I had a lot of anxiety about hitting the big 3-0—until I met Jean.

By Jackie Faye
Updated March 04, 2021
Credit: That's me on the left, and my friend Jean Zaniewski on the right, celebrating her 60th with an Ironman. Photos: Courtesy of Jackie Faye.

The first thing I saw when I woke up in the back of the ambulance, confused and in pain, was the sight of my bicycle being taken away.

The EMTs told me not to move; I had a concussion, they said. Suddenly, it all came back to me: the 10 months of training I had already put in, and how this race, a triathlon I wasn't going to finish, was only a warm-up for a much harder one, the Ironman. Taped to a stretcher in a neck brace, I realized I was badly injured, and that I might not be able to continue my training.

This had all started in September of 2014—when I decided to uproot my life and move to New York City. I sold my car and most of my belongings, quit my job, and went back to school.

Personally, I thought graduate school was a great idea, but some people just didn't quite get it. My dad, who has never, ever asked me about the men in my life started badgering me about dating. My uncle suggested that if I didn't find someone soon, all the men would be gone. Suddenly, I got the hint that expectations change fast when you're approaching 30.

It was true that most of the women I grew up with in South Carolina were securely married and already pregnant with not only first, but also second children. Meanwhile, at 29, I was a poor student living in arguably the most expensive city in the country just trying to figure out how to afford food—and this comparison started to wear on me.

I felt like I needed to do something huge to mark the big 3-0. Okay, so I don't have a husband or children, but I must have other things to celebrate, I thought. I started thinking about what I could do and what I wanted out of it, and the first thing I asked myself was what do I really love? Well, as a fitness instructor, I love working out.

So eventually I settled on something that would require a lot of working out: the toughest single-day sporting event in the world—the Ironman, a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and a 26.2-mile run.

Even as a fitness instructor, this was more than a little daunting because:

(A) My swimming experience was pretty much limited to doggy paddle.

(B) I did not own a bicycle.

(C) And, while I do have one marathon under my belt this was going to be like three marathons in a single day.

When I told guy friends about my plan they would say, "Wow, I’ve never met a woman who did an Ironman." To date, there are only around 400,000 Ironman finishers—and just 20 percent are women.

Yes, this was exactly the kind of challenge I needed; walking across the Ironman finish line would be much cooler than walking down the aisle.

Getting started

First thing, I talked to a swim coach who invited me to one of his classes. My first trip to the pool lasted about 5 minutes. He told me to get out of the water because I was so awful, and then he emailed me an article about the fatal risks of triathlon.

Determined not to get discouraged, I found another class that was a little more my speed, and I set a goal to swim for at least an hour, three times a week starting in January.

Around my school schedule, I taught as many fitness classes as I could so I would have money to buy a bicycle, and I signed up for a shorter triathlon in June, about two months before the real deal.

As I wiggled into my wetsuit for my warm-up triathlon I felt ready. I knew how hard I had worked to get to that point, and when I dove confidently into the water for the first part of the race, I was a far cry from the girl who got kicked out of the pool at her first swim class. Everything was going well until I woke up in that ambulance.

After getting to the hospital, I found out that during the biking part of the race, another cyclist hit me from behind at full-speed as we careened down a hill. I slammed into the concrete multiple times, with my head hitting the ground so hard my helmet split. The cyclist who hit me didn't even stop.

My bicycle frame, the one I'd just bought, also cracked during the race and that meant I had to buy a whole new one, not to mention pay the hospital bills. For weeks I woke up in the middle of the night crying in pain from the headaches.

Because I didn't finish the triathlon, I started to question whether I could really finish my actual goal, the Ironman. I saw it slipping away and started to feel afraid. I remembered that article the mean swim instructor sent me. Now that I was seriously injured, not making it through this seemed an actual possibility. But at the same time, I could not allow myself to turn 30 without doing what I'd set out to do.

I thought about all the phrases I say each day when I’m teaching cardio sports training or bootcamp at my gym. I could hear myself screaming, “If it were easy everyone would do it!” I had to take my own advice.

Getting back on my feet

Before I could go on, I had to rest. By the time I could really work out again the race was just a month away. After weeks of doctoring my wounds, I knew I had to get back on the bike—and that honestly made me cry like a baby, not just because I still had skinned knees and it hurt, but because I was so, so scared.

On top of that, I felt eons behind in my training, but each time I forced myself out for a ride I felt a little bit safer and little bit more confident.

In August of 2015, as I checked into my hotel for the big weekend, the first person I met was Jean Zaniewski. I asked her if she was racing and when I found out she was, we decided to grab dinner together that night.

Over pasta, I found out that Jean was also celebrating a birthday–the big 6-0.

As she told me about herself and her goal, I laughed at myself. I thought I was pushing the boundaries of what it meant to turn 30, but Jean had already been there, done that. Jean explained that as a former federal law enforcement agent, she spent her 20s and 30s focused on her career and her athletic goals. After marrying at 40, she had her first child at 41, adopted another at 45, and had her third child at 47. She laughed when she told me that now that she was retired she could be a stay-at-home mom.

I don’t know that Jean quite understood what our meeting meant to me. She really was the epitome of the type of woman I want to be. Two days after we met we rode to the race together like two peas in a pod, one generation apart.

My Ironman finish

Just six days before my birthday, I found myself at the starting line once again.
I was so terrified of what I was about to attempt that I taped a goodbye video on my cell phone the night before. With 140.6 miles ahead of me I heard my fitness instructor voice again, “Just keep moving.”

Well, trying to move with 1,200 people in the water at once isn't easy. About a mile and half into the swim, I got kicked in the face, which knocked my nose plugs off. I can’t put my head in the water without them, so I did the entire last mile backstroke. By the time I got to the hilly bicycle course, I wasn't afraid; I was relieved.

Then, as I ran the last leg, the entire 26.2 miles, I thought about how far I had come. A year before I could hardly swim in a pool. I had worked so hard to train and then the unexpected—my accident—blindsided me. Despite my fear, I chose to get up and try again. And that is life in a nutshell isn't it? You can accomplish amazing things if you push yourself to the limit and don’t live by anyone’s rules but your own.

But most importantly, I thought about Jean, who was running this race at twice my age. I realized that it is never too late to achieve what you want, and if you open yourself up to experiences you never know who you'll meet, or inspire.

When I crossed the finish line I couldn’t have been prouder of where I was at in my life. The announcer loudly said, “Jackie Faye, you are an Ironman,” and with tears streaming down my face I wanted to scream, “I am 30!”

Jackie Faye is a fitness instructor and journalist in Manhattan. She has a MA in Business Journalism from Columbia University and attended Georgetown University’s Institute of Political Journalism. Her reports have been featured across the country on NBC, CBS, and Yahoo News.