Cole Bunn figured last summer he would make a pretty decent triathlete.

He was a state qualifier in swimming. He was a good runner, too. Mountain biking looked fun. So, Bunn signed up for his first off-road triathlon in July 2012 at age 16.

By late October, three months after his debut, Bunn was racing against the world’s best off-road triathletes at the XTERRA World Championship in Hawaii.

“Honestly, I don’t believe it looking back on it now,” said Bunn, now a 17-year-old senior at Bettendorf High School.

This week, Bunn returns to the site of his breakout performance a year ago for the 2013 XTERRA USA Championship in Utah. Last September at nationals — in just his third triathlon and six weeks after his debut — Bunn finished second in his age group and fifth overall among amateurs in the 1.5k swim, 29k mountain bike and 10k trail run at Snowbasin Resort just north of Salt Lake City.

The result, which qualified him for worlds, was rather shocking to Bunn and his family.

“He’s a hard worker, and he’s like this in everything he does,” said Bunn’s mother, Lisa. “He gets good grades in school, and he always tries to achieve the highest he can get, so I knew he’d work hard at it. But I was surprised at how much success he got right away.”

Cole didn’t get there by accident. His abrupt ascent was due in equal parts to natural talent and a ridiculous work ethic. With the help of a training program thoughtfully designed by his father, Jim, Cole has thrived on the triathlon trail. Suddenly, a professional future and maybe even the Olympics don’t seem so far-fetched.

“This triathlon is gonna end up, at the end of the day, opening up a lot of doors for him,” Jim said. 

At a crossroads

Last summer, Cole seriously considered giving up swimming.

He was coming off a sophomore season at Bettendorf in which he swam in three events at the Iowa state meet in Marshalltown. Still, he was frustrated with his results in the pool. His father said Cole had “kind of peaked out” in swimming.

“He was dumping a ton of time into swimming and he just wasn’t making jumps,” Jim said.

Cole, who ran varsity cross country as a freshman for the Bulldogs, wanted to get back into running full-time. Before he would let his son quit swimming, Jim grabbed a stopwatch and took Cole out to the track to time him in the mile. Jim was skeptical. But again, Cole surprised.

“He ran like a 4:40 mile with a pair of tennis shoes on,” Jim said. “And I was like, ‘That’s pretty good.’ I said, ‘Before you give up swimming this summer, why don’t you think about it.’”

Cole decided he wanted to run, but he didn’t want to give up swimming to do it. He hopped online to find a triathlon to sign up for and noticed one that included mountain biking. Cole was intrigued. He had done 12-hour adventure races in the past with his grandfather that included rappelling, trail running, mountain biking, orienteering and more.

“They did that for two years in a row and they really enjoyed that,” Lisa said. “That kind of got him interested in doing the trail running and mountain biking.”

Cole’s first off-road triathlon was a mixed bag.

It rained the night before and morning of XTERRA Sugar Bottom in North Liberty, Iowa, making the bike trail a slippery mess. It didn’t help that Cole had only a couple weeks of practice on a mountain bike prior to the race.

“I fell so many times and just got beaten up by that bike course,” Cole said.

Still, the results were promising. He finished first in his age group and 25th overall out of 71 competitors. Two weeks later, at XTERRA Illinois Wilds at Wildlife Prairie State Park outside Peoria, Cole made progress. He finished first in his age group by 18 minutes and ninth overall. It was good enough to qualify for nationals.

“I still fell quite a few times,” Cole said of his second triathlon, “but I had a much stronger race overall.”

The early results opened his father’s eyes. He looked at the splits nationwide for 19-and-under. Cole was right there in swimming. He was right there in running. But the biking was far behind.

“We were like, ‘If we could get your bike straightened out, get you a better bike and train you on the bike quite a bit, you could do pretty well,’” Jim said. “So then, that six weeks leading up to nationals, he was like, ‘Let’s go for that.’ And we did.” 

Total commitment

Armed with a brand-new mountain bike from Healthy Habits in Bettendorf, Cole took the XTERRA USA Championship by storm.

