On the Podium: With Jennie Hansen

They say that what happens In Vegas should stay in Vegas, but what happened turned heads around the world. When Jerry McNeil highlighted Rochester's Jennie Hansen as his pick for not only claiming the top spot in the women's 25-29 age group and likely a top overall placing, someone should have headed to the casino. If you know anything about Jerry McNeil, you know he knows his stuff.

If you know anything about Rochester's Jennie Hansen, you know that this dynamic young athlete has all the makings of a world champion triathlete. Aside from her remarkable versatility as an athlete, her dominance of the 70.3 distance, what truly makes her special are two words: modest and dedicated.

At the recent 70.3 World Championships Jennie captured the top of the podium in her age group and claimed the second overall amateur spot with her 35 minute swim, 2:37 bike and 1:28 run. The person she most surprised was herself.

We caught up with Jennie to gain some insight on her race, her season, and to see what the future holds for this young talent.

Congrats on your recent 70.3 Ironman World Champion title! Tell us about the race that earned you the top spot in your age group plus second overall amateur!!! How was your preparation coming into the event?

I'd have to say that everything had gone pretty smoothly heading into the race. August was one of those months in which I was able to ramp up the volume (for me) and push the intensity a bit. I was fortunate enough to get into one of those stretches in which I was able to finish pretty much all my workouts as planned, while staying fairly healthy. I also tried to take advantage of any opportunities to get my bike onto some hills, because I knew I needed more strength. Trying to prepare for the heat was a bit more difficult, especially with fall approaching here, so the best I could do was overdress a bit and prepare myself to be taking in lots of fluids.

What were your expectations heading into Vegas?

Hills and heat! Because of that, I can't say I had any expectations when it came to time, although I was still hoping I'd make it in less than 5 hours. The course difficulty had been hyped up, and the string of 110 degree days in Vegas in the weeks leading up to the event had been raising my anxiety levels. Luckily, this prepared me to expect to have to fight for it, and to hurt.

How did you like the course, it was the first year the 70.3 Ironman World Championship have been held in Vegas.

As scared as I was heading in, I ended up loving the course (my high school coach did once tell me that I loved pain...). The swim course seemed slow, but, then again, it probably was just me, as there wasn't any real discernible chop or current, and sighting was fairly good. Out on the bike course, despite never really considering myself a good climber, I got into a rhythm, and somehow found myself doing most of my passing on the ascents. So, while they were tough, they were motivating at the same time. None of the hills were as steep as I had thought they might be, and luckily, the wind wasn't too bad either, which helped me to somewhat enjoy, instead of fear, the descents. For once, too, I actually made an effort to take in some of the scenery, too-the desert was awesome. Coming from upstate New York, it's also worth mentioning that the road condition throughout was amazing! The run course, on the other hand, was a bit more brutal than I had thought it would be The two mile uphill stretch, while gradual, was just relentless, and passing the finish line twice before being able to make the turn in was a little defeating. Still, the long, gradual descent at least offered some recovery, the aid stations were plentiful and well-stocked, the occasional stretch of shade was much appreciated, and there was tons of spectator and volunteer support the entire way. Luckily, the weather conditions were nowhere near as tough as they could have been, so overall I felt that the course was appropriately challenging for a world championship event, yet was still a fair test for all.

While Jerry McNeil pointed out you'd be in the top placing, did you expect to finish so high?

Certainly not! I had seen predictions, I had done some research on who my competitors would be heading in, and I was quite nervous over the level of competition out there. Making the podium in my age group was my unspoken stretch goal; but I really tried to push it out of my head and just concentrate on what I could control, which was my race alone. Placement is so unpredictable; I know how many other talented, hard-working, competitive women there are out there, and you just never know who's going to bring it on any given day. Even as I was passing some of the top women in my age group on the bike, I still don't think I was totally comprehending what was unfolding. I think I refused to even fully believe that there wasn't some sort of mistake until the awards ceremony. What I was probably more surprised at, though, was my placement amongst the amateurs. I was thinking top 20, maybe, and hopefully top 10 if I had a really, really good day (especially given the talent level in the 30-34 and 35-39 groups, several of those ladies had beaten me handily earlier in the year). I know I was fortunate that my body allowed me to handle the course and the conditions as well as it did.

Obviously running is your background. You are a sub 3 hour marathoner, you routinely run sub 1:30 off a 56 mile bike no matter what the course, and your shot course speed is there too. Tell us a little bit about your running background.

I started running modified cross country a few weeks before turning 12; like many kids, I was told by my gym teacher that I should try cross country based upon my gym class mile prowess. I managed to place in the top 10 at most modified meets, and by my freshman year in high school, I was running varsity cross country, indoor, and outdoor track under Dave Hennessey's tutelage at Penfield. I was never the star of the team, I was more just the solid supporting cast who could close out the team cross country scoring or keep us in a relay until the baton got to our standouts. I was fortunate enough to be able to contribute to some very talented teams in that time; I had some great experiences because of them. I continued on with my running career as a walk-on at the University at Buffalo. Despite beginning my time there as a mid-distance runner, by the end of my freshman year I realized I wasn't improving much in the shorter stuff, and I moved up to longer distances. I was pretty mid-pack in college, but I was happy to spend a couple of years being able to contribute to the cross country team and at least compete at the conference level in track. Post-collegiately, I continued to compete in local races (mostly 5k-10k) for a few years and run Rochester Runner of the Year series races. Injuries began to plague me in my last few collegiate years and beyond, until finally a stress fracture in my pelvis spurred me to put all the cross training to work and take up triathlons for real.

You stole the show at the Musselman ½ Ironman this season, setting a new amateur course record of 4:43 (Kim Loffler holds the pro record at 4:30). Coming into that race what were your expectations as you knew you were heading to Vegas?

Sandwiched between Mooseman and Vegas, I was slightly more relaxed heading into Musselman (which isn't saying a whole lot). I had surprised myself with a second place finish last summer at Musselman in my first 70.3, so there was certainly some pressure there, but knowing the course and knowing what to expect helped a ton. Plus, I loved the race; it's one of the best-organized and executed ones I've done. Based upon that, I was hoping to go sub-4:50 to build some confidence, particularly on the bike, and see where that put me (I knew there were several other women in the field who had already gone faster). I knew that the time would have to come off my bike split, mainly; I'd had sort of a miracle run there last year, and my swimming hasn't really gone anywhere. Then, three weeks before the race, I came down with some sort of mystery stomach bug that just wouldn't fully clear up. It took over two weeks until I felt halfway decent in training again, and by that point, the race was four days away, and my workouts weren't extending past an hour, anyways. So, race weekend, I could just hope that I'd be able to keep nutrition in and that I wouldn't be running on empty. In retrospect, the extra forced rest probably helped me, and my stomach behaved well enough despite a few dicey moments on the run to get me through! Mooseman was a pretty slow course to qualify on, so having pulled off a 70.3 in the low 4:40s, especially on a hot day possibly similar to what I'd see in Vegas was a huge boost overall.

Taking fourth in your age group just a month ago at USAT Nationals in Vermont has proved you are versatile and dominating at both short and long course, which fits you best? How does training differ for you?

I'd have to say that long course fits me best. Obviously, my swim has become by far my weakest leg, so having over four hours to make up for it, as opposed to less than two, makes a huge difference. My bike skills also don't include flying mounts or dismounts yet, so transitions cost me a bit more in shorter races, too. Plus, I think my overall physiology might just be better suited towards going longer; my marathon pr is comparatively better than my times at shorter running distances, despite the fact that I dedicated many more years towards training for the shorter stuff prior to going longer. I love the mental game involved in trying to break down a close to five hour long race into manageable chunks, too. Training-wise, my focus is always on the longer races, and I'll usually use shorter ones to get some intensity in. The biggest thing I might change is just adding in some quicker, shorter stuff for running speed workouts, otherwise everything is pretty consistent.

You are scheduled to run NYC in November, tell us about your love for the marathon and how it plays into triathlon.

I think that I actually have triathlons to thank for marathons, in a way. Prior to triathlon training, I had always wanted to do a marathon, but my body would just break down whenever I tried to start training longer. Luckily, biking and swimming have allowed me to develop the aerobic base needed for marathoning more so than I probably ever could have with running alone, without wearing down my tendons and bones. Grinding it out on the bike, particularly on the trainer, for 3+ hours was a great way to prepare both mentally and physically for the demands of a marathon. I've found that the last few miles of a 70.3 run and a marathon feel strikingly similar. I'll use that as a way to get through both- for example, at Worlds, when my quads were threatening me around mile seven, I was able to think to myself, "this hurts, but mile 20 of my last marathon felt worse, and I still got through six more", which was far more encouraging than "this run is barely halfway over!" While it defies everything I learned in school about training specificity, I think that marathons and tris have proven to be entirely complimentary towards each other for me, which has been great.

Ironman Lake Placid is on the docket for 2012. What steps will you take to transition from 70.3 to 140.6?

Ramping up the volume will certainly be the first trick, particularly when it comes to biking. To date, my longest ride has been 92 miles, and my typical longer rides are usually between 50-65 miles. So, I know there's a lot of work to be done (and hopefully room for growth) there, so I'm looking forward to that. Getting onto more hills will be another step to prepare for Placid in particular. I'll also obviously need to figure out how to gauge intensity to get through it all- a marathon is one thing, but a marathon after biking farther than I ever have in my life will be a totally different ball game. I'm going to have to develop the discipline to back off the paces I'm used to trying to hold on runs and rides in order to handle the volume, which will be a trick for me, because I do have a tendency to beat myself up over numbers sometimes. Fueling will be another tackle area; I sometimes lapse on the bike, just from not paying attention to how long it's been since I last took something in, and I've been able to get through my 70.3 runs on water alone. Clearly, that's not going to work for a full. Finally, well, my swimming in general could use some work, in case my race splits aren't a totally giveaway on that little detail!

