After having beaten back fear and addiction and illness, three women will test themselves again today, push themselves to overcome a triumvirate of physical challenges.
This trio of likable, admirable women from Gwinnett have never met each other. But they all understand what it is to triumph over the odds and to succeed when it would be easier to fail.
For Danielle Tardif, Nanci King and Lynn Elam it isn't how fast they finish today's inaugural Iron Girl Atlanta Triathlon at Lake Lanier Islands Resort. It's that they finish. These three 40-something women are perfect examples of what it means to be an Iron Girl - they empower and inspire and prevail.
Just a few months ago, an article about Iron Girl coming to Atlanta caught Danielle Tardif's eye as she flipped through a magazine.
The 42-year-old Lawrenceville resident had always thought about doing a triathlon. Looking at it broken down into its individual pieces - a 600-meter swim, an 18-mile bike ride and a three-mile run - the distances seemed doable to Tardif.
She talked about signing up with one of her co-workers, Stephanie Lee, who was excited about the idea.
"Between that and just the whole challenge of it ... I don't know if it's just the whole 'Got to feel alive' or what the deal is at this point, I just rallied and forged forward," Tardif said.
That was 10 weeks ago and Tardif chuckles as she admits maybe she should have picked a triathlon later in the summer. But Tardif knows better than most time can be precious.
May 31 was the one-year anniversary of her final chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer.
In November 2005, Tardif made an appointment with a gynecologist because she noticed a small swelling in her lower-left abdomen.
"I thought it was a pulled muscle, but found it odd that it didn't hurt and it
didn't go away," Tardif said.
They told her, yes, she had something going on and they'd like to do an ultrasound.
"But by the time I got in (for the initial appointment), it was just before Christmas and he didn't want to do the ultrasound until January," Tardif said. "I said, 'Oh, no.' Because in the time that it took from calling, setting the appointment and actually getting in, this seemed, in my mind, to have gotten bigger.
"Ironically enough, I was calling it my alien."
Tardif went for a second opinion and within a week had blood work done, an ultrasound and a CAT scan. Her doctor was out of town when the results came back the following week, but he called Tardif.
"He told me, 'I am referring you to an oncologist and this is why,'" Tardif said.
In January, when she would have just been getting in for an ultrasound with the first doctor, Tardif was having surgery. It was a complete hysterectomy.
"We had agreed that, yes, the only way it's truly diagnosed is surgery, I had no intention of having kids, so do a complete hysterectomy," Tardif said.
While she was still on the operating table, they determined it was, in fact, cancer and did biopsies to see if it had spread, what stage it was in and which chemo drugs would be most effective for her.
The chemotherapy was started in March and Tardif had six cycles that pumped drugs into her system every 21 days.
"I did well," she said, the echo of her native Cape Cod, Mass., resonating in her voice. "Because of nutrition and attitude, I was able to maintain my health enough to where I didn't really need all the drugs to boost this and that. The only thing I needed was one drug to help boost my white blood cell count. Nutritionally, there's nothing you can do to prevent that from dropping."
These days, the side effects of chemo are fairly common knowledge. That doesn't make them any less horrible.
"The nausea, the non-interest in eating, the metal taste on your mouth, to the point where you just don't want to eat," Tardif said. "It screws up your GI system. And fatigue."
Fatigue is still an issue and has hindered Tardif's training for the triathlon.
"By comparison to my energy levels prior (to having cancer), yes, it's still fatigue and recovery," she said.
Tardif works six days a week at North DeKalb Animal Clinic and DeKalb-Gwinnett Animal Emergency Clinic as a veterinary technician, so the daily training a triathlon requires hasn't been easy. But Tardif isn't necessarily looking for easy.
She fits the swimming, the biking, the running in wherever she can and whenever her body allows it.
Cycling has been and remains a passion for Tardif, who has twice completed the one-day, 100-mile bike races known as centuries. She did one just a couple months before being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, a disease often termed a silent killer because it's hard to spot and is one of the deadliest tumors.
Tardif did another century in September 2006, a couple months after her final chemo treatment.
"I loved doing them," Tardif said. "They're challenging. You're tired as all get-out by the end. But, yeah, I like cycling."
