When everything you do is competitive – Jen Koester’s Ironman Kona Story
We chat to Ironman age grouper Jen Koester about her journey into the sport of Ironman triathlon. This is her Ironman story.
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BRAD BROWN: Welcome onto The Kona Edge. Jen Koester. Jen, thanks for joining us.
JEN KOESTER: Thanks for having me. This is awesome.
BRAD BROWN: Jen, one thing I love about doing this is, I get to chat to cool people around the world. We’ve got one thing in common and that’s our love for triathlon. It’s amazing how quickly you can connect with someone who has the same sort of interests. We’re on opposite ends of the world and its triathlon that brings us all together, and that just fires me up. How long have you involved in the sport?
Two Ironman seasons and going strong
JEN KOESTER: I’ve just finished my second season. My first race was Coeur d’alene in 2015, and then my most recent was Kona 2016/2017.
BRAD BROWN: Gee, go big or go home.
JEN KOESTER: Yes, right. Got to start off with that win, right?
BRAD BROWN: What’s your sporting background? You obviously didn’t wake up on the couch one day and decide you want to do this Ironman thing. So what’s your background?
JEN KOESTER: As a kid, your parents let you go through all the sports.Like the little soccer league and all that. The one that I connected with most was running. And they start us in elementary school here at your 8th year, round about 4th grade.
So, I did that through to 8th grade and then in high school just wanted to do something different because I got burned out quickly in the sport. I did swimming and water polo, and hated it. It was terrible. I was so slow in the water. You had people punching you under the water when you’re playing polo. And I’m tiny, so I was getting thrown around by everyone. It was the wrong size for the sport. I also tried volleyball. Obviously, with being 5 feet 3 inches I’m not blocking anyone at the net. So, I just couldn’t find a sport that fit my size.
Find the sport that fits your size
Then I went to college in Los Angeles, and a lot of my friends at high school started rowing, and everyone was saying I’d be great as a coxswain. I was not impressed with that because the coxswain is the lazy one that sits on the side yelling at people. And that’s not what I wanted to do. Just before going into my freshman year at college, I emailed the coach with my mile time, telling her all the sports I played. Water polo, volleyball, swimming, track and field, and she said, no problem.
I go to practice the first day and she’s doing a roll call because she’s never seen those of us who walked on. My name gets called and I step up to the front and she says No, I want Jen Koester and I said yes, that’s me. She literally just looked at me and said what? You run a sub-6 mile and you’re this tiny little thing? You get over there. You’re a coxswain, not a rower.
Ironman medals are inspiring
So, I rowed all 4 years and every now and then if we were short someone, I was tossed into a boat to race. With no idea, what I was doing. So, that was my sport background. And it’s funny, because we got a new coach one year from Stanford University and I remember the first time I met him. He had these one on one meetings with us in his office. He was from Milwaukee, with a very intimidating accent. Big 6 foot 3 inch built guy and I thought he was going to kill me. And I walked in his office and he had all these medals behind him. Probably between 15 to 20 medals. They were Ironman’s. The North Face Ultra running challenge, marathons. Just everything you could think of.
And that was the first time I’d ever heard of, or saw the word Ironman. That was on all these medals. And I was stunned by it all, they were such nice-looking medals, it was crazy. He would talk about training for them and he worked out with us because we did a lot of cross training. Wo, we’d get in the pool twice a week. We’d do a lot of running. Every now and then, we’d do some spin classes at the university spin centre.
From athlete to coach
It was about two thirds through my senior year of college, he said he needs a new assistant coach. Would I want to join the team? Would I like to go from being an athlete to being a coach? I was like, are you kidding me, I’m going to get paid to work out? Yes, I’ll take the job.
So, I started working out with him and I got my ass kicked. We’d go on trail runs and I’d see him for maybe 5-minutes. He’d be like okay, I’m going to put my headphones in, and then he’d be gone.
I didn’t realise at the time that he was training for the Arizona Ironman in the States. So, fast forward a couple of months. After he’d competed, he says to me Hey Jen, there’s this half Ironman distance race just 2 hours south of LA, you should go do it. I’m thinking, I’ve just learned how to ride a road bike. I’ve just got clips. I was the person that if I saw a car coming and it’s a red light, I’d rather hit the car than stop to unclip my foot because I’m going to fall and I’m going to make a fool of myself. And then that first race I did by myself. No clue what I was doing.
Placing in your first swim
I remember the swim, just going like a bat out of hell the first half mile, and then just being dead by the end of the swim. Thinking, holy crap, I have two more legs of the race to go. This isn’t happening. And I remember I got out and I was looking at the results board because they had it posted right at the finish line. And I see my name and it says 2nd place. I’m kind of, this is a rich joke. Whoever is doing this job is getting fired because this is clearly a mistake. And I went up to check with them and they’re like Hey Jen Koester you’re 2nd in your age group. I’m like, are you kidding me?
And then that’s when it all started. From there, Vee convinced me to sign up and race a full Ironman. Probably about 5-months later in June.
That was the Coeur d’alene Ironman in Idaho. And it was the same thing, where the goal was just to finish. Your goal is finish and best case scenario, you’re aiming for a 14-hour finish time. And I’m like okay, if I finish that’s all I want. And it was the same thing. Crossed the finish line. We had road tripped from San Francisco to Coeur d’alene, so it took us about 3 days of driving to get there.
So, after the race, it was hop in the lake, rinse off a little bit. Let’s drive a couple of hours, just let’s get going.
The win in your first Ironman
About 45 minutes into the drive home, I thought I should look at my phone and let my mom know that I’m alive. I finished the race. I’m good. There are all these texts from people. And they’re like, you won. And I’m thinking what are these people on. This isn’t a joke, That’s not nice. And so, I look at the icon that gives you the live results. I look at it and I remember going, I won. Is there a glitch in this system? This can’t be right. I remember looking at Vee, telling him dude, I really won. This isn’t a joke, look. And I was shoving my phone in his face while we’re on the highway. He said, well, you know how this works. And I go, no I don’t. I have no idea how any of this works, what does that mean.
So, they have the bidding ceremony the next morning. If you want to go to Hawaii, we must turn around and go back to Coeur d’alene. I was thinking what’s this bidding ceremony, it sounds like some cult thing that’s going on here. He said, you won your age group so you can go to the World Championship and you should go. They call your name, they do a roll call and you get to go.
The one race that can change your life
That was like the biggest debate. I was like, is this really happening? I feel like I’m going to wake up because there’s no way this is not a dream, this is real life. And he told me it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, glass half full kind of guy. Telling me you probably never going to make it again so you should go just this one time. I’m okay, it’s true, I’m never going to go. I looked at my bank account and went oh, this is going to be tight and he turned back and accepted that bid to Kona.
It’s crazy to think that 2 years ago that one race, completely changed my life. It’s nuts now that it went from one goal of okay, just finish. In that race where we said best case scenario 14 hours. It’s nothing to brag about but I think I finished in 12 hours 45 minutes. And it’s just nuts that you go from that just finish, just have fun with it, to, well I’ve got to qualify again. I’ve got to win again. I want to go pro. I want to do this. I want to get on this team. I want to go this fast. It’s just crazy.
Never have I had this anxiety about I’ve got to get home because I’ve got a 2-hour spin tonight and I can’t skip a workout. Usually, I’m like, I’m going to watch TV and have a beer. It’s nuts.
The crazy world of Ironman
BRAD BROWN: Back then you thought it was a cult. Now you know it’s a cult.
JEN KOESTER: Yes. The crazy thing is, working in collegiate athletics, 50% of coaches are in shape and the majority of athletes are. And I’ll never forget going into the Ironman Village, at Coeur d’alene. I got so uncomfortable and nervous, I started laughing because everyone was insanely in shape. There were ripped men and women with their 10 000 dollar bikes with their disc wheels. I had no idea what I was doing. I’m like fat to you people. This is insane. And it totally is. You get a taste of it and you just can’t get away. It’s crazy. I used to think people who do Ironman, something’s wrong with them. Who wants to go through that torture? Who wants to go running in that heat and all that? 3 Legs, 3 disciplines. It’s nuts.
And now I’m one of those people. It’s like no way, I can’t go out tonight I’ve got to train. I’d rather be on the spin bike by myself watching some bad movie on Netflix, than being social. Who’s social now days? It’s crazy. It just totally changes your life and who you are for the better though. That’s the cool thing.
BRAD BROWN: You’ve obviously got a competitive streak in you. Were you competitive as a kid? Have you got siblings? Where did that come from?
Your competitive streak with good humour
JEN KOESTER: I have an older sister. I’m 24 years old, she’s 28. We were always competitive. We went to the same elementary school and same high schools. Report cards were always like, okay I know she got a B in physics when she was a freshman. I must get an A because I must beat her. It was always competitive with good humour too. But everything’s a competition. Like, who can eat the fastest? So, yes, competitive.
I’ll be walking the dog and I’d see someone across the street from me and I’d say my dog is bigger. I win. Everything is competitive and it’s nice because the Ironman lets me get it out of my system a little bit.
BRAD BROWN: Obviously, the one in Idaho and Kona you’ve done. Now that you’ve done a couple, do you think if you did it again, would you ease into the sport slower? Or do you think the way you did it, just jump in head first and see what comes? Are you glad you did it that way or do you wish you had built up slightly slower?
A slow build up or jump in with Ironman
JEN KOESTER: I like the way I did it. Just jumping into it because it’s nice to go into it with no expectations. It has no pressure to it. And I made it fun. Like that first race starting over in Palm Springs doing that half that wasn’t even an Ironman. It was called The Hits Triathlon Series. Starting that was super casual. Not many people. Just super easy going. And then going from that to the Ironman. And as I said, you don’t have these high expectations of I’ve been a cyclist for 8 years, so I should be killing it on the road.
It’s just like I ran in middle school and we’ll see how it goes and if it goes great, awesome. Best case scenario is to finish. And I think that’s nice. If I had eased into it I would have had a lot more of a mental struggle because I would have higher, and I think unrealistic, expectations for my first race. Rather than just jumping into it and just finish.
Are your expectations too high?
And then when I realised once I got to that point in a race, where I know I’m going to finish, then I can kind of start thinking about time. It just helps and I think with Ironman especially, it’s physical, like nothing else I’ve ever done. But at the same time, it’s more mental than anything I’ve ever done. There’s so much thinking.
When you’re training, you can plug in a movie on the bike, or you can put your iPod in on the run and you can zone out. But when you’re racing it’s just you and yourself against the world. Your mind can make or break you I think more so than your body if you’re training for it. It helps to just go into it because it makes you, at least for me, it had me going through so much more of a positive mentality. Of no expectations. If I fail, who cares? This is just for fun.
Your desire for Ironman
Whereas, nowadays it’s like if I fail it’s back to the drawing board and its anxiety and rethinking everything. So, I still feel just jumping into it is great, because it’s just a shock to the system. Especially the people in the sport, it’s not a sport you do when you don’t want to do it. Like when you’re a little kid and your mom shoves you into the soccer game, most kids don’t want to do it. They’re just there because they’re told to. With the Ironman, you’re paying for the full Ironman, around 800 dollars just to enter and no one is paying that for you. That just shows you that people are so dedicated to it. The way I think Ironman athletes see it, it’s an investment in your health. It’s kind of how I saw it at first. I felt it was a lot of money, but I wanted to do it and I think it’s also like a bucket list thing for people too. I just think it’s fun.
