TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
I had the good fortune to talk triathlon with the TCSD’s one and only Julie Dunkle. Please join me as we get to know this great athlete who is humble enough to recognize that she would not have advanced as far in triathlon and as quickly without the benefits offered by our great club and its members.
Craig: What was your athletic background before triathlon and how far did you advance in your best sport?
Julie: I was swimming by the time I was 9 months. My father would toss me off the diving board into the deep end to my mom. Growing up in Denver I swam every summer at the neighborhood club. This evolved to year round AAU (now USA Swimming) by the time I was 12 and living in Northern California. It was my passion, my social life and my dream. I had an abnormal high school life, swimming before and after school and on weekends- my life was swimming. At the age of 17 in 1984 I qualified for US Nationals in the 800 and 1650 (which are short course events 25 yards) and for the long course season I qualified again in the 1500 but since it was an Olympic year, the Olympic trials replaced US Nationals. My event at the time was not an Olympic Event so I was not able to swim at the trials. This led me to LSU on a swimming scholarship and this took swimming to a new level. Swimming at a Division I school ranked in the top 10 (in swimming) at the time was a privilege, a job and journey. We trained in top facilities, with top coaches, were treated like rock stars and trained like professionals. It was 5-6 hours a day and it was the hardest thing I had ever done. I loved the athletic life but the training we did there as a distance swimmer did not further my career. Many weeks we logged over 85,000 meters, ran 20 miles and lifted heavy weights. This was my first experience in overtraining and fatigue. My first SEC swim meet I PR’d in my 500 freestyle at @ 4:47 and 800 7:59 and I was sure I was heading for amazing results. Injury, constant fatigue and soon lack of motivation led to subpar performances…but I stuck with and made memories and friends for life. By the time I was done. I was done. Burned out, wanting to quit but forced to swim to stay at LSU… I walked away from swimming really hating the very sport that had taken me so far.
Craig: What was it like for you to experience the 1989 Iron War between Mark Allen and Dave Scott?
Julie: In 1989 just finishing my last collegiate swimming year my family went to Kona to watch a good friend race Ironman. I was clueless, no idea what it was. My first impression of this sport was seeing the fittest people I had ever seen cruising about the town. As an athlete I was impressed. As the cannon went off and the 1,500 swimmers took off I was moved. We were all over the bike course on our mopeds and having no cycling experience I could not appreciate the 112 miles other than the heat. Watching the marathon I was in awe and then all of a sudden 2 guys came running along, shoulder to shoulder, wearing neon shorts and the crowd went nuts. People yelling “Mark you can do this” Mark who? Dave who…. I ran to the finish line feeling the raw emotion emanating from Mark Allen as he won for the 1st time in Kona. I later learned this was the “Iron War”. These 2 rivals raced side by side for nearly 7 hours. I stood there with tears of emotion (and I still did not know the whole story) and and I watched 100’s of people finish and I soon realized I was paralyzed, moved and in sheer awe. Later my brother said “Jules, one day, you’ll be here.” I could only hope…
Craig: Once your swimming career ended, how did you test yourself athletically?
Julie: After my swimming career ended you could not pay me to get wet outside of the shower. I took a year and did nothing. I ate, drank and gained 20 lbs. Soon that got old and I started running…what a refreshing sport. No water, social if you wanted and music. I ran for pure fun (for about a week), and then got competitive. Mostly I ran 10K’s and half marathons as I was establishing my career, having kids etc. Eventually the distance swimmer in me gravitated to the marathon distance. The first marathon I finished, barely finished, all I could think of was my dreams of an Ironman were squashed. No way, no way could anyone run 26.2 miles (which was so hard) AFTER a 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike. Not in my future.
Craig: I recently interviewed Troy Cundari for the TCSD Newsletter. What role did Troy play in your becoming a triathlete?
