PALM HARBOR — Ask Beth Wonicker-Cook why she wakes up at 4:30 every morning to train for events like Saturday's Aflac Iron Girl 10K and 5K run-walk and her answer is simple.
"Because I can," she says.
It wasn't always possible for Wonicker-Cook, 42, to maintain the rigorous training schedule of running, biking and swimming that she currently does in preparation for this weekend's race, as well as triathlons and marathons throughout the year.
She was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis when she was in seventh grade and her knees swelled so much that she wasn't able to participate in physical education class, much less run a 26-mile race.
She tried running as a young adult, but the pain was so severe that she gave it up.
After the birth of her two girls, Lauren, 9, and Erica, 7, her doctor introduced her to new drugs used to treat arthritis that had amazing results.
"I could finally train like a normal person," said Wonicker-Cook, who lives in Palm Harbor with her husband, Joel, 39, and their two daughters.
She competed in several triathlons, half marathons and eventually full marathons before being diagnosed with cervical cancer in early 2008. She underwent a series of radiation treatments, but continued to train and compete throughout the process.
"I didn't get depressed. I just took it one day at a time," she said. "The training really helped a lot with that."
Her cancer is currently in remission and she feels great.
"I'm like a kid in a candy store," she said. "I used to have to sit back and watch, but now I'm running marathons. I never dreamed I could do that."
Wonicker-Cook discovered the Iron Girl races when she heard through the running community about an event being held in East Lake in 2005. She has been participating in them ever since.
She placed first in her age group in last year's Las Vegas Iron Girl Triathlon, but says Iron Girl is more than a competition to her.
"This is a positive, caring community of women," said Wonicker-Cook, who works as a senior manager for Price Waterhouse Coopers in Tampa. "I do this to show my girls that it's important to have a home, a career and a family and still do things for themselves."
More than 1,400 women and girls are expected to participate in Saturday's Iron Girl races at Coachman Park in Clearwater. It is among 10 Iron Girl events in cities across the United States.
The events continue to grow in popularity through the country, according to Judy Molnar, vice president of Iron Girl.
"People like Beth are why we do Iron Girl," she said. "It's all about empowering women to live a healthy lifestyle."
The Iron Girl is far from the most rigorous event that Wonicker-Cook is participating in this year. In fact, she heads off to Massachusetts for the Boston Marathon in two weeks.
But she runs this race for a different reason — her girls.
"My daughters are gymnasts, not runners," she said. "But this is something we enjoy doing together."