Joanna Zeiger turned pro in 1998 after being voted 1997 Amateur Triathlete of the Year. As one of the more versatile triathletes in the world, she excels at both the longer Ironman distance races (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run) and the shorter Olympic distance (.93 mile swim, 24.8 mile bike, 6.2 mile run).
In 2000 Joanna won Triathlete of the Year honors for her 4th place finish in the Olympics in Sydney, 5th place finish 6 weeks later at the Hawaii Ironman Championship, and a USA Pro Champion victory. In 2001 Joanna was bronze medalist at the ITU World Championship in Edmonton. She has been a multiple winner at St. Croix, Mrs. T’s, and Buffalo Springs. Overcoming near career ending chronic back injuries in 2004, Joanna placed 2nd at Ironman Canada and at ITU World Cup Cancun. Now fully recovered, Joanna relishes competing in 2005 at world class levels at both the Olympic and Ironman distances.
If there is any question as to how complete Zeiger’s recovery has been, these were put to rest as she won the 2006 Coeur d’Alene Ironman on June 25th at a blistering pace finishing in 9:31:07.
Podium: How did you get started?
Joanna Zeiger: I started as a competitive swimmer when I was 7 years old and competed as a swimmer all through college. After college I was looking for something new and different and exciting. That was when I started triathlon.
It was something that I always wanted to do. I’d seen the Hawaii Ironman on TV and even though I thought all those people were crazy, in the back of my mind I wanted to someday do that. I joined a masters swim team after college and there were several triathletes on that team. They were instrumental in getting me going in the sport.
Podium: How much of an influence have your coaches played in your career. What kind of influence did they have on you?
Joanna Zeiger: I’ve had every type of coach imaginable, from the type that throws clipboards and yells at you and you don’t miss a practice unless you’re dead, to more laid back coaches who were too nice and people would walk all over them. I’ve seen it all. I think it’s great to have experienced the gamut because you take the good from each one and incorporate that into your training, just as you realize what the negatives were and put them by the side and not use them.
Podium: What type of inspirational influences have you had in your life growing up?
Joanna Zeiger: I never was one to have an idol growing up. I just did my own thing. From when I started I always had respect for other athletes I competed against. That was in the era of Janet Evans. She was just a phenom and I looked toward her as just being a fantastic swimmer, but I was never one of those people who said, “I just have to be like her.” I never had Olympic aspirations as a swimmer. I just knew I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t being negative about myself, just realistic. I swam because I loved it and I tried to be the best that I could be, whether that meant making Senior Nationals or winning an Ivy League Championship.
Podium: How were your parents in terms of their support of you as an athlete?
Joanna Zeiger: My parents were fantastic. My sister also swims, she’s younger than me and we were really lucky. We swam with folks that were afraid to go home after a swim meet if they didn’t improve their times. My parents were not like that. They came to all the meets and were very supportive. They drove us to practice and meets and might try to hold me back if they thought I was trying to do too much. My sister still swims and they’re still great athletic parents and come to a lot of our competitions.
Podium: Talk about the beginning of triathlon for you and tell us how that went.
Joanna Zeiger: My first triathlon was just outside of Providence, Rhode Island. I think I’d been on the bike twice before I did this race. I was horrendous. I had no skills. A great engine, but my skill set was poor. Men and women went off together and there were about 400 people in the wave. I came out of the water first and jumped on a borrowed bike that was too big, all the while wearing my Reebok aerobic shoes. I got passed by so many people I lost count, getting passed and passed. When I got off the bike to run (it was a cross country run), it was pouring down rain, and there was mud everywhere. It was my first time running off the bike and I remember my legs felt like jello. When I crossed the finish line it was just so exhilarating. I knew I had found my calling. I knew It was something I was going to do for a long time.
Podium: What’s the learning curve like in developing to become an Ironman?
Joanna Zeiger: I’m still learning. The learning curve is huge. I got away with my first Ironman in 1996. I went out there under-prepared and with very little knowledge of the Hawaii course. I knew nothing about the race, really. I got through it and I had a good race, but all these years later, I still feel that I’m learning. I’m still dialing in nutrition; I’m still dialing in aspects about the bike and the run. That’s the thing about triathlon that makes it so exciting and keeps people coming back for more. There is always something you could have done differently or done better.
Podium: Dave Scott is your coach now, talk a little bit about your relationship.
Joanna Zeiger: Dave helps me build my program for the year. One of the things we’re constantly working on is just becoming stronger for longer periods of time so that when you get to the end of a 112 mile bike ride you’re not falling off as much as other people are. You’re always going to have a bit of fall off because it’s a long time on the bike, but just trying to be as strong as possible at the end in both the bike and run, is key. We’ve focused workouts to just build that strength.
Podium: You wrote a chapter in Christina Gandolfo’s book, The Woman Triathlete on the mental skills involved in triathlon. Why is it the mental side so important in your point of view?
