Ironamn World Championship Kona Finisher Adrienne Bunn And Her Coach Doug Gurthrie

Coaching Athletes With Autism: The Story of Adrienne Bunn and Doug Guthrie

BY Doug Guthrie

Adrienne Bunn is the youngest female athlete to ever finish the IRONMAN World Championships, finishing first overall in the Physically Challenged Intellectual Disability Division (PCID). Her coach shares his perspective and valuable lessons learned from this experience.

At age 18, Adrienne Bunn became the youngest female ever to finish the IRONMAN World Championship, which she completed in October 2023 with a time of 12:41:18 on a hot and humid Kona course. If that isn’t impressive enough, she also finished first overall in the newly created Physically Challenged Intellectual Disability Division (PCID).

Adrienne has autism. But that didn’t stop her from competing on the biggest stage triathlon has to offer, breaking barriers, crushing her goals, and inspiring others along the way. 

Doug Guthrie, Adrienne’s coach and guide at Kona, gives a detailed outline of her training plan, challenges faced, and valuable lessons learned.

Meeting Adrienne Bunn

I met Adrienne Bunn on the way home from Chattanooga 70.3 in May 2023 through a mutual acquaintance. After talking with her and her family that evening, I felt confident she and I would be a good match. Adrienne shared her goals: Complete Ohio 70.3 to validate her foundation slot and then go to Kona and become the youngest female finisher in Ironman World Championship history (and she has autism). The opportunity to work with an ambitious and talented athlete who wants to break barriers? Count me in!

I’ve been in this sport for more than 20 years, finishing 26 IRONMAN finishes and qualifying for Kona on six separate occasions myself. I know what it takes for an athlete to prepare for and finish Kona. After reviewing Adrienne’s strengths and weaknesses, I knew what we needed to do if her dream was to become a reality. 

Adrienne’s Kona Training Approach

As daunting as Adrienne’s goal was, I never worried about what she couldn’t do. Instead, I focused on what she had to do. Fear of failure never entered the picture. 

I presented Adrienne’s family with the training plan necessary for reaching her goals. She has an innate passion for triathlons. She loved to train, and her family was behind her goal 100%. I knew this was a special opportunity and I was eager to begin training. 

Conducting a Skills Assessment & Building Trust

The first step of the plan was to conduct a skills assessment of her cycling and running. This was extremely valuable. She was a capable bike handler, but she needed to learn to use clips, shift, and brake on her own without being told. The bike in Kona is fast and conditions change in a second.

For someone with neurodivergent sensory issues, having to listen to a command, process the command, and then execute it is a recipe for disaster. So instead of constantly barking commands to shift, brake, and stop, she rode behind me and “did what I did.” The one-on-one time was extremely valuable for us to get to know each other. 

Throughout this weekly process, we gained confidence, respect, and trust in each other. She built the confidence needed to ride safely. I learned how to address situations that were unique to Adrienne.

IRONMAN Coach Doug Guthrie and Adrienne Bunn cycling together training for Kona Championships 2023

Fostering Inclusion

When I started working with Adrienne, I put her on the same training program I would put anyone else with her goals. Up to that point, Adrienne worked out with other Special Olympic athletes. They were a talented group, but they were training for sprint triathlons, and Adrienne’s goal was the Super Bowl. To fast-track her skill development, we agreed that she needed 100% inclusion in our team. Adrienne became part of our regular weekend training rides immediately. She’s now a regular on our Gu3training team with other elite triathletes training for IRONMAN races, including other former Kona athletes.

Adrienne received no special treatment from our team because of her autism. She did receive attention because she is an amazing person, though. I am grateful for the support our team provided Adrienne. She found her triathlon family. We would often talk about situations and conditions when we were training, and I would relate it to Kona. I would tell her this is what it will be like in Kona, so be aware of it. It’s much better to paint the true picture of the race than to sugarcoat things because you are concerned about scaring the athlete. 

