Column: Encinitas woman claims a world Ironman title
Amateur competitor Julie Dunkle is Ironman world champion of the 55-59 age group
If you ask Julie Dunkle, of Encinitas, what she did to celebrate winning a world championship May 7, she’s quick to respond, “Nothing” — at least not immediately.
That’s because the 55-year-old amateur athlete from Encinitas had just won the annual Ironman world competition in her age group. Pretty heady stuff — and thoroughly exhausting.
Dunkle spent 11 hours, 46 minutes and 26 seconds swimming 2.4 miles, then cycling 112 miles and running 26.2 miles, beating the closest competitor in her age category by more than 46 minutes.
The delayed 2021 Intermountain Healthcare Ironman World Championship, traditionally held in Kona, Hawaii, was staged in St. George, Utah, last weekend due to the pandemic.
Winning was a dream come true for Dunkle, a performance athlete coach and an event planner.
She has finished the Ironman World Championship seven times. Until now, her best finish was seventh place in the 45-49 age division in 2011. She was two places out of a podium finish, and told her husband, John Braman, that she was determined to return and reach the podium.
Five years ago, Dunkle was named the reigning Ironman All-World Athlete in the 50-54 age group due to an aggregate of race performance rankings, but she didn’t win the actual Ironman race in Kona.
“I had a good year. I entered many races and did well — but I didn’t win the Ironman World Championship race,” she says. That is the icing on the triathlon cake.
“Winning has been my dream for a long time. ... I’d won others, but not the world championship.”
On May 7, she did just that. “There were a lot of tears, and it was a little surreal,” she says. “It was so hard, and I was so tired. It was hard to fathom that it was really happening.”
The run was particularly unforgiving — incredibly hot (95 degrees) and hilly, windy and dry. The bike ride included a breath-sapping 7,374-foot gain in elevation and stretches of blockading headwinds.
But still, it didn’t take place in Kona, the hallowed Hawaii setting for which the race is famous — even though Dunkle considers the St. George competition to be more challenging in some respects.
It also was the pandemic-postponed 2021 championship that she won. So her claim to fame will last only five months unless she triumphs again when the 2022 Ironman is expected to reconvene in Kona this October.
Dunkle refers to herself as an endurance addict.
“I love racing more than anything,” she says. “I realized that during COVID. I thrive and come alive in an environment where there is a start line and a finish line. I can’t get enough of that.”
Despite being a lifelong athlete, Dunkle didn’t start running triathlons until age 39. Swimming was her sport. The Denver native attended the University of Louisiana on a swimming scholarship. Later, she took up running.
To heal an injury, her doctor instructed her to stop running for six months. She soon told him she was going crazy, so he suggested she buy a bike. She and her husband immediately purchased two bicycles, and her devotion to distance cycling began.
It’s a soccer dad, however, that she has to thank for introducing her to the world of triathlons. Dunkle has a son, J.D., and a daughter, Riley, now ages 26 and 25. At one of their soccer games 16 years ago, a teammate’s dad, who knew Dunkle was a runner and cyclist, suggested she consider triathlons and asked if she could swim.
That was like asking a fish if it liked water. “He convinced me to do a race, and I have never looked back,” she says.
At age 39, Dunkle entered her first sprint triathlon (0.5-mile swim, 12.4-mile bike ride and 3.1-mile run) at Camp Pendleton. Later that year, she graduated to a half-triathlon by entering the annual Ironman 70.3 triathlon in Oceanside. She since has finished it 10 more times, and she has completed 18 full triathlons.
How did a working mom find time to train and compete at this level? For one, Dunkle chose a career path that allowed her flexibility. She coaches endurance athletes both in person and virtually, with more than half of her 30-or-so clients living in cities across the country.
She and her two business partners created a company, NYX Endurance, during the heart of the pandemic that found creative DIY ways of offering virtual athletic competitions to help athletes keep energized and in shape after race events were canceled.
They played triathlon bingo — crossing off squares on a bingo card as entrants completed home-based biking, running or strength conditioning tasks (such as 200 squats).
They created an Everesting event — participants rode their bikes up and down a hill as many times as it took to climb Mount Everest. They staged an endurance competition, challenging athletes to run four miles every four hours for 48 hours.
“We did a lot of crazy challenges that people could do on their own, but we made it a team event,” Dunkle says. They celebrated with Zoom happy hours.
Dunkle also is an event planner, booking hotels and arranging logistics for convention groups worldwide from her home office. That was her primary job until the pandemic quashed travel, her business shrank and she ramped up her coaching career.
She continues to train two to three hours a day and longer on weekend days, going to bed at 8 p.m. and rising at 4:30 a.m. She is convinced that anyone can be a triathlete. It merely depends on how hard they are able and want to work.
“I only work with people who are willing to go all in, who show up with a good attitude and aren’t going to make excuses,” she says. “I don’t coddle my athletes. If they want a cheerleader, I’m not the right coach. I push them and motivate them and get the most I can out of them.”
After Dunkle crossed the finish line, she called her 88-year-old mom, Jo Martin, in Carlsbad. “She’s been my No. 1 fan since I was very, very young.”
The downside of the race was having to postpone their Mother’s Day dinner until Monday.
But her mother quickly erased any guilt: “You’re a world champion. I’m so proud of you,” she said. “This is the best Mother’s Day present ever.”
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