Slowly circling her front yard in the glow of a setting harvest sun, Molly Artman tried to remember what it felt like to be fit.
She tried not to dwell on the knee injury that forced her to quit running 10K races a handful of years back.
Or the way she had avoided swimming.
Or that she rode too slowly on her stationary bike.
Jogging laps along a manicured acre of her property last year, as the plump family retriever watched lazily from the house, Artman needed a major push to go from couch potato to athlete.
So the Anne Arundel County optometrist set an extreme goal for herself: a triathlon, set for today in Orlando, Fla.
"This is just the kick in the pants that I need," the 33-year-old said.
Two decades after Julie Moss crawled across the finish line at the Ironman competition in Hawaii, giving the sporting world one of its most dramatic images of a woman competing at the highest physical level, more and more women are finding their way to triathlons.
"You could call it a revolution," said Sally Edwards, an author and Triathlon Hall of Famer from Sacramento, Calif. "I think it's an ideal sport for women. Swim, bike, run -- it's all of our favorite childhood activities strung together."
During the past 10 years, the number of women competing in triathlons has grown from about 11 percent of triathletes in the early 1990s to 29 percent this year, according to Colorado-based USA Triathlon, the sport's national governing body.
"Four of the top 10 triathlons last year, in terms of numbers of participants, were women-only races," said organization spokeswoman B.J. Hoeptner Evans. "We're trying to get people away from thinking that triathlon is only the Ironman. Competitors don't have to have 3 percent body fat to finish."
The Ironman -- a punishing three-stage test of endurance that begins with a 2.4-mile ocean swim, followed by a 112-mile bike race and ends with a 26.2-mile marathon -- is the most grueling of the organization's 714 sanctioned events.
But there are less demanding triathlons that fall within the reach of weekend warriors and newcomers. Those events range from sprint races that cover a total of 16.6 miles to Olympic-length triathlons of 32 miles, to half-Ironmans that end 80 miles from the starting line.
In the mid-Atlantic region, there are more than 39 triathlons, beginning in April with the Azalea Festival triathlon on the Wilmington campus of the University of North Carolina and ending in September at the Lums Pond triathlon at the State Park in Bear, Del.
Danskin draws most
Year after year, the biggest U.S. draw is the Danskin Women's Triathlon in Seattle. Last month, 4,200 women completed the sprint race -- half-mile swim, 13-mile bike, 5K run -- among them cancer survivors and not a few recovering slackers.
Some raced for prize money, some to better their times. Others raced simply to finish.
When Cori Asaka entered the Danskin triathlon in Austin, Texas, in June, she was aiming for a personal best.
The 40-year-old single mother from Alexandria, Va., finished in 1:28 hours, 24th out of 290 competitors in her age group.
"I am a Title 9 girl. I was the first woman in Virginia to play [soccer] on the men's varsity team in Newport News, Va., in 1979," she said. "Seeing how many younger women are in athletics now, more focused on physical fitness than ever before, it makes me want to be one of those old ladies out there with race numbers on my arms and calves, competing. That's my goal. To be out there, healthy."
Five years ago, Holly Bautts Kidd wanted the same thing.
Like Artman, she was a runner until she injured her knee's anterior cruciate ligament during a soccer game.
Now 37, with three Danskin triathlons behind her and on track to run her first marathon next month, she credits the multisport training for restoring athletics to her life.
"The thing about triathlons is that they're expanding what I do," said Bautts Kidd, a civil engineer from Suffolk, Va. "After you do a sprint tri, you think, 'Well, I'm going to do a longer triathlon. Or I'm going to a marathon.' You're open to new and bigger challenges."
"Until you do one you can't grasp how rewarding and emotional it can be," she added.
Artman works in Dupont Circle in Washington and lives in Tracys Landing, a small community about 20 minutes south of Annapolis.
Between commuting, work, family and volunteering at the Washington Humane Society, it seemed there was never enough time to stay in shape.
"I was an athletic person who sat on the couch for the last five years. I used to be a runner. If I told somebody I was dieting they'd probably roll their eyes," she said. "But when I stand in front of the mirror, I see the flab. I am not fit."
Last spring, she heard about a sprint triathlon in Orlando, the shortest of four distances that triathlons have.
"I knew enough to know that there were three parts to it, swimming, biking and running, but I did not know enough to know what order or what length."
She and a friend, Julia Begley, registered and started to train. During months of endurance work, Artman learned that the swim portion always comes first, that the bike portion is always the longest distance and that the run comes last.
Artman felt ready for the race last September. But when the terrorist attacks prompted organizers to cancel the race through the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Artman found herself sliding back into inactivity.
She started to train again three months ago, running around her property, pedaling in place and holding back worries about the open-water swim.
"I don't think that I'm going to become this major triathlon person, but I was hoping for it to set me off on a timeline," she said. "My husband thinks this is comical. He says, 'You'll never finish.' "
Sally Edwards knows better.
The 16-time Ironman finisher has been Danskin's spokeswoman since 1990. At that time, she was recovering from an injury that kept her from competing in all but the shortest triathlons, so Danskin officials offered her a chance to do something she had never done: hang back in the field with women struggling to finish.
She's been the last runner across the finish line at each of Danskin's 74 sponsored races ever since.
"I do it because no woman wants to finish last," Edwards explained. "These are hugely challenging races, and still, so many women finish.
"That woman who wins the race, she's a professional athlete. It's just another day of work for her," Edwards said. "But for that woman at the back of the pack, who is overweight, who is a cancer survivor, who is empowering herself over health issues, who is overcoming fears, who thinks to herself, I'm the wrong size, I'm the wrong shape, or the wrong skin color or the wrong anything; the woman who's the final finisher, she's working pretty hard."
A week before she was scheduled to fly to Orlando for the triathlon, Molly Artman struck an upbeat note.
"I actually didn't tell a lot of people I was doing this because I didn't want them to think, 'Who does she think she is, trying to do a triathlon?' " she said.
"I still don't know how I'll compare, but I'm as ready as I'm going to be," she added. "I'm just looking forward to the adventure."
Here's how to find out more about triathlons
* USA Triathlon (www.usatriathlon.org) is a clearinghouse for information about the sport and maintains an online calendar of triathlons it sponsors.
* Danskin (www.danskin.com / triathlon) is the largest sponsor of women-only triathlons in the country, with races in seven U.S. cities, starting in Austin, Texas, in June and ending in Orlando, Fla., in September. Ten percent of the entry fees go to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
* The National Triathlon Academy in Baltimore (www.triathlonacademy.com), responding to the growing numbers of women interested in triathlon, has created a series of Women's Triathlon Workshops with the beginning to intermediate athlete in mind.
Sally Edwards, a 16-time Ironman finisher and Danskin spokeswoman, offers these tips for triathlon training:
* Have a complete physical examination before beginning to train.
* Define your goal. "You need to be able to answer the 'Why am I here' question before you get to the starting line," Edwards said.
* Allow at least 12 weeks to train for your first event.
* Don't worry about buying a lot of expensive equipment. A good pair of running shoes, any working bicycle, a helmet and swimwear are all that are needed.
* Join a masters swim program at your gym or local YMCA. "Get someone to work on your swim stroke so you're as efficient as you can be in the water," Edwards advises.
* Keep your training fun.