TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
I had the pleasure recently of talking triathlon with Jason Verbracken. In just the 2018 and 2019 seasons Jason has done some absolutely amazing races. These include full Ironman distance races in Alaska, Iceland and Norway. I think you will be fascinated by his story.
Craig: What sports did you play when you were in school?
Jason: I played hockey growing up. Born and raised in Wisconsin, my parents had me skating even before I could walk. During the winter, I remember my dad would take the snow blower, blow off all the snow, grab the hose and make a place for me to skate in our backyard, complete with a path from the back door to the ice rink. So, I would come out the door, put on my skates and skate on over to practice. My best friend lived across the alley, and we had a path to skate over to his house. He also had a rink in his back yard. We practiced more at his house because he had a cement wall perfect for shooting hockey pucks. Whereas, when we practiced at my rink, if we missed the net, the puck would disappear into the snow banks and would be lost until spring. Once spring hit, everything melted, and we would collect buckets of hockey pucks that we could finally find. I played hockey all the way through high school.
Craig: What did you do after your days in Wisconsin?
Jason: After high school, I enlisted straight into the Marine Corps. Actually, I signed up for the Marines at the end of my junior year, as a part of the delayed entry program. Compared to my friends, I felt the Marine Corp was the smarter plan. They were taking extra classes on how to perform well on ACT/SAT tests, as well as filling out college applications, and stressing over college acceptance. I would laugh as I said, “have fun studying. I’m going partying, the Marines already accepted me.” My ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) scores afforded me the choice of any job they had to offer. I remember my dad saying “send in the Marines, they will take care of it,” and, “the infantry Marine is the toughest person of the military.” So I chose infantry, despite my high testing scores, because I wanted to prove I was the toughest. Boot camp was here in beautiful San Diego. I graduated and went to the School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton. Upon completion, I got stationed at Kaneohe Bay, Oahu, Hawaii. I felt like I had won the lottery. As a mid-west kid, I never saw the ocean or visited “sunny” states before joining the USMC. Living in California and Hawaii was like heaven. As a Marine, I also was able to see Japan, Australia, Korea, Okinawa, and American Samoa. My Marine Corp career lasted from 1994-1998, with some of the greatest memories and friends of my life.
Craig: What has been your career after the Marine Corps?
Jason: After my time in the Marine Corps, I moved back to Wisconsin, and got a job at a distribution center driving a forklift. It was a nothing job, so I was excited when my girlfriend from Hawaii invited me to move with her to San Diego. I wanted to be a computer programmer, and decided to use my GI Bill to enroll at Coleman College. I worked a few odd jobs, like installing fire hydrants, irrigation systems, and at one point, I was a bouncer. I found a great job at Pepsi as a merchandiser which worked great with my school schedule. I went to school Monday through Thursday and worked Thursday through Sunday. After two years at Pepsi I got promoted into sales. When I was getting close to graduating from Coleman College, my classmates were getting jobs in the computer field. They were starting at a lot less than I was already making. I was working Monday through Friday, paid vacations, full benefits, and holidays off, so I decided to stay with Pepsi. This is my 22nd year with Pepsi, and currently, I am an account manager for 7-11 stores.
Craig: How did you get started in triathlon?