What do you do for a living?

I work as a physical therapist at Greater Rochester Physical Therapy. While some days are crazy and leave me just wanting to sit down, overall it's a good profession for someone in my position. I'm hoping to in the future do more continuing education in the realm of running and biking-related injuries and reach out to the running/triathlon community more. While I've found it rewarding to work with all types of patients, working with a runner through injury and trying to get him/her to the finish line inspires a certain sort of passion within me. One patient in particular was able to complete her first marathon, which was a breast cancer fundraiser, in honor of her late mother. She was so grateful for my help along the way, and I in turn was so proud of her for her accomplishment. Plus, I think that many runners/triathletes prefer working with someone who shares their mindset; I'm more likely to look at things from a "let's see what we can modify and work on to still allow you to train to some degree, I understand where you're at" perspective prior to a "stop immediately" one (when appropriate, of course!)

Tell us about your family.

My family is great. My immediate family is fairly small, but we all live within a half an hour radius, which is fantastic. I've been married to Dave for just over a year now, who I can proudly say I've helped convert over from saying he'd never race longer than a 10k to training for his first ironman. Dave works as an accountant (nothing like being married to an accountant when it comes to race expenses!), and in his spare time enjoys pulling my butt through training rides and entertaining himself with the antics of our mutts. My parents live in Brighton in the house I grew up in. My mother works as a math professor and my father is retired from accounting, but still doing some part-time work. My dad is somewhat of a jack of all trades, as he's endlessly active (among other things) growing us veggies and other good stuff on his property, fixing just about everything, hunting, and bringing us all together for some always tasty meals! My parents have always been my greatest support system athletically. In high school and college, they'd travel throughout the state to watch me race in all conditions. Now, when possible, they'll still come to my local races to cheer me on (my regular running competitors even comment on how awesome my support crew is). They'll track me and call me whenever I'm out of town, and I think sometimes they're more excited for me than I am for myself! I also have one sister, a physician's assistant, who lives in Victor with her husband and their 2 year old son (who's full of endless energy) with son #2 expected any day now. Like any sibling, we had our rivalries while growing up, but became progressively closer as we approached and entered adulthood. I also should just recognize my family for their willingness to dog sit for us while we're out of town, which is always an invaluable service!

Aside from your collegiate running career, what is your athletic background.

My athletic background and my running background became the same thing once I entered high school. Before that, I got my competitive start in recreational softball and soccer in elementary and middle school. Prior to switching over to running three seasons, I was a fairly decent field hockey player in middle school. I might have continued with that in high school, but it changed to a fall sport from a spring sport, and I wouldn't have been able to run cross country, which was my first love at the time. I also dabbled a bit in a season of swim club, where I was, not surprisingly, the slowest one on the team, and basketball.

What are your top three triathlon goals?

This is tough! I'd love to hopefully be able to race and compete professionally. I'm a realist, so I know I'll never be amongst the leaders at most events, but if I can ever sneak onto the podium at some of the smaller ones, I'd be more than thrilled with that. Given I think most of my future lies in 70.3s and full Ironmans, I'd love to (course-dependent, obviously) get my half-ironman times into the 4:30's consistently. I'll hold off on making any sort of full ironman time goal until I complete one, though. Finally, and most importantly, I have a goal of just staying healthy, grounded, and hungry for more. This summer was such a whirlwind for me; if someone had told me a year ago today that I'd be typing this while sitting on an airplane home from Vegas with a F25-29 70.3 World Championship trophy sitting in the bag at my feet, I would have probably laughed it off in disbelief. I'm hoping that this journey is just starting; I know that there are going to be trials and tribulations and setbacks along the way, so I just want to keep both the failures and successes in perspective to avoid letting anything tear me down or get to my head. As long as I can do that, and as long as I can always keep the fire in me burning for more, any other goals will present themselves along the way!

Again, modest and dedicated are the words to describe Jennie Hansen. Certainly those qualities will only deepen as her experience deepens, and along the lines of Jerry McNeil's predictions…. She will be the one to watch in 2012!

Mary Eggers is a 37 year old age group triathlete, race announcer, writer, mother, wife, triathlon coach, yoga teacher, and nurse. As the race announcer for the Score This Multisport Series in Upstate New York, she's been in the sport for over 15 years. She's a 6 time Ironman finisher and Kona qualifier, and has raced everything from sprint upward. Mother to 10 year old Luc, wife to Curt, she calls Rochester NY home.


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