Back in early October, triathlete Gwen Jorgensen put her bike and swim goggles aside for a day to enter the USA Track and Field 10-Mile Championships in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
It was an opportunity the St. Paul resident couldn’t ignore.
“I signed up for the (run) because it was literally in my backyard,” she said.
It was a challenging, hilly course with a stellar field, and nobody quite knew what to expect from Jorgensen. Just 50 days after winning gold at the Rio Olympics, would the 30-year-old swim-bike-run star be able to hang with top-flight runners such as Aliphine Tuliamuk-Bolton, Jordan Hasay, Sara Hall, Natosha Rogers and Lindsey Scherf?
The answer: absolutely.
Jorgensen went out strong with the lead pack and finished third in 53:13—about 5:19 pace per mile and just 24 seconds behind the winner, Hasay.
“I told myself I could go out with the leaders and just try to hold on,” Jorgensen said in a recent interview with Competitor. “I was shocked with how well I did.”
The race provided a glimpse of Jorgensen’s running talent and potential in the marathon, a distance at which she’ll make her debut on Sunday morning in New York City.
She certainly impressed Hall, the former Stanford star, U.S. cross-country champion and 2:30 marathoner who finished 20 seconds behind her in fourth.
“I think Gwen is going to do really well and surprise a lot of people,” Hall said. “She has a huge aerobic tank from the amount of time she spends training in her other events.”
Plus, said Hall, the up-and-down 10-mile course has some similarities to New York’s, which bodes well for her.
“I was really impressed by her,” Hall said. “She is such a competitor.”
Jorgensen may not have ever done a marathon before, but Hall is convinced everything she’s done up to this point will help.
“She has a lot of practice being competitive and executing over the course of a long race,” Hall said.
“My marathon itch”
For Jorgensen, the marathon is a long-delayed goal, something she put on hold while working to become an Olympic triathlon champion. After blowing a tire on the bike at the 2012 London Games and finishing in a disappointing 38th place, Jorgensen was determined to do everything possible to win Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro, and a marathon wasn’t part of that plan.
“I had a goal for four years that was very structured,” she said. “Every decision I made had to be calculated to see if it would help me in my goal of gold at Rio. During this four-year period I wanted to do a marathon, but knew the risk was too high, so I waited until after Rio to scratch my marathon itch.”
She’s increased her training runs since Rio, bumping up her long runs from 18K to 26K, and doing marathon-style workouts at least once a week for the last month. Before Rio she was running 31 to 43 miles per week. Lately she’s been doing 43 to 50.
But, she’s continued to train as a triathlete. In fact, her warm-up act for her marathon debut—while most others were tapering—was to win the three-day Island House Triathlon in the Bahamas Oct. 28-30. She won overall title of the event, running the fastest 5K splits (16:50-16:55) among women.
So, she sees herself as being “under prepared” for the marathon, but says that’s fine. She and coach Jamie Turner decided there was no point to completely change her training. She knows that’s an unconventional approach, but it feels right to her.
“I have zero expectations and that is awesome,” said Jorgensen, who’s been dominant at the Olympic triathlon distance in recent years, winning world championships in 2014 and ’15. “Usually I have goals and know what I want to accomplish, but the marathon is different. It is strictly for fun and without expectations or goals.”
She said she has too much respect for the marathon distance and the New York course to make any predictions for what kind of pace or time she’ll run.
That may be the case, but Olympic teammate and longtime friendly rival Sarah True can see Jorgensen surprising people on Sunday.
While True admits that stepping up to 26.2 miles will be a big challenge for Jorgensen, she believes in her fitness, drive and talent. Long before she was a triathlete, Jorgensen was a track and cross country All-America selection at the University of Wisconsin who won Big Ten championships in the 3,000 and 5,000 meters. True calls her “the most naturally gifted runner that women’s Olympic-distance triathlon has ever seen.”
“Gwen is strong, tough and passionate about performing well,” True said. “When she shows up on a race course, she’s always well prepared and gives everything she has. Gwen is capable of a great debut—I’d venture 2:30-2:35 if everything goes according to plan.
“I have no doubt that there will be some professional runners inspired to incorporate more swimming and biking into their training after seeing her performance,” True added.
Into “the unknown”
Jorgensen knows she’ll have to hold back in the marathon more than she did in the 10-Mile Championships. She says if she tries to go out too fast with the leaders as she did in Minneapolis-St. Paul, “I don’t think I can do that without paying at the end.”
“Every step over 10 miles will be a new experience,” she said.
So, she hopes to focus on proper fueling in the days before the race, store up some energy and start with a more conservative pace.
She’s wanted to do a marathon for years, so she intends to enjoy the whole experience: the city, friends and family and the huge crowds and race-day atmosphere.
“I hope there’s a lot of people out there screaming, ‘Go Gwen!’ ” she said Monday, in a teleconference with reporters from her home in Minnesota. “I’ll really need that help.”
Jorgensen said that even if she runs very well Sunday, the triathlon will continue to be her focus, and she’s planning to make the 2020 Olympics to defend her title. The only other goal at this point is to try to start a family with her husband.
While she’ll be a rookie marathoner come Sunday, she does point out that her event is an endurance race that takes nearly as long as a marathon. At Rio, she won in 1:56:16. On Sunday, she’ll likely be in the 2:30-2:40 range.
“My triathlons are around 2 hours and the marathon can be less than 3 hours, so I think I have some endurance built up from my triathlon training,” she said.
“It is a huge unknown, though. I am not sure if anything will carry over or if I’ll end up walking in the end. It’s all such a new experience and that is part of the fun. I like having the challenge and the unknown. It is so different for me than what I’m used to.”