Iron-girl checks off triathlon ahead of deployment

Running through a blinding blizzard, biking in a basement and mixing in lap swimming were three ways Jessica Hanson prepared for her first Ironman distance endurance event.

Jessica Hanson stands at the finish line of the Ocala, Fla., HITS series triathlon March 23-24. Hanson finished the full-length race in 13 hours, 36 minutes, 40 seconds. Submitted photo
Jessica Hanson stands at the finish line of the Ocala, Fla., HITS series triathlon March 23-24. Hanson finished the full-length race in 13 hours, 36 minutes, 40 seconds. Submitted photo

Hanson, a 2008 Anoka High School graduate and licensed LPN, will turn the next page in her life in May when she deploys with her Army Reserve unit on a one-year tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Before her deployment, Hanson not only completed the 140.6-mile course (2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26.2-mile run) at the HITS event in Ocala, Fla., March 23-24 in a time of 13 hours, 36 minutes, 40 seconds, well under her goal of 15 hours.

Hanson was the 40th person to cross the finish line, 12th female and first in her age group (20-24). She shared the youngest competitor distinction as well.

Training for the event was more difficult for Hanson when finding the space and time to put in the proper miles of practice became difficult, especially in the runner-unfriendly winter.

“It really changes your entire life,” she said as she devoted three to five hours each day to training. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to do this today, how am I going to get my training in.’”

That was the case over the last 16 weeks of training. She finished a half marathon in August and never really stopped training. “So you could say I trained a whole year,” Hanson said.

She mainly focused her efforts at the Andover YMCA’s pool doing as many laps as possible with treadmill sessions and a few spin classes. Hanson also hit the pavement whenever possible and used a stationary trainer on her bike in her basement to add even more miles.

“I had to train about 90 percent inside,” Hanson said. “The only open-water swim I got for six months was on vacation to Florida.”

She swam laps three or four days a week in the YMCA pool for up to two hours followed by a spin class, but her real bike training came on the trainer in her basement.

Those rides would last five-six hours every other week with a television to keep her going.

She added miles each week and put in 18 miles on a treadmill once. Her longest run of 22 miles came in the middle of a bad snow storm last month.

“When I started out it was snowing but not too bad,” Hanson said as she ran six miles out and back from her parents house twice. “I was fine on the way out, but once I turned around the snow was pelting me and my mom came out to pick me up.”

Instead of waiting for the storm to pass, Hanson ran away from her house, determined to get those training miles. “It was the worst running conditions I’ve ever had,” she said.

Hanson had race-day concerns since the swim distance was twice the length she had swum before and biking on a triathlon-rental bike caused her a little caution being on a new bike.

Jessica Hanson pauses in the bike transition area before heading out for a 114-mile excursion.
Jessica Hanson pauses in the bike transition area before heading out for a 114-mile excursion.

“The road bike I rented was magnitudes better, but the bike shop people still looked at me weird,” she said. “I was looking at a tri-bike but since I never practiced on one they said it would be stupid to race on it.”

The run was her strongest part of her race. “I came off the bike very energetic having accomplished two major things I never did before,” she said.

But Hanson missed her beloved iPod, something of a faux-pas in the triathlon-racing world and illegal during competition.

She wasn’t bothered by the lack of booming bass in her ears. For distance athletes the mind and body are two separate things, Hanson said, “By the time I got to the run my body said we’re doing this,” she said.

The marathon running course was a set of looped six-mile trails, with fans cheering nearly the entire route.

Hanson ran alongside a girl who was running the final miles to the finish line, which was downhill. The fellow runner had a group of friends blaring music from their car alongside her which gave Hanson goose bumps. “I kicked it into full gear over the last 8.5 miles and was an all-out sprint down the hill on my last lap,” she said. “It was really cool.”

More than 13 hours earlier, Hanson stood at the start line after all the preparations and support from her mother, Laurie Hanson, who was on the sidelines of the course in Florida.

Hanson’s glad the race is over so she can do a training run on her terms and not on a pre-scheduled training plan. “I could run today but I don’t need to,” she said.

Hanson started running more seriously after college in five- to six-mile increments on the treadmill. Her first 5K came in 2009, 10K in 2010 and marathon in 2011, which was in Washington, D.C. She completed an Olympic-distance triathlon in Buffalo last June and a half Ironman-distance in Duluth in August, which set the tone for the full-distance event.

The March event fit in well with her training schedule (two weekends or three to four days per month for the last six months) and the timing of the Army deployment, which will be her first overseas mission.

Hanson will be deployed with her medical unit, which is based at Ft. Snelling, as part of a forward surgical team in Afghanistan. Her team’s job is to take patients recently injured in combat zones and stabilize them to get to better medical facilities. “We don’t fix things, we keep them alive,” she said. “We don’t set a bone. We do life-saving operations.”

Going from one life-altering event to another is something Hanson has thought about for a while. “I was thinking about deploying for a year and a half and about this time last year, they sought me out [to join this unit],” she said.

Staying in touch with family and friends is what she dreads the most, Hanson said.

“Tri’s are always going to be a part of my life, but what this helped me do was a nice way to end this part of my life,” she said. “I’ve always been really focused on the athletic part of my life. It’s hard to do multiple things in your life and make them work.”

Going into her deployment in extremely good shape will help when the crew is on a 12-hour shift. “It will definitely help me when we’re on our feet for that long and not even have time to use the bathroom,” Hanson said.

Given the nature of her unit, she will have times when nothing is going on, too.

Growing up in Ramsey, Hanson showed canines with her family, specifically Siberian huskies and golden retrievers, and earned very high honors at competitions like the Westminster and Eukenuba. She continues to show dogs professionally and competed with two dogs that she’s been living with and training at a national dalmatian show in St. Louis, Mo., the first weekend of April.

Hanson estimates they won have hundreds of blue ribbons with at least a few on display in each room of the house. Her mother has more than 25 years experience showing. “It’s a lifestyle for us,” Hanson said.

Thoughts about the next race: Hanson said the goal is a 100-mile foot race.

Jason Olson is at [email protected]