Jen Rulon from Texas, USA, was seventeen years old when she was inspired by two great sporting legends on television; a moment that would change the shape of her life forever. 28 years, 13 Ironman races and 1,828 race miles later, she’s achieved her lifelong dream: to qualify and finish the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. This her story – and proof that if you try hard enough, you can achieve anything.
“I honestly didn’t know I had to do so many Ironmans to qualify. But when I saw Mark Allen and Dave Scott [two Ironman legends] on TV in 1989, I knew I wanted to do that Ironman triathlon in Hawaii. You have to qualify, you can’t just enter. So I didn’t know how I would get there, but I knew I would get there.
“I was 17 at the time, and I told my mum I was going to do an Ironman before I was 30. I told my Grandfather, ‘Grandpa, I am going to go to the Ironman Championship in Hawaii one day,’ and he said, ‘I have been to Hawaii! It’s gorgeous there Jenny. Let me know when you go, I haven’t been there since the war, I’m going to come and cheer you on.’
“When I realised I was approaching my 30th birthday, I hired a coach who got me through my first half Ironman and my first full – at Ironman Wisconsin in 2002. Crossing that line in 12 hours 58 minutes validated to me who I was as an athlete. It was a truly phenomenal feeling – the best feeling in the world.
“After the Ironman, I took a break – a year or so, and met my boyfriend who became my husband, and moved to a new coach, Brandon Marsh, who is still my coach now, 13 years on. I told him, ‘I want Kona.’
“I told my coach: I want Kona.”
“But, you have to find your ‘why’ behind Ironman. There are days when you don’t want to train, you just want to hit the snooze button on the alarm. When my Grandpa passed away in 2001, I said to myself, ‘Why am I even doing this now he’s not around?’ I didn’t know.
“Grandpa was the strongest human being I have ever known. A WWII Vet, Purple Heart Award, husband, business owner, a dad – a human being that I still strive to become. I’d always wanted him to be there, cheering me on… that was my motivation.
“When I was out on a training ride that year, I saw a cluster of yellow butterflies and I thought, ‘Even if Grandpa isn’t physically here, he’s with me wherever I go.’ When times get hard, I see those butterflies.
“In 2004 I went to Brazil to do my second Ironman; I took a whole hour off my time, coming through the finisher funnel in 11 hours 56 minutes, but missed out on a Kona place at the rolldown. Just six months later, I did my third, Ironman Florida in an even faster time – losing another 20 minutes – but it felt like it was getting just harder and harder to get into Kona. In that third Ironman, I still didn’t tap into the potential I knew I had… but things always happen for a reason.
“My body was like – ‘Nope!'”
“In 2005, I got married, and my husband and I did Ironman Western Australia in Busselton for our honeymoon. But my fourth Ironman was tough – I was sick on the race, and I’d slept so much the week before, my body was like — ’Nope! You are not training!’ It wasn’t my best performance, but I still made it to the finish line in 12 hours.
“After Ironman number four, I was getting burned out, so I started doing some shorter races and just having some fun again. Then I stopped doing Ironman; I’d suffered miscarriages and the loss of my Dad – it was a hard time. I lost touch with my Kona dream.
“Instead, I found strength training and evaluated what I needed to do to progress my fitness. That’s when I found CrossFit, which showed me just how important strength is.
“Seven years on, and still on an Ironman sabbatical, I’d become my husband’s support crew for his own racing. He qualified for Kona in 2011, and we went to Hawaii together in 2012.
“On race day, I was sitting on the sideline waiting for the swim to start, and a lightbulb just lit up in my head. ‘Oh my god,’ I thought, ‘this has been my dream since 1989!’ At that moment, a butterfly appeared and flew past me, and I felt like I was home – I knew this was all part of my journey to Kona, part of learning to understand what I needed to make it there.
“I lost touch with my Kona dream … but I knew this was all part of the journey to get there.”
“I’d lost my drive to get to Kona. I didn’t care about being on my bike any more, I just wasn’t interested in it; and I didn’t want to be with myself for hours at a time. But there I was in Hawaii, sat there, holy cow – in Kona, where I’d wanted to be since I was 17 years old. ‘Ok,’ I thought to myself. ‘It’s time.’
“Ok, It’s time.”
“The morning after my husband crossed the finish line in Kona, I told my him, ‘I want to sign up for Ironman Florida.’ But I’d been out of Ironman for seven years, so dropping 650 bucks on it was scary.
“But in 2013, I was back. I went on to do my fifth Ironman 11 hours 24 minutes. It still wasn’t enough to qualify for Kona, but I had the dream back, so I signed up for Ironman number six in Coeur d’alene, which I finished in 12 hours 12 minutes, and in the same year, my seventh – in Florida again. It was a course I knew well, but the water on race day was too dangerous and the swim was cancelled, so I wasn’t able to qualify there either, and I was getting increasingly tired and sleeping more than training – I just couldn’t catch up with myself.
“Wherever the Kona slots were, I would follow. By my eighth Ironman at Mont Tremblant in 2015, I was exhausted. I got to the run section and had to visit the bathroom too many times to count! I knew I was going to finish, and I made it across the line in 11 hours 44 minutes, but I knew I needed a break.
“I realised that I was just chasing Kona slots, and it wasn’t the right way. I was chasing the Kona dream, but you can’t control what you can’t control – you can only focus on you.
“My coach Brandon and I had a heart to heart, and I signed up for my ninth Ironman at a course I just loved, rather than chasing slots: Florida. I ended up placing 7th in my age group after posting an 11 hour six minute time, but there were only three slots, and all the Kona places were claimed. I was having phenomenal races, but I’d always place top ten, not enough to qualify.
“My tenth Ironman in my home state of Texas was terrible. At mile 18 on the run I faced a torrential thunderstorm. The race was paused for 25 minutes! I was told to just stand there, I was freezing.
“After that race, I realised that I’d done three Ironmans in nine months, and it was very hard on my body and mind. Yet triathlon had given me so many positives, I met my husband through it and so many amazing friends, so many great coaches and great athletes. It’s a sport that brings communities and people together. But it’s a big time commitment – you have to find your ‘why’ behind it – you have to structure your life around your training because otherwise it consumes you.
“But, when you want something, the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.
In 2016, I made it to the podium for the first time after returning to Ironman Florida for the fifth time – my eleventh overall Ironman. I didn’t get a Kona slot there, but I was ok with it, I had never been more proud, or more happy for myself. I raced to tell people that dreams can come true… if you work your ass of! I placed fourth at an Ironman triathlon. I finished that race with a smile, and I was still a badass!
I had an awesome feeling going into 2017. In August the following year, I went back to Mont Tremblant for my 12th Ironman race – and I qualified for Kona in 10 hours 59 minutes.
“It was so worth the wait.”
“When you make a dream come true after 28 years, you can’t hold back those tears; when I finally made it down the finisher shoot in Hawaii after 12 hours and 20 minutes, the emotions truly got the better of me. If you’d have told me in 1989 that it would have taken 28 years and 12 Ironmans to get to the Ironman World Championship, I don’t know whether I’d have continued the journey. But, it was such a huge transformation in my life, and I think it’s more about the journey than the finish line – and let me tell you, it was so worth the wait. My cup runneth over.”