A Multi-Talented Trials Qualifier- Joanna Zeiger has qualified for the Olympic trials six times in three sports
The field of runners who have qualified for the women’s U.S. Olympic trials marathon represents an enormous wealth of talent and experience, but arguably none of those runners have shown the athletic range of Joanna Zeiger.
When the 41-year-old Boulder, Colo., resident toes the line on Jan. 14 in Houston, it will mark her sixth Olympic trials in three different sports.
Originally a swimmer, Zeiger participated in the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in 1988 at the age of 18. She qualified in 1992 as well, but didn’t participate because of injuries — ailments that ultimately helped her turn to triathlon in 1994. In just three short years, she was named the 1997 U.S. Amateur Triathlete of the Year and three years later placed fourth in the first-ever Olympic triathlon event in Sydney. She capped that memorable year with a fifth-place effort at the Hawaii Ironman World Championships, just five weeks after the Olympics. She spent the next 10 years as a triathlete, competing all over the world in all distances.
But now Zeiger is a pure runner. Her triathlon career was brought to a halt two years ago because of rib injuries suffered in a bike crash at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Clearwater, Fla. The pain lingered into 2010 and caused too much discomfort while hunched over in aero position on a bike. While she might have continued as a triathlete, she’s fully invested in running, putting in more mileage on her feet than ever before, training with top Boulder runners and gathering race experience as much as possible in 2011.
To be clear, Zeiger, or JZ, as she is known, has always been a good runner, even though she seldomly competed in running races while she was a professional triathlete. She initially turned to running in 1992 and later placed 30th at the 2000 Olympic trials marathon in Columbia, S.C., with a 2:47:03 effort — a time that remained her PR until late last year.
Following a successful debut at a Thanksgiving 10K in 2010, Zeiger turned in a strong performance at the U.S. cross country championships last February when she placed second in the women’s 8K masters race. Although she’s very competitive by nature, finishing second in that race was much easier to swallow knowing that she was only bested by four-time Olympian Colleen De Reuck — who is one of the best American masters runners of all-time.
After running a PR a week later in a half marathon (1:19:23) in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., the goal-oriented Zeiger set her sights on qualifying for the Olympic marathon trials again.
Zeiger began running with De Reuck in Boulder through the Running Republic of Boulder running club coached by Colleen’s husband, Darren De Reuck.
“JZ was lacking confidence in her racing ability coming off that injury she sustained in Clearwater, but, over the year she has developed confidence in her running ability, and feeds off the group dynamics,” Darren says.
Zeiger has a huge aerobic engine and good running form for someone who has spent so many years swimming and cycling. She was keen to train like a runner, but Darren found that he had to shed her triathlon mentality.
“As a triathlete, one is totally committed to working out and following a rigid fixed routine,” he says. “It was hard initially to get her not to swim as much and concentrate solely on running. If anything, I have to hold her back from doing too much … which is the triathlete mentality.”
As a triathlete, Zeiger would regularly train 25–30 hours per week, and, when doing Ironman training, over 30 hours per week. That typically meant running five times, along with a bevy of swim and bike workouts, too. Now, as a runner, she runs 14 days consecutively before taking a day off, and does three “double” days per week. With mid-week and weekend long runs, Zeiger trains roughly 80–90 miles per week.
“I think Joanna’s transition from triathlete to runner is that, as a runner, you don’t have to train all day, and I think one has to get used to that,” Colleen says. “She also keeps us runners reminded on our nutrition while out doing long runs. Her new enthusiasm has really helped keep me going in my running, too.”
Zeiger isn’t a full-time athlete. She holds a Ph.D. in genetic epidemiology and works as a part-time as research associate at the Institute for Behavioral Genetics at the University of Colorado. Her focus is drug abuse in adolescents, as well as areas of physical activity and health.
As for her running, she’s quick to share the love in helping her make the transition to being a pure runner.
“Colleen has been an amazing help,” she says. “She taught me how to run like a runner in terms of easy runs are easy, don’t kill yourself on the long runs, and proper warm-up and warm-downs. That is what has allowed me to put in the training, without getting hurt.” And, this is key to JZ’s continued success. Not only have we seen that she is prone to injuries; but, also, at 41, that fine line of how hard you can push gets just that much “finer.”
Darren chimes in about working with “older” athletes, and Joanna, in particular: “Working with older athletes has its advantages, as recovery is the key to success: fewer miles, but more quality than quantity, and active recovery as opposed to complete down time. Stretching and cross-training are key elements in helping one stay as healthy as possible and mixing it up some.”
Running with De Reuck paid off. She won the Colfax Half Marathon in Denver in May (1:23:52), and placed second at the Rock ’n’ Roll San Diego half marathon in June (1:19:03). With a summer of solid training under her belt, she qualified for the trials marathon on Dec. 4 at the Cal International Marathon in Sacramento, running a 2:43:48 PR.
“My two objectives for the race are simple,” she says in her blog. “No. 1, run the best race I possibly can on the day, and No. 2., savor the moment, because you never know if you get another chance.”
Running a marathon six weeks before the trials race isn’t an ideal set-up, but Zeiger is certainly used to high-volume training before races and triathlon taught her to become a master of recovery.
While Zeiger does absolutely no cycling now, as her ribs are aggravated when she does, she has found swimming to be great for recovery, while also helping build and sustain that key aerobic base. She also includes a very “careful, regimented program” in the gym. “There are so many muscle imbalances in doing sports as you age that it is important to stay strong and stay balanced,” she explains.
In 1985, after Steve Jones ran 1 second off the marathon world record (2:07:13), he was asked, “Are you now a marathoner?” Jones modestly responded: “I’m a runner.”
When asked if she is a runner, Zeiger says, “I’m just Joanna Zeiger, the athlete.”
Read more about Zeiger in her blog, “Fast at Forty.”
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