Columbia women's triathlon to benefit Ulman Cancer Fund

Iron Girl `is more than just a race. It's an event'

August 25, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

On Feb. 13, Abby Glassberg of Clarksville, 47, had hysterectomy and double-mastectomy surgery, all in one day. She had learned that she carried the BRCA-2 gene, which drastically increased her chances of getting breast cancer, and the surgery was her way of fighting that risk.

She spent two nights in the hospital, then took two weeks off from work. She could not exercise for six weeks. In June, she went back to the hospital for implants, so she had to stop exercising again for several weeks.

Yet through all this, she has managed to train for the first RYKA Iron Girl Columbia Triathlon, scheduled for Sunday in and around Centennial Park.

"I really only started training for the triathlon on Aug. 1 because I couldn't swim, and I couldn't run or anything," she said.

Glassberg and more than 1,850 women from 23 states will swim 0.62 miles in Centennial Lake, bicycle 17.5 miles to western Howard County and back, and finish with a 3.3-mile run around the park in the women-only competition. The first group of swimmers will begin at 6:50 a.m., and final competitors should be finishing about noon.

All proceeds from the competition will benefit the Ulman Cancer Fund, a cause that is close to the heart of Glassberg and other participants, who have seen cancer strike close to home. Glassberg's sister is a cancer survivor, and she knows at least two co-workers who recently have lost family members to the disease, she said.

Though she has not had much time to train, Glassberg has no doubt she will finish the race. "I haven't done a triathlon in about 15 years," she said, "but I had been doing marathons and other running races and swimming races. I am fairly athletic for someone who has a family and works full time."

Glassberg, a commercial real estate broker, said she hopes she is setting an example for her 12-year-old twin daughters, Sylvie and Isabelle Staines, both by her proactive fight against cancer and her determination to participate in the triathlon. She knows she will not clock an impressive time, but she says that is OK. "It's good for kids to see that everything you do, you don't have to do great."

"I feel like it's really important," she added. "This is more than just a race. It's an event, actually."

Robert Vigorito, the race director, who also heads the Columbia Triathlon held each May and the Eagleman Ironman held in Cambridge each June, said he deliberately created a race that would be challenging, but not intimidating. Many of the entrants are first-time triathletes, lured by the prospect of competing without men, he said.

"There are a lot of women out there who would like to do these types of things," he said, but sometimes they are intimidated because "they don't want to compete alongside hard-core guys."

Vigorito said he had planned to create an all-female race until he learned of the RYKA Iron Girl National Women's Event Series, in its third year organizing all-female races around the country. The Columbia triathlon, with 1,859 registrants, promises to be one of the largest in the series, he said. He has signed a contract to bring the RYKA race back to Columbia at least two more times.

Triathlons, unlike marathons, which are always 26.2 miles, can vary in distance. The famed Ironman competitions require a 26.2-mile run, a 112-mile bike ride and a 2.4-mile swim. The Half Ironman is self-explanatory, and the Olympic Ironman requires a one-mile swim, 25-mile bike ride and 10-kilometer run. The shorter sprint races can vary.

"The feeling of the race will be entirely different," said Sadj Bartolo, who is 65 and president of the Mid Maryland Triathlon Club. The club has about 250 members, and about half are women, she said.

"There are going to be some pros racing, and there will be some really fast women. But I think the spirit will be a lot more cooperative than competitive," she said.

Professional competitors will include Desiree Ficker of Austin, Texas, Margaret Shapiro of Annandale, Va., and Alicia Weber of Clermont, Fla. The top five finishers - professionals and amateurs - will earn a cash award, starting with $2,000 for first place. The person with the fastest time in each discipline will earn $150, and there will also be non-cash age-group awards.

Bartolo, a Columbia resident, has competed in dozens of triathlons over more than 20 years, but she has never been in a race that did not include men. "I'm really excited about doing the race," she said.

Bartolo said women have been training together. Starting in June, participants left from Princeton Sports shortly after 6 p.m. Tuesdays to bike the race route. A few weeks ago, more than 300 met at 6 a.m. to swim at Centennial Lake, she said.

Maura Dunnigan, 37, of Ellicott City has been training while juggling the schedules of five children between the ages of 4 and 11. "Their schedules and their sports and everything come first," she said. "It's a little bit catch as catch can."

She runs with a group of friends at 6 a.m. four or five days a week, then sometimes gets on her bike or goes swimming at night, too.

The triathlon will be her fifth competition in two years, and her first all-female event. She has created a team that is donating money to the Women's Giving Circle. So far, it has raised nearly $2,000, she said.

Dunnigan said the race is her way of remembering the friends she has lost to cancer.

One close friend, Bernadette Shea, was 42 when she died in June, leaving four daughters, Dunnigan said. "She was such a giving person that we try to think of ways to remember her," Dunnigan said. Shea's initials will be on Dunnigan's shirt as she competes Sunday, she said.

"We've lost so many women in our community," Dunnigan said. "I just think the fact that any of us can get up every morning and can do this is a blessing."

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