Jason: It’s funny, my stepson’s motocross trainer (former motocross pro) had recently completed a sprint triathlon. We were all at a motocross race for the weekend, and it only took a few minutes and few adult beverages for me to bet I could beat him in a triathlon. We found a triathlon that was only twelve weeks away. I knew I could beat him on the run but he biked, quite a bit, which had me worried this is where he would get me. I had no idea what to even do or where to start. I didn’t own a bike, the only bikes I had were BMX bikes when I was a kid. I could swim, which really just meant I could play in the water and not drown. I could run, thanks to many hours of being forced to run during my years in the Marines. But I swore I’d never run again once getting out. So I went online and found the trinewbies website and used one of their training plans. I did all my training at 24 Hour Fitness, using the pool, spin, and treadmill for every workout. I remember just giving it everything I had, every workout, following the time requirements each workout called for. I knew nothing about pacing. My first race was the Steelman Sprint Reverse Triathlon in Rancho Cucamonga, February 2012. I ended up borrowing a friend’s road bike and bike shoes for the race. This was a one and done race so why would I need to go buy my own equipment? My friend is 5’9”, rides a 54 bike and wears size 9 bike shoes. I’m 6’2”, 58 bike and size 12 shoes. My thought was “it’s only a short bike ride, I’ll make it work.” The only time I rode the bike was the day before the race when I picked it up. I practiced in my driveway clipping in and out of the pedals and how to shift the bike. My plan was take off fast on the run and build a good lead. Hopefully I would be too far ahead for him to catch me on the bike. The swim was only about 150 meters so there would be no passing there unless one of us drowned. My plan worked perfect. I took off running as hard as I could, built my lead. I biked as hard as possible and he never caught me. I won the bet! Looking at the results, I actually had faster times in all three phases, which gave me even more bragging rights.
Craig: What led you to try the Ironman distance?
Jason: After that first triathlon race, the Tri training immediately stopped. I went back to just lifting weights at the gym. I had a great time doing the race and training for the race but nobody I knew was into doing triathlons. My son’s trainer and I kept saying we were going to have a rematch, but we never pulled the trigger. It wasn’t until June of 2016 that I made the decision to do another triathlon. I had been doing the gym and CrossFit thing but just wasn’t getting any excitement from it. I kept thinking back to how much fun I had training for that first triathlon. I went online and looked for a race that was a few months out and close to San Diego. The Mission Bay Triathlon popped up and it wasn’t until October. I called my son’s trainer and told him I found the perfect race for our rematch. This time was different, I knew I liked doing the sport and wanted to keep doing it. I started buying gear so that I had to keep racing, because I didn’t want to waste money on something for just one race. I found a used Tri bike on Craigslist, bought shoes that fit me and bought a wetsuit. I used the same training plan but also read everything I could get my hands on about triathlons. The race went great and I kicked my friend’s butt again. This time after the race I kept training. I was having so much fun and I loved seeing how far I could push myself. I thought, “what’s the next race I could do that was going to keep me motivated and that will really make me push myself?” I knew that Ironman races were the big, long, hard races. I started researching Ironman’s and found out about Ironman Arizona. It was perfect. It was a little more than a year away so I had plenty of time to train. It wasn’t far from San Diego and it’s a “flat” race course. The only problem was I heard it was impossible to just sign up and get into the race. My plan was find out when registration opens, and five minutes before, I sat at my computer and just keep refreshing the home page. Luckily, I got in. I feel it was it was meant to be. So I got in and had only done two sprint races and about six months total triathlon training in four years time.
Craig: What was your first Ironman experience like?
Jason: My first Ironman experience was unbelievable. All the months of early mornings, late nights, and weekends training, and then to finally cross the finish line was a great feeling of accomplishment. I had the full year to train for Arizona. I entered all the local sprint and Olympic distance races that I could find. I read everything I could find to better myself as a triathlete. I didn’t enter any half Ironman’s because I didn’t want to find out I hate racing, and not want to race a full. One Saturday morning in early August, I received a phone call from a Wisconsin number. It was a family member calling to tell me my dad suddenly passed away. At that time, I was at a race in Tennessee for my son and he was supposed to be leaving the next day to Canada for his first professional race. This completely stopped training, as I had to go to Wisconsin for the next few weeks to take care of everything. Once I got back to San Diego I immediately got back to training and it really helped me keep my mind off everything that happened. Late October, I was at Fiesta Island for a long bike session when suddenly, my front tire blew out, and I lost my front end into the sand. Immediately, it threw me off the bike and I went sliding across the asphalt. Luckily, all I had was road rash, nothing broken on me or the bike. I started questioning if I should be doing the race with these bad events happening. Everyone told me to stick with it, and that my main training sessions were already completed and that I was just going to have a little longer taper. On race day, I was all healed up and feeling great. However, I was definitely nervous that I didn’t get in enough training. I told myself “Dad wouldn’t want me to give up,” and I had to go give it everything I had. The race went perfect and I had zero problems on the course. Race day is a really long day where I get to reflect on all the good and bad days leading to this one event. I crossed the finish line in 11hrs, 43 minutes. I couldn’t believe my time and literally had every emotion imaginable rushing through me.