The triathlon is a different beast.
"Mostly because your energies are now dispersed amongst three," she said. "So even though cycling's my strongest, I've still struggled with gaining strength for the hills. They've just been a challenge. And that's just because of fatigue and recovery. I still have issues with those.
"Plus, working the two jobs to boot, it's been a challenge to, one, find enough time and, two, find enough energy."
A little uncertainty is in her voice when Tardif talks about it, but part of that is just the unknown of her first triathlon. And it isn't going to derail her in any case.
"I've just got to know I can do it," Tardif said. "I think it's having gone through the cancer that's given me the drive to do it. Because I always just thought about it."
Nanci King was not overly athletic. She was a dancer and cheerleader growing up, but didn't participate in sports.
She had never been a runner, never rode a bike for more than childhood recreation and, after nearly drowning in the ocean as a kid, avoided swimming except in pools.
An unlikely candidate for a triathlon.
But Iron Girl Atlanta will be King's second and figures to be a slightly less daunting challenge than her first - an Olympic-distance event in Florida that started with a mile-long swim in the open ocean.
"I really had no intention, at all, of doing a triathlon," the 41-year-old brunette said with a small laugh.
Michael King, Nanci's husband, has always been athletic and got involved with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training after having two family members diagnosed with leukemia.
"My husband's dad passed away from leukemia 16 years ago," said Nanci, who lives in the Hamilton Mill area. "Six years ago we got a call from his brother, saying his wife had been diagnosed with the same exact leukemia that had taken his dad, which is pretty strange.
"The good news was that she was put on a drug called Gleevec and a lot of the funding for Gleevec was through Team in Training. So Michael was like, 'I want to do a triathlon.'"
Nanci went to the informational meeting with Michael, still with no intention of participating.
"Being there, listening to all the stories about these people and what they had been through and the reasons they were doing it for family members who currently have leukemia or lymphoma, or have lost the fight," Nanci said, "when I left, I thought, there's no reason I can't do this."
"I mean physically," she said laughing. "Mentally there was a lot of reasons, but physically there was no reason I couldn't do it.
"So I signed up and began a very interesting six-month journey to get ready for it."
It was six months of training specifically for the St. Anthony's Triathlon in April. But King's path to the finish line began before that.
"A year and a half, two years ago, I had put on a lot of weight," King said. "I decided I wasn't getting any younger and that I really needed to get this weight off. So I joined a gym and started working out there, pretty religiously. I was in the gym five, six days a week, totally changed the way I ate, and I lost 60 pounds."
That was a year before she signed up for her first triathlon, but it laid a foundation.
"I think people think to do these (triathlons), you have to be really thin or really, really in shape," King said. "We have people on our team all sizes and you might not set any records. I mean, I knew going into this that there was no way I was going to win.
"But all I wanted to do was complete it and have fun. Those were my two goals and I did both of them."
After six months of training, preparing for a serious athletic test at St. Anthony's, King was standing on the beach in St. Petersburg, Fla., staring out at a yellow buoy in the middle of the ocean.
"I was absolutely petrified of getting in the water," she said. "To the point where I was like, 'I can't do this.'
"I think the only thing that got me in the water was thinking that I have to go home and tell everybody that sent donations, that supported me, that I did not get in the water."
It got easier once she was in the water, but it wasn't easy.
"I ended up going to side stroke a lot - which is not what they teach you," King said smiling, "and was not my plan.
"When I was doing side-stroke, I was facing the buoys, and I couldn't see all the hundreds of people behind me, around me, in front of me. That's what's scary. You get kicked, you get scratched because you're all going at the same time."
A Team in Training mentor gave King some advice before the race. Just get to the first yellow buoy. The course was marked with orange buoys until it was time to make the turn. Getting to the first yellow buoy meant that it was just as far to come back as it was to go on.
"So that was my plan, just get to the next buoy," King said. "I didn't care if I had to dog paddle, breaststroke, side-stroke, whatever, just to get to that first yellow buoy."
As she moved from one to the next, King's bubbly personality had her talking to all the safety kayakers, letting them know they were appreciated.