Julie: I was an addicted runner but was not good at dialing it back, recovery or listening to my body. My swim training was about pushing the limits all the time. Puking was rewarded. Collapsing was good. When you apply this to running at 30+ it leads to injury after injury. After a 6 month sentence of no running, I started cycling with my husband. At the time my daughter was playing soccer and I would come to practice and take off for a run in the canyon. There was another dad who did the same. In the world of suburban soccer moms we were freakish. Eventually we became friends and he asked if I rode and I said I was just learning, he offered to show me local rides. At the time I had 1 route and it was all right hand turns so I did not have to stop – see I was terrified of unclipping. I see him one day and he asks if I can swim? I laugh.. um yes. He says, “I’ve seen you run and ride. If you can swim you might be good at triathlon.” My response “I can’t run 26 miles after a 112 mile ride.” He laughs and tells me there are shorter races. Who knew! He convinces me to sign up for the Encinitas Sprint Triathlon. He was amazing, sold me a wetsuit, took me to Del Mar to practice ocean swimming, picked me up on race day, showed me how to set up transition and gave me pointers. This was our very own Troy Cundari. It was an epic day with big surf and I loved every minute of it. I won my age group and was hooked. This was more fun than I had in years….. more, more, more. I went home and signed up for Camp Pendleton, Oceanside and Vineman 70.3. I pondered an Ironman but thought maybe do a few 70.3’s first.
Suddenly an Ironman seemed doable. How doing a Sprint, a 1 hour race convinced me of that was baffling. It was pure emotion... I am drawn to longer distances and, well, longer in triathlon was Ironman. And by this point I knew people who had done one and if they can, I can! The adrenaline of racing soon overrode my mental block of “not possible.”
Craig: You've done the Hawaiian Ironman three times - 2009, 2010 and 2011. What was your journey like to get qualified in 2009?
Julie: After I did Oceanside in 2007, my 1st 70.3, I promptly signed up for 2008 Ironman Coeur d’Alene. Mind you, my first 70.3 was not pretty but I still thought, double this distance, sure no problem. I hired an Ironman specific coach, Kevin Purcell, in 2008 and we began the journey. Long rides and runs – building a base and doing BDT (big day training) - 1 hour swim, 6 hour bike, 1 hour run began to show me I could do this. My goal was to finish….but secretly wanted to kick ass and qualify for Kona. It was an epic day, I loved it all and suffered but crossed the finish line in 11:17, sobbing, and hearing those magical words by Mike Reilly “Julie Dunkle – you are an Ironman.” I was in awe, more proud of myself than any previous accomplishment. And I was hooked….so hooked I paid for a Foundation slot at Ironman Wisconsin 10 weeks later. I had to do this again. At IM Wisconsin I was ready to race, not just finish. I rode too hard and struggled on the run… mile 3 felt like 20 but I ticked the miles off 1 at a time and hung in there for 4th place. OMG I did it…Kona slot. We celebrated. I cried and showed up the next day to claim my slot only to learn there were only 3. In Coeur d’Alene there were 4. I made a rookie move by assuming the 2 races would have the same number of Kona slots. I was mortified. The only saving grace was there was no Facebook to publish “Kona baby” and then retract it the next day “just kidding”
2009- game on! Oceanside and Coeur d’Alene. At the time Oceanside offered 1 Kona slot – so I had to win. I left T2 with another girl and we were 1st and 2nd…. She was an ex- professional and took off fast and I knew I could not run that pace. I ran well and ran hard. At mile 10 I learned she was dying and I did all I could. I came up 11 seconds short. A PR, sub 5 hours, 2nd place…and I was devastated. Triathlon for me was now about 1 thing - getting to Kona. I was down….but my coach (gave me a swift kick in the ass) and helped me see how fit I was, how I was 19 minutes faster than last year and to look toward Coeur d’Alene. Stop the pity party and get focused.
I started IM CdA in 2009 with an air of confidence, this was Ironman #3 and the fear of finishing was replaced with the goal of a race. It was a magical day….swim was great, bike was spot on as we discussed – a negative split. I struggled miles 75-95 feeling tired, low and the negative talk crept in, but this is Ironman and the lows are lows. I worked through it and by mile 95 I was feeling good. Onto the run I was in 2nd place and felt great. The run is my weak spot but that day I was a runner. I started conservatively and picked it up. I was running well, felt good and ticking off the miles. Around mile 16 I knew I could do this, by mile 21 I was smelling the sea air of Kona and focused on not falling on my face and getting to the finish line. Once again I was sobbing as I ran down the chute…those magical words now held a Kona slot for me. I did my homework. I knew there were 3 slots and I was in 2nd! 10:41 and Kona baby!
Craig: You qualified for the 2010 Hawaii at the 2010 Ironman Utah. What was your experience like in St. George?