“He came out of the blue at nationals,” Jim said. “They had all these champions from all these regions. They got all these kids 19-and-under. They got a lot of awards and publicity, and then this kid from Bettendorf, Iowa, shows up and gets second (in his age group) and fifth overall (among amateurs) and it was really quite impressive.”

The new bike, which was 10 pounds lighter than his previous one, which he now uses to train, certainly aided Cole’s performance at nationals. It earned him a spot at the XTERRA World Championship, where he finished 80th overall and fourth in his age group.

His commitment to training, though, is what continues to push him to new heights.

When Cole said he wanted to get serious about triathlons, his father explored how to prepare his son. Jim is well-qualified as a swimming coach, and his father was a track coach in Humboldt, Iowa, for more than 40 years.

But like Cole, biking was foreign territory for Jim. He talked to the pros and their coaches at Cole’s events. He put in some research of his own. Healthy Habits had some solid input, too. The result was a demanding training regimen that has yielded tremendous results.

“The program that I’ve designed for him, it takes a lot of commitment,” Jim said. “You can’t do this with every kid.”

Here’s a snippet of a typical week for Cole:

On Mondays, he runs for 1 hour, 15 minutes in the morning before school. After school, he mountain bikes for 1 hour, 15 minutes. Later that evening, he does a 4,000-yard swim workout.

Skip to Thursday mornings, when Cole heads to the track to run four 1-mile repeats. Cole keeps a 5:30 pace each mile with 1 minute, 30 seconds rest in between. In the evening, he goes for a 2-hour, 15-minute bike ride.

And that’s just two days out of an intense and punishing week. Cole can’t get enough.

“I enjoy it,” he said. “I think I enjoy it because it is something difficult to do. It is something challenging. I enjoy the challenge and I enjoy overcoming it.”

Cole’s mother says he is self-motivated. His father says Cole is a rare kid who actually likes to train.

Bettendorf boys swimming coach Mike Ahrens has seen Cole’s work ethic first-hand for years. He was voted a team captain this year for the Bulldogs in part because of it.

“That’s an honor that’s bestowed upon the senior that shows the most leadership,” Ahrens said. “He does most of his leading through his dedication in the weight room and training.

“He’s an extremely hard worker.” 

Rising the ranks

Cole won’t sneak up on anyone at nationals this year. He was recognized as the second-ranked 19-and-under off-road triathlete in the country by USA Triathlon Magazine in the Spring 2013 issue.

Cole has lived up to the ranking this summer.

He won XTERRA Last Stand at Ft. Custer State Park in Augusta, Mich., in May. He placed fourth overall at XTERRA Dairyland in Sheboygan, Wis., in June even though he wiped out on his bike. In August, he won in his return trip to XTERRA Illinois Wilds, improving his time by nearly 15 minutes from 2012.

Cole even branched out in July, borrowing a bike to compete in the Iron Abe Olympic Triathlon in Springfield, Ill., his first Olympic-distance, on-road event. He won by 10 minutes.

Cole’s performance caught the eye of Mike Doane, who is head coach of the Elite Triathlon Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. If he earns an invite, Cole would study at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs while training with the nation’s best junior triathletes at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.

“If I perform well enough at nationals, I might get invited to come train with him. If I get that opportunity, I’d take that,” said Cole, who also has applied to the U.S. Naval Academy. “There’s definitely quite a bit riding on it.”

Last year at nationals, Cole simply wanted to run a clean race and not fall. On Saturday, his goal is to finish as the top amateur and in the top seven in the pro field. Nothing, however, is guaranteed in off-road triathlons. Mechanical problems can trip up pros and amateurs alike, Cole said.

No matter what happens, Cole has a promising future as a triathlete, whether he’s training in Colorado Springs or with the triathlon team at the Naval Academy. He hopes to one day earn his elite license and become a professional, goals he never imagined would be within reach ahead of his first triathlon a little more than a year ago.

“I thought I’d do well,” Cole said. “But where I am now far exceeds where I thought I would be.”

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