A lot of multi-sport athletes would love to compete in and complete the Ironman World (Triathlon) Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
But Bensalem Township native Jennifer Pan just had to.
You see, she had put together a list of three career goals and, after achieving them, she had to find a way to top those accomplishments.
So the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run with some of the best competitors on the planet out there in the middle of the Pacific Ocean seemed like a logical choice.
As if joining the U.S. Air Force, earning a college degree and becoming a supervising air traffic controller at Philadelphia International Airport weren’t enough, she decided to qualify for Kona by completing 13 – yes, that’s 1-3 – Ironman competitions from Alaska to Texas as part of a Legacy program because she wasn’t quite fast enough to get in on an age-group standard.
Did we mention that because of outside time demands, it took her 11 years to complete her bachelor’s degree in college?
Now that’s stick-to-it-tiveness.
And, come to think of it, one heck of a “to-do” list.
Maybe that’s why she was all smiles after she crossed the finish line in the 50th state back on Oct. 14. To put it in military jargon, it was “mission accomplished.”
Now what’s next?
How about that “seven-marathons-on-seven-continents” challenge everyone’s talking about but few have completed?
Well, after learning what Pan has crossed off that aforementioned list, why have any doubts?
“When I was in the Air Force just after I graduated Bensalem High School (2001), I had a chief master sergeant who was pretty inspiring,” Pan explained during a telephone conversation. “He had the new airmen come in and said everyone should have three goals in life. If you write them down, you will achieve them. Achieving them is greater than just thinking of them.
“So I actually went back to my room, I was 18 years old and wrote down my three goals: To be an air traffic controller at Columbus (Air Force Base in Ohio), which is one of the busiest airports that the Air Force has. To finish my bachelor’s degree and then to be hired by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) as a traffic controller, which is what I do now.”
After those goals were accomplished, she looked for a new quest.
“I completed all three goals in 2013, so I had just finished my bachelor’s degree then and I thought what am I going to do with my life now?” she said. “So, coincidentally I ran a marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon, and from there I started triathlons in 2014. When I started, I thought, ‘I want to do an Ironman.’
“I did an Ironman in 2015. Then I said I want to go to the World Championships. That was my goal. It took me nine years to complete the goal but I finally just finished it in October.”
She had entered the Legacy program and all was going well toward reaching her goal. Then the fine folks at United States Triathlon decided to change the rules in 2021 and said she had to do a dozen. So she hurried around and did Alaska, Waco and Chattanooga.
Then she tossed in one other one in Idaho, a final qualifier, for a grand total of 13.
Finally she had punched her ticket to Kona.
Now with a degree from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, the skies are the limit.
Oddly enough, directing airplane traffic wasn’t her first dream job. Back in high school, the self-prescribed “music nerd” had her eye set on a career in that field.
“I wanted to be a music major,” she said. “I also knew I wanted to move away from home. A couple people I knew enlisted in the Air Force. I applied for high-end music schools like Manhattan School of Music. The only one I got into was Temple University but I knew I wanted to move away to start my life. So I enlisted in the Air Force. I did some research and I wanted to get into computer science but they offered me air traffic control. I didn’t know what it was. I went home and did some research.”
It’s safe to say she found it to her liking.
“I work for the FAA, I’m an Air Traffic Operations Manager at Philly International,” she said. I work for the federal government and do all the airlines: Southwest, Delta, etc. – and am involved in the way you depart, the way you land. I control all of that. We talk to pilots on frequency and tell them where to fly.”
The hours are long and pretty intense for ATCs, but the 40-year-old Pan was just promoted, so maybe things will lighten up a bit and allow her the chance to do more training for her next global test, that seven-continent one.
As for Kona, it was all she had hoped for. . .and more.
“I remember riding and just thinking it was amazing. I had the blue ocean on one side and I had black lava fields surrounding me,” she said. “It was hot, windy but it was great. I took in every moment because I worked so hard to get there.”
So did she shout a giant “Yeah!” when she hit the finish line?
“No, actually I shouted, ‘GO, PHILLIES!” because they were about to play Arizona in the NLCS,” she said with a laugh. “I actually changed my plane ticket home, stopped in Arizona and saw Game 3 there.”
Back home in Bucks County, she does a lot of her training alone because of her oddball working hours. However, she does do some workouts with the Bucks County Triathlon Club and also participates in the Bucks County Roadrunners Club’s Winter Series.
A lot of people competing at Kona experience a moment or two of weakness during the double-digit hours event but Pan said it never crossed her mind.
“No way,” she said. “I would have crawled to the finish line. I’ve been working on this for nine years. There was no way I wasn’t going to finish.”
Dashin’ Thru The Lights 2-Miler, 5 p.m., Shady Brook Farm, Yardley. Contact www.runningintheusa.com
Davis Elementary School Turkey Trot 5K, 9 a.m., William Tennent Stadium, Warminster. Contact www.runsignup.com
Thursday, Nov. 23
BCRR Thanksgiving Day 5-Miler, 5K, 1-Miler, 9 a.m., Summit Square Shopping Center, Middletown-Langhorne. Contact www.runningintheusa.com