Cornwall’s Donavan excels on world stage in triathlon

CORNWALL — A little motion picture called “Iron Man 3” opened this past weekend.
Addison County has its own Ironman, whom you won’t be able to find at the movie theaters. This Ironman can swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 and then run a full, 26.2-mile marathon in one day — then go home and put her three kids to bed while holding down a full-time administrative job.
And she does it without a metal suit or computer-generated imagery.
Jessie Donavan is a 37-year-old Cornwall resident who performs these feats as the No. 16-ranked female Ironman competitor in the world.
Indeed, some might argue that Donavan should be wearing a red “S” on her shirt, because when she is not training for, or competing in, triathlons, she is working full-time as an analyst for the University of Vermont and being a mom to her and husband Peter Schneider’s three young children.
“I never imagined in a million years that this would be my life right now,” Donavan said on a sunny afternoon last week during a respite from training for her next Ironman race, to be held on May 26 in Brazil. Seems like only yesterday that she placed first among the hundreds of women who competed in the Ironman South Africa competition on April 14.
“I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts.”
And it could last for a while, because Donavan has just hit her prime. She noted last year’s 6th-ranked Ironman female competitor was 46. Barring injury, Donavan figures to put a lot more miles on her physical odometer because she is a relatively new arrival to the arduous triathlon series. Donavan turned pro less than two years ago after what had been a 10-year hiatus from competitive athletics, time she had spent having and raising three children.
It didn’t take Donavan long to get back into the swing of things, as she has always been an athlete. As she points out on her Website, www.jessie-donavan.com, the Bennington native entered her first race (a 4-miler) at age 7. On that day she finished ahead of many other competitors, thereby giving her the confidence and inspiration to become a serious athlete. She competed in anything and everything she could find, including soccer and track. Donavan first specialized in cross-country skiing, a sport at which she excelled as a student at Middlebury College (class of 1997). It was there she met her eventual husband, Schneider, an avid sportsman in his own right and member of some of the Panther Division III hockey championship teams of the 1990s.
After college, Donavan turned her interests toward long distance hiking. Among other things, she hiked the length Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia.
She happily transitioned to motherhood at age 25, giving birth to Griffin, Eliot and Ava. She took her first step back into competitive racing by entering a local triathlon, featuring swimming, cycling and running.
She was hooked.
“It was such a new and exciting challenge,” she said.
Donavan began entering more triathlons, biting off longer distances sometimes in record times starting in 2009. She explained that those getting into the sport can start with “sprint” triathlons, which typically feature half-mile swims, 12-mile bike rides and four-kilometer runs. They can then graduate to Olympic-distance triathlons, involving a mile swim, 25-mile bike ride and 10K run. Those feeling bolder still can go on to the half-Ironman, which is a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile ride and a 13.1-mile run. Then there is the full Ironman: 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride, capped by a full (26.2-mile) marathon.
Donavan stepped into the half Ironman distance as an amateur competitor in 2010, qualifying for the World Championships and ending the season with a 2nd place overall finish in the 30-34 age group. As competitive as she is, it was inevitable that Donavan would take on the full Ironman. And she wanted to do it as a professional competitor.
“I sat down with my husband and talked about it, to see if we could pull it off as a family,” Donavan recalled.
They decided to give it a run.
“My husband is great,” Donavan said, noting that he has taken a step back from some of his goals to allow her to be the best Ironman competitor she can be.
“I wouldn’t be able to do this without his support.”
She turned pro late in 2011 and the only time she’s looked back these days is to see her competition straining to keep up with her. During her first full season as a pro last year, Donavan won the Ironman Lake Placid and Ironman Mt. Tremblant and took second in Ironman St. George. Lest anyone think her rookie season was a fluke, Donavan came strong out of the blocks this spring with her win at Ironman South Africa, completing it just under 9 hours and 11 minutes.
Her success has earned her recognition, prize money and sponsorships that are bankrolling her dream. She is a member of the QT2 Systems team, which counts more than 100 Ironman competitors from throughout the world. Donavan communicates regularly with her Boston-based coach, Jesse Kropelnicki, who advises her on her training regimen, which can range from very little activity (after races) to 25-30 hours of aggressive workouts per week as the next Ironman approaches. The Ironman racing season generally runs from March through November. The races are very popular contests that often sell out within hours, an entire year in advance. Professional competitors like Donavan pick the races they want and accumulate points based on how they finish. Donavan is currently 16th on the points board and is in good shape to qualify for the world championships as well as a top-10 ranking.
“I spend most of my time on the bike,” Donavan said of her training, noting cycling is the largest component of any race. But she also does a lot of swimming, which she says is her weakest of the three Ironman disciplines. She’s very happy to reside five minutes from Middlebury College’s natatorium, where she can log some serious hours in the water. The proximity to the college and the quality of Bingham Memorial School were among two reasons why Donavan and her family moved to Cornwall last fall.
“We all really enjoy going to all the Middlebury games and the community in Cornwall — the second we moved in we had a great group of friends,” Donavan said. “We fit in here.”
So Donavan gets to drink in some familiar country scenes from her college years as the miles melt beneath her feet and bike. Unlike strict marathon runners, Donavan doesn’t really keep track of her time per mile. It’s all about the amount of energy she expends and ensuring she has enough stamina and internal fuel to finish the race in the best time possible. With that in mind, she keeps track of her heart rate during her runs and measures the wattage expended while riding her bike.
“Your body is so tired that you train to push as hard as you can get yourself to, mentally,” Donavan said. So if her heart rate drops, it’s a signal for her to push harder.
Mental toughness can be an ally and somewhat of a foe. Donavan recalled competing in the Boston Marathon in 1999, while ill. Although she knew she was sick, she refused to quit and sustained temporary kidney failure in the process. She has learned to pace herself and listen to her body, while giving it the proper nourishment. She doesn’t take a lot of supplements, but she does eat healthy, including copious portions of fruits and vegetables — and no junk food.
“Time is important, but you’ve got heat, wind and hills on running courses, so it’s hard to have it all be measured on pace,” she said, noting that marathon and bike courses can vary greatly, in terms of degree of difficulty, depending on the Ironman course.
“The main thing that matters is how you do compared to everyone else.”
And Donavan routinely races against upward of 2,000 male and female competitors.
She says she is able to juggle her Ironman pursuits with family and professional responsibilities because she is efficient and a multitasker. Every Sunday, she maps out what she needs to do for the entire week. Thankfully, she is able to do a lot of telecommuting for her UVM job. And Schneider, a project manager with the Vermont Energy Investment Corp., mans the fort solo when his spouse is globetrotting for Ironman competitions. Unfortunately, the clan cannot be together for most of the races. The Ironman South Africa win was a little bittersweet in that regard. But while her husband and kids weren’t there to greet her at the finish line, they can often follow her progress live on computer and hold Skype sessions.
“I am thinking more creatively about next year, to make it more of a family affair,” Donavan said.
She’s now getting her visa to go to her Ironman race in Brazil in a couple weeks. She’ll be gone for a week and hopes to return with some more hardware and prize winnings. And while not everyone is suited to the rigors of Ironman competition, Donavan is encouraging people to get into a race — even if it’s a very short distance and just for fun.
“It is so great to have a goal outside of our everyday lives,” she said.
“Get out there and race.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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