Joanna Zeiger: World Champion. World Record.

Joanna Zeiger: 70.3 World Champion 2009, World Record Time

It is said that the field of medicine is full of great suffering, but also the overcoming of great suffering. As a physician, I can attest to that. However, the same can be said of athletics. Triathletes put their bodies through living hell, and they do it for far less reward than athletes in other endurance sports. Win the New York City marathon, and you’ll take home a cool $130k, plus a hefty collection of endorsements. Win the Ironman 70.3 World Championships by swimming over a mile, cycling 56 miles and then running more than 13, and you’ll net roughly a sixth as much. You’ve got to love this sport to do this to yourself. You’ve got to want it for its own sake.

When I first spoke to Joanna Zeiger, I was at one of the big sports medicine meetings. I’d followed Joanna’s career with much interest over the years, and though I was expecting her call, it was still a bit of a surprise to hear her on the other end of the line. Joanna Zeiger of the inaugural Olympic triathlon, who was winning races before I was materially involved with this sport, was still hungry. “I know I can be better.” She said, “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I still love it, and I know I am capable of more. I want to win a World Championship.”

Joanna had other goals, too. However, as we got to know each other, and as I studied workout after workout and power file after power file, something began to become clear to me. It was something her husband Mark told me the first time we met, while she was hammering away in the flume pool at Kean University, where we were working to understand her heat and electrolyte problems. “Joanna is built for 70.3. It takes speed, it takes endurance, it takes brains. Joanna’s got it all.”

Through a series of events and decisions that would take too long to relate here, this became the season of the 70.3. We knew what it would take to win these races, and we built the program to do it. Joanna would go on a streak almost unheard of on the Half-Ironman circuit. A win at Eagleman. 2nd at Buffalo Springs. A win at Vineman. A win at 5430. A win at Muskoka. Joanna set personal best after personal best. As we came into the fall, Joanna never lost focus. Nose to the grindstone, she was setting PR’s in workouts now.

“I can go faster, Phil.” She’d say. “There’s another gear there. I can feel it.” I’d agree. Then, we’d agree that we weren’t going to test the outer limits. Not yet. We would be patient. As Jack Daniels has said, you don’t leave your race on the training track. I knew now there were few people who could touch her. Still, you need the perfect storm. You need the combination of conditions, training and tapering, nutrition, and everything else that goes into the ultimate performance. You can never afford to start counting chickens in this game. Her competition was every bit as good, and every bit as hungry.

On the morning of the race, the dawn creeping on, we sat on the concrete wall that fronts Clearwater Beach. The support crew had been assembled. Joanna’s parents Karen and Bob, Mark, her manager Amy Stanton, and myself. None of us had slept well, and though we all thought we had our reasons for that, I think the truth is that we were just plain nervous. All of us knew how just how much of herself Joanna had invested in this day, and all of us wanted the best for her. As we waited, Joanna looked up at me and said, “I hate this part.” I hated it, too. Joanna was like a caged lion. I wanted to turn her loose.

“You have nothing to fear here, Joanna.” I said, “Go out there and be tough.” Joanna smiled at the second part. It was the one piece of advice she didn’t need. They don’t come much tougher than Joanna Zeiger.

When the cannon went off, the women exploded forward as though they themselves had been shot from it. Joanna slotted herself as planned, and on the distant Jumbotron we saw her unmistakable stroke as she slipped comfortably into the draft. Her first task was complete.

Joanna came out of the water exactly as planned, three seconds behind the leader in 23:06. We jumped up and down as she went by, but Joanna was in another place, singularly focused on the task at hand. They were off on the bike before any of us made it to transition, and we got a report from the course that she was in the lead group of 4 women, and they were going flat out.

As I stood by the side of the road talking to Cliff English, we watched the men come in. A few minutes went by, and then we noticed the helicopter coming back around. I checked my watch, incredulous. “The women?” I asked, “Already?”

Cliff opened his eyes wide, “They’re really moving.” He said, “It’s unbelievable.”

The four leaders came through together, barely braking as they screamed into the traffic circle before us. I calculated that they had held over 25 mph. Now it would all come down to the run, and who had left enough in the tank to really hurt the others.

Joanna came around the corner by Crabby Bill’s just behind the other leaders a few moments later. She had that bounce to her stride that always shows itself when she is feeling good. She’d stuck to the plan on the swim, and been smart on the bike. She still wasn’t at her limit. It was time to unload. “Go Jo!” I shouted, “Go now!”

Joanna tells me she didn’t hear me, but she went. She opened a gap of 10 seconds. Then twenty. Then thirty. Someone called Mark. “She’s got fifty seconds on the field.” He said. Someone nearby whistled. At the end of the first lap, I clocked her at 54 seconds ahead. I got a text message a bit later. “More than a minute! Can she really do this?!”

I’d already known for days that Joanna was about to have the race of her life. The computer models my father and I had labored over predicted it, and her performances in training had confirmed it. She had nailed every workout, every time, for months. As we were ushered into the waiting area behind the finishing line, I watched her on the Jumbotron and couldn’t believe my eyes.

“Is the finish clock right?” Karen Zeiger asked me.

“No.” Someone said, “It’s two minutes ahead because the men started earlier.”

Bob and I looked at each other. He was calm in the midst of the mayhem going on around us. “What’s the course record?” he inquired with a physician’s detachment, as though he was asking me to report a patient’s blood count.

Joanna wasn’t just going to win. She wasn’t just going to PR. She wasn’t just going to set a course record. It was going to be a new world record, and by a lot. “I knew she was going to have the race of her life.” I said to her folks, “But I’d be lying if I told you I knew she had this under the hood.”

My phone began buzzing nonstop with a stream of text messages and email. Ironman Pro Mark Van Akkeren, “GO JZ GO GIRL GO!!!!!!!!!!!” David Tilbury-Davis of PhysFarm UK, “Watching the live feed! GO JZ!” One of my athletes up north, “SHE’S KILLING IT! SHE’S TOTALLY KILLING IT!”

I looked on as she came across the bridge. She never broke stride. You could have set your watch to it. It was like watching Paula Radcliffe smash the world record in Chicago, or seeing Lance Armstrong lay waste to the field on the slopes of Alpe D’Huez, or Muhammed Ali feint left and deliver what he called the “anchor punch” that laid out Liston in four one-hundredths of a second. I suddenly realized I was bearing witness to something extraordinary: the very best of the best, at the very top of her game, doing exactly what she was made for.

Joanna had forgotten to start her watch, but as she came into the finishing chute, she saw the race clock and realized what she had done. She threw her arms up in the air wildly. There was no smiling on the inside this time; it was from ear to ear. It was joy, and relief, and satisfaction in having created that perfect storm. It was the fruition of years in the sport and believing in herself when things seemed awful. I like to think it was also the answer to every Internet critic and armchair athlete who’d ever questioned her potential when she was down.

The crowd went berserk as she hit the tape. 4:02:49. A new world record. As the melee of cheering, tears, confetti, camera shutters and hugging ensued, I stood back and just watched. I wanted to remember every second of it. “Thank you.” Joanna said to me, “Thank you for everything.”

“You did it, Jo,” I said, “You totally did it. I knew you could.”

Over the time we have worked together, I’d like to think I have helped Joanna Zeiger come to a slightly different understanding about the best way to train. However, I believe Joanna has taught me something much more valuable about desire, courage and class. On November 8th in Clearwater, I witnessed a triumph over the intrinsic frailty of the human condition; a person who showed us what is possible when you combine rare talent, a supreme work ethic and an uncommon force of will. It is a lesson we could all stand to learn.