Sarah Bunnelle slipped a disc in her back five years ago. She’s had six surgeries in the past 2½ years.

Yet, next month, Bunnelle will be one of nearly 300 people who take part in the second annual Blaine Triathlon, using only her upper body to complete the swimming portion of the event that also includes running and bicycling sections.

The north-metro triathlon, scheduled for May 18, is one of the earliest in the state and draws a variety of participants, from those just looking to get in shape to determined athletes training for their first full Iron Man.

Participants say the event is a good introduction to triathlons and also a way for more elite athletes to start the season. The Blaine Triathlon consists of a .3-mile swim, a 3.5-mile run and two 8.35-mile bicycle races. As triathlons go, it isn’t the most grueling, but it still requires plenty of preparation, said Nate Monahan, a program supervisor for the Blaine Parks and Recreation Department who coordinates the competition.

“It’s a good course to do your first one, or even your first of the season,” Monahan said.

Participants can compete as individuals or as part of two- or three-person relay teams.

In some cases, the event gets couples training together.

Maggie Tatton did the running portion last year on a relay team, while her husband, Chris, finished it individually.

Invigorated by the experience, Chris Tatton went on to do three more triathlons last summer. This summer, he plans to do six more, including the full Iron Man in Madison, Wis., in September. For good measure, he and Maggie will run the Twin Cities Marathon a month later.

Chris Tatton said the Blaine Triathlon helped him ease into more competitive races.“It’s a nice way to transition into it,” he said.

The Blaine course

In the Blaine Triathlon, athletes start at Lakeside Commons Beach, where they’ll swim the .3 miles, ending back at the park. The average Twin Cities temperature for May 18 is 60 degrees, so it’s recommended that swimmers wear wet suits (although last year, the high for that day was 93).

After the swim, participants will complete two 8.35-mile laps through Blaine on county roads and finish up with the 3.5-mile run at the beach where they started.

Participants are sent out in 14 groups of about 30 people each, Monahan said. The top athletes go in the first waves so they stay ahead of others.

All finishers receive a medal and individuals who place in the top three of their age group or overall receive a plaque; top two teams in the relays also get a plaque.

Motivating factors

For many, the Blaine Triathlon serves as a personal goal.

Jon Fagerness, trainer at and owner of Fitness Pros, a personal training gym in Blaine, helps a number of the participants get ready.

“When we don’t have that natural drive inside of us to do it, then it becomes important to be connected with something that provides that drive,” said Fagerness, who competes in triathlons himself.

Monahan said that when he began coordinating the Blaine event, Fagerness approached him looking to help participants get ready.

Bunelle, who said she was tired of doctors and physical therapists telling her what she couldn’t do, said she found inspiration from Fagerness. He has helped her train to the point that she can swim a mile and a half without using her legs.

“I wouldn’t be here without Jon,” she said.

Maggie Tatton said she has been training with Fagerness since he opened his gym about four years ago. Bill Bunnelle, Sarah’s husband, said Fagerness creates a fierce, competitive atmosphere in the gym that pushes his clients past where they think they can go.

Bill Bunnelle, who turned 60 this year, used to run marathons and other races often. He hasn’t done a triathlon in nearly 30 years, he said. This year, the Blaine Triathlon marks a return for him. “I’m really looking forward it,” he said.


Kevin Burbach is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment to the Star Tribune.