By Kyle Melnick
After a 16-month battle with breast cancer, which included chemotherapy, infusion and setbacks, Christina Miller was declared cancer free in May 2013, and she emerged from treatment seeking support.
So she turned to The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, an organization that strives to create a community for people whose lives have been affected by cancer. Ulman hosts a number of races each year, so Miller began running 5Ks, where she received support from other cancer survivors.
On Aug. 16, Miller will race in Ulman's Iron Girl Triathlon at Centennial Park in Ellicott City, Md. Iron Girl has provided women like Miller a supportive community to train and run with for 10 years. On race day, Ulman will celebrate the 10-year milestone.
"It's a very anxious time following treatment, getting involved and getting back to being physically healthy," Miller said. "Through the camaraderie and the team aspect of the training, it has given me sort of emotional and physical support I needed to learn about life after cancer."
For many women, Iron Girl is their first time competing in a triathlon. Unlike a typical triathlon, Iron Girl strives to create a compassionate environment, one in which women are supported and return support.
"If someone bumps into you in the water, they're stopping to apologize," longtime participant Janelle McIntyre said. "Growing up doing triathlons for so long, I heard forever, ‘I can't believe you do that.' And I used to tell people, ‘You can do it.' This gave them the opportunity to go out and do it without being intimidated by a lot of men, big high-tech bikes and all that triathlon hoopla."
Iron Girl debuted in 2005, when the Columbia Triathlon Association owned the race. For eight years, Ulman served as a national beneficiary for the race. But in the summer of 2013, Columbia Triathlon suffered financial problems, and it wasn't able to continue hosting Iron Girl, Ulman chief operating officer Brian Satola said. So in December 2013, Ulman jumped at the opportunity to host an important event for the Howard County community.
The event raises money for Ulman to provide resources so people can be given the support they need. Iron Girl also raises money for charities, such as Girls on the Run, Athletes Serving Athletes and Ulman's charity, Team Fight.
"We realized that this race and the other races meant a lot to the community," Satola said. "They really had a heartbeat of their own. Most of these individuals aren't doing the race for themselves. They're doing it for another heartstring that they have."
Jodi Finkelstein and McIntyre have participated in the race since its first year. But the community aspect of the race has motivated them to return for their 10th consecutive stint.
Whenever Finkelstein passes another racer, she shouts, "You go girl." Whenever she's struggling at a bike rack, another racer offers help. And when the final competitor crosses the finish line, Finkelstein, as well as the majority of the people involved with the event, are there to cheer her on.
Seeing women respond to the encouragement by working harder is something Finkelstein will never get tired of.
"It's just always a consistent reminder why I did this in the first place," Finkelstein said. "That energy is unlike anything else at another race."
For Iron Girl's 10-year anniversary, Ulman will recognize the individuals who have participated during each of the 10 races. Setting up the event is a 12-month process, but it's worth it on race day, when the community comes together to support one another, Satola said.
Though the celebration will be different on race day this year, the community bond won't change. Iron Girl will also provide women a chance to challenge themselves with the support of others.
"For the longest time, when you're just focused on your health and your fear, it sort of helps me to step outside my illness and look more toward the future," Miller said. "Throwing yourself with other people who have had similar or different cancer experiences, it allows me to give support at the same time I'm getting support. It makes you feel not alone and not helpless in the journey."