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.
"I owe a lot to Brock and to the organization," she said. "It's never been about a time or a speed for me, it's about proving I can do something that I never thought I could do."
Yetso, a Howard County native who now lives in Baltimore, said that's a prevalent sentiment for many racers in the Iron Girl Columbia event, which is licensed from World Triathlon Corporation.
"The spirit of Iron Girl is women coming together for whatever reason, whether they're there on their own terms or supporting a friend or loved one," he said.
That is certainly true of Janelle McIntyre, a first-grade teacher at Clarksville Elementary School who lives in Ellicott City and who will be racing in her eighth Iron Girl Columbia. Her daughters, Riley, 22, and Devin, 16, will also race and have participated multiple times.
"Once you get out there it's amazing. You get hooked and it can be a very emotional time," said McIntyre, who usually places in the competition and races in honor of her sister, mother-in-law and close friend who all have had cancer. She also volunteers as a coach in the Cancer to 5K program.
"Some women are terrified, but adrenaline carries them through," she said. "It's a beautiful place to race and to be a spectator. Even women who don't know anyone racing come out."
Satola, a Clarksville resident and the race director for Iron Girl Columbia, said, "A large part of the community was blindsided when TriColumbia closed its doors.
"When we told [people] we were going to acquire the race, everyone breathed a sigh of relief," he said. UCF also now runs the Columbia Triathlon, which is held each May.
Twenty-two awards will be given out Sunday including to the top five finishers, top three in each age group and top three mother-daughter teams.
While the Iron Girl will have no shortage of competitive racers, Yetso said, for many women "a triathlon was not in their vocabulary previous to participating, and they are stepping up to be part of something that is bigger than they are."
Pat MacNabb, a Baltimore County physical education teacher who lives in Glenwood, falls into the competitive category.
"It's a very low-key race compared to others I've done, but it's fun," said MacNabb, who finally realized a long-held dream three weeks ago when she qualified in the 60-64 age group for the Ironman World Championship, a grueling triathlon held in Hawaii each October.
Though she usually finishes Iron Girl Columbia early, she returns to the finish line to cheer the other women on because so many don't have the body of a triathlete.
"It's so empowering to see their faces and to know what they've accomplished," she said, choking up at the thought.
"And I think it's great that the Ulman Cancer Fund picked this race up. It means a lot to a lot of women."
If you go
Iron Girl Columbia is held Sunday, Aug. 17, beginning at 6:45 a.m., rain or shine. The main entrance to Centennial Park, 10000 Clarksville Pike, will close at 6:35 a.m. on race day. There will be traffic delays in the area and limited parking on site. Organizers recommend parking at Turf Valley Resort, 2700 Turf Valley Road, and taking the shuttle that runs every 15-20 minutes from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information, go to ucfraces.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun