to Cambridge, Md. to compete in Ironman Maryland that Saturday. Following that first race, Zaiss and her team would drive 690 miles to Chattanooga, Tenn., where she would immediately begin another Ironman competition.  Her first triathlon came eight years ago during her last year as an undergraduate — a triathlon “sprint” which consisted of a half-mile swim, 12-mile bike ride and three-mile run. At the time, Zaiss confessed she could barely run the three miles. She ultimately got lost during the race and finished dead last.  Although she is pleased with her record-breaking achievement, Zaiss said she is most proud of the mental and physical strength she showed over the course of the two races.  That is the distance fifth-year doctoral candidate Jess Zaiss swam, biked and ran two weekends ago when she became the first woman to successfully complete back-to-back Ironman races. “I don’t actually really think about [the record] if I’m going to be honest with you,” Zaiss said. “More what I think about is the fact that I set this goal to do this really hard thing, and I did it. More than that, I just think back to that morning at Chattanooga, and I’ve never been so intimidated by a race … I stepped to the starting line shaking in my boots, and I still stepped forward. I think that’s what I’m the most proud of.” Still, Zaiss was proud of completing her first triathlon attempt and called her aunt after the race, who quickly brought up Ironman competitions. “I was so mad that she couldn’t just have this moment with me,” Zaiss said. “I was like, ‘You know what? Fine. I’m going to do an Ironman someday.’” “On the bike, I was in survival mode, and I saw so many cyclists on the side of the road not finishing,” Zaiss said. “Four hundred athletes didn’t make it off the bike alone, and I didn’t want to be one of those statistics.” Two hundred and eighty-five miles. After the bike ride, a mentally and physically exhausted Zaiss moved on to the race’s marathon portion. Twenty-six point two miles later, she finished her second Ironman competition in two days, becoming the first woman to do so. Once she entered the water, Zaiss fought through a strong current and encountered several jellyfish before finishing the swim and embarking on the 112-mile bike ride and marathon run. Even though Zaiss ended the race within the cutoff time, she did not feel optimistic heading back to Tennessee for her second Ironman.  “I was actually very scared,” Zaiss said. “Maryland, I thought, was supposed to be an easier course, and I kept my effort low, but there was a ton of wind on the bike. In order to make the [8:30 p.m.] cutoff that I needed to make, I had to push a little harder than I thought I would.” “I was nervous,” Zaiss said. “I was actually cool and collected all morning, which was surprising to me. And then once they did the countdown and the athletes started getting in the water, that’s when I got a bit nervous just because I knew as soon as I stepped foot into that water, I knew that the weekend was officially underway, and there [were] 285 miles [looming] in front of me.” That initial race was in 2011. Over the ensuing years, Zaiss trained and regularly competed in triathlons. In 2015, she began her doctoral studies at USC and joined a local Los Angeles Triathlon club called LA Tri.  Despite playing five high school sports — volleyball, basketball, softball, track and cheer — in her hometown of Jasper, Mo., Zaiss, who is studying geological sciences, never thought she would attempt such a feat.  Doctoral candidate Jess Zaiss celebrates after finishing her second Ironman race in two days. (Photo courtesy of Jess Zaiss) Just as she did the day before, Zaiss lined up to begin what would be over 140 miles of racing. After finishing the swim, she persevered through the race’s 116-mile bike ride.  Despite months of preparation, Zaiss admits it was difficult to settle her nerves as she lined up to begin the first race in Maryland.  Zaiss also hopes her achievement can serve as a source of inspiration for others. “That feeling of facing your fears head on and overcoming a hard obstacle — [no other feeling beats it],” Zaiss said. “I just really encourage everyone to sign up for something that scares you. If that’s a 5k run, great, do it. Face that head on. You can do hard things.”last_img