By: Laura Toerner
Karla Park describes her first day as a nurse as “more than overwhelming.” She recently started working as a staff nurse in the cardiac intensive care unit of a Cleveland hospital – something she knew she wanted to do as soon as she started working toward her bachelor’s in nursing at the University of Cincinnati.
When she completed her initial 12-hour shift, she went home, ate and went to right to sleep. “I didn’t do anything, because work was so emotionally, mentally and physically draining,” says Karla, who graduated in April 2016 from UC College of Nursing.
“The second day went more smoothly,” she says.
This isn’t an unfamiliar narrative for the Cleveland native, who in the past year has pushed herself beyond her breaking point more than once. Her resolve to keep going got her across the finish line of a full-distance Ironman triathlon and, ultimately, qualified her for the USA Triathlon Olympic-Distance Age-Group National Championships.
Like the cardiac ICU, a full-distance Ironman triathlon isn’t for the faint of heart. It includes a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run. Karla promised herself she would complete both a half- and full-distance Ironman triathlon before she turned 25.
Her interest in triathlons piqued when, in 2012, while in school and training to pass an entry U.S. Army physical fitness test, she completed her first Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon – a 26.2-mile race through downtown Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
“I’ve always had a triathlon on my athletic bucket list,” Karla says.
In September 2016, three months before her 25th birthday, Karla and a friend competed in the 140.6-mile Ironman race. After 16 hours, 13 minutes and 30 grueling seconds – not long before the 17-hour cutoff – Karla finished, despite a flat tire, a delay caused by an accident on the course, and a few intense emotional breakdowns.
“I wanted to quit so many times,” Karla says. But, her family and fellow triathletes pushed her to the end. “The people who do those kinds of things are like a community. They help you through it; when you think you can’t do it, everyone tells you that you can,” she says.
A Surprise Ending
To qualify for the age-group national championships, triathletes must finish first in their age group in a USA Triathlon-sanctioned event. As it turns out, Karla represented one of only two competitors in the 20-to-24-year-old category of the full-distance Ironman – and the other entrant didn’t finish.
“I didn’t do well at all (in the triathlon); I didn’t want to tell anyone I did it; I wasn’t proud of it,” Karla says. “So, to find out that I qualified – that it did matter that I just finished – it made me think that if I would have quit, this wouldn’t have happened.”
The USA Triathlon national championships are in August in Omaha, Neb. The Olympic-distance race, in which Karla will compete, is about a quarter of the full-distance Ironman – a 1,500-meter swim, 40-kilometer bike and 10-kilometer run. If she places 18th or better in her age-group, she’ll qualify to represent Team USA in international age-group races – and that’s her goal.
“I would be happy with anything in the top 18 of my age group,” Karla says. She hopes to finish faster than 2 hours and 20 minutes – 30 minutes faster even than her previous Olympic-distance triathlon time (which she completed only a week after her full Ironman race).
Where does Karla find the inner strength to keep going, even when she’s ready to quit?
“One of the things that super inspires me is my brother,” she says. At 13 years old, Karla’s younger brother, Kyle Park, was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease, a condition that results in gradual loss of kidney function over time and could lead to kidney failure. The symptoms of CKD, combined with side-effects of his medications, have led to other complications, but Karla says Kyle, now 21, doesn’t let his disease get in the way.
“For him to not let it stop him, it makes me think ‘I’m a healthy person; why not do all of these things?’ I don’t want him to see me not doing something just because,” Karla says.
You Get What You Give
As she prepares to run her sixth Flying Pig Marathon in May, on top of her job as a nurse, Karla says it’s tougher to train, but it also serves as a way to relieve some of her workday stress.
“It’s like a second job,” she says. “There are weeks when I can’t do it all, but it can be a mental break for me.”
As for her first job, things have improved each day, and Karla appreciates the experience she’s getting from working in an ICU. Eventually, she wants to work as an emergency trauma nurse in the Army Reserve, or in an operating room or surgical ICU of a large Cleveland hospital.
Regardless, Karla enjoys providing her patients the same comfort and inspiration she has received from others along the miles and miles of races she’s completed.
“To be the one to tell them they’ll be alright – or whatever they need to hear at the time – is one of the best things about being a nurse.”