Addressing Race-Specific Skills

After Adrienne adapted to the weekly training routine, we worked on race-specific skills. These skills included climbing hills on the bike, stopping and cornering, descending hills safely, and running hills. 

Pacing was something we had to routinely work on each time. If Adrienne slipped into Zone 5 heart rate training for too long, she would shut down. She’d often go as fast as she could until she could not go anymore due to exhaustion, lack of fuel, or both. So pacing was a big focus area in the weeks leading up to the race.

Unique Challenges of Neurodiverse Athletes

A common characteristic among neurodivergent people is an aversion to loud noises, another challenge we worked to overcome. Motorcycles, big trucks, sirens, and horns caused Adrienne to become agitated and shut down. We worked through those by talking things out. We had to desensitize her enough that when conditions popped up, we could slow down and collect ourselves without stopping. 

Perhaps our biggest challenge was fueling. We had to count calories to make sure Adrienne fueled regularly. If we didn’t, she forgot to eat and drink. And when caloric deficit or fatigue set in, she shut down. So we perfected her hydration and nutrition. We trained her to eat and drink on the clock and found the right mix of products for her to use. I put her on the same fueling plan that I use personally. 

Week by week, her confidence grew. Her confidence and skills grew so much that by the end of the summer, we didn’t have any issues during training. This newfound confidence spilled into other areas of her life as well. For example, she began driving to Wednesday youth group with just her sister, something she couldn’t do before. 

Getting Race Ready

The two weeks in Kona leading up to race day were crucial to Adrienne’s success. We swam every day. She became familiar with the conditions of Kailua Bay. We ran from town through the Energy Lab and back to town the first day we were on the island at noon. We rode all parts of the bike course including four or five Hawi climbs and descents in extremely difficult conditions. Adrienne overcame multiple challenges these two weeks as she made final preparations for race day.

We talked through our challenges and worked out a solution. We improvised on a few occasions and just trusted things would work out for the best. And in the end, they did. 

Adrienne had her best day in Kona. The highlight of the day was the pass at mile 25 of the run as we approached the corner of The Queen K and Palani. Adrienna took the lead overall in the PCID Division and never looked back. As we made the right turn onto Ali’i Drive, I dropped back behind her. I became a spectator of her most amazing accomplishment. I watched the video of her joy as she crossed the finish line a hundred times, and I feel so blessed to have some small part in it.

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The Ultimate Reward

For me, being able to guide Adrienne in the first All-Women’s Kona IRONMAN World Championships was incredibly rewarding. (Being a male guide, the looks I got were memorable!)

Race day was long for us, her family, and our team, but we executed the plan that we developed and practiced together all summer. We were prepared for what we had practiced: nutrition, hydration, and finishing!

I learned so much working with Adrienne. Here are the most valuable lessons:

  • Meet the athletes where they are. 
  • Listen to how they are feeling. 
  • Be a little flexible. 
  • You cannot push a rope. 
  • You must be a servant leader. 
  • Nobody cares about what you know until they know that you care about them. 
  • Be patient. 
  • You do not stop practicing once you get things right. Practice until you cannot get things wrong. 
  • Most importantly, failure is never a possibility. 

Kona holds a special place in my heart. The most rewarding thing in my partnership with Adrienne is I was able to coach and guide her as her unified partner to a Kona World Championship finish. Coaching her and guiding her is, by far, the highlight of my triathlon career. Adrienne has a bright future ahead of her, and I can’t wait to see what she puts her mind to next. 

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Trainingpeaks Level 2 Coach Doug Guthrie
About Doug Guthrie

Doug is a TrainingPeaks level 2 coach and the coach of GU3 Training. He coaches athletes of all skill levels, from beginner to Kona qualifiers. He has been participating in triathlon for more than 20 years, completing 26 IRONMAN distance races and competing in six IRONMAN World Championship. He is also a USAT Ultra Distance National Champion and Ultraman finisher.

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