Julie: Now racing was about Kona. 2010 I did not qualify at Oceanside (2nd again) but this time I was okay as I had my sights set on the inaugural Ironman St. George. After a 53 degree swim, really tough bike I was starting the run in 3rd with 3 slots. The run was tough – up or down hill, 2 loops. At the end of loop 1 I was hurting and I saw my coach. He said “4th place put 8 minutes into you on the 1st lap and she is a runner, she is 2 minutes back” Ugh…I take off, slam a Red Bull and am not happy. I’m telling myself I don’t really want to go to Kona this year, we can save money…I was mentally down. My husband John rides by “come on Jules, you can do this, come on.” “No I can’t. Oh no I have to poop.” He yells “poop your pants.” I yell “you can only poop your pants if you are winning and I am dying.” John is race sherpa, supporter extraordinaire and he rides ahead to the porta pottie and says “my wife is trying to qualify for Kona, can she go ahead of you?” Amazing…the guys says “yes.” Well, in those few moments in the porta pottie I decide Screw Kona, but I am going to make her (4th place) work for it, she will have to run me into the ground. I slam back the door and come out like Superman. I picked up the pace and focused on making her hurt. Somewhere around mile 23 I learn she has faded and I am now in 2nd place. I ran someone down - a first for me. I finished in 2nd place and it was the hardest race of my life. I ran the last 3 miles in agony, knowing she or someone was running me down. I had 6 minutes on 3rd place but I was scared.
Craig: What volunteer jobs have you done for the TCSD?
Julie: I joined the Tri Club in 2008 and was amazed at what the club offered, the sheer number of workouts and races. With my 2 kids and training I don’t do much with the club, but I got a lot of experience early on with the club races and the Aquathlons. I felt the need to help in some way and as a lifelong swim coach I started volunteering at the JCC. I did this for about a year, but 7:30pm on a Monday or Wednesday is family time and as my kids schedules got more and more hectic I wanted to be home or at their games so I transition out. I started offering a Friday noon swim at Ventura Cove for other people who have kids, work at home or don’t work.
Craig: How do you manage to accommodate swimmers of all abilities at your Ventura Cove swim workout?
Julie: I can manage all level swimmers (as long as you can swim 500 meters) at Ventura Cove since it is a safe environment for open water swimming. Easy entry, all visible from the shore and there is no surf. I group people by upcoming races, goals or what they feel for the day. Sometimes we have 3 workouts going 1: long Ironman swim with sighting and intervals. 2: entry/exit practice with sighting 3: varied intervals. In anyone wants 1:1 feedback I can usually accommodate once the workout has begun. It is very fluid and casual.
Craig: You also do 1 on 1 triathlon coaching. How can people reach you and what are some of your basic coaching philosophies?
Julie: There are plans everywhere, articles and apps for training but I believe an athlete who is monitored by a coach will achieve higher goals, be less injured and learn more about themselves. A 25 year old single male and a 45 year old female with kids and a husband cannot train the same way. I offer individualized coaching that is based on your age, ability, experience, goals and most importantly what your life can handle. I monitor all workouts to see how my athletes are absorbing the work, enjoying the workouts, hitting the intervals and then may make a change mid-week. My goal is to keep each athlete motivated and getting stronger. In addition, I draw on my experiences of racing to help guide my athletes. I find my failures and successes make me a better coach. I may have to force recovery or a few days off, but if we prevent an injury or fatigue it is the right call.
Craig: What is the best thing about being a TCSD member?
Julie: Friendships I have made, Aquathlons, resources and the club meetings. I have heard at least 5 Ironman world champions interviewed live. That is amazing!
Craig: Do you have any sponsors you'd like to mention?
Julie: I am honored to be on the Women’s Nytro Elite Team. Skip and his team at Nytro are amazing – from the selection at the store to the mechanics I am well covered. Brand Betty and Kristin Mayer design our kits and we look good! Zoot outfits us and does it well and we are lucky to have Oakley, Giro, PowerBar all backing us up.
I want to mention that could not have qualified for Kona or come this far in the sport without the dedication and support from my husband John and my wonderful kids JD (19) and Riley (17). They allow me to train so much and are okay with Racations (race + vacation)
Craig: What are your future triathlon goals?
Julie: To get on the podium at Kona.
Craig: Julie, it’s just a shame that you are not more determined. Honestly, those women better look out because you are well on your way to making the Kona podium your home away from home. Thank you for sharing your story. Good luck!
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or .