You get there and it’s unlike any other sport. Getting thrown into it without any prior knowledge or experience. It just causes such a shock to the system, and like I said, everyone wants to be there. Most people are super positive. I remember my first race. I probably looked like a wet dog on the beach. Just no idea what I’m doing. Shaking and shivering and terrified. People are coming up to me and it’s like, hey you know, this must be your first race, right? Yes, I look that freaked out that you know that?
Kona shockwaves of positivity
It’s just so cool that people gravitate toward each other. They’re so positive and so nice. I feel like, particularly when I was rowing, it’s getting to be bigger now, but it’s such a small population of people, and it’s so political and cutthroat. And I remember I’m not going to help the other girl fighting for my position. I’m going to try and take her out.
Whereas with Ironman, everyone is like oh well, let me help you. You might beat me if we’re in the same age group, but let me help you. And that was something that, being thrown into that mix, it was a shock of positivity, that’s kind of the way it felt to me. But if I were to do it all over again, I would do it the same way. Just get thrown to the wolves and see what happens.
BRAD BROWN: You’ve obviously tried lots of sports. Like you said growing up you did almost everything. Do you think you’ve found your place? Is this it? Or is it, this is it for now and maybe something else comes along later?
Finding your niche to be successful
JEN KOESTER: That’s a good question. I think about that a lot. After that first race, I had this feeling of relief that I’ve finally found my sport. I finally found something that I feel I can succeed in. With rowing, it was nice because I felt that way about rowing. I know I’m this teeny tiny person with this big voice. Being a coxswain for my body and my personality, it works great.
But there was that physical part of the sport that was missing. That other side of the competition that was outside the mental and with the Ironman you are truly an athlete. You’re doing 3 disciplines for who knows how long it’s going to take to finish. It’s just that feeling of I’ve found my sport. Now I’m looking at it and saying, how can I make it more my life? How can I take it from doing this with a full-time job, to setting myself up where I can just do triathlons and Ironman’s? Where I can potentially be a professional and if not well then, I’ll keep doing it. But the goal at the end of the day is to make it to that next level. I think I’m here to stay, knock on wood. But we’ll see.
BRAD BROWN: What are you struggling with around the sport now? What are you grappling with?
The swim is the hardest part
JEN KOESTER: The hardest part is the swimming. Because in high school I was such a slow swimmer. I was terrible, I was a mess. And then, I feel it too when you’re racing. For me at least, there’s such an anxiety when you’re sitting on the beach and you have the wetsuit on. You feel like it’s suffocating you and you’re waiting for that canon to go off.
The way I look at the swim is just get out of the water. I know once I’m out of the water I can finish the race and I can do ok. But that swim for me is kind of the make or break. And I’ll have a good race. A good race for me is I will finish in about in an hour ten to fifteen minutes.
Whereas I think the first time I was in Hawaii, I had a full-on panic attack in the water. In Kona, it’s not where you can seed yourself in the time where you want to finish. It’s just that you’ve got hundreds and hundreds of women just sitting waiting in the water. One canon and everyone is off. That was the worst experience ever. The anxiety in the swim and you’re sitting in the water. Everyone is freaking out. No-one is talking to each other. You’re in this mass of crazy. And I remember you get kicked. My goggles came off and it was just craziness from there.
Active recovery gives you a boost in your speed
So, I think for me, trying to get faster. Which I’ve noticed lately, I have been in all my swims. I view this for more as active recovery. When I have it and I have a few speed workouts every now and then. It’s a lot more like long, steady, swims. A 5k swim, just go with how the body feels. And over the past year the body feels the same, but the times are getting quicker. Which is nice. But it’s a different beast to tackle when you’re out in the open water with potentially 1000 other people, and you’re in that wetsuit. So, still trying to buckle down in the swim. We will see how that goes this year.
BRAD BROWN: The water polo didn’t set you up for success in those mass open water starts?
