New 'Ironman' may soon join ranks of Air Force Band's star performers

  • Published
  • By Mike Campbell
  • 11th Wing Public Affairs
Once upon a time, completing the 26.2 miles of a marathon was considered the ultimate achievement for a long-distance runner, but those days have long passed into the dim memories of the aging. When the first Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon was held for 15 ambitious runners, swimmers and bicyclists in 1978, the meaning of the term "endurance athlete" was changed forever. As one triathlon blogger recently wrote, "Some people consider the marathon the ultimate endurance event. We consider it a cool down."

Before that first Ironman race, U.S. Navy Cmdr. John Collins, a primary architect of the event, handed out three sheets of paper listing a few rules and a course description. On the last page was the exhortation: "Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!"

If all goes according to plan, later this summer the United States Air Force Band will be adding an "Ironman" of its own to the many remarkable performers that swell its ranks. Contrary to the once-stereotypical Ironman image of a grizzled, macho Navy Seal or special operations-type, however, the Band's Ironman will arrive in the form of Senior Master Sgt. Jennifer Burg, a petite, 5-foot, 4-inch, 128-pound French hornist and noncommissioned officer in charge of the commander's support staff.

On Aug. 31, she'll join about 2,000 athletes at the 2008 Ford Ironman Louisville (Ky.) to take her first shot at the most daunting of endurance challenges. In Louisville she'll be aiming to successfully swim, bike and run over 140 miles of Kentucky waterways and roads without first succumbing to injury, severe cramping or overwhelming fatigue. For many of us, merely contemplating the enormity of this feat might be enough to send us to our beds or couches; Sergeant Burg plans to complete the course in as close to 13 hours as possible without resorting to such relief.

In 2007 the aspiring Ironman competed in 18 events, from breezy 5Ks to the Odyssey Half Iron Triathlon (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run) at Lake Anna State Park, Va., in early September 2007, which she completed in 6 hours, 31 minutes, 48 seconds, taking third place in the 35-39 year-old age group. On two occasions, she competed in events on successive days -- the Sept. 22 General Smallwood Triathlon (International Distance: 1,500-meter swim, 24.8-mile bike, 6.20-mile run) in Indian Head, Md., followed by the Sept. 23 Bachman Valley Half Marathon in Westminster, Md.; and the Oct. 6 Osprey Sprint Triathlon (half-mile swim, 15.2-mile bike and 3.1-mile run) in Public Landing, Md. (placing second in her age group of 19), and the Oct. 7 Army 10-Miler in Washington.

In early February 2007, Sergeant Burg won the women's military division at the wind-blown Bank of America Marathon in Tampa, Fla. "All the timing clocks broke because they went over in the winds," she recalled in an interview March 25. "Palm trees were falling down. It was crazy weather. It was terrible." At Bolling, Sergeant Burg won the Cupid's Triathlon, an indoor, two-person team event at the fitness center, with Tech. Sgt. Rob Blum, in February, as well as the St. Patrick's Day 5K.

In last October's Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, she finished her fourth 26-mile, 385-yard event in 3:46:39. Her time, though a personal best, was a letdown because she failed to qualify for the April 21 Boston Marathon by just 39 seconds. "This (Marine Corps Marathon) was my last real marathon in an attempt to qualify for Boston," she said. "I got stuck in the wrong 'corral' at the beginning, so for the first 10 miles I was running way under pace. My GPS (global positioning satellite watch) went out underneath the Kennedy Center and it never picked up again. About 10 miles in, I didn't know what I was doing and I realized when I got to the half-point, 13 miles, I was 12 minutes behind pace. I knew I was so close to the qualifying time because my squadron section commander, Maj. Keith Bland, and his wife, came down to cheer me on. At Haines point, he yelled, "You are right on for Boston.' That's when I knew I was so close and would be fighting the clock for the second half of the marathon. I picked up 12 minutes, plus ran my Boston pace, but I was just 39 seconds short. It was disappointing."

Though she began running about 15 years ago and competed occasionally in "random races," the Woodbridge, Va., native and 1994 Louisiana State University graduate didn't get "serious" about competing until after the births of her twin daughters, Kaylee and Maddy, three years ago. "To be honest, running turned into my personal therapy," she said. "It was my healthy way of dealing with life challenges. It made feel strong, powerful and in control. As time went on, I began regularly placing in my age group. Not that winning matters, it is just added motivation. The girls really enjoy seeing mommy race and that also is motivation for me. Nothing beats seeing the girls as I approach the finish line."

But Sergeant Burg's motivation to pursue the Ironman is more complex than simply overcoming athletic obstacles and enjoying her daughters' enthusiastic support. Her resolve to succeed at triathlon's ultimate challenge is inextricably tied to her daughters' difficult births in January 2005, and the unique circumstances of that event.

