Monday, September 21, 2009

Ramblin' Rosers lose pounds, gain friends

(This is an article I wrote for Lake Norman magazine)

When Julie Smith of Huntersville talks about the Ramblin’ Rose triathlon, she doesn’t talk about how she’s lost 83 pounds. She doesn’t talk about how she can now run three miles, after once being barely able to walk a block.

When Smith, 49, talks about the triathlon, she talks about the friends she’s met in the last few months while training for the event.

“I’m enjoying this,” she says. “I want to see what I can do next.”

Laurie Hardin, 44 and also a Huntersville resident, is also preparing for her first Ramblin’ Rose. She, too, focuses on the women who’ve inspired her rather than the weight she’s lost.

Training for the women-only Ramblin’ Rose has helped hundreds of women form friendships that continue long after the women cross the finish line. In its third year here, the Ramblin’ Rose has become one of the area’s most popular triathlons.

It’s a two-mile run, nine-mile bike ride and 250-yard (10-lap) swim in a pool. The event, a great triathlon for beginners, will be Sept. 27 at the Huntersville Family Fitness Aquatic Center.

Chapel Hill-based Endurance Magazine started the Ramblin’ Rose in Chapel Hill in 2006, and launched one in Charlotte a year later. In its first year, the Charlotte event drew 400 women and sold out two months beforehand. This year’s cap was 800, and it sold out seven months in advance.

Endurance Magazine founder Steve Lackey says Charlotte-based Girls on the Run, a running and healthy living program for grade school girls, inspired the Rose. While working with Girls on the Run, Lackey says he realized adult women needed a program. The idea was to create a community to encourage women to live healthier lives.

Along with Roses in Charlotte and Chapel Hill, there’s also one inWinston-Salem. Lackey plans to add a second Rose in south Charlotte in spring 2010. The magazine will also add a Rose in Raleigh next year. There’s also talk of creating a national model in the coming years, he says.

Although elite athletes participate, Ramblin’ Rose isn’t overly competitive. During the race, volunteers cheer the swimmers, pedal with the bikers and encourage the runners. Many of the women bring friends and family as well. The event feels more like a pep rally than a triathlon.

“The event is all about celebrating the empowerment of women,” Lackey says. “You do it the way you need to do it and get across the finish line.”

‘All in this together’
“There’s something about that dynamic that is very encouraging,” says Alyse Kelly-Jones, who has been competing in triathlons for nine years. “It’s like a spirit of ‘We’re all in this together’ as opposed to ‘You are my competition.’ I think that’s what makes this so unique.”

The participants become a family. Many an athlete begins feeling terrified she will drown, fall off her bike because she hasn’t ridden since she was a child or feels self-conscious about jogging slowly. Once she’s experienced all of those emotions, and still steps across the finish line, she’s a changed person. Every person who inspired her to do the Ramblin’ Rose becomes part of her transformation.

Kelly-Jones, a south Charlotte physician, helped train hundreds of women for Ramblin’ Rose. She’s seen women like Smith and Hardin progress from being health-warning statistics to healthy women.

Kelly-Jones started a program called the Ramblin’ 100 in 2007 to train women for the first Ramblin’ Rose Charlotte. Her goal was to encourage 100 first-timers to sign up. More than 120 women registered. Each Ramblin’ 100 participant was paired with a mentor. Kelly-Jones organized volunteers to host clinics to teach the women how to swim, run and bike. After completing the 2007 race, several members of Kelly-Jones’ Ramblin’ 100 created the non-profit Tri It For Life. This year, 225 women are signed up for Tri It For Life. Next year, Kelly-Jones expects to draw 300 women.

“Women really need something like this,” Kelly-Jones says. “They connect with other women who have a common goal.”

‘They have been incredible’

Hardin and Smith are members of Tri It For Life and they credit the group and its volunteers for inspiring them to get in shape.

“They have been incredible and are great motivators,” says Hardin, whose job is servicing and maintaining aquariums and ornamental pools. “I have seen them take people on a swim who are afraid to put their face in the water. It is incredible.”

Hardin started as someone who didn’t work out at all. Now, she runs at least three days a week for about three miles. She also swims twice a week and rides her bike with the group. Since January 5, she went from 262 pounds to 187 pounds.

Smith has a similar story. She’s a single mom who works at a bank. Before she started training for the Ramblin’ Rose, her daily routine was to work and go home. Back issues made walking so painful, she mostly sat in a chair at home and did nothing.

“I was a mess,” she says. “I couldn’t walk more than a block. I looked like a fat old lady.”

Smith’s initial reaction to training for the Ramblin’ Rose: “There’s no way on God’s green Earth would I ever consider a triathlon.”

In 2005, she weighed 252 pounds and was considered morbidly obese. Two years later she had surgery to help her back, but she still didn’t actively exercise. Last September, her brother-in-law suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 47.

His death scared her. She worried about who would take care of her 14-year-old son if she died. Her scrapbooking consultant told her about the Ramblin’ Rose, and Smith decided to do it. Smith hasn’t looked back since.

She’s up at 5 a.m. several mornings a week for a run. She drags her son out of bed as well. He takes great pleasure in beating her home during their morning jogs, she says. On Sundays, she often does 20-plus-mile bike rides with people from Cool Breeze Cyclery in Mooresville. On weekdays, she participates in swim clinics in Charlotte through Tri It For Life.

Smith now weighs 165 pounds. She hopes to lose an additional 15 pounds. Her blood pressure has dropped, she’s no longer borderline diabetic and she doesn’t take painkillers anymore. She plans to participate in at least three triathlons a year.

She loves how she feels, and credits people such as a 64-year-old Tri It For Life member who is chipper and happy. Smith wants to be like her. Then there was the tattooed guy at Cool Breeze Cyclery — he was just so nice. She also can’t forget the elite triathlete who held a free bike clinic for Ramblin’ Rose participants, taking care to speak in layman’s terms.

“If it hadn’t been for all of the people out there, I wouldn’t be doing this,” she says.

Next year, another Ramblin’ Rose first-timer may say those same words about the woman who once couldn’t walk a block and now runs three miles.

More information
Ramblin’ Rose: 8 a.m. Sept. 27, Huntersville Family Fitness Aquatic Center. The women’s only race is closed, but $150 charity slots may still be available. All proceeds from these slots go to Girls on the Run. At least 800 women are registered for the event.

Tri It For Life: The training program prepares women for the Ramblin’ Rose, and also promotes healthy lifestyles. It has mentors and sport-specific clinics.

Endurance Magazine: The Chapel Hill-based magazine, which features athletes from around the state, sponsors the Ramblin’ Rose and several other sports events.

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