JEN KOESTER: I wish it would but I’m such a weeny. I let them go ahead.
BRAD BROWN: I love it.
JEN KOESTER: I just get run over. I remember in Kona thinking this is going to help. I’m used to getting kicked in the water by people. I can handle it. Water polo helped me.
When we got there I was like, you want to go? Fine, you go ahead. There was people swimming over me and I was like, well, this sucks.
The art of the balancing act
BRAD BROWN: As far as the balancing and getting the juggling right of living life, you mentioned that gone are the days of you want to go and have a beer. It’s now you must leave early because you must be up early at whatever time, to go for a run or a cycle. How do you get that balance right?
It’s something I think all triathletes struggle with. Have you got any strategies to get that in balance? Or is getting unbalanced just part of the deal?
JEN KOESTER: I think it’s just something that takes time to figure out. When I was coaching, it was so simple. I was lucky because my boss was my coach for triathlon, so my work schedule was made around it. So, when I left coaching and went for that 9 to 10 hour a day office job, it was a completely different beast. Because you’re waking up early to get to work and then by the time you get home it’s around 7:30, and I’m beat. It took me about 6 months to figure out how to balance it and get all the workouts done, and get it done right. And I think what finally gave me the kick in the ass that I needed was, doing a brick workout one weekend.
Ironman success – what you put into it you will get out of it
I think it was like a 45-minute bike to a 45-minute run. And brick workouts are one of my favourites because it’s just pedal to the metal and just go for it. And the bike was good but the run I struggled on. It was that kind of slap in the face by reality that I’m not giving it my all. And that’s why I’m struggling on this run.
Whereas a year ago, I would be doing so much better and it was that feeling of this sport, what you put into it, to some extent is what you’ll get out of it. And I realised I have this goal. I want to go back to the World Championship but I see all these excuses of oh, it’s late. It’s 8 o’clock and I want to be in bed by 9. I’m just going to go to bed and maybe I’ll wake up in the morning and do my workout. Probably not!
To commit or not?
Then I realised I’ve got to commit. I commit now or it’s going to be ugly at my next race, and I don’t want to have that ugly race. One thing I hate is I never want to look back and say well, if I did this it would have been better. If I committed. So, that was kind of the kick in the butt I needed.
There’s times when I’ll be driving home and thinking I’ve got to run. It’s a 2-hour run, it’s dark. I’m going to have to do it on a treadmill. I don’t want to do this. But then I think back to one time when I wanted to run and it should have been easy and I was like wheezing. Let’s not go back there. It took time, it took 6-months to figure it out. A big part of it too, is the motivation, and it goes all back to this sport being so mental.
You can be in good shape but you must have that mental stability. That mental strength to keep you going. And it took me 6-months to find it with a new job but I finally found it. And it’s still a struggle from time to time, like I said. But just trying to keep going.
What’s your end goal with Ironman?
A huge thing too, is following some professional athletes on Instagram, social media and seeing how hard they’re working. I look at it as that’s my end goal. That’s the dream. That’s the fantasy. Is to be that person. And I’m not going to be that person if I’m slacking off. You get out of it what you put into it. And I know now I’ve got to go 100% or nothing.
BRAD BROWN: We’ve got a lot of novice triathletes who are possibly training for their first half or their first full Ironman that listen to the podcast. What advice would you give to an out and out newbie getting into the sport? Wanting to kick on and do an Ironman and possibly go on and qualify for Kona?
Set your Ironman goal and have fun
JEN KOESTER: I would say the advice is start off just having fun. Start off with that goal of, I’m going to finish. I’m going to get that data from that first race, and then I’m going to go from there. I think it’s just putting too much pressure on to say I want to win my first race and I want to go to Kona in my first year. Because it’s rare. A lot of it comes down to lockup. Who’s in the field against you, what the weather’s going to be like? What’s the course going to be like? Hopefully you’re not going to have a flat tire or a bad cramp on the run.
