Walker preps for Hawaii Ironman
SUMMIT COUNTY There she lay, the remarkably fit Jill Walker, curled up in a ball, puke bucket and half-eaten Power Bar at her side, trying to sleep but not coming close.This was the scene in June in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, the day Walker took 10 hours and 37 minutes to complete the local Ironman triathlon course. It was a night for the 27-year-old to celebrate an unprecedented personal achievement: In finishing fourth in her 25-29 age group – not to mention 11th overall out of some 600 women – she had qualified for the Ironman Triathlon World Championship race in Hawaii, the sport’s Super Bowl.Walker hadn’t announced it to anyone before the race, but getting to Hawaii had been her goal. She’d used it to motivate her during the intense training leading up to the race, then went out and cut nearly 45 minutes off her time at the same Coeur d’Alene competition the year before, when she finished one spot short of qualifying for Hawaii.The struggle to fall asleep in her tent that June night frustrated Walker, who says now she had never expended more energy during a race than she did that day. Still, she thought as she lay there in agony, it would all be worth it when she toed the start line in Hawaii.But wait. Some of the 80-plus competitors in Walker’s age group had failed to finish, leaving the cutoff for world championship qualification at third place, not fourth.Even though Walker had finished 11th overall, she learned the next morning she could miss out on Hawaii if all three women ahead of her in her age group desired to compete at the world championship. For what she says was “a brutal two hours,” Walker waited and hoped. The second- and third-place finishers both accepted their qualifications, but the age group’s winner did not. Instead she told Walker she was tired of the sport, and wished Walker well in Hawaii.
So began the Breckenridge resident’s push to maximize her potential on Oct. 15. That’s the day Walker will tackle the famed Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, course, which includes the standard Ironman legs: a 2.4-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile road bike and a 26.2-mile run.To understand Walker’s unique athletic identity, you must consider two things: First, she says she was happiest upon qualifying for Hawaii simply because it allowed her to continue her 20-hours-a-week training schedule. “I love the Ironman lifestyle,” she says. Second, she calls the Ironman’s full-length marathon leg “my weakness,” and appears embarrassed to say that her best 26.2-mile time is 3 hours and 30 minutes.’My risk-benefit ratio has changed’Since she began training for Hawaii, Walker has not let up. Sometimes she gets so happy during a workout that she starts crying.”My favorite thing,” she says, “is just seeing how tired I can get.”Considering her string of injuries a few years ago, it is remarkable that Walker is even competing at this high level, much less excelling.
In 2002, while riding in the Summit Mountain Challenge’s Straight Creek Downhill race, she lost control of her mountain bike, broke her pelvis and was impaled by a long, skinny object near her stomach. She was evacuated on a backboard and, although she never saw what stabbed her, the doctor later told her he’d found pieces of bark six inches inside her body. So she assumes it was a stick.Less than a year later, Walker broke the top two vertebrae in her neck in another mountain bike crash, this time in Montana, where she was attending graduate school for physical therapy. (She has a doctorate and works for Howard Head Sports Medicine, splitting time between the organization’s Vail and Breckenridge offices. Howard Head sponsors her, as do the Vail Valley Medical Center and Steadman Hawkins Clinic.)Walker said she considers herself fortunate to be able to train and compete after enduring the realm of inactivity for so long. She’s gotten wiser, too, and rarely trains on off-road biking terrain now.”My risk-benefit ratio has changed,” she says. “I could care less about ‘cool.'”Just the beginning? As Walker approaches the final weeks of preparation for the world championship, she is dealing with a rare disadvantage for athletes who hail from Summit County. The Hawaii race takes place at sea level, but Walker’s high-altitude training can’t simulate the wind, humidity and heat she’ll face in Kona. Thus, she’s expecting her time to be up to an hour slower than her worlds-qualifying time in June – but she’s still shooting for top 10 in her age group, which would be no small feat.
Thanks to her coach, Vail’s Josiah Middaugh, Walker will be entering the October race with perspective, even if it’s not from her own experiences. Middaugh, who has made a name for himself in recent years on the Xterra triathlon circuit (a much shorter distance than Ironman events), qualified for the Hawaii Ironman three years ago.More than anything, he has stressed to Walker, “Don’t get caught up in the hype.”Other than that, Middaugh concedes this year’s race could be just the beginning.”For Ironman standards, she’s very young and inexperienced,” he said. “So I told her she can take it a long way. The sky’s the limit, I think.”Walker has only one goal for future Ironman events – and yes, barring unforeseen circumstances, there will be more. The goal is simple: “I wanna get faster.”Devon O’Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 231, or at email@example.com.Vail, Colorado