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One foot in front of the other: Haywood runner seeks to push her limits, share the joy of running

out frPushing through 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 of biking and 26.2 of running, it was all Jennifer Jacobson could do to keep moving toward the finish line of Ironman Louisville in Kentucky last summer. But she did make it, earning an achievement to boost her mood for years to come. 

“That was basically an ultimate bucket list goal for me, and if I don’t ever do another one again, I’m OK with that,” said Jacobson, 33. “But just having that experience was something I’ll never forget for sure.”

Crossing the finish line after nearly 16 hours of racing was exhilarating. But for Jacobson, the joy is in the journey.  

“As I was getting close to the finish line, all I could think about was the whole training experience,” she said. “The race is just the icing on the cake. It’s all the hard work you’ve done over months of training.”

Training has been a part of Jacobson’s life since 2006, when she completed her first half marathon at Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, after a few years of 5Ks and loops around a nearby lake as a student at N.C. State University. That race was a rough run that wasn’t the world’s most comfortable experience. 

 “I didn’t have any knowledge of what foods I should eat,” Jacobson recalled. “I totally ate tons of pasta and bread the night before, and that did not help me on the race.”

Still, something about the experience told her that she wanted more. 

Jacobson isn’t alone in that desire. In fact, since 2003 the half marathon has been the fastest-growing race distance in the United States, especially among women, according to a 2014 report from Running USA. In 2013, 1.96 million people finished a half marathon in the U.S., of which there were 2,100, and 61 percent of those were female. Though half marathon finishers increased at a slower rate in 2013 than in 2012, the race is still on the rise. Running USA calls the growth “astounding.” 

Jacobson had entered the Myrtle Beach race as a way of staying in shape after marrying her husband Ryan and moving back to Haywood County. She’s the funeral director at Wells Funeral Home, the fifth generation to work in the family business.

But racing quickly morphed into something much more than a mechanism for continued fitness. Jacobson’s friend, Jennifer Worley, convinced her to enter the 2008 Philadelphia Marathon, and the two began training together for the 26.2-mile foot race. 

“She was my first and biggest encourager in getting really into that distance of running,” Jacobson said of Worley. 

From there, Jacobson kept pushing the limits, getting into triathlons and, ultimately, completing the Ironman race last year. 

 

Hard work, high reward

Running time is usually in the early hours of the morning, usually around 5 a.m., and sometimes getting up is not easy. Especially not for the mother of a toddler — Jacobson has a 3-year-old son, Wells. 

“It’s hard sometimes when that alarm clock goes off at 4:15 or 4:30 [a.m.],” Jacobson said. “There are days when I say, ‘I just can’t do it,’ but it starts my day off so much better, and it gives you a lot more energy to take on the day and start your day off on a good note, because you’ve accomplished something before most people are awake.”

And, meanwhile, she’s accomplishing those miles while also building lasting friendships. 

“You can talk about life with each other, and you really develop close friendships with people that are like-minded,” Jacobson said of the women she runs with. “I guess I appreciate that about running more than anything else.”

It’s also provides a new way to experience the world, a different view than the one you get while rushing to work or pushing the speed limit on the highway. 

“In the Philadelphia marathon, we got to run by the Liberty Bell,” Jacobson recalled. “We ran by a zoo somewhere in Philadelphia. You really get to see a different side of a city or town when you’re either on bike or on foot.” 

Of course, during the race, the focus is on the finish line. But training is different. 

“If you see a beautiful sunset or sunrise or just awesome scenery, you can stop or take it in and just take a picture,” Jacobson said. “It really rejuvenates me personally.”

Running through downtown Waynesville at 5 a.m., the streets are deserted and the world is quiet. The sun is still asleep and the mountains rise to make a dark silhouette against the sky. These are the moments that make the early alarm clock worth it. 

“I guess I would call it my therapy, getting out, running out in nature,” she said. “Outside you just kind of can release all the stress of the day, all those thoughts, anxieties and emotions that can get to you.”

 

Spreading the word

Jacobson knows what those early morning runs mean to her, and for that reason she’s big on encouraging new runners to get active. 

“It doesn’t matter how slow, how fast,” Jacobson said. “That doesn’t matter. In the end, it’s just that you have a goal and you’re trying to reach it. Being that encouragement to others has been awesome.”

Maybe that’s why she’s enjoying her new role as registration, expo and finish line coordinator — together with fellow runner Kate Birthright — for the inaugural Gateway to the Smokies Half Marathon, to be held in Waynesville Saturday, May 2. 

“Just being a part of so many different races, I’ve seen a lot, seen how different races do it, so it’s been nice thinking back on that experience and making the Gateway to the Smokies something special,” Jacobson said. 

The Haywood County Chamber of Commerce, which is organizing the event, hopes to attract as many as 300 runners that weekend. Jacobson is excited see a lot of people run the route, taking in downtown Waynesville and the neighborhoods around it — as well as plenty of mountain views — because, while she likes to travel for destination races like those early ones in Myrtle Beach and Philadelphia, her ideal race is the one that takes place right at home. 

In fact, of all the places that she’s raced, one of her favorites is Lake Logan, whose annual Multisport Festival draws athletes from all around the country to participate in its triathlon, half-triathlon and menu of other race combinations. 

“It is nice to go to a destination race, but just to be able to wake up in your own bed and go to a race venue, it’s wonderful, and we live in such a beautiful area,” she said. 

So, why not lace up the running shoes and go exploring? 

“Give it a shot,” Jacobson said. “You won’t be disappointed.”

 

 

Getting ready

Running a half marathon isn’t something you decide to do overnight. Getting to the finish line involves months of training, but Ironman finisher Jennifer Jacobson calls it worth it. 

“The journey means more to me than crossing the finishing line, even though crossing the finish line is awesome,” Jacobson said. 

Though it’s quite possible to run in a half marathon like the upcoming Gateway to the Smokies in Waynesville without having any shorter races under your belt, Jacobson recommends trying to get in a 5K beforehand. 

And she definitely recommends starting a training program three months before race day. For those aiming to finish the Gateway race, that means training starts now. May sounds like a long ways away, but the more time you have, the more gradually you can increase the distance of your runs. 

“You don’t want to go from running 5 miles to 10 in a couple weeks,” Jacobson said. “It’s easy to get injured.” 

A good exercise routine would involve running about three times each week, with two of those runs being shorter distances that lead up to a longer distance on the third day. On the off days, it’s a good idea to get into a cross-training routine to strengthen muscles and further reduce the risk of injury.

Then, just keep ramping up the distance until hitting the magic number. 

“For a half-marathon, you want to get at least to the 10-mile mark,” Jacobson said. “Usually if you get to 10 miles, you can easily run 13. But for a more experienced runner, they’ll sometimes train through the full distance.”

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