Ironwoman: University student takes on the Ironman World Championship


Camille Studebaker

She began by lining up in the Pacific Ocean ten before the start. Packed so tight next to her competitors, she could hardly move as they treaded water.

Doubt filled Jessica Lambert’s mind as she got ready to participate in the 140.6-mile Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. First, the professionals went. Then the men’s group went, then finally the women’s group. Once the race started, it was so aggressive that she could hardly take a stroke. Competitive athletes were on top of each other trying to pull her down.

Halfway through the 2.4-mile swim, the waves kicked in and made her nauseous. Next up was the 112-mile bike ride in 96-degree heat with plenty of hills. The biking portion is supposed to have a stop where participators get a bag of things they will need to keep going, but they somehow lost her bag.

“So I got on top of this giant hill, they didn’t have my bag; it was just so hard,” said Lambert, a senior majoring in exercise science. “I kind of cried at that point, but you just got to keep going and just enjoy it for what it is.”

Last was the 26.2-mile run. Running is her strong suit for ironman distance. She said it hurt too badly to go from walking to running, so she only ran.

It was dark when she crossed the finish line. She could not feel any of her body because it was numb.

“It was really hard to walk,” she said. “I almost couldn’t step because I was so beat up.” 

She saw a video of herself finishing, and she was crying and looked confused. She forgot to put sunscreen on parts of her body, so her forearms and a big portion of her right thigh got badly sunburned. She went to the massage tent after she finished and had a guy massage her for almost an hour, but he could not work on her right thigh because it was too sunburned. Then her boyfriend took her in a wheelchair back to the car.

Her finish time was 13 hours and 49 minutes. The previous year, at Ironman Florida, where she qualified for the world championship, she finished in 13 hours and 11 minutes. Though it was slower than her qualifying time, she said she was happy with her end time at Kona, given the conditions.

“This was an incredible experience,” Lambert said. “It’s kind of hard to explain that atmosphere of the Ironman.”

Lambert grew up swimming and running. She did year-round swimming up until high school, and then participated in cross country, swimming and track. She was introduced to triathlons around age 10 by her year-round swim coach and did them during summers in high school. In college, she decided to focus on triathlons.  

She joined the University’s triathlon club her freshman year, and the president of the club ran the Ironman that year. They all volunteered, and she thought it was the coolest atmosphere. The wind was so bad that the swim got canceled, and despite it being miserably cold and windy, when the president finished, everyone was crying. This experience led her to sign up for one for the next year.

“It’s just so cool to see everyone finish, so I was just like, I don’t know, this is a bucket list kind of thing to do, so I’m going to do it,” she said. “So I decided I wanted to finish one, so I signed up and ended up doing it.”

The training for both Ironman Florida and Ironman Kona was challenging. Running 20 miles a day or biking 50 miles a day takes up lots of time, and it takes tedious scheduling. She and her roommate, Monica Vermillion, a senior majoring in chemical engineering, had to plan their class schedule according to their training schedule with classes only on Tuesday and Thursday, so they could have Monday, Wednesday and Friday to train.

Vermillion, also a member of the triathlon club, trained and participated in Ironman Florida with Lambert.

“It made us closer because it was something we were both working toward,” Vermillion said. “Training isn’t this super fun thing always, just the amount of discipline it takes is really hard to find on your own.”

For Lambert, her training and subsequent completion of the Ironman World Championship is not as complicated or intense as some might think. 

“It’s really just one foot in front of the other,” Lambert said. “You just got to keep going.”