Craig: Your next iron distance race was in Alaska. What led you to try that and how was your experience?
Jason: My brain is always going nonstop about trying to find the next hardest thing to do. Before even racing my first Ironman, I stumbled across the Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon. I watched the video of the race and my jaw was on the ground the whole time. My mind was blown. I thought Ironman races were supposed to be the hardest. Here’s a race that’s a little longer than a full distance race and has extreme conditions. The swim has water temps in the low 50’s, you have to run up a mountain, twice, and it’s mandatory to carry bear spray. It also required entering a lottery to get picked for race entry. I immediately wanted to enter, but common sense stopped me. How was I going to enter the race lottery without ever completing a full distance race? I might hate the whole full distance experience and not want to race that distance ever again. I actually called my dad and told him about the race and that I needed full support to race it. I told him if I liked doing the full distance I was going to enter the following year and that he could be my Sherpa. I signed up to stay updated on the race and when the next year’s lottery would open. Well, a couple weeks after IMAZ I got an email saying that not everyone that won a spot in the lottery signed up. They were going to have open registration until they were full. I immediately thought this was a sign from my dad. We were supposed to do it together and now was my chance to sign up and go race it. I went right to the website and signed up. Alaskaman Extreme was an amazing experience. It is such a beautiful place that every time I turned my head I thought I’d seen the most beautiful sight. From moose, bald eagles, bears, the lakes and mountains, Alaska was as incredible as it was beautiful.
Craig: Let’s pretend you are 7 years old again and the teacher asks you to describe your 2019 summer vacation. What would you tell the class?
Jason: At Alaskaman, I won a spot to race the famous Norseman Extreme Triathlon the following year. All my thoughts and training were going to be concentrating on that race. In October I got an email from the race director of Alaskaman saying he was going to be putting on an extreme triathlon in Iceland called Ísland Extreme Triathlon. I’ve always wanted to go to Iceland and now here was my opportunity. The only problem, they were exactly one week apart from each other. How was I possibly going to do two full distance extreme races seven days apart? Norseman was the second race and the one I wanted to do my best at. I wanted to get the black finishers shirt (meaning I got to climb to the top of Gaustatoppen). My mind kept saying that I can do both and that this will be a triathlon trip of a lifetime. I decided to do both. I wanted to spend more time in Iceland because I had always heard how beautiful it is and there’s so much to see. I flew out to Iceland on July 20, a week before the race. The plan was landing in Iceland on Sunday, getting to explore for a few days, and get ready to race on Saturday. Rest and recover for a couple days and fly to Norway on Tuesday and race Norseman on Saturday. I landed in Iceland with all of my luggage and my bike, everything made it safely. We got the rental car and was off to our apartment. There seemed to be beautiful waterfalls every couple of miles. They were so beautiful we had to stop and go explore. We spent the next few days exploring, with perfect weather in the 80’s. My plan was to also get up early everyday and get into the ocean to make sure I was used to the cold water temperature. Monday morning I was up early to swim, all decked out in all my cold weather gear. I made my way to about waist deep and the water didn’t feel to cold so I dove right in. Instant brain freeze and my face felt like a thousand needles were stabbing it. My brain immediately started freaking out thinking there was no way I was going to be able to swim the full race distance in this temperature of water. Thankfully after about 10 minutes my face was completely numb and I wasn’t feeling anything. Everyday I was back in the ocean swimming and it kept feeling better every swim. But the weather kept getting colder and colder as the race approached. Thursday they informed us the swim was being moved to a lake because the tide had brought in giant lion mane jellyfish the size of basketballs. At the pre-race swim, I got into the lake and the temperature was around 56 where the ocean temperature had been at 51. I felt like I was swimming in a bathtub. My confidence was growing and I was ready to race. Saturday morning woke up to cold, rainy, and windy weather, the perfect extreme