When Jen Henkle looked out onto the 12-foot swells along the Southern California coast and learned that her last world triathlon qualifier race was suddenly changed to a duathlon, her heart sank.
Henkle’s spirits drifted from a state of anxious anticipation to one of disappointment and defeat.
“I knew it was going to be virtually impossible to make this team anyway,” says Henkle. “And now they have taken away my best leg. So quite frankly, I was just — emotionally — in a horrible place.”
Henkle, a 43-year-old Bend resident and mother of a 2-year-old daughter, has been trying to qualify for the International Triathlon Union World Championship Triathlon for three years. Two weeks ago in Newport Beach, Calif., was her final attempt.
“I crossed finish line,” she recalls. “The entire race I was thinking, ‘It’s too bad this is my last race; I’m sure I didn’t qualify.’ ”
Henkle admits that she was feeling tired and wanted to move on. But first, she gave herself one last triathlon try.
Henkle’s strongest triathlon event is swimming. And when the swim leg was dropped from the 2009 USA Triathlon Sprint National Championship Pacific Coast Triathlon because of the dangerous surf, she thought she had no chance to qualify for the world championships.
But she was wrong.
To compete in the ITU World Championship Sprint-distance Triathlon in Gold Coast, Australia, prospective participants have to place in the top 12 in their age group at the national qualifying event. This year, that race was the Pacific Coast Triathlon, held July 26 in Newport Beach.
When Henkle finished the race, which was changed to a run-bike-run duathlon, she had already prepared herself for a letdown. As she scrolled down the results sheet at the finish area and saw her name in the 10th-place position, she shook her head in disbelief. “I just started screaming,” she remembers. “What? No way!
“I had them recheck the calculations.”
Sure enough, Henkle did qualify. And she is headed off to Australia next month (Sept. 9-13). Henkle will join about 100 other Americans and will face competitors from 50 other countries in the sprint-distance triathlon. (A sprint-distance triathlon consists of a half-mile swim, a 20-kilometer bike ride and a 5K run).
“I’ve always said, my one goal is to make this team,” says Henkle, “and after that I’m done. ... If I had not qualified, I would have never tried to qualify again and I wouldn’t have raced again.”
Henkle continues to ride a wave of elation since qualifying.
“It was euphoric,” Henkle says, describing the moment she discovered that she had earned a berth in the world competition. “And I’ve been waiting for that to fade. And it hasn’t. And I will tell you why. I’ve done a lot of soul-searching on this. It hasn’t faded because I don’t think that I’ve been searching for anything beyond it.”
She says she has no expectations for the world championship. In her mind, the goal has been attained.
“All I wanted was to see my name somewhere above the 12th place, nothing more,” Henkle says. “I’ve reached the place where I want to be. Therefore, I can stop comfortably.”
Leading up to the national race last month, Henkle had won her age group at two other triathlons, one in Sacramento, Calif., and the other in Corvallis. And last summer, Henkle won the women’s 40-44 age category in the Deschutes Dash sprint triathlon.
Henkle has lived on both coasts off and on throughout her life. A native of Connecticut, she grew up on the central coast of Maine, attended Colby College there and then went off to graduate school at the University of California at Irvine. While studying neuroscience at Irvine, she met her future husband, Gary Henkle.
And in the early 1990s, she found a passion for triathlon.
“When I was in graduate school, I really needed a diversion to get me out of the lab,” notes Henkle. “I needed a different kind of challenge. Not a mental one, but more of a physical one. ... I just decided to pick up triathlon.”
After grad school, Jen Henkle left the West Coast and headed to Boston to pursue a career in noncontroversial stem-cell science. She continued to race triathlons, competing in at least two triathlons a year and in some years as many as seven.
It wasn’t until 2002 that she came West again. She married Gary Henkle in 2003 and lived with him in Portland until last year, when they moved to Bend.
When Henkle set her goal for the world triathlon championship, it was in the half-ironman distance (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, 13.1-mile run). Eventually she decided that she didn’t want to spend all of her time training and pared it down to the shorter sprint distance.
But Henkle still works hard.
“I don’t have a lot of natural talent — very little, quite frankly,” she claims. “And in order for someone who has modest genetic means to succeed at this level, one really has to put in a lot of effort and a lot of time, maybe more so than others who are naturally gifted.”
She trains with Kyle Will at WillRace Performance in Bend about two hours a week, and 10-15 hours on her own using Will’s workout plan. Henkle attributes her success to Will’s functional-strength training.
“It is an incredible tool,” notes Henkle of Will’s workout plan. “I feel like it’s one of the best-kept secrets, in a way — this functional-strength training.”
The training targets muscle-group movements and the relationship between the nervous and muscle systems, as opposed to building and strengthening individual muscles.
Henkle says she does not sleep much, waking at about 3 a.m. every day and often working out at that early hour. She loves training, but she looks forward to a new goal that is yet to be seen.
As far as making it to worlds, Henkle set her standards pretty high.
“That goal was — realistically speaking — the furthest-stretched goal I could ever attain in the sport,” she says. “I knew I would never, ever, ever be able to make the Olympic team, for example. I would never have a chance at becoming a pro triathlete. So for my athletic ability, or lack thereof, it was the best stretched goal I could realistically make.”