Woman of Iron: Triathlete Karen Painter

By Guest Contributor December 15, 2012 14:14

By Steve Elliott

Karen Painter doesn’t have to work too hard these days to be an inspiration.

All the 62-year-old Don Pedro woman has to do is wear her new sweatshirt – the one that says “Ironman Kona – Finisher.”

“I love inspiring people,” Karen says. “The other day a gal at the gym saw my jacket and said, ‘You did an Ironman? The one in Hawaii? You’re my hero!’ ”

The Ironman distance is the longest in the sport of triathlon. It begins with a 2.4-mile open-water swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon run – 140.6 miles of racing in a single day. The fastest athletes in the world cover the distance in fewer than nine hours. Most amateurs take 13 to 15, and the race cutoff is 17 hours.

Karen finished the Oct. 13 Kona race in 15 hours, 51 minutes. Not bad for a woman whose high school friends remember as being unathletic. “I didn’t go out for any sports,” she remembers. “The closest I got was water skiing.”

At age 35, she began cycling and soon was completing 50-, 100- and even 200-mile rides. “I got hooked quickly,” Karen says.

As she approached 50, cycling alone was not enough.

“I was 48 when I started doing triathlons,” says Karen, a 5-foot-2, 103-pound retiree who now works part time as a health coach. “I did my first half-Ironman at 54 and my first full at 56. Don’t let anybody tell you you’re too old.”Senior triathletes prove it: A 77-year-old woman finished this year’s Kona Ironman, as did three men over 80.

Trying triathlons

Triathlon is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country. According to USA Triathlon, the sport’s governing body, 2.3 million participated in triathlons in 2010 – a 55 percent jump over the previous year.

Karen got into the sport in the late 1990s at the urging of friend Pam Shorman. “She was looking for someone to run with before work, and I started joining her.”

But when Pam asked her to come to the pool as well, Karen drew the line. “I wasn’t interested,” she remembers. “Pam found someone else to swim with.”

Her persistent friend then persuaded Karen to do the running and cycling legs of a women-only triathlon relay.  “I did that, and it was too much fun,” she says. “But I said then, ‘No more relays.’ ”

Determined instead to be a solo triathlete, Karen started training with Tuolumne County Aquatic Masters swim club at Sonora Fitness. Then she began entering – and quickly topping her age group – in area triathlons.

Ready to run at Kona

Building distance

Triathlons come in many different lengths, enabling beginners to build endurance. The shortest are super-sprints with 200- to 400-yard swims, five-mile bike rides and two-mile runs. Sprints are typically half-mile swims, a 12- to 15-mile bike and three-mile runs. Olympic-distance races have 1,500-yard swims, 25-mile bikes and six-mile runs.

“I started with sprint races in Pleasanton and at Rancho Seco,” says Karen, who has completed more than 70 triathlons of all distances since taking up the sport. “Then I began doing Olympic-distance races.”

She did her first half-Ironman race in 2004, just after retiring from the phone company. Two years later she completed a full Ironman, her first of six to date, in Napa County.

“I had a great time,” she says.

She’s raced Ironman Canada in British Columbia three times, and in 2012 it was her ticket to Kona – because to race in the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, you have to qualify.

Kona bound

Not every triathlete aspires to complete Ironman races, but for those who do, Kona is mythical. It’s like St. Andrews to a golfer or Yankee Stadium to a baseball player. But unlike Yankee Stadium, Kona is open to age-group athletes like Karen, nearly 2,000 of them. Some get places through a lottery. Most earn their spots with a qualifying performance at another Ironman race.

“When I signed up for Canada a year ago, Kona wasn’t on my mind,” Karen says. “Then I started thinking about it. Could I qualify, and would I want to? I decided I could, and I wanted to.”

The problem for Karen was that her age group – women 60 to 64 – was small and only had one qualifying spot available. To get to Kona, Karen would have to first win in Canada.

So she trained to win. Open-water and Masters swimming. Ninety-mile bike rides with the same kind of climbs she’d face on the course. Enough running to build fitness without causing injury.  And on Aug. 26 she raced, finishing in 14 hours, 15 minutes, 37 seconds – and taking first place in her age group by nearly 25 minutes.

“I didn’t even know it,” she says. “A friend saw the results before I did and texted me that evening.”

So Karen was Kona-bound, but had only seven weeks to get ready – not enough time to fully recover, train and then taper off for the Herculean effort an Ironman takes. So she didn’t go to Hawaii to win, but trained just to finish and enjoy the experience.

Mission accomplished

Karen finished 24th of 28 women in her age category and is proud of her performance, considering that the Kona field “is the best of the best.”

She began with a 1:40 swim, followed with a 7:19 bike ride and finished with a 6:28 marathon (transition times
between events are added to compute the total time). “It was a very long day, but I got it done,” she says.

As cycling is her specialty, Karen generally enjoys getting on her bike. But at Kona, crosswinds buffeted her throughout the ride and she was more than ready to dismount after 112 miles – and hit the road for a marathon.

“I didn’t start the run until after 4:30, so I had a lot of shade, and there are aid stations almost every mile,” she says. “But by the end I had slowed way down. I knew I would finish, but it was a grind.”

That changed when she hit the home stretch.

“The street leading to the finish line was stacked with people on both sides. They were yelling and screaming their support, and because it was printed above my number, people were shouting my name and cheering me on. Whatever pain I was feeling just went away, and I got this huge shot of adrenaline,” says Karen. “Even today I get chills just thinking it.”

So will she come back to the islands? “My next Ironman will be in Tahoe next September, and if I qualify it would be for Kona in 2014,” Karen says. “We’ll see.”

In any case, she’s not abandoning the sport.

“As long as I’m healthy, not injured and enjoying triathlons, I’ll continue to do them,” she says. “I love the challenge and the training and how it makes me feel.”

Train smart

What are the secrets to successfully competing in what is arguably the most diffi

cult and grueling of endurance sports?

Extensive aerobic training, of course. In the weeks leading up to an Ironman, Karen swims, bikes and rides three times each per week. This typically includes an open-water swim of nearly two miles, a 90-mile bike ride including 6,000 feet of climbing, and a 14-mile run.

Friends, neighbors and Howard, her husband of nine years and a fellow triathlete, are often companions on the road or in the pool. Karen thrives on camaraderie. She says training with her husband toward a common goal – like competing together in the 2012 Canada triathlon – is particularly rewarding.

Karen also works out at CrossFit Sonora, supplementing her aerobic workouts with lifting, flexibility, sprint and balance exercises, often in quick succession. This “functional fitness” approach lends itself to all sports and rounds out her triathlon training.

Nutrition also plays a key role. Just as she advocates to her clients, she eats six s

mall meals a day featuring lean protein, fruits and vegetables and low-glycemic carbs (those that break down into glucose slowly) such as nuts, legumes, whole grains, oats and all-bran.

Healthy lifestyle

“I want to stay healthy and active as long as I can,” Karen says. “One of my training partners in Don Pedro, Erv Kroeker, is going to be 72 this year, and he and I train together a lot.”

It’s the social aspect of the sport – both training and racing – that keeps Karen interested and having fun.

“If I had to train by myself, I wouldn’t do it,” she says. “I’ve met so many great people who have helped me, and I’ve helped so many people get going. My advice is to find friends to train with and encourage all the people in your life to do it with you. It’s so rewarding that way.”

In the end, Karen wants others – seniors especially – to be inspired by her example. Not to do an Ironman race necessarily, but to get up, get out and get active.

“Just keep moving,” she says. “That’s been my motto my whole life.”

© 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine


By Guest Contributor December 15, 2012 14:14
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