"I always knew I would be unable to conceive and carry a baby in the traditional sense, a fact I learned early on," she explains on her Web blog, "As I progressed through adulthood, I desperately knew I wanted to be a mother. I researched adoption options and had accepted the fact that motherhood may be just a dream. I had a wonderful circle of friends, twin best friends since middle school. They had a different idea! They both had children and had easy pregnancies. With advances in IVF and surrogacy, Shannon offered me a priceless gift: to be a host carrier for my baby. After two cycles of IVF (in vitro fertilization), we had a successful transfer. Shannon was now carrying my twin girls."

Unfortunately, the pregnancy of Shannon Davignon, her best friend since the age of 10, who carried Sergeant Burg's biological daughters, was anything but normal. At 29 weeks Mrs. Davignon went into premature labor, but through the heroic efforts of the Inova Fairfax (Va.) Hospital doctors and nurses, the twins' birth was delayed until the 31st week. After six more harrowing weeks in the natal intensive care unit and multiple blood transfusions from their father, Brian, Sergeant Burg's ex-husband, and her own father, Greg Stambaugh, Kaylee and Maddy were finally ready to go home with their mother.

A year later, Sergeant Burg's younger sister, Bryany Bergstrom, in San Diego, gave birth prematurely to her first and only child, Blake, who weighed 1 pound, 14 ounces at 25 weeks. "Suddenly, the pain I had felt seemed minor in comparison to my sister," Sergeant Burg wrote. "Again, we stood by helplessly for five long months as we watched this tiny baby girl endure countless surgeries, pain and unimaginable conditions. And while Blake is thriving today, she still faces additional heart surgery and possibilities of future intestinal surgery."

Thus was born a determined warrior in the battle to help other mothers avoid the extreme anguish and pain that she, her sister and Mrs. Davignon experienced. In September 2007 she approached the March of Dimes Maryland-National Capital Area Chapter,, to offer her fundraising services in the battle against birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality, the March of Dimes' three deadly adversaries.

She's still in the early stages of her campaign, organizing marketing materials and contacting key individuals and organizations, but Sergeant's Burg's plan seems destined for success. At the Ford Ironman Louisville, she'll be competing under the motivational tag line, "I tri for life," with all proceeds going to the National Capital Area March of Dimes.

"We're excited and thankful that Jennifer is using her passion for triathlons to help us," said Nate Brown, state director of communications for the March of Dimes. "Her story reminds everyone of the urgency of our mission. We hope Jennifer's efforts will inspire others to join in our fight for the day when all babies are born healthy."

"Ideally what I'm probably going to do throughout triathlon season is have the girls at my races and they'll hand out the brochures asking the triathlon community for their support," Sergeant Burg said. "My parents and I are targeting local businesses [with informational material] and personal visits. In the triathlon community, they're all working professionals, so a lot of it is going to be networking and who you know. You'd be surprised at how many people have been affected by premature births. Everyone knows someone who had a premature baby or experienced the devastating effects of a birth defect. Everyone has a personal story, so it's just finding those people and touching them to the point where they are compelled to make a donation." Sporting goods giant Nike has noticed Sergeant Burg's efforts, and currently provides her with a full range of triathlon gear, including shoes, running attire, watches and swim suits worth $1,000 so far this year.

Her typical day begins at 4:30 a.m.; an hour later she's on base doing her morning run and "light lifting." During the week she averages between five and 10 miles daily, and eight to 16 miles a day on weekends. "When the pool opens Memorial Day (May 26) is when I'll start doing my swimming every day at lunch," she said. "I swim a minimum of 1,500 to 2,000 meters, which is just about half of what I'll need to do for the Ironman. I have to swim at least three days a week. That's when my ex-husband will meet me at the pool, and he'll play with the girls in the pool while I do laps."

Despite her grueling training schedule, Sergeant Burg plays the French horn with the Concert Band and Ceremonial Band. After all, the Air Force Band is her job, and "we're all performers," she said. "I did all the Guest Artist Concerts this past month, every weekend at Constitution Hall. I did the Christmas concerts and the 60th Anniversary, so I still play regularly."

Describing her fellow Band members as "incredibly supportive," Sergeant Burg said a recently implemented Air Force physical fitness policy that mandates members engage in an hour and-a-half of physical training three times a week during duty days has been extremely helpful in easing some of the pressures of her daily routine. "If I do get tired and can't get up in the morning, they'll let me do my workouts during the day," she said.