"Everybody else has their head in the water, I figure nobody's been talking to them all day," King said. "So that's my job, I'll get to the next kayaker and thank them.
"I got out of the water in 35 minutes, which is not that awesome. You probably want to do it in the 20s somewhere. But I made it through the water, I had fun, I made people laugh. So it worked for me. Like I said, I'm not trying to set any records. I just want to have fun, and my husband and I raised $11,000 for Team in Training.
"The whole experience, to be able to know you did something to save lives, and it was a big accomplishment for myself because I just
didn't know if I'd be able to do it."
The X-ray is nearly 20 years old, smudged with fingerprints and creased in places. It's black and gray, but it is a Technicolor reminder of what Lynn Elam has been though.
Sometimes Elam forgets she has nine screws and a plate in her ankle. She hasn't forgotten what preceded that moment or the good that has come from it.
"This broken leg has brought so much joy into my life," Elam said with a laugh. "I never want to do it again, but it has."
Running started as a way to break a two-pack-a-day smoking habit. It became its own addiction.
"I was really out of shape and I really didn't know where I was going," Elam said. "I didn't have goals and plans. I was just settling for a lot of mediocrity at that time.
"But I didn't like the way I was living, and I was basically trying to quit smoking so I tried to start jogging."
She was headed in the right direction, but there was still a long way to go, including overcoming eating disorders that developed when Elam was 11 or 12 - not long after her mother died from alcoholism at the age of 35.
"Mine's a story of faith, too," Elam said. "I had hit the rock bottom and really needed help. So I turned to God and I began to make changes in my life. Serious changes. But the eating disorders were the real stronghold for me.
"I had gone to nursing school after coming to Christ. I was a cocktail waitress before. So I was making this major shift from this low-level living I was doing to a healthier way, but it was a real fight."
Elam met her husband, Craig, in church, got married and graduated from nursing school. She had successfully beaten many of her vices, including the use of cocaine, but she continued to battle anorexia and bulimia.
Those diseases contributed to what became a seminal moment in her life.
An ice storm crippled Atlanta in January 1988, keeping everyone hunkered down at home. Except Elam.
"I was so addicted to running, I stubbornly went out for a run," she said. "This was when I realized that my running was out of control. Nobody was outside but me. I was the only one out there and I just started to cry.
"The running had become a cruel taskmaster. It wasn't fun anymore. It was like I had to go."
A mile away from home, Elam was overwhelmed.
"I recognized that I had crossed the line," the 46-year-old said. "I started to cry and I literally was praying while I was running for God to help me stop. Because I couldn't stop on my own.
"A few minutes after I prayed, I slipped and fell. And I shattered my leg. I broke the ankle on both sides."
Elam, of Norcross, holds up the well-worn X-ray. It looks like a hardware store. Part of the reason the break was so bad was that the lack of calcium in her diet, as a result of the eating disorders, weakened the bones.
"I'm not saying God knocked me down," Elam said. "But he let me fall and it was to set me free."
She sat in a snow bank for about 10 minutes, knowing her ankle was broken, before a woman driving home from the airport passed by. Elam flagged her down and was immediately taken to the hospital where she had emergency surgery.
The doctors told her husband afterward it was worse than they thought going in and she would never be able to run again.
"My husband, who is a man of faith, said, 'Honey, they say you're never going to run again, but I don't believe that,'" Elam said.
She started working out before the cast was off and kept working as a nurse at Piedmont Hospital during the healing process.
"Four months later, after I got my cast off, I went back to where I fell and I rededicated my running to God," Elam said. "I wanted it to be used for good and not selfish
Elam got a running coach, who not only taught her the right way to run, but asked her to help out as a nurse at his running camps.
"He noticed a lot of the young girls were having trouble with eating disorders," Elam said. "Because I had them, I was able to relate. So good was coming out of it.
"But the amazing thing was in about a year and a half, I started winning 5K and 10K races. I was able to run a mile in 5 minutes and 8 seconds. I'd never run like that before I broke my ankle. I was so humbled by it and I knew it was because of God's grace giving me a second chance."
Elam has run the Boston and New York marathons, but she has challenged herself again with triathlons. Her husband has long been involved with Team in Training and encouraged Lynn to try one. She