triathlon conditions! The race went great. I exited the swim in 12th place, got on the bike and the crazy weather conditions is definitely something I’m wasn’t used to living and training in San Diego. The wind was constantly changing directions, it was raining and cold. One time I was going down a hill leaning over about ten degrees, compensating for the wind. I could barely see because of the rain and I looked down at my bike computer and saw that I was going 45mph. I thought if this wind changes direction I’m dead. I kept my head down and worked my way up to 6th place coming off the bike. The run was an out and back. You went up and down a mountain turned around and went back. Since I had to race the next week my coach didn’t want my heart rate to hit zone 3. Which meant as soon as I hit the mountain I was walking. It was mentally hard not to get to race when I was in such a good position but Norseman was the bigger picture for me. Once I mentally accepted I wasn’t racing anymore, I got to just enjoy it and have fun. I would get passed, strike up a small conservation, wish everyone good luck and tell them they were looking great. I ended up finishing in 18th place. It is definitely a race and country I’m so glad I got to see and do.
Craig: What has been your most challenging race?
Jason: My most challenging race had to be Norseman. Everything about this race is a challenge. It’s the original extreme and supposedly the hardest triathlon race in the world. This race also has a lottery system to get an entry. They get over 4000 entry requests a year and only 250 racers. I talked to many racers who tried for seven, eight, and nine years straight before getting a spot to race. So the competition is unbelievable, they have been trying to race this race for years. The race is in beautiful Norway with the most amazing views. This is the most beautiful country I’ve ever been to. Lush green trees, mountains, crystal clear lakes, and views that never stopped lined the race course. Looking at just the race stats makes people not want to race it. The 2.4 mile swim in 50 degree water, 112 mile bike with 11,200ft gain and the 26.2 mile run with 5,962ft gain. There’s a cut-off point half way up the mountain on the run. They only allow the first 160 people and it has to be under a certain time. If you make this, you continue to climb to the top of the mountain and get the coveted black finishers t-shirt. On race morning we set up T1 and board a ferry that takes you out to the middle of a fjord. It’s still dark and the back gate of the ferry opens and they tell you it’s time to jump in. The drop is around 15 feet to the water. They corral everyone up and off we go. It’s still dark out and they tell you to follow the shoreline and you will eventually see a bonfire on the beach. My plan is to try and draft off other swimmers, keep down, and no looking around or at my watch. I feel like I’m having the worst swim of my life and my mind keeps telling me to look at my watch and to take a quick break. I don’t listen, finally reach the swim exit, look down and see 1:09. My best iron distance swim ever. I’m so excited and think I must be somewhere in the top 100. That ends quickly when I get into T1 and see 75% of the bikes gone and my sherpa telling me I’m already past 160th place. I stay calm and tell myself I got to do some work on the bike. Right out of T1 you start climbing. The first 21 miles has 4,100ft elevation gain. You’re climbing up a mountain, in and out of tunnels, along a river and waterfalls. The views are amazing and I wanna look around but I know I gotta keep working. The tunnels are very hot and no air flowing through them. The shield of my helmet fogs up and I can barely see where I’m going. Sweat is pouring off like someone dumped water over me. About half way up that first climb my legs are already hurting. My mind starts questioning why I was so stupid to race the week before. I literally had to tell my brain to shut up and my legs that they had no time to be sore. I finally got to the top and knew the next 50 miles was fairly flat, a few rollers, and some long straight down hills. I passed a lot of people in this section. I was able to get into aero and go. After that it was back to climbing again for 20 miles and they were steep. Signs on the sides of the road warning trucks of how steep the hills were. My legs were on fire and starting to cramp, but I kept pushing. I knew once I reached the top, the last 20 something miles was all downhill. I pushed with everything I had, never stopped and finally reached the top. That last 20 miles of the bike was so fun. I averaged over 30mph and hit 50.5mph. I exited T2 in 94th place, passing over 70 people. The first 15 miles of the run were