Column: Encinitas women win world triathlon title

If you asked Encinitas’ Julie Dunkle what she did to celebrate winning the world title on May 7, she was quick to reply: “Nothing” — at least not right away.

That’s because the 55-year-old amateur athlete from Encinitas just won the annual Ironman World competition for her age group. Pretty exciting stuff – and utterly exhausting.

Dunkel swam 2.4 miles in 11 hours, 46 minutes and 26 seconds, then cycled 112 miles and ran 26.2 miles, beating the closest competitor in his age group by more than 46 minutes.

The 2021 Intermountain Healthcare Ironman World Championship, traditionally held in Kona, Hawaii, was postponed to last weekend in St. George, Utah due to the pandemic.

For performance athlete coach and event planner Dunkel, winning is a dream come true.

Amateur triathlete Julie Dunkle has completed 18 triathlons since she started competing at the age of 39.

(Intermountain Healthcare Ironman/FinisherPix)

She has completed seven Ironman World Championships. Her best result so far is seventh in the 45-49 age group in 2011. She trailed two places on the podium and told her husband, John Brahman, that she was determined to get back on the podium and get on the podium.

Five years ago, Dunkel was named the reigning Ironman World Athlete in the 50-54 age group due to overall race performance rankings, but she didn’t win a real triathlon in Kona.

“I had a great year. I raced a lot and did well – but I didn’t win the Ironman World Championship,” she said. That’s the icing on the cake for a triathlon.

“It’s been my dream to win for a long time. …I’ve won others, but not a world title.”

On May 7, she did. “There were a lot of tears, it was kind of surreal,” she said. “It’s so hard, I’m so tired. It’s hard to imagine it’s actually happening.”

The run was particularly relentless – very hot (95 degrees) and hilly, windy and dry. The bike ride includes a breathtaking 7,374 feet of elevation gain and a block of headwinds.

But while Dunkel thought the St. George race was more challenging in some ways, it didn’t take place in Kona, the Hawaiian shrine the race is known for.

She also won the 2021 title, which was delayed due to the pandemic. So unless she wins again when the 2022 Ironman is expected to reconvene in Kona this October, her fame will only last five months.

Dunkel describes himself as an endurance addict.

“I like racing more than anything,” she said. “I realized this during COVID. I thrive and thrive in an environment with a start and finish line. I’ve had enough.”

Despite being a lifelong athlete, Dunkel didn’t start triathlons until he was 39. Swimming is her sport. The Denver native attended the University of Louisiana on a swimming scholarship. Later, she started running.

To heal the injury, her doctor instructed her to stop running for six months. She quickly told him she was going crazy, so he suggested she buy a bike. She and her husband bought two bikes right away and started her love of long distance cycling.

However, she has to thank a soccer dad for introducing her to the world of triathlon. Dunkle has a son, JD, and a daughter, Riley, aged 26 and 25. At a football game 16 years ago, a teammate’s father, who knew Dunkle was a runner and cyclist, suggested she consider a triathlon and asked if she could swim.

It’s like asking a fish if it likes water. “He convinced me to play and I never looked back,” she said.

At age 39, Dunkel competed in 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 completed the half-triathlon by competing in the annual Ironman 70.3 Triathlon in Oceanside. Since then, she has done 10 more and has completed 18 full triathlons.

How does a working mom find the time to train and compete at this level? On the one hand, Dunkel chose a career path that gave her flexibility. She coaches endurance athletes in person and virtually, and more than half of her 30+ clients live in cities across the country.

She and two of her business partners created a company called NYX Endurance in the center of the pandemic, which found creative DIY ways to deliver virtual sports games to help athletes stay energized and in shape after games are canceled .

They play triathlon bingo—crossing off squares on bingo cards as competitors complete a family bike, run, or strength-training task (such as 200 squats).

They created an Everest campaign – where participants cycled up and down the mountain as many times as they climbed Mount Everest. They held an endurance race that challenged 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 turned it into a team activity,” Dunkel said. They celebrated with Zoom happy hour.

Dunkle is also an event planner, booking hotels and arranging logistics for conference groups around the world from her home office. It was her main job until the pandemic cancelled trips and her business shrank, and she started her coaching career.

She continued to train for 2 to 3 hours a day and longer on weekends, going to bed at 8pm and waking up at 4:30am. She firmly believes that anyone can become a triathlete. It just depends on how hard they can and want to work.

“I only work with people who are willing to give their all, have a good attitude and don’t make excuses,” she said. “I don’t spoil my athletes. If they want a cheerleader, I’m not the right coach. I push and motivate them and get the most out of them.”

After Dunkel crossed the finish line, she called her mother, Joe Martin, 88, in Carlsbad. “She’s been my number one fan since I was very, very young.”

The downside of the game was having to postpone their Mother’s Day dinner until Monday.

But her mother quickly dismissed all guilt: “You’re a world champion. I’m so proud of you,” she said. “This is the best Mother’s Day gift ever.”

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