On Independence Day in 1981, Kathy Braun was persuaded by her neighbor to participate in the Riverside 5K race.
She was the second overall finisher in the women’s division.
“Not that I was so fast. It was just so few women were in it,” Braun said. “When I started running, very few women were running out there. It was just the beginning of the running craze.”
Now 64 years old, Braun still is competing as passionately as ever. On Aug. 28, she will begin her annual regimen of competing in the Transamerica Chicago Triathlon followed by the Chicago Half-Marathon on Sept. 25 and the Bank of America Chicago Marathon on Oct. 9.
This will be Braun’s 30th Chicago Triathlon – a consecutive streak that she recalls was interrupted only by the birth of her son, Erik, in July 1985.
“When I was working, I did a triathlon and I got kind of hooked,” Braun said. “You feel like maybe the next race I can do better. That’s what keeps you going. These days I’m just happy to be out there because your times don’t get any better when you get older.”
Braun (pronounced Brown) has lived in Riverside since 1980 with her husband, Bill. She competes annually at the Riverside Independence Day 5K and is a fixture at the Riverside Swim Club pool. The last 10 years she has been an instructor at the Greater LaGrange YMCA in LaGrange Park for Body Pump, a weightlifting class set to music.
“Generations of [Riverside] lifeguards have watched me do laps because nobody else is out there on a bad day,” Braun said.
The Chicago Triathlon follows the Olympic or international distances of 1.5 kilometers swimming in Lake Michigan (.093 miles), 40 kilometers biking (24.8 miles) and 10 kilometers running (6.2 miles).
Triathlons are a great fit for Braun. Running and swimming are her favorite activities. While she finds biking increasingly difficult because of traffic, she and Bill celebrated his 65th birthday at Bike the Drive, a bikes-only ride down Lake Shore Drive, in May.
“That’s why I’ve been able to run as long as I have, because swimming is the absolute best [exercise] for running,” Braun said.
There were no interscholastic girls sports when Braun attended Kennedy High School in Chicago. She first began running while Bill played in a softball league.
“I was like, ‘I’m not going to be his cheerleader for all of the game.’ I’d run to the game and then there were some tennis courts so I’d play tennis,” Braun said.
When Braun worked for CNA Insurance, it was a sponsor for the Chicago Marathon. After first being apprehensive to get “sweated up,” Braun joined co-workers for training runs during lunch break.
“They quit and I kept going,” Braun said. “Thirty-five years later I’m still going.”
Braun liked that she could keep her running shoes by the door and train around her schedule, unlike needing a partner for tennis. When Braun chose to stay home and raise Erik, she consistently ran in the mornings before Bill left for work.
“I’m very disciplined naturally, but I also have been lucky enough to be born with some good, strong legs,” said Braun, praising the legs of her Lithuanian father. “The activities I’ve done have kept me strong, too. I’ve had minimal injuries that have really kept me down much.”
Actually, Braun is quite disciplined. This will be her 31st Chicago Marathon. Her streak of 26 straight only was interrupted by attending two weddings of her nieces – and that’s because the ceremonies were out of town.
Braun completed the 1985 marathon three months after Erik’s birth.
“I don’t know what I was thinking, but I was a lot younger then,” Braun said. “My husband was waiting at the end with the baby, and I had to nurse the baby. That was an incentive to finish the race.”
At 55, Braun qualified for the Boston Marathon and competed there three times. She’s also run at the New York, St. Louis and Big Sur (California) marathons.
Her first triathlons were in smaller ones in Crystal Lake and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Braun said her fastest triathlon time was 2 hours, 37 minutes while in her 40s.
Her most memorable Chicago Triathlon was 2009 when she was “really, really surprised” to finish second in the 55-59 women’s age group in 3:11.24.
In 2015, her 3:47.20 was fourth among 60-64 women, her age group for the final time this year. She placed second the previous two years.
“I always try to do my best, but I don’t like to put a lot of pressure on myself to do a certain time,” Braun said.
“It would be nice to place, but I kind of doubt it, because I’m older and some young 60-year-old, it’ll be her first time in the age group and she’s going to get me. I can’t wait until next year, because I’ll be in the 65-69 age group.”
When she first started, Braun said she never imagined that she would still be training and competing. Now she has a much different perspective and is grateful to continue.
“I remember [back then] a few times I’d be running and there would be an older woman there. I’d feel sorry for her. And now I’m that person,” said Braun, laughing.
“[Other runners] used to say, ‘Oh, looking good,’ and now they’ll say, ‘Are you OK?’ I’m doing OK. But it’s been a long time.”