Hard-Core at Any Age: Q&A with Ironman Champ (& Grandma) Jeri Howland
Jeri Howland isn’t your average grandmother. The 63-year-old powerhouse (and Zenergy member) competes against some of the world’s best female athletes in the ultimate endurance tests. Since age 42, she has completed 21 Ironman triathlons, topping the podium an incredible seven times. She’s also won over 35 ultra-marathons. She is living proof that age is just a number! Zenergy caught up with Jeri to learn more about her secrets for staying hardcore through the decades.
Z: Have you always been fit?
JH: I was fit before I went to kindergarten. My dad had three girls, he probably wished for three boys. He taught us every sport from football to whitewater kayaking, and made sure that we were good at them all so he had someone to play with all the time.
Z: When and how did you start doing Ironmans?
JH: I entered my first Ironman at age 42. I was intrigued by the idea for a long time but also had a young daughter and didn’t think I had time for anything more than a half Ironman until she was old enough to be home in the morning without me. I was successful at the half Ironman and, like a lot of things, I just threw myself off the proverbial cliff. I signed up and then thought, now how am I going to do this?
Z: Do you like to compete?
JH: I love it! Yesterday, I did a 25-mile trail race. The last three miles were up a very steep hill, and I could see three women ahead of me. I was pretty sure they were considerably younger and getting tired; I felt terrific and wanted to catch all three. I sprinted as hard as possible up this monster hill (14-20% grade), caught them all and, while I was first in my age division, passing them was the best part. Why? I do not know. What matters most is to do the best I can with what I’ve got on a given day. I also really love preparing properly to do my best come race day – this means I love the training – as much, maybe more than the racing, itself. Some say I train too much, but I know myself well and high-volume training works for me. Plus, I don’t care enough about the race to change my daily lifestyle. I want to be outdoors moving my body rigorously for at least a few hours each day.
Z: On average, how much do you train a day?
JH: I work out 2 to 4 hours per day Monday through Friday, 5 to 6 hours per day on the weekends. During the week, I get up as early as is necessary to fulfill my training and still be on time for my first meeting of the day. Then I do everything I can to delay meetings until 10am! That’s not to say I haven’t had to be ready for work at 8am or 9am. But if you don’t take control of your day, other things will fill the time. I want to make sure to live out my athletic passions AND do great work so it can be a bit of a juggle. It’s not for the faint of heart. A typical weekday morning starts with coffee and a banana, then a 75 min Masters swim followed by a run or a bike. Since cycling takes the most time, there are days I just bike for 2.5 to 3 hours. At the end of the work day, twice a week I’ll do a strength session that takes 45-60 minutes.
Z: Do you follow a set training schedule?
JH: I run, bike and swim 3 days per week in each sport. After an “ultra” race, I usually need to lay off running, so I will bike 5 days and likely swim 4 days of the week. On the weekends, plan to run 3 to 6 hours on Saturday, then swim with my Masters swim team, followed by a 2.5 to 4 hour bike on Sunday. In the winter, when I’m in Sun Valley, I keep the swim and run schedule going, but I add in Baldy climbs (always to the top) 3 to 4 mornings and skate skiing 2 to 4 hours on the weekends.
Z: How do you find the time while balancing work commitments, family life, etc.?
JH: I’m a very driven person. I have never been one to let anything get in the way of my plan for life. And I love my work, so my trick is to start early as necessary in the morning to accomplish that day’s goals. No one wants me before sunrise anyway!!
Z: Do you ever struggle to stay motivated?
JH: I’m not sure where all my drive comes from, but I do love working out. It reaps many rewards—from the top podium to a strong fit body to a sense of self-reliance. Fortunately, I have friends and a husband to train with, which makes it even more enjoyable. I can’t imagine any other lifestyle.
Z: Where do you find the energy?
JH: Energy can be an issue, and nutrition is key. We have all seen or heard of people who sabotage themselves with food by eating too much or too little. I’m fortunate to have a healthy relationship with food (there was way too much disordered eating in my family to go there) and understand what the body needs to keep the engine going for long times on the trail/road. (I studied Human Biology in college). I constantly fiddle with what seems to work best and stick with it until another adjustment is needed. I’m religious about fueling every 45 minutes while on a long run or bike. Never let the tank get low! I also use a fantastic hydration drink, Skratch, that never gives me cramps or makes me feel sick hours into a race or workout because it’s low in sugar.
Z: How do you stay so lean?