flat and my only goal was to just keep running. No run/walk breaks and to just keep a steady pace. At the 15 mile mark you start the run up Zombie Hill. Zombie Hill series of switch backs at a 9%-10% gradient up the mountain. At mile 20 was the check point where the top 160 racers got to keep going. I knew if I got to Zombie Hill and still under 100th place that there was no possible way that many racers could pass me going up the mountain that I wouldn’t be the 160th racer. I ran the whole way and got to Zombie hill in 87th place. From that point on I was on cruise control just enjoying the rest of the race. Nobody was running the hill, mainly power or regular walking up. My body was exhausted and I just regular walked and let racers pace. I knew had accomplished what I came to do and there was no point destroying my body for a few better places. I got to the check point in 104th place. I knew I was going to get the black shirt. All I had to do was keep going. It was three more miles of road until you get off the road and actually start climbing to the top. I finally made it to the turn off to start climbing. They had an aid station there where they checked to make sure you could make the climb. The last three miles up were literally straight up. There wasn’t much of a path, just arrows painted on rocks to follow. The rocks were boulders and at points you were pulling yourself up the rocks. This was the longest three miles of my life. It felt like we were never going to get to the top. After what felt like hours I could finally see the top. I could now hear people cheering and I picked up my pace. I got to the rock steps leading to the finish line. Crossing that finish line felt like one of the greatest accomplishments of my life.
Craig: What is the dumbest thing you have done as a triathlete?
Jason: The dumbest thing was when I raced my third triathlon, which was another reverse triathlon. I had been reading about compression socks and the benefits of them. I wore a pair racing that were all the way up to my knees. They are so tight there’s no way I could take them off for the swim, so I just wore them swimming. During the swim they were starting to come off. I was trying to swim and pull the socks up. With the finish line at the pool where we swam, everyone was hanging out around that finish line after the race. And there I was – soaking wet, with the socks up to knees. I had to look like the biggest dorkiest newbie ever.
Craig: What are your favorite benefits from your Triathlon Club of San Diego membership?
Jason: I love the group training sessions available. Everyday of the week there’s something going on and all the like-minded people with the same healthy goals. Going to all these destination races and meeting racers from all over the world we get to talking about our Tri clubs. They are amazed at all the things our club has to offer. I haven’t meet anyone that has a club as great as ours.
Craig: Who has been the most influential person to shape you into the man you are today?
Jason: My dad was the most influential person to make me who I am today. He was very hard working and a person that everyone loved. I can’t remember him ever being sick or not going to work. He had the biggest heart, and would help anybody at the drop of a hat. The Marine Corp was also very influential on who I am. They really taught me I could do anything. They not only made me physically strong, but also mentally strong. The Marines taught me how to keep pushing even when your brain is telling you to stop.
Craig: What are your future triathlon goals?
Jason: There are a few races I’m looking into that both scare and excite me. The first is Epic 5, five full distance triathlons, in five days on the five Hawaiian islands. If I can figure out some sponsor help with the $8500 entry fee, I’ll be racing this next year. I’m also looking at Icon Livigno Extreme Triathlon. This race takes place in northern Italy. The bike boasts a 121 miles and 16,404ft gain course. You get to cycle in the Swiss Alps and into Switzerland. The run has an additional 9,800ft ft gain course. The only problem is my family said I can’t do this until 2021 because they want to go to Italy with me. The last race I’m looking into is the Virginia Triple or Quintuple Anvil Triathlon. This race is a continuous 7.2, 336, 78.6 mile or the 12, 560, 131 mile triathlon. Any of these three races would be another amazing experience and will keep my brain going crazy figuring out how to finish.
Craig: Jason, thank you so much for sharing your story. I could not wait to interview you. It was well worth the wait. You are proving that the sky is the limit. Good luck with all of your future adventures!
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.