About a month before last summer's Iron Girl Triathlon, Melissa Emery was beset by debilitating fatigue.
She had taken part in the Columbia event's debut in August 2006, a year after turning 40 and finding herself in the throes of a midlife crisis. Completing her first swim-bike-run event proved she could handle the demanding preparation and physical exertion, so she continued to push herself.
But when she started to bog down last summer, Emery wondered: "Am I training too much?"
She soon learned that the training regimen wasn't the culprit. Ovarian cysts detected in January 2007 after a routine checkup had grown rapidly, and Emery had developed extensive endometriosis, a condition in which the uterine lining grows outside the uterus. A full hysterectomy was scheduled at the end of August. Despite having trained for several months, Emery found herself awaiting surgery and watching the race from the sidelines.
"By that point, even cheering on my friends was painful," the Columbia resident said.
Now, nearly a year later, Emery is back. A biopsy revealed no sign of cancer, so she began her yearlong recovery with a dogged determination to enter the race again. With images of Olympic athletes in Beijing striving for seemingly unreachable heights as a backdrop, Emery is preparing to do the same Sunday, when the third Aflac Iron Girl Columbia Triathlon takes place in Centennial Park. About 2,200 participants are expected, organizers said.
"Dara Torres making the U.S. women's swim team at age 41 proved to all of us what determination is," said Emery, who acknowledges staying up to watch the late-night broadcasts from China. "Age is still an obstacle, but she has opened up a whole new world for older athletes."
As inspirational as watching Torres compete with much younger Olympians has been, Emery said the impetus behind her mission to get fit was more personal: the deaths of her parents, five months apart, in 2004 and 2005. Both smoked and led unhealthy lifestyles, the Towson native said.
Emery's husband, Chuck Moan, had died of leukemia in 2000, so the emotional strain from the personal losses had piled up.
"I knew I didn't want to end up like my parents had, so I thought, 'I can swim, I can run, I can ride a bike,'" said Emery, a human relations technology analyst for T. Rowe Price. A year later, a triathlete was born.
"I'm what I like to call a 'back of the pack-er,'" she said of her typical race pace. "Winning is not what this is about for me. It's about being healthy of body, heart and mind."
Robert Vigorito, race director for the Iron Girl and Columbia triathlons, said Emery is a great role model.
"Melissa is coming back from the ultimate insult to her body and nearly starting from square one," he said. "The key is commitment: swim, bike, run, and you're done. She has that part down."
Emery's comeback effort has not been lost on other racers. Sadj Bartolo, a Columbia resident and triathlon veteran who took up the sport at a similar time in life, met Emery when she joined the Mid-Maryland Triathlon Club. Bartolo marvels at how Emery endured surgery last summer and came away even more determined.
"I was really impressed," Bartolo said. "She has been a very active and very positive member."
At age 66, Bartolo, too, seems to embody the spirit of the Iron Girl, as she speaks of the effect that training for and completing a triathlon can have.
"It's something you can control when you have no control over other events in your life," she said. "It's a joyful activity. It makes me grin, and it makes me feel very alive."
Emery acknowledged that taking part in a triathlon is largely a mental challenge. Even so, she said it hasn't been easy rebuilding the strength and stamina she once had, especially since her hysterectomy threw her into menopause and left her with hot flashes.
A blend of determination and willpower, she said, has made the difference for her - that, and she begged her doctor to prescribe hormone-replacement therapy.
"HRT has been a godsend," she said. "How can any woman train for a triathlon during menopause?"
Vigorito has been the director of the co-ed Columbia Triathlon since its inception 25 years ago, but he said the Iron Girl is a much different event.
"There will be lots of tears shed at the finish line, because the 'I never thought I could do this' emotion comes out then," he said. "This event takes you out of your comfort zone and transforms you in just one day. It's a coming-out party, where women prove to themselves and each other just what they can do."
Emery is among those participants who have experienced such transformation.
"Now that I'm 43, I feel I'm not just older than many triathletes, but I'm mellower and more competitive at the same time," she said. "This is about discipline and desire."