There was a time not long ago when Platteville’s Jen Schweigert couldn’t even run farther than one city block without slowing to a walk to catch her breath.
Now, the East Saint Paul, Minn., native is among the best triathletes in the world.
Schweigert, 36, the owner of Snap Fitness, competed in the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Mooloolaba, Australia early in September, one of just 145 qualifiers in the world in the 35–39 women’s age group.
Schweigert finished 102nd in her age group with a time of 5 hours, 54 minutes in the Sept. 4 race that included a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run.
The Ironman 70.3 World Championships holds its championship event in a different city each year. The race is half the total distance of the full Ironman 140.6, which holds its world championship event yearly in Kona, Hawaii.
Schweigert has completed nine regional Ironman 70.3 races, as well as multiple marathons (26.2-mile run), half-marathons, and two Big Shoulders 5K swims in Chicago in 2013 and 2014 during her competitive career, her first triathlon in Kansas in 2010.
Schweigert qualified for September’s Ironman 70.3 World Championships at the Racine Ironman 70.3 in July 2015, when she placed 11th in her age group with a time of 5 hours, 32 minutes, earning one of the two world championship qualifier slots available for her age group that day.
Schweigert’s story is one of continued hard work and persistence and certainly not an overnight success.
Let’s rewind to the winter of 2001. Schweigert was your typical college student attending classes at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, working a part-time job and going out with friends on the weekends.
“When I was in college I was not very active other than simply walking to class,” admitted Schweigert, who now works out seven or eight times a week. “I worked at a Mexican restaurant at the time and ate way too much half-price food and drank too much free soda.”
In the winter of 2001 Schweigert was fed up, tired of being overweight and tired of being tired.
“I realized I needed to make a change,” she said.
Schweigert started slowly, first by changing her diet, then by roller blading once the winter freeze lifted.
“With subtle tweaks like moving more, portion control and less soda, I lost a ton of weight, but I wanted to do more,” said Schweigert. “My roommate at the time encouraged me to start running, but I thought, ‘I can’t run, I have never run.’”
Schweigert was a golfer and a distance swimmer at Harding High three years earlier, but was a self-described “average swimmer at-best.”
Still, she gave it a try.
“At first I would run a block, then walk a block, then run a block,” said Schweigert. “Then I increased it to running two blocks and walking a block, just very small steps. Pretty soon I was going on full runs without stopping.”
In November 2001, Schweigert ran her first 5K. She continued running, competing in a handful of half-marathons as well as completing three full marathons.
In 2009, she decided to try a different challenge and began training for a half Ironman triathlon.
“I had a few bad experiences in marathons and I wanted to try something new,” she said. “I thought why not go big, right?
I felt I could be fine in the water because of my swimming background and with already having run three full marathons I felt confident going into my first half Ironman.”
Schweigert purchased a training program on the Internet and began training by herself. She followed the same program for two years and finished four half Ironmans through 2011.
“I felt I had reached my potential, going as far as I go by myself so I decided to hire a coach,“ she said. “It was nice to have an individual plan based on my skills.”
Schweigert hired Jessica Laufenberg of SBR Endurance Performance Center out of Verona and began attending indoor cycling classes.
“Cycling was my weakest event, but having a coach also helped with race nutrition,” said Schweigert. “It’s really important to take in the right number of calories at the correct time during the race and that was one thing that really helped me out.”
Schweigert had a great 2012 season, and just missed out on qualifying for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships at the Ironman 70.3 in Muncie, Ind., that was shortened due to heat.
But as the season went on Schweigert began feeling pain in her lower back.
“I was really struggling,” she said. “Every time I ran, no matter how many miles, I couldn’t even sit the next day.”
She kept training, determined to fight through the pain, but eventually had to pull back. Schweigert stopped running for several months in late 2012 and early 2013, instead focusing on swimming and getting healthy. She went to physical therapy to strengthen the muscles in her lower back and began going to a sports chiropractor. She didn’t need surgery, but did have to miss the entire 2013 triathlon season.
In 2014, Schweigert returned to competition with a shorter Olympic-distance triathlon (0.9-mile swim, 24.8-mile bike, 6.2-mile run) in Dousman and finished first in her age group. She also swam in her second 5K swim in Lake Michigan that summer.