Chief Master Sgt. Elizabeth Schouten, her Band supervisor, is among her strongest supporters. "Sergeant Burg is a high-energy contributor to our Air Force and community," the chief said in an e-mail. "She strives to balance roles as a personnel manager, musician, president of the Bolling Top III, single mom and fitness advocate. Her fundraising work with the March of Dimes, which taps into her desire to achieve peak fitness by setting competition goals, makes perfect sense."

At night after the twins go to bed about 9, she hits her $2,000 triathlon bike (she calls it a "low end" model) mounted in her basement for a "two- to three-hour ride." Every other weekend she focuses on her "real endurance training," because the girls are with their father. Since her parents were divorced in her youth, she has two sets now -- Lynda, her mother, and Dave Morrison, her stepfather; and Greg, her father, and Julie Stambaugh, her stepmother. "They all live locally and are great supporters," she said. "They help out tons. My Mom and stepdad are the ones that drove me to almost every race. Brian is also very supportive. We're amicable and have a good friendship."

She's also begun to incorporate classes in Bikram Yoga, in Alexandria, Va., a style of yoga practiced in a room heated to 105 degrees that lasts about 90 minutes per session, into her training regimen. "That's really helped me in my flexibility and my recovery, my muscle recovery," she said. Currently, she's doing it almost daily, for "detoxifying" purposes, and later will "do it about three to four times a week" as a supplement to her regular training, especially to help prevent injuries, which, ironically, was what originally attracted her to the triathlon experience.

"The stress in my life last year led me to the pavement and one too many marathons," she explains on her personal page on the Reston (Va.) Area Triathletes (RATS) Web site, "Rebounding from an injury (runner's knee) my physical therapist had me cross-train. One foot in the pool and I knew my fate; I was bound to be a triathlete. I absolutely stink on the bike, though. Give me some time and some coaching, and I'll be on my way."

RATS founder David Glover,, a professional triathlete whose resume includes five Ironman titles, introduced her to Bikram Yoga, and has been offering the aspiring Ironman his wizened insights and advice as she prepares for Aug. 31 in Louisville. Mr. Glover, who completed his first Ironman in 1997 and scored his first win at the 2001 Vineman Ironman in Sonoma County, Calif., said the main thing he tells Sergeant Burg is "not to do too much too soon, ramp it up slowly and have fun with it" when the big day comes in Louisville.

"The thing about Ironman training is that it's not quantity as much as it is the quality of the training," Sergeant Burg said. "You have to train for a purpose, you have to train with focus. It's a different thought process. You have to train smart, you have to train wise, because you have to avoid injuries. Half the battle of making it to an Ironman is not injuring yourself; you really have to be smart about your training."

An important aspect of Sergeant Burg's training program is what's known in the vernacular as "bricks" or "stacking a workout" by performing triathlon elements in quick succession. "In a typical triathlon, you have your swim, you do a transition, which is called T1," she explained, "then you go into your run, then you go into what's called T2, transition two, you go from your swim to bike to run. So when you brick a workout you stack either the swim and the run or the run and the bike. I typically stack my run and bike. ... I stack my workouts at Prince William Forest Park (Va.), and what I typically do is they have an eight mile bike loop and I do that two to three times, followed by a trail run in the woods."

Running is her "meat and potatoes in triathlon," she says, but she's also confident in her swimming skills. It's the long bike ride that's her toughest obstacle, because she hadn't done much before. "I just started biking last year for triathlon," Sergeant Burg said. "I was not a cyclist before this, so that's my worst discipline. In that Half-Ironman, I was like second to last coming in on the bike and still placed third in my age group because of the run. Because nearly everyone else are not runners and they're so spent by the time they swam for an hour and a half, then ride their bikes for four hours, by the time they get to the run they've expended so much of their energy that their quadriceps and hams lock up on the run.

"I'm often among the top females out of the water," she continued, "and then I lose it on the bike just because I don't have the experience in the saddle. With biking all of it is the time you spend in the saddle. That's why this off-season I spent so much time in my basement on my bike. Pedal stroke, technique it's all so important. That's the only time I ever watch TV, when I'm on that bike, because I never watch TV."

As she approaches the Aug. 31 Ford Ironman Louisville, Sergeant Burg has several events planned, including an April 6 Half Marathon in St. Louis and a Half Ironman in Illinois June 29 -- all designed to better prepare her for Aug. 31 in Louisville.

"This is my small effort to raise funds for the March of Dimes for continued research, education and outreach," she says on her blog. "Public awareness is vital in helping to stem what is an ever increasing trend in the United States. I ask you for your support assisting me to fulfill this goal. Join me, and follow along as I 'March' my way to an Ironman. I am just a mom and you just one individual, but together, we can make a difference!"