JH: Being lean is one of those unspoken commitments I made to myself years ago. Like many women, if I’m unhappy with my body, the frustration and effort to change takes up a lot of head space. I have been there before, fortunately not much, but it was so annoying and heartbreaking. My goal is to stay lean (not skinny) and not let food be an outlet for stress, frustration or instant gratification. My diet really works for me – I’m never craving anything or sitting around starving. I’d like to think I’m very sensible about my eating habits. While training multiple hours a day certainly helps, food choices really matter. Fresh veggies and fruit, no processed “snack foods” full of salt, sugars and chemicals, and mostly vegetarian, if not vegan, is the rule. I like a lot of food so salads, for example, create a lot of bulk without a lot of calories. Same with my handcrafted Bungalow Munch granola (a family recipe that I developed at the age of 12 and now sell at Atkinsons’ and online). I love a big bowl for breakfast but much more than ¼-1/2 cup of granola is too dense, so I fill the rest of the bowl with Puffins, then add fresh fruit and coconut milk. My daily diet is fairly consistent. I eat my Bungalow Munch every day – it’s special enough for Sundays, too, and, for dinners, we eat a huge salad, homemade gluten-free bread, and something else like homemade soup, pasta and pesto, homemade pizza.
Z: What do you eat before a training session?
JH: I eat my main breakfast late morning after I’ve worked out for hours, but to fuel the workouts I eat little bits throughout starting with a banana and coffee, then athlete fuel like bars, gels, and the little gummy blocks every 45 minutes. After my XL bowl of cereal I don’t feel hungry till late afternoon. Dinner is my favorite meal. I love to cook and experiment with Asian-inspired tastes – fresh ginger and garlic are in all my recipes!
Z: What’s your exercise philosophy?
JH: JOURNEY, PODIUM, LIFE! When I started my coaching company, I wanted to make sure I branded it in a way that valued wherever an athlete is on the “spectrum,” thus the name and tagline:
I ask of myself and my athletes to bring a goal, if not several, and from this the journey begins. Unless the goal is contained to a once-in-a-life experience, then this is a lifestyle.
For me, my journey, my podiums, my lifestyle have been all about opening doors to new places, emotions, relationships, and connection with nature. While I’m a bit of a creature of habit, and have many routines that start and end at my home, I also love to travel to a race or a “traincation.” This is for me the most satisfying way to explore a new place.
I’m not sure it’s a philosophy, but one of the great benefits of taking on these substantial athletic feats, like the Ironman distance triathlon and ultrarunning of 50K to 100K distances, is the time out training and racing too. It’s the only time in my life I really feel quiet. I look for this!
While the podium for me is important, I try to achieve first place, but realize there are many ways to think about your podium. Today, at age 63, my goals are still to achieve the top step of the podium but the focus is really more about adventure and testing myself. I’m still searching for new experiences, whether it’s a trip to some far-off place like New Zealand or heading out my front door in search of a new trail.
At the end of the day, what fuels this kind of life is a combination of passion and a little bit of OCD, as my daughter says. Moving quickly in nature is like a religion for me – it’s where I find my truth and greatest purpose; besides if I don’t get out there, my blood starts to boil and as my husband says, if momma not happy, nobody happy!”
Z: Has your training program changed over the years? If so, how?
JH: The only thing that has changed is that I do less interval training and the hours I used to spend on the bike, I now spend running. But I recently spoke to the legendary Charley French and he says intervals are the key to his training at age 93, so I think I better get back to them soon.
Z: What’s your advice for other over-50 athletes?
JH: Don’t focus on age, listen to your body, eat well, don’t drink every night of the week; sleep enough – at least 8 hours every night – I’m working on this myself. Always have a goal in front of you! Don’t wait for others to join you. I am often reminded by this quote: “Winners are willing to do what others are not.”
Z: What’s the best thing about being a grandma?
JH: I lose myself in the joy of spending time with this little guy. He is so vulnerable, yet so open to his new world. His smile lights us up and we share hours of laughter.
Z: Will you ever slow down?
JH: I doubt it.
Z:: You split your time between Marin and Sun Valley. How does that impact your workouts?
JH: Given my new role as senior advisor for development for Sun Valley Institute, I’m spending more and more time here. Sun Valley is a haven for training. No matter the season, I always feel when I’m training in Sun Valley that I have hit the jackpot. Zenergy pool is likely the best pool in the world and it is my happiest place of all!