A year later, Schweigert was back to full strength.
“I was really ready to get back at it in 2015,” she said. “My back was healed and I was able to start running more. Surprising to me, I just kept getting faster and faster. When I was out injured I thought, ‘what if I lose everything I trained for up to this point?’ But it turned out that my time off was beneficial. My swimming got better and so did my bike. I had my sights set on doing very well that summer.”
Schweigert’s A-race that season was in June in Cambridge, Md., near Washington, D.C. Heat indexes where well over 100 degrees on the day of the race.
“I did well, but I wasn’t happy. I felt I could do better,” said Schweigert. “So I did something that you’re not supposed to do. I signed up for another half Ironman just five weeks later in Racine. My goal going in was to just enjoy the race and do my best.”
The stars aligned and Schweigert was at her absolute best. She completed the swim in a personal-best 31 minutes and just missed a new PR on the bike ride.
“I came out of the water and checked my time and I saw it was 31 minutes,” she said. “I was excited and when I saw my husband at the transition I said, ‘I’m going for it. I’m going to race this one. I felt like finally, all this training was starting to pay off.”
Schweigert also set a new PR in the run with a time of 1 hour, 59 minutes, seven minutes better than her previous best. She finished with a new overall PR of 5:32 and knew she had placed very well.
Her race finished at 1:30 p.m., but Schweigert and her husband Jim had to wait around for the 4 p.m. awards ceremony to find out if she had earned a qualifier spot for the World Championships.
“I knew it was going to be close,” she said. “I placed 11th, but some women in my age group had already earned [her] qualifier spots at previous races. Others were 140.6 Ironman athletes competing in this race as part of this training. As we were waiting we found two other women in our age group. One had a better time than me, but the other did not. When they finally announced that there were two qualifier spots for the women’s 35–39 age group I knew I had made it. It was so exciting.”
To prepare for the 2016 Ironman 70.3 World Championships, Schweigert completed a half Ironman in Galveston, Texas in April, a half marathon in Portland, Oreg. in June and a half Ironman in Benton Harbor, Mich. in August.
Jim Schweigert, a native of Cuba City, travels often for his job with Gro Alliance seed corn company, and the couple often plans Jen’s competition schedule around work trips.
“We definitely try to plan races around Jim’s work trips or just places we want to see,” she said.
Australia and the World Championships was one of those places.
“It was beautiful. We had really good weather the day of the race and the ocean swim went well. The bike was very challenging with the elevation changes, but living in Grant County and riding around Platteville had set me up better than other riders, but the course was very challenging.”
During the July 2015–June 2016 qualifying season, 130,000 competitors took part in Ironman 70.3 races trying to qualify for the world championships. Only 3,000 qualified.
“This might have been a once in a lifetime thing,” said Schweigert. “I really hope to qualify again next year, but I wanted to take in the entire race, take in the scenery and see my family along the way. I did my best and I’m happy with the experience. I can remember specific things that happened during the swim and the bike and the run and during transitions.
That isn’t always the case in other races where I’m going for a specific time.
“This was a celebration of all the hard work for everyone in the race. Thinking back to where I came from 15 years ago to where I am now, it’s just so overwhelming,” added an emotional Schweigert while holding back tears.
Schweigert says she is in the best shape of her life right now and she has a message for others ready to make a lifestyle change. Just like I tell my members at the gym, there is no secret, no magic pill,” she said. “Wake up, work out and eat healthy. If you keep doing that over and over the results will come and they will be life changing. I still eat pizza and cookies and drink wine. But it’s all about balance you have to live too.
For those considering chasing a lofty goal, Schweigert says, go for it.
“Just because you weren’t something before doesn’t mean you can’t be something now,” she said. “When I got into running I was not thinking about world championship triathlons. That wasn’t even a far off dream. It was lots of hard work and lots of hours of training. It didn’t happen overnight. But it was worth it.”
Schweigert trains 10 to 11 hours a week swimming, biking, running and lifting weights, as well as doing yoga once a week.
In her spare time, Schweigert mentors Platteville Middle School girls through the Dubuque YMCA’s Reach and Rise program, and serves a board member for the Platteville Community Arboretum and the Platteville Community Fund.