Even with a will of iron, not enough hours in day Joanna Zeiger: With triathlon workouts, studying for a doctorate at Johns Hopkins and working, life never slows for the 28-year-old Baltimore native


October 20, 1998|By Phil Jackman | Phil Jackman,SUN STAFF

It was a performance an athlete dreams about, near perfection right across the board.

"Best thing about it," said Joanna Zeiger, "is I felt good" during most of the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon, held Oct. 3. "I've recovered quickly and I feel good now."

Feeling good now is important because Zeiger has the U.S. Pro Triathlon Championships coming up Sunday in San Diego.

So what's the rush? Why crowd another exhausting event into her already overcrowded schedule?

For one thing, San Diego is where the family is, and getting back home hasn't been that easy over the last decade.

In finishing as the top American and sixth overall among the women competing in the Ironman, Zeiger completed the 2.5-mile ocean swim in 50 minutes, 46 seconds. Only a record women's leg of 49: 11 beat her.

On the bike for 112 miles, Zeiger averaged better than 20 mph while clocking 5 hours, 36 minutes, another personal record. Then came a 3: 19: 44 marathon, which brought her total time to 9: 46: 30.

"That's an improvement of 31 minutes over what I did the year before," said Zeiger, as a sky's-the-limit look flashed across her face.

Time out. Before you get the idea Zeiger rises with the sun, goes out for a run and comes home to prepare for a late-morning swim and an afternoon bike ride with naps in between, forget it.

She's studying for a doctoral degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health under a grant from the National Institutes of Health, and working.

If you're wondering how much activity can be jammed into 24 hours, ask her. As we spoke, she knocked off a crossword puzzle; the one in the New York Times, no less.

"Scheduling gets a little hectic from time to time," she said, "but I've always been a student-athlete, so I'm used to it."

The Baltimore native -- she was born here 28 years ago while her physician father was interning at Johns Hopkins Hospital -- started getting used to it upon matriculation at Brown University in 1988. She was a national-class swimmer, making it to the Olympic trials that summer as a high school senior and in 1992, too.

In departing Brown with a degree in psychology, Zeiger left behind several pages in the school's swimming record book. She swam the 200-meter breaststroke, the 400 intermediate medley, the 500 and 1,000 freestyles and just about anything else the coach tossed her way.

She was All-Ivy League and All-East in the pool, a great foundation for what was to follow.

It was a shoulder injury that sent her off to the other disciplines of the triathlon.

"I ran during my senior year to stay in shape, and I liked it," she said. "I was a member of a masters swim team in Providence [R.I.], and it was actually the older members of the team that got me started."

And what a start it was. In her first attempt at a triathlon, Zeiger won her age group in a competition that consisted of a half-mile swim, 18-mile bike ride and three-mile run. She was sixth overall.

"More importantly, I had a great time, met a lot of great people and was hooked," she said.

Zeiger's next stop was Chicago, where she began working for a master's degree in genetic counseling at Northwestern University. No sooner had she picked up her class schedule when she took on the Chicago Marathon in 1993.

"A lesson," she said of her first distance experience. "I ran 3: 32, but it was awful. The last six miles were painful; I was so under-prepared. I had never run more than 13 miles before." It would not happen again.

By the spring of 1994, Zeiger was seeking out triathlons. She undertook her first half-triathlon -- a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and half-marathon -- and, though hurting at the end, won her age group. Blue ribbons and gold medals have a way of healing the wounds and quickening recovery.

Normally, recovery from a marathon is measured in weeks, not days. Not with Zeiger.

"It all comes down to cross-training," she said. "The three disciplines require different muscles, so you can be working some muscle groups while others are recovering. Still, you're often riding a fine line between being super fit and injured."

For Hawaii, Zeiger's weekly training schedule zoomed up to 300 miles on the bike, 70 miles running and five days churning up and down the Meadowbrook Swim Club pool to the tune of 20,000 yards (11-plus miles).

"I won't get anywhere near that for San Diego, because it's late in the season and all I'm trying to do now is maintain [condition]," she said. "I'll take some time off at the end of the year, but I never let anything go completely. Sometime in January, I'll pick up the mileage and maybe run a marathon in March."

Last year, she followed that strategy and ran a 2: 54 in the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach on St. Patrick's Day.

The triathlon season commences in late spring and runs until October.

"This is pretty late for the U.S. Pro, so I'm not sure how strong the field will be in San Diego," Zeiger said. "But of the people I saw in Hawaii, most of the good ones said they'd be there. A top-five finish there would be nice."

About a month after Zeiger returns from the triathlon on the West Coast, she'll be on the starting line with about 350 others for the North Central Trail Marathon in Baltimore County. Don't want to get lazy.

Pub Date: 10/20/98

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