As then-17-year-old Sarah Melanson crossed the finish line of the ChesapeakeMan Ultra Championship early this fall, she couldn't believe what she had just endured.
She had swum 2.4 miles through jellyfish-infested waters, had biked 112 miles while battling near-record winds and then, to cap off a 15-hour effort, had run 26.2 miles for a full marathon.
"I was like, 'Are you sure I did that?'" Melanson said. "It was completely surreal. I couldn't even believe I had just done it."
Her disbelief was shared by the family members who gathered to watch her finish, long after darkness set on the dimly lit course in Cambridge in Dorchester County. Her mother, Cindy, cheered alongside her older sister, Emily. Her father, Mark, who ran triathlons while in college, was there, too, and later acknowledged that he wouldn't want to run that long.
Her boyfriend, Nicholas Caddenhead, a cyclist, was also supporting her — though unable to fathom how she could take on the running and swimming portions.
"I see it as a big accomplishment in my life," said Melanson, a 2013 South River graduate and freshman exercise physiology major at West Virginia. "I hope it serves as an inspiration to other people that there is no obstacle that can set you apart from your goals."
Robert Vigorito, a USA Triathlon-certified race director, said in an email that Melanson was the youngest female ever to complete the ChesapeakeMan. The race is organized by TriColumbia, the company he founded in 1986.
He also said that, because of sport-wide rules that usually prohibit runners under 18 from participating in ultratriathlons, Melanson was likely the youngest female entrant ever to complete that distance.
"I really would doubt that there are any others," Vigorito said.
Melanson signed a waiver to participate in the grueling race.
"I remember a 15-year-old boy did [a full Ironman Triathlon] a few years ago," Melanson said. "But I'm the youngest female, apparently."
Melanson joined the Annapolis Triathlon Club when she was 13, in 2008, after swimming competitively for a few years. Flipping through one of her father's photo albums, she became interested in the pictures of him racing. The family used to watch the televised Ironman World Championship, which she thought was "the coolest thing you could do."
Earlier this year, the club raffled off a half-price ticket ($75) to the ChesapeakeMan ultra triathlon. Melanson had thought about giving it a shot, so she entered her name.
"I said, 'Make sure you're prepared for it,'" Mark said. "This isn't a kid you have to push. If anything, you have to say, 'Why don't you take a break?'"
Club members were excited that someone so young would even consider that distance.
"People her age don't usually do that," Chrissy Fuentes, 56, said.
Michelle Faurot, 53, also a club member, competed in the world Olympic distance for her age group at the London Olympics in 2012. She met Melanson when the pair trained together during a weekly "Ladies Ride" hosted at Parvilla Cycles bike shop.
Back then, Melanson was riding on a bike formed from a conglomeration of her father's old bicycle's parts.
"There was Sarah, all of 14 at the time, riding this bike her dad had outfitted her out of stuff he had used almost 30 years ago. She had these old clipless pedals; they were really stiff," Faurot said. "I went back and told him after [the ride], 'Please buy your girl new pedals.'"
When it comes to triathlons, age is a number that doesn't create barriers.
"It's not about gender or age. It's about doing something that you enjoy together," Faurot said. "There are some really fast older people, some really fast younger people — some really slow ones, as well."
Melanson woke up at 3 a.m. on race day to drive with her family to the start line at Great Marsh Park in Cambridge. She had to set up the course beforehand, then entered the water at 7 a.m., surrounded by more than a hundred other racers.
"A lot of people get nervous about that, they panic, they get hit by an arm they don't see coming," Melanson said. "But I really like that stuff because I feel most aggressive when I'm in the water."
The swim took about 1 hour, 17 minutes, with a host of jellyfish providing an unwelcome audience.
"I got stung all over my arms and a little bit on my neck," Melanson said. "But you don't really notice it when you're that focused."
After the swim, Melanson ran to the bike station, where she changed out of her wetsuit. During the bike course, she didn't worry about her speed, though she would end up finishing an hour ahead of schedule. In fact, she was just focused on keeping her bike upright despite heavy gusts of wind.
"They said there were record-breaking winds almost," she said. "I was like, 'I'm bored. I just want to get off the bike and start running.' But then as soon as I got off my bike, I was going to want to stop running and be on the bike again."
The marathon was the hardest part. A downpour added to the already pitch-black night, more than 120 miles into her journey.
"There were no lights out here — you can't see anyone in front of you or behind you," Melanson said. "I just knew I had to get to the end. I was already out there, so I had to come back anyway."
Finally, the finish line emerged, the only well-lit area left. As she crossed, she had "the dumbest smile" on her face, hearing her name announced over the loudspeaker and her family cheering her on.
"I just remember crossing and being really confused, like, 'What did I just do?'" Melanson said. "And they came and hugged me and it was raining."
Her final time, 15 hours, 30 minutes, 39 seconds, was good for 121st place out of the 154 competitors. She was the youngest female finisher by at least 12 years.
"I'm more proud of who she is than any accomplishments or trophies," Mark said about his daughter. "We always knew she was fairly tough-minded. … She's just a real good, solid kid."
Melanson said she plans to continue doing long-distance races, though she doesn't want to race professionally at this point. The U.S. Olympic Distance National Championships, on Aug. 9 in Milwaukee, are on her horizon. She also plans to run the ChesapeakeMan again to improve on her time.
"It was really fun," she said. "You probably experience every emotion imaginable on that day." firstname.lastname@example.org
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