Racking up the miles on her bike has become a not-so-secret addiction for Julie Lanahan, a healthy habit she never imagined she would hunger after.
"You sort of crave it," said the breast cancer survivor, who will take part in Sunday's Iron Girl Columbia, an all-women's sprint triathlon that kicks off with a swim in Centennial Lake, followed by a bike ride and run on local roads.
Organizers say 1,800 women have signed up and a crowd of 4,000 to 5,000 spectators is expected for the popular event in Ellicott City, which started in 2006 and draws whole families who turn out to cheer on the participants.
"This race has a whole different vibe and energy to it," said race director Brian Satola, noting it draws two or three spectators per participant, instead of the usual 1-to-1 ratio of other races.
The race was acquired in April by the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults after the Columbia Triathlon Association, or TriColumbia, closed amid financial difficulties after 31 years.
Lanahan was 38 and her four children were ages 6 months to 8 years when she discovered a lump during a breast self-exam in March 2011. In that split second, her world changed.
"From that day on my life went into a spiral," said Lanahan, who is now an employee of UCF, with offices in Columbia and Baltimore.
Then a stay-at-home mom in Timonium, she underwent a bilateral mastectomy, six rounds of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation and spent a year on a drug regimen.
Lanahan, who had no family history of breast cancer, has also had 10-plus surgeries for breast reconstruction because her skin wouldn't support an implant, she said. The last operation took place in December 2013.
"I've been pretty good ever since," she said.
But what helped her begin to turn her life back around, she says, was the fierce support she received from Brock Yetso, who's been UCF's president and CEO for over 13 years.
"Brock came to see me at the hospital and I told him I wasn't seeing the light at the end of the tunnel," she recalled. "And he said, 'No, no, no. There's a light. It's there, and we're going to get you there.'"
Yetso kept his word and then some.
"Brock had big plans for me," she recalled of those despair-filled early days. "I looked at my husband, John, and said, 'He's crazy. I don't swim, bike or run and I certainly don't want to do all three of those things together.'"
But Yetso prevailed. He convinced her to sign up for UCF's Cancer to 5K, a free, 12-week training program designed to introduce or reintroduce cancer survivors to physical activity.
"I fell in love with it. It's very inspiring and wonderful, and it gave me a new lease on life," she said.
Lanahan was so impressed by the support she received that she asked to be hired by the nonprofit and became a program specialist in spring 2013. She's been on an upward path ever since.
Last fall she took part in a relay in the Half Full Triathlon at the urging of her 11-year-old son, Jack, who insisted that he take on the swimming portion for her, telling his mom, "We have to do this," she said.
"He killed it. Swimming with a Sherpa [guide] alongside him, he finished in 38 minutes," she said. "I biked and my husband ran, and then we met up with Jack and our other three kids and we all ran across the finish line."
But Lanahan will take on all three phases of Sunday's race herself — the .62-mile swim, the 16-mile bike ride and the 3.4-mile run — and she's excited by the prospect.