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To start her 2020 season, pro Heather Jackson is trying something new: gravel racing. Jackson is one of the top U.S. female long-distance triathletes, finishing in the top five of the Ironman World Championship in four of the last five years.
This year, Jackson hopes to compete in the Belgian Waffle Ride, Dirty Kanza 200, and other gravel cycling events before she races the Ironman World Championships in October. She already secured her Kona spot by finishing second at Ironman Arizona this past November. With that solidified, Jackson said she had the freedom to try something new. Enter gravel racing.
Her gravel racing schedule will run through July, at which point she will revert back to full-time triathlon training until October. She believes the gravel schedule will ultimately pay off and boost her motivation.
“I’ve been racing triathlon for 11 years and I remember the early days, the Wildflower [triathlon] days, the grassroots days, when everything was new and exciting,” Jackson told VeloNews. “When you’ve been in the sport this long it can feel like the same thing over and over again, and gravel has that new and fresh feeling to it.
“The whole vibe around gravel fits with what I am, and I want to be a part of it,” she said.
Jackson is racing as part of the new Wahoo Frontiers gravel squad alongside former WorldTour road racers Ian Boswell and Peter Stetina, and gravel racers Amity Rockwell and Colin Strickland. Last week she was in Boulder, Colorado for the recent Old Man Winter Rally, which ended up being cancelled after just 15 kilometers due to heavy snow.
A former pro road cyclist, Jackson said the steady-state pacing of long-distance gravel events is similar to the long, steady miles that she pedals in preparation for Ironman. As Jackson looked at her 2020 schedule, she saw gravel events as an ideal way to prepare for triathlon in a competitive and low-pressure environment.
“These events are about settling into a certain pace and then just trying to grind it out—for me, I think that could be more beneficial to use these races as my hard training days as opposed to just doing long intervals,” she said. “We’ll see if it elevates me and brings me more emotional stimulation. I know how to train for Ironman—long ride Saturday and then run it off, and then every Sunday is a long run. Now I get to crush a long bike.”
Indeed, Jackson’s steady and strong biking has been a big part of her success as a triathlete. She tends to come out of the water a bit behind the front pack, and then is able to make up significant time as one of the fastest riders on the Ironman circuit.
Why break up her routine after such a strong finish in Kona? Jackson said the desire try something new for 2020 stemmed from the 2018 Ironman world championships, where she struggled on the run and finished in 14th place. Top Ironman athletes often compete just a few times a season, spending the rest of their year logging long miles in preparation for the world championships.
“You’re grinding away every day. In  I had the perfect preparation, I was so fit, and I nailed it and mentally I was just fried,” Jackson said. “It’s totally a mental thing. If you’re not ready to fight on that day, you’re screwed. For me, [racing gravel] is about getting mentally fresh before I lock down for Kona.”
What will be the most difficult part of her transition to gravel? After each race, Jackson will likely still have to go for a short run.
“I’ll have my running shoes with me,” Jackson said.
This article originally appeared at VeloNews.com.