So, I would say just looking to your first race, this is the test run. This is literally just the trial. Have fun, make the goal finish and then later look back and say ok. This is where you can evaluate your race. Just have fun and look at it as something to accomplish not something to defeat, would be my advice.
BRAD BROWN: If we had this conversation in 20-years from now and you look back on your triathlon career, what do you want to achieve? What is the ultimate goal? If I could wave my magic wand, I don’t have one, don’t get your hopes up. But if I could wave my magic wand, what would you want to have achieved?
Making it to Kona as a professional
JEN KOESTER: If you had that magic wand, I would say that 20-years from now I would want to be still on the team that I’m on now. I’m on the Wattyink Team as an age grouper. But I would want to be a professional. I would want to be racing next to Heather Jackson, Daniel O’ Wreath. Those guys. I’d want them to know my name. And I wouldn’t want the reputation of she’s amazing, she’s great, but just that I’m there. That I’m racing them, putting my best effort out and that I made it to that step of going to Kona as a professional.
And hopefully finishing as the top ten female in the world. If you had a magic wand, let’s make that happen. Let’s get that going. We’ll see. But that’s the goal. 20-years from now.
Competing against professionals is the ultimate dream
Hopefully I’m married with kids and I want to tell them hey, I do Ironman’s. I’m a professional. I got top ten in Kona at the age of whatever. And all these professionals, you’ve got these guys and women, they’re the Stef Curry and the Kobe Bryant of basketball, but they’re just in a less known sport. To be in a race alongside them and to say that I competed at their level would be a dream come true.
BRAD BROWN: You’ve mentioned some names. Who do you look up to in this sport? Who do you think is just phenomenal?
JEN KOESTER: I’m a huge fan of Heather Jackson. She started off a little similar. I think she was in her early 20’s like I was, and qualified. She won, I believe, her age group her first time in Kona, which is insane and light years above where I’m at. It’s just cool to see that it’s a sport that someone can go into with little to no experience. And maybe in 7 to 10 years, come out as the first American in a long time to hit the podium and get 3rd place. Just the work ethic that she seems to have is something that I admire and hope that I one day can have as well.
BRAD BROWN: Your season, for the rest of this year? It’s still early on in 2017 as this is being published. What’s next on the cards for Jen Koester?
Do a half and set yourself up for the full Ironman
JEN KOESTER: Right now, the big race that I’m going to be doing is the full Ironman distance in Santa Rosa. It’s up in the Napa area. That one is July 29th, and then in June they have the half there in Santa Rosa. I really want to do that half there. Not as much from a competition standpoint, but just do it to get an idea of the course. I want to set myself up for Santa Rosa. Before the last year, I was competing in the 18 – 24-year-old age group and now I’m in that next tier up. I don’t even want to think about how many women there are that are faster than me. The goal is the same. The goal is now I think I can finish top 3 to qualify.
So, the goal is to finish top 3 and go back to Kona. I just want to set myself up as much as I can. Probably throw in, just to keep things different, maybe like 30 or 35k trail races, just for something different. And keep that mentality that it’s a race. Focus on the mental aspect.
The other main thing this year is going to be July 29th, Ironman Santa Rosa. We’ll see if it gets me to where I want to go.
BRAD BROWN: Brilliant. Well, Jen, thank you so much for your time on this edition of The Kona Edge. Looking forward to getting you back on to talk about your swim, your bike and your run. But we’ll save that for another day. Thanks for your time.
JEN KOESTER: Awesome. Thank you.
Brad Brown is a 40 something age grouper that dreams of one day qualifying for and racing on the big island (He may have to outlive everyone in his age group though).
Morbidly obese in 2009, Brad clocked in at 165kgs (363lbs) at his heaviest.
He's subsequently lost a third of his body weight on the way to a half Ironman pb of 5:06 and a full Ironman pb of 12:21.
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