A prize Brittany Ebbertt never expected was waiting Sunday as she sprinted down the pathway along Centennial Lake, past bunches of balloons and across the finish line at the seventh annual Iron Girl Triathlon in Columbia.

Waiting nervously at the end of the course was her boyfriend, Russell Burris — a Howard County police officer who told Ebbertt he was working for the day. He surprised her, slipped an award medal around her neck, pulled a diamond ring out of his pocket and dropped to one knee.

The proposal was as simple as it was dramatic: "Will you marry me?" Burris asked Ebbertt while the crowd cheered and clapped for the Ellicott City couple. "She said yes! She said yes!" the announcer called over the loudspeaker.

Ebbertt, an accountant for the federal government, said she knew the question was coming sometime soon, but she expected Burris might ask on their coming trip to Europe.

"I'm still trying to catch my breath," she said.

The triathlon was a milestone for women and girls across Maryland and beyond. More than 2,000 athletes, ages 12 to 76, participated from 25 states and Washington. They swam about two-thirds of a mile, biked an additional 17.5 and ran the last 3.3 miles.

The event, organized by TriColumbia, is the largest Iron Girl in the country, said Robert Vigorito, the nonprofit's founder.

"It's inspiring people to do more than they ever thought they could," Vigorito said. "You have to allow yourself to believe in the power of you."

Sunday's Iron Girl was the third for Lorianne Bartlett of Sparks. The triathlon was a spiritual experience for Bartlett, who said the training helped her grieve for the loss of her mother. In the past, the middle school English teacher said, she competed to test her performance.

"This time, it meant completing a cycle," Bartlett said. On her arm, she wrote, "Ra ma da sa sa say so hung," a healing mantra used for meditation.

Megan Thoreson of Ellicott City participated with her cousins Marissa and Nicole Sciabarra, who are twins. The girls, each 15, said they woke up early to train on their family vacation to the Outer Banks in North Carolina this summer, although the terrain down south was easier.

"It's a lot different then it was there," Nicole said. "There's like a gazillion hills."

Staying active is a way of life for the family. The twins, also of Ellicott City, play field hockey, basketball, lacrosse and baseball, and Megan is a ballet dancer. Megan said it was her father, Greg Thoreson, who inspired her.

"They were highly motivated," said Greg Thoreson, who has competed in triathlons. "They really wanted to do this together."

Another trio of girls, Danielle Pendergast, 12, and her twin sisters, Hannah and Madeline, 16, stood on the sideline as their 51-year-old mother, Beth, sped past on the biking leg of the competition.

"It means a lot to know she could do it," Danielle said.

Said Madeline: "We play sports, but I don't think we could do this."

"Maybe in a couple of years," Hannah said.

Wearing a "My wife is an Iron Girl" T-shirt, Glenn Beighey of Columbia nursed a cup of coffee while he waited to cheer on his wife, Lucy. The family arrived at 4:45 a.m., and nearly four hours later, Beighey was eager to see his wife ride past on the second of three legs. It was Lucy Beighey's third time competing in the triathlon.

"It's self-worth for her, a big accomplishment," said Glenn Beighey, who said that when his wife first started training, she didn't know how to swim.

She mastered swimming, but she was still afraid of the snapping turtles and other creatures potentially lurking in Centennial Lake, said the couple's 21-year-old daughter, Brittney, also an Iron Girl.

"You never know what you can do until you try," Brittney Beighey said.

Michellie Jones of Australia won the triathlon in just under an hour and 25 minutes. Jones, a silver medalist in the triathlon in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, won $1,700. Lindsey Jerdonek of Sagamore Hills, Ohio, placed second, and Alice Henriques of Washington took third.

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