Hundreds of women in bathing suits stood at the edge of Centennial Lake. Soon, they would be slicing through the green water, their only chance to practice in the lake before the Athleta Iron Girl Columbia Triathlon scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 19.
Before they waded into the water for the early morning practice swim on July 28, the participants signed in and received bright pink bands for their wrists and electronic chips on straps that looped around their ankles. Both would help race organizers keep track of the participants.
But the wrist bands served another purpose. They were good for a 10 percent discount at Princeton Sports, the family-owned Howard County company that has been partnering with the Columbia Triathlon Association since it was founded nearly 30 years ago.
Between 100 and 150 women redeemed the discount in the next two weeks, said Alan Davis, president of Princeton Sports.
"It's really good for business because triathlons have become some of the hottest events in the country, and Columbia is at the epicenter," he said.
Triathlons and other races have become a big business in the county, bringing in thousands of people from dozens of states who spend money on hotel rooms, restaurant meals and more.
"Of any major event that the county attracts, the sporting events are really where we get the heads in beds," said Rachelina Bonacci, director of Howard County Tourism and Promotion. "People won't give up their passion for sports in a recession."
She added: "As a resident, it's evident when the Iron Girl is happening, there's an influx of women, their fans, friends and family at the mall, local restaurants and even grocery stores. ...The sight of so many road bikes, often pink, atop or on the back of cars or SUVs with out-of-state license plates says, 'Visitors spending' to me."
The Columbia Triathlon Association hosts four triathlons in the county — the Columbia Triathlon, the Celebrating Heroes Triathlon, Kidz Triathlon and the Iron Girl.
The Iron Girl is perhaps the most popular, with online registration selling out in minutes when it opens each November. This year, 2,421 women from 25 states and the District of Columbia have signed up to participate in the Iron Girl, waking before dawn to swim 0.62 miles in Centennial Lake, bike 17.5 hilly miles in western Howard County, then return to the lake for a challenging 3.3 mile run on the paths surrounding the water. Of those, 514 are from states other than Maryland, including California, Maine and Florida.
The Columbia Triathlon Association estimates that the race alone will bring $200,000 to the county, partly because participants who live outside the local area tend to arrive a day or two before the event to check out the course, pick up the race materials and get their bicycles and helmets inspected at Princeton Sports, which provides the service at no charge.
Many Iron Girl triathlon participants stay at the Columbia Sheraton Town Center Hotel, which hosts the packet pickup and a health and fitness expo during the race weekend.
"It has a positive financial impact," Joe Giannino, general manager of the hotel, said earlier this week. "We're very close to being sold out (for Saturday night)."
The packets contain information about the race as well as coupons to local businesses and information from the tourism office.
"They promote our events, we promote tourism," said Robert Vigorito, the garrulous, enthusiastic director of the Columbia Triathlon Association.
"Our website historically is very busy during Iron Girl weekend," Bonacci said. "Visitor guides are included in the goody bags for all the triathletes, and we'll have our Welcome-Center-On-The Go set up on race day at the park."
Terry Hasseltine, director of the Maryland Office of Sports Marketing, notes the women participating in the Iron Girl are typically the decision-makers who choose family vacations and purchases. After visiting Howard County for the event, they may opt to come back for a more leisurely visit, he said.
While businesses benefit in a concrete way from the Iron Girl and other events put on by the Columbia Triathlon Association, there is a less tangible benefit as well, as the events solidify the county's reputation as a destination for well-run athletic events.
The Columbia Triathlon Association is "the go-to" triathlon organizer in the state, said Hasseltine, adding that the association enjoys a stellar reputation in Maryland and beyond.
The events also raise considerable funds and awareness for charitable causes, said Vigorito, who estimates that the association has generated $4 million for charities since it was incorporated in 1989.
The first Columbia Triathlon was held in 1984, with 90 participants at the Columbia Association's indoor pool in the Wilde Lake Village Center. The Iron Girl triathlon started in 2006 with 1,700 women and quickly grew, said Vigorito. It also became the template for the dozen or so Athleta Iron Girl events nationwide, he said, though it remains the largest in the series.
"Nobody else even comes close," Vigorito said.
"It's just such a feel-good event," Bonacci said. She sometimes volunteers and said she is moved by the sights that make Iron Girl a particularly emotional event — multiple generations of a family competing together, and tiny children along the side of the running path, holding signs as large as their own bodies, with encouragement for their mothers.
The Columbia Triathlon Association held its first Iron Girl half-marathon in April, attracting some 2,400 participants for a run that began and ended at the Columbia lakefront. Vigorito hopes to increase participation to 5,000 within five years.
A new triathlon, the Iron Girl Rocky Gap Triathlon, will debut in Western Maryland on Sept. 9, with about 1,100 women signed up, he said.
For all these events, participants often train together, often in groups that raise money for charitable organizations including the Women's Giving Circle of Howard County and the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults.
"People are looking for better ways to get outside, better ways to be with their friends, better ways to stay healthy," said Davis of Princeton Sports. "It really becomes a community that is doing all these things, and they're doing it for a good cause."