Unlike last year’s Olympic distance overall age group woman national champion Kirsten Sass, a veteran with a long successful résumé, this year’s USA Triathlon champ Gabrielle Bunten of Forest Lake, Minnesota rose to the top with a brief but promising competitive record.
Bunten, a member of a St. Paul-based triathlon and endurance sports coaching combine, emerged as a rising age group talent last summer with an overall women’s victory in the age group Life Time Fitness Triathlon. She followed that with a 5th overall woman performance at the 2017 USA Triathlon Age Group Olympic distance Nationals in Omaha, 4:28 behind winner Kirsten Sass.
This year, Bunten earned her winning edge with a well-balanced race. She started with a strong swim in the choppy waters of Lake Erie that gave her a significant advantage on five of her nearest overall rivals. Bunten’s 25:55 swim was 58 second faster than eventual overall runner-up, 35-39 star Laura McDonald; 4:47 better than eventual 3rd overall finisher, 40-44 winner Kim Webster, 2:59 better than eventual 5th overall finisher, 35-39 runner-up Kirsten Sass; and 3:14 better than sixth place overall finisher Stephanie Knast.
Bunten only surrendered swim time – 26 seconds - to her chief 25-29 rival Grace Alexander and one second to fellow 25-29 competitor Rachel Mensch.
While Bunten gave back significant time to most of her rivals on the bike leg, she was pleased that hard work on bike training paid off. “It was great to feel good the whole day after the swim,” said Bunten. "I have never been able to hold my power on the bike before. So that was really fun for me. I pretty much held my own and was ready for the run.”
With the age group nationals usual format of very different wave start times, Bunten could only keep track of her fellow women’s 25-29 competitors and two of them offered an exciting back and forth. With a quick T1 transition, Bunten quickly passed Rachel Mensch and set out after Alexander, who started the bike with a 25 seconds lead. “I didn’t have high expectations for this race,” said Bunten. “I just wanted to race as well as I could. So I put my head down and rode as fast as I could. I caught Grace around Mile 13 at the turnaround. But Rachel got me again at Mile 18. She blew by me and I had to push hard to pass her again and lead our wave into T2.”
After Bunten’s 1:04:00 bike split, her overall rivals made up time. Sass posted the fastest bike split – 1:01:51 - which made back 2:09 of her 2:59 deficit after the swim. Kim Webster, the 40-44 winner, rode 1:01:56, which made up 2:04 from her 4:49 deficit after the swim. Laura McDonald, the 35-39 winner, rode 1:02:49, which made up 1:11 on her 58 seconds deficit after the swim. Mensch rode 1:03:24, which added 36 seconds on her one second advantage on the swim. Only Grace Alexander surrendered 37 seconds to Bunten on the bike leg.
Once she was ahead of her wave on the run, Bunten faced some doubts and pain. “There were times when I was by myself and didn't have anyone in my age group around me,” she recalled. “There were plenty of times I felt like giving in. Then I felt like slowing up and walking. But I just pushed through.”
While Bunten led her wave all the way to the finish of the run, she did not know where she stood overall against the likes of McDonald, Webster and Sass. In fact, Bunten’s 39:31 10k split was 47 second faster than McDonald and provided most of her 1:11 margin of victory in the overall. Bunten’s run was also 1:54 faster than 25-29 rival Alexander and 1:18 faster than Sass. Only 40-44 winner Webster’s 37:52 run sliced time from Bunten, but not enough to make up for her swim deficit.
Bunten finished in 2:13:39, 36 seconds faster than her 5th place finish at Omaha in 2017. But underlining the challenge of the Cleveland course, it was 3:52 slower than Sass’s winning time last year.
“I think overall I really surprised myself,” said Bunten. “It was pretty special. My family and my boyfriend were here.”
Bunten’s collegiate athletic background included two years swimming at the University of North Dakota before she transferred to Iowa State for its kinesiology program which led to her coaching. As for this biggest win in her triathlon career, did she consider turning pro?
“I will see,” she said. “The next race is Worlds in Australia. So I will take it from there. One step at a time. But I feel pretty happy with my race and proud of myself.”