After a brief period of uncertainty when TriColumbia closed its doors, leaving some of its events without a sponsoring organization earlier this year, the Ulman Cancer Fund made sure Sunday’s ninth annual Iron Girl Columbia Triathlon went off without a hitch.
Over the course of the morning, runners who crossed the finish line were greeted with a friendly call from announcer Jeff Meeks, whose voice could be heard throughout Centennial Park in Ellicott City.
“Congratulations,” he would proclaim. “You are an Iron Girl.”
Samantha Bird, of Burke, Va., delivered a gold-medal performance with a time of one hour, 26 minutes and 46 seconds in the all-female race, which consisted of a .62-mile swim, 16-mile bike ride and 3.4-mile run.
“I’ve never done an all-women race,” Bird said. “It was neat to see all the camaraderie with everyone. The volunteers were great. This is my first UCF race, and I thought they did an outstanding job as well.”
The Ulman Cancer Fund, which operates out of Howard County and Baltimore, took ownership of the Columbia Triathlon Association’s top two races, including the Columbia Triathlon, on April 29.
With the help of 300 volunteers over the course of the weekend, the goal was to make the transition as seamless as possible.
“Going back nine years, the Ulman Cancer Fund was actually the first national beneficiary for Iron Girl. So this race is not new to us,” said Brian Satola, UCF’s chief operating officer and race director. “It’s a huge platform for us to bring our teams to, and to raise money for the organization.”
Satola, a Clarksville native, said preserving Iron Girl was important not just to UCF, but to Howard County as a whole.
“This was a lynchpin within our organization,” he said. “It’s an amazing platform with some amazing energy to great things in the community, and that’s our plan moving forward.”
Some differences from races in the past included a lack of professional participants, and a first-place prize — a decision made before TriColumbia’s demise.
Participation was down slightly as well, which could have been, in part, due to registration being briefly closed before UCF acquired the race.
Still, approximately 1,700 entrants were expected to be ready for the 6:45 a.m. starting gun.
The sheer size of the race puts the area on the national stage as one of the top all-women’s athletic events. With 23 states represented in the competition, Satola said the economic impact on the community should be great as well.
Janelle McIntyre, 48, finished fourth overall (1:37.39) as the highest-placing Howard County native. Tara Trout Acevedo and Stacie Pare, both of Columbia, finished fifth and sixth respectively.
McIntyre’s daughters, Riley, 22, and Devin, 16, each placed in their respective divisions as well. McIntyre also coaches the Cancer to 5K program for UCF, and was running “for all my survivors,” alluding to the 10 sets of initials written on her hand.
“I’m just trying to follow in my mom’s footsteps, because she’s an amazing runner, and I want to be like her,” said Devin McIntyre, a 2013 cross country all-county selection at Centennial High School.
Janelle McIntyre has been involved in all nine Iron Girls, racing in eight and volunteering for one.
The event has sentimental value for many of its athletes, like Pat MacNabb, who turns 61 in September. Her participation in every Iron Girl to date represents the beginning of a life-long obsession.
“Iron Girl was my first triathlon nine years ago, and it gave me my start in triathlons. My goal was to qualify for the Boston Marathon, and I did that five times,” she said. “I needed a new challenge. I knew in the triathlon, the swim would be that challenge.”
MacNabb, who hails from Glenwood, used Iron Girl as a launching pad for larger-scale events, including her first of five Ironman competitions in 2008.
In July, MacNabb, a teacher at Hereford Middle School, won her age group at Ironman, Lake Placid, and qualified for the organization’s world championship in Kona, Hawaii later this year.
Because of that special bond she has with the race, MacNabb said she’ll always compete in the Howard County event until she physically can no longer participate.
Iron Girl Columbia, unique for its all-women field, makes for an interesting dynamic around the park.
MacNabb said the atmosphere was nothing but friendly. “It just keeps empowering women to try things that they would never try before.”
With every participant, Satola guessed there would be upwards of three or more spectators looking on.
“What’s interesting to see here is the supportive environment around,” he said. “There are so many people who have overcome so many things — not just cancer. So to see them come with their friends and family and compete together is really uplifting for a lot of people. That’s really what resonates with me. People will do this. People will talk other people into doing this, and they’ll do it together.
“And they’ll overcome together.”