Joanna Zeiger: Triathlon is such a mental sport, especially at the Ironman distance. You are out there a very, very long time and you go through the whole gamut of emotions. You go from feeling good, to feeling bad, to feeling euphoric, to I’m never going to do this again, I hate this, to euphoric again. When you have those down periods, that’s the time when you really have to be mentally strong, to know that you’re going to get through this. That’s when the benefit of experience in other races comes in because you know that eventually that period will pass.
I do a lot of pre-race preparation. I do a lot of visualization. It’s especially helpful if I’m racing on a course I’ve been to before. I’ll actually picture myself out there on the course in the swim, the bike and the run. I’ll even go through transitions in my head. It alleviates a lot of that pre-race anxiety because you’ve already played through it in your mind. I’ll even go through some visualization of things not going well and how I will cope with that on race day, so that if you are confronted with something negative, it’s not a surprise.
Podium: What sorts of influences have you been exposed to that piqued your focus on mental skills?
Joanna Zeiger: Because I’ve been a competitive athlete for so many years, I learned a long time ago about goal setting. All you have to do is set a few lofty goals a few times and not even come close to achieving them to realize that sometimes you might have to bring down your expectations. You learn what you are capable of based on your year to year experiences. You can then become realistic in setting your goals. There is nothing worse than setting a goal that’s so lofty you can’t achieve it. It’s just so disappointing.
Sometimes you have to change your goals during the season. This year for example, I’ve experienced some illnesses that have taken me out of some races. I was supposed to do Ironman Brazil a few weeks ago and I couldn’t go, so I had to change my race schedule. And, maybe I’m not as fit as I was before the illness. So I had to change my goals from having the greatest race to dial it down a notch and just get my Kona slot.
Even sometimes during your race you have to change your goals. Maybe things aren’t going as well as you would like them to, maybe your nutrition plan isn’t working, or for some reason you don’t feel well that day and you are not going to be on your times. If you are doing an Ironman and your goal was to finish in twelve hours but you’re having a tough day, maybe getting to the finish line is good enough that day. So goal setting should be dynamic, one of those things that is always changing.
I’ll have intermediate goals on the way toward my big goal. This year my ultimate goal is to have a great race in Hawaii, whatever that may be. I will have to determine what my fitness is going into that race to see what that “great race” might entail. Along the way I’ll have my smaller goals. For example, in Ironman Coeur d’Alene in two weeks, I need to get my Kona slot so that I have the chance to achieve in Kona whatever that great race might be. I will also have a few shorter races between Coeur d’Alene and Kona and I’d like to do well in those. Every race I participate in I have a goal for myself, otherwise there is no point in going to the race.
Podium: How do you inspire yourself? What is it that drives you?
Joanna Zeiger: I think what drives me is just wanting to do better. First off, I just love the sport. I like the training aspect and pushing my limits. I like the people I’ve met along the way. The travel is great. So it’s just the total package experience. It’s not just any one thing. It’s not just crossing the finish line in X place, because if that’s all it was, I wouldn’t be in the sport, because there’s a lot of disappointment, and you don’t cross the finish line in X place very often.
Podium: How do you handle adversity when things go wrong?
Joanna Zeiger: Unfortunately, the nature of sport is that you have ups and downs. The highs are really high and they are really great and the lows are really low and they’re really bad. My most recent huge disappointment was Kona in 2005. I was having a great season; my training was better than it had ever been. I was feeling really fit and three weeks before the race I was out doing a hill workout and I stumbled, hyper-extended my leg and tore my hamstring. In those few seconds my Kona dreams went down the toilet.
I still attempted to do the race. I went into it saying I’m just going to go and maybe I’ll feel good when I get off the bike I told myself I wasn’t going to be disappointed with how it might turn out. But lo and behold I had to pull out of the race after 10 miles on the run. I was in a lot of pain. I was really disappointed afterwards. I was in the doldrums and I had to cry. To me, a good cry makes everything better.
I’m very lucky. I have a supportive husband and a supportive family and great friends and they all rallied around me. And the other thing is, I realize that no matter what, my life is not defined by how I do in a given race. I have other things to live for. You’re sad because you put a lot of time into it. I’m also sad for all the people who tried to help me achieve my goal. But ultimately life moves on and there are other things that are more important.
Podium: Coeur d’Alene is coming up and you’ve never done this race before. How soon before the race will you get there and what will your preparation before the race look like?
Joanna Zeiger: The race is on Sunday and I’ll get there Wednesday evening. That will give me three days to check things out. Because this is a two loop course I may be able to ride the whole course in varying segments, but at the minimum I will drive the course because I like to see what’s going on and what’s up and coming.
Podium: What’s the most challenging mental skill for you?
Joanna Zeiger: One thing that is a negative and a positive is that sometimes I can be really hard on myself, whether it be a bad race or a bad workout. I have to try to not let those things dictate my emotional mindset. If a key workout session doesn’t go well, it is important that I not overreact and make a sweeping generalization about my fitness — knowing that it is just one workout and not the overall picture is important.
Podium: The open water swim is pretty intimidating for most people. It’s your biggest strength. How do you prepare for that?
Joanna Zeiger: The first thing I tell new triathletes or even veterans, who many times are intimidated by the open water, is that the most important thing is ‘not to panic.’ Once you panic it’s all over because you can start to hyperventilate or have an anxiety attack. You just have to go in there and relax. If you feel claustrophobic, you can start at the back of your wave, let people go, and then start your swim so that you’ve got some space around you. Or, go to the side so you’ve got open space on one side of you. There are always kayakers out there. They can’t assist you, but you are allowed to hang on. If you get kicked in the face, just lift your head up, take a deep breath and continue on your way. If it’s a wet suit swim you can always turn over on your back and float for a little bit, take a deep breath and calm yourself down. You’ve just got to stay really relaxed.
Mentally my focal point will depend on the type of swim. If it’s a shorter swim and there are people around me, especially people that are faster swimmers and I’m barely hanging on, I just put my head down and try to stay with the feet in front of me. If it’s a swim that I’m leading, then I’m concentrating on sighting the bouys so that I swim the straightest line possible. If it’s a longer race, like an Ironman, I try to break the swim up into segments. Especially in Kona, I want to get to the turnaround boat, and then I want to start coming back, and soon start seeing the finish chute.
Podium: Which of the three legs of a triathlon is the most difficult for you?
Joanna Zeiger: It varies from race to race. The swim is generally the easiest because it’s the shortest. It’s done first. You’re not tired yet. It’s over fairly quickly compared to the other two legs. You’re not having issues that you may have later like dehydration or losing mental focus, so the swim in a lot of these races is a bit of a non factor, really.
As far as the other two, it oscillates back and forth. Some days, you feel great on the bike and think to yourself, “Yeah, man this is my day!” Then you start to run and just feel terrible and you don’t know why. Or vice versa, you could have the most abysmal bike ever and get off the bike and just run like the wind. That’s why I always say to myself that it’s never over until it’s over. You might be feeling terrible out there and then all of the sudden, something clicks and you start to feel better. Other people may start to fade which is why you can never give up on a race.
Podium: Designing nutritional plans for the Ironman is a science. How do you address this?
Joanna Zeiger: The nutritional aspect is so difficult, it plagues everybody. You train so hard all year and then you get to a race and a nutritional glitch can throw it all off. For me, I’ve worked on it both from past experience and talking with Dave about how to handle training and race day nutrition. A lot of it is trial and error. I do race simulations in my training and really push myself to the limit to see what I can tolerate. Also, that’s why you go to races. Half-ironmans are shorter, but more intense, so if you aren’t going to tolerate a nutritional plan then, you aren’t going to tolerate it in your Ironman race either.
Podium: How much of your mental game in an Ironman is planned in advance, or how much of that changes on the fly?
Joanna Zeiger: People always ask me what I think about during the race, and I honestly can’t tell you because I have no idea. It all becomes a blur until you cross the finish line. I guess most the time I’m just thinking about the race and how I’m feeling at the time and what adjustments I may need to make at any given moment.
Podium: How do you deal with suffering? There are those that use a disassociation strategy and others that focus on the margins they can maintain. What’s your approach?
Joanna Zeiger: That’s an interesting question. Nearly every race you go to you put yourself into some level of suffering. You don’t want to bring yourself to the brink very often in the season because you just can’t. You have to pick the races that you know you are going to just put yourself out there and cross the finish line and just collapse. As far as dealing with the pain or discomfort, I don’t know, I just run through it, or bike through it, you just know that you’ve worked hard, you know what your goals are and you just keep going.
You just think about all the work you put in to get there and what your goal was for that day. You know how disappointed you’re going to be if you don’t achieve that goal. For me, there is nothing worse than finishing a race and knowing that I didn’t give it all that I had for that particular day.
Podium: With regard to confidence, what are the things you do to get race ready?
Joanna Zeiger: There are a few things. First off, you want to have some “A” races for the season and then pick some races around it that let you know where you are (fitness level) at that time of the season. You need to have key sessions that you do during the week. They may include track workouts, harder swims in the pool, key bike workouts and you know throughout the season you can gauge where you’re at because my fitness in February is not the same as it is in June. So you can compare and contrast that level of fitness. You might repeat the same workout twice in a month and see how you are developing and whether you are moving in the right direction.
Podium: What has been your greatest thrill in sport?
Joanna Zeiger: There is no question that my biggest thrill in sport was crossing the finish line at the Olympics in Sydney and holding the American Flag. It was fantastic! My Olympic experience was truly amazing. It was such a surprise for me to actually qualify that it took me half the summer to realize it was true. The whole build-up was just amazing. I got to throw out the first pitch at an Orioles game. I got to do a segment on National Public Radio on sport psychology. Sydney itself was truly amazing. Representing your country is just such a thrill and an honor and to do well there was just an added bonus.