Ironman, Coach, Role Model

By J. Jody Kelly – January 2, 2013

Athlete Jennifer Reinhart noted, “On race day, it’s all mental.”  The training, the gear, the clothing, the nutrition plan, the hydration plan, the race strategy, the back-up plans, and all of the other preparations are complete. When the race starts, it’s just you and your mind-over-matter attitude.

Reinhart, 53, knows a thing or two about mental strength. She has made a number of comebacks after injuries, but none as major as the one that she has dealt with for the past four and a half years. In 2007, a mountain bike crash injured her left ankle. When 12 weeks of rigorous physical therapy didn’t provide enough improvement, she went for surgery. During the procedure, the anesthesiologist administered a nerve block about four inches above the back of her knee. The needle wasn’t supposed to hit the sciatic nerve, but it did. This mistake caused the loss of the tibial and the common peroneal branches of the nerve. She could feel nothing but pain in her lower left leg. This condition led to atrophy of the calf muscle, loss of all function of her foot including the inability to perform dorsiflexion (foot drop), and chronic excruciating pain.

Imagine trying to run when your calf lacks muscle strength, your foot flops down without control, and your whole leg screams in pain. And yet, Reinhart returned to swimming, cycling, and even running as soon as she could. She used appropriate pain medication and, for a while, a Bioness device to stimulate the nerves and muscles that raise the front of the foot so she wouldn’t trip over every little twig. Later a neurologist removed three centimeters of scar tissue from the site of the nerve block. She has been clawing her way back with Ironman resolve ever since.

Today, she still has little control over her left foot. She must consciously focus on lifting her toes and placing her foot properly while running. The only occasions when she can run more or less freely are the rare times when someone running ahead of her has just the right pace and cadence for her to match stride for stride. Even so, she always wears a compression sock and uses a neutral running shoe with a stiff orthotic in the left one to help control foot drop. She also does a great deal of physical therapy. As for the pain, medication helps manage it. The main feeling now resembles a constant “burning or tingling.” Since skeletal muscles must receive an electrical impulse before they can move, she recently had an electromyogram (EMG) test to measure electrical connectivity. She has recovered “about 60 percent of the calf and 40 percent of the foot.”

Such serious problems might have caused anyone else to give up triathlon, but not Reinhart. Her first longer race after the damaging surgery was the Capital of Texas Olympic Triathlon in May 2009, but then she sat out the rest of the 2009 season due to stress fractures in her lower left leg. She came roaring back in 2010, completing a dozen triathlons, the last accomplishing the Ironman distance again.  In November 2010, she raced Ironman Florida in a finishing time that qualified her to compete in 2011 at the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.  In 11 months time, Reinhart completed three Ironman-distance races.  Sandwiched between IM Florida and Kona, she completed at Ironman Austria only eight weeks after a bicycle crash broke her right clavicle. Racing with a metal plate stabilizing her shoulder was nothing after what she had already been through.

After the Florida race, while standing in line to register for Kona, she said, “I guess I’d better call my husband.” The call couldn’t have shocked him. He has always been supportive and Reinhart has always been an athlete. She started swimming at the age of four when her four older brothers used to toss her in the water and shout for her to swim across the pool. She swam competitively at Purdue University and joined various masters groups after college. There have hardly been two weeks in a row that she hasn’t been in the water, even when her three children were babies.

After Purdue, where only ten percent of the engineering students were women, her work as a chemical engineer took her to Wilmington, NC, where she lived from 1981 to 1988. The triathlon community there hooked her on the sport. When she moved to Texas in 1988, she continued racing, taking time out from 1992 to 1996 to have a son and two daughters. When it became difficult for both parents to travel for work, she decided to retire in 1993. Busy with her small children, she was able to return to racing in 1997 for the Danskin Women’s Triathlon. The training had never stopped.

After a half Ironman-distance race in 2001, she did her first full Ironman at Coeur d’Alene, ID, in 2003, finishing in 11:35:43. To date, she has completed 11 Ironman races, including four in Kona. Her most recent was Ironman Canada this past August in a time of 11:39:30–nine years later but only three minutes and 13 seconds slower. The longest she has ever taken to complete an Ironman is 12:09:29 in Austria in 2010. For that event, Reinhart was riding an unfamiliar bicycle; she’d had to rent a bicycle at the last minute because the airline misplaced hers.

If these statistics aren’t impressive enough, take a look at two former professional triathletes in Reinhart’s age group (50-54). Thirty years ago, Kathleen McCartney passed a staggering Julie Moss to win the women’s world championship in Kona, while Moss giraffe-walked, crawled, and rolled to the finish line to take second. The two women, inextricably linked in Ironman history, became friends and decided to train together for the thirtieth anniversary of their 1982 race. This past October, Moss finished in 12:35:58, while McCartney finished in 13:32:30. One year earlier, Reinhart finished the same course in 12:04:56.

As a coach, Reinhart has a long resume as well. As early as high school, she began coaching younger kids in swimming. After moving to Austin, she coached with Texas Iron from 2003 to 2007. She has been the distance coach for Tri Zones Training since 2008, where she trains men and women of all ages, from their twenties to their seventies. Everyone in her Peak Performance group has either already done at least a half Ironman-distance triathlon or is training for one. Many have completed a full Ironman. In all, Reinhart has taken over 25 athletes to the successful conclusion of an Ironman-distance race consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike, and a 26.2-mile run.

As a role model, Coach Jen (the name her athletes call her) inspires everyone who knows her story. She embodies the determined, stubborn, goal-driven, positive-thinking, challenge-setting athlete who overcomes all odds. She also wants to set a good example for her children and for the athletes she coaches.  She admires weight-challenged athletes who work hard to change their lives. She has seen sedentary people go from the sofa to a super sprint-distance triathlon in 12 weeks. Knowing how hard it is to change and realizing that brain chemistry varies a lot from person to person, she feels empathy for those who struggle with unfortunate life choices. Yet she has seen some amazing changes through Tri Zones. She also recommends ATX100 (sponsored by RunTex) and My Fit Foods for those who are working on getting fit and losing 100 pounds or more. She says, “Don’t ever think something is impossible. Work at it in small chunks.”

As for Reinhart’s own goals, she has just taken a break to finish some rehab after following her surgeon’s advice to get the metal plate in her clavicle removed. Now she’s training for her first races of 2013, the Hermann Memorial Ironman 70.3 in Galveston on April 7 or the Texas Tri Series 70.3 Corpus Christi on April 21. She might race both. These half Ironman distances will be a good tune-up for the long course age group world championship in Belcort, France, June 1-3. She had qualified for this event in 2008 before the nerve block damage forced her to cancel. After qualifying again, she will represent the United States as a member of Team USA.  She is also a member of Team USA for the Olympic Distance World Championships in London, England, in September, 2013.

Longer term, Reinhart wants to race in Kona again when she moves into the 55-59 age group. She plans to stay active as long as possible and to keep on helping people develop into long course and Ironman triathletes. Along the way, she will continue overcoming hardships and inspiring others. She says, “Triathlon helps define me.” To her many admirers, Jennifer Reinhart defines triathlon.


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