Thirteen was a lucky number for Courts Plus Member, Karen Zenisek, who ended 2019 on a high note by completing her 13th Ironman triathlon as a participant in the Ironman World Championship, held in Kailua-Kona this past October. It was a moment she hardly could have imagined when she began doing triathlons over twenty years ago.
She qualified for the annual championship in Kona, which is known for its harsh race conditions, through the Ironman Legacy Program. Legacy spots go to athletes who have competed in 12 prior Ironman competitions.
Karen has been active her whole life. In high school, she ran the two mile and mile and, over the years, she's done outward bound programs, rock climbing and mountaineering. She began cycling to help offset running injuries and, eventually, also took up swimming.
"I couldn’t even swim the length of the pool without stopping," she says. "It was a bit discouraging at first, but, like any new habit, if you stay with it for a while, you begin to see the benefits."
Putting these three elements together with a triathlon was a natural next step. She began with short distance competitions, known as sprints. She enjoyed the experience and continued racing in short and medium distance triathlons.
She completed her first Ironman in 2004 at Madison, Wisconsin. An Ironman is a long distance triathlon, consisting of 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike and 26.2 marathon.
"To this day it was one of the most memorable and magical days of my life," she says. "To experience the support of friends and family was a special moment."
Her journey to Kona was not one she planned for initially. She and her training partner, David Polkow, both loved racing and developed a group of other athletes to race with, which kept her motivated.
"We’d pick a target race for the year and before you know it we had done ten. It was about this time that they introduced the Legacy Program and we decided to keep racing and get to Kona."
Racing at Kona was another magical experience for Karen.
"Swimming in the bay with the fish was hypnotic and the heat and wind are what everyone says, very difficult. Cross winds make riding, hydrating and eating very challenging."
Getting started is one of the most difficult parts of training for Karen.
“I can’t count how many times I get up to do a workout and think 'I can’t do it,'” she says.
However, "More times than not, at the end of the workout I am amazed at what I could do," she adds.
In 2020, Karen is planning several 1/2 marathons and shorter distance triathlons. This summer is the USA Triathlon’s National Age Group Championships in Milwaukee, which she is looking forward to also.
Support from family and friends has been critical throughout all her training. For those who are interested in triathlons, she recommends finding a club or other triathletes with whom to train.
"Everyone is very willing to share information," she says.
Working with a coach has also been very valuable to Karen; however, she emphasizes that getting started in triathlons doesn't have to cost a lot of money.
"Have fun with the sport, the people and the accomplishments. I'm really glad that I took several years to learn how to race and train before committing to a full Ironman."