Four years ago, Christy Nelson didn't consider herself a very good role model.
"I was living a sedentary lifestyle," said Nelson, who has two children. "I was sitting on the couch one day and just decided that I needed to set a better example for my kids."
So Nelson, now 39, grabbed a pair of three-year-old tennis shoes, put on some cotton shorts and a T-shirt and started jogging about a mile down the street to Crescent Lake Park.
"It was a horrible outfit," she recalled. "But I said to myself, if Oprah ran a marathon, why couldn't I?"
Nelson made it to the park and back, though she had to stop a couple of times and walk so she could catch her breath.
"But the important thing was that I did it," she said.
Today, three dress sizes smaller and winning the battle against what she calls "the inevitable middle-age spread," Nelson still challenges herself.
"Once you run a marathon, what's next?" she said. "Why not a triathlon?"
In the world of endurance sports, the Half-Ironman, or Ironman 70.3, is the fastest growing triathlon event. The name comes from the combined mileage of the swim, bike and run, which is exactly half that of the world's most famous multi-sport challenge, the Ironman Triathlon, held each October in Kona, Hawaii.
But competing — and completing — a full Ironman is almost a full-time job. That's why many amateur athletes train for the shorter, more manageable 70.3, which includes a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run.
More than 1,500 elite and professional triathlons will gather in Clearwater on Nov. 13 for the Ironman World Championship 70.3. But you have to qualify for this event, so Nelson set her sights on another Half Ironman, the inaugural Miami 70.3 on Oct. 30.
"I knew I would have to work my way up to it," she said. "I'd have to start off small."
Before you can realistically expect to accomplish any endurance or multisport event, you need a plan. Fortunately, Nelson's friend Pat Brighton was there to set her on the right course. Brighton, the local director of Tampa Bay Fit, a runners' training group, had recently completed an Ironman at age 61.
"She helped me set up a training schedule," Nelson said. "So I did four or five sprint triathlons and one Olympic distance event. It is just a matter of increasing my mileage."
In 2009, Nelson finished Disney's Goofy Challenge, a half-marathon and a full marathon in two days.
"I ran 39.3 miles in two days," she explained. "The first day it took me 2:15, the second, 4:45. So I figured if I could keep my body moving for seven hours running, I should be able to keep my body moving for seven hours in a triathlon."
Ironman 70.3 races have an eight-hour cutoff time, and Nelson was confident she would come in under the wire.
"I bought myself some really good tires so I wouldn't get any flats," she said. "It's the little things like that that make a difference."
Nelson did the St. Anthony's Triathlon (one-mile swim, 25-mile bike ride, 6.2-mile run) in April, then three months later kicked off her training for the Ironman 70.3.
"Time management is the biggest challenge," she said. "You may put down on your schedule an hour swim, but you have to consider the time it takes to get to the pool and back . . . it adds up."
The time has to come from somewhere. Nelson usually steals a few hours at night.
"The biggest challenge has been getting enough sleep," she said. "My doctor will kill me if you print this, but sometimes I only get five hours a night."
Nelson's children are 9 and 11, and they need their mom's attention, hot meals and homework help. Plus, she works full time as an information technology project manager.
How does she manage all the demands of being a single working mom and a triathlete?
"I don't watch TV, unless it's with my kids," she said. "I wish I could pay somebody to mow the lawn and I wish I had the time and money for massages, but I don't."
Her one rule: never let her training interfere with family time. "On Sunday mornings we go to church together," she said. "It is really important not to let triathlon training interrupt the family routine."
Where she tries not to compromise: "I do allow myself to buy, or borrow, the right gear," she said. "I use a lot of hand-me-downs and other people's stuff."
Nelson also allows herself to not always accomplish everything on her training plan.
"You can complain for 30 minutes about having to go swim, or you could go swim for 30 minutes," she said. "But sometimes life just interferes. You have to have a plan, and you try to complete it, but you can't beat yourself up when you don't."
On Oct. 30, Nelson competed in her first Ironman 70.3 distance event, along with triathletes from 48 countries.
"It was a tough course," said Nelson. She finished the Miami 70.3 in 7 hours, 6 minutes and 41 seconds.
"The swim ran longer than 1.2 miles, the bike had 15 to 20 mph winds on the return trip, and it was hot on the run. We went over a bridge almost as tall as Clearwater's Memorial Causeway eight times.
"But I did it!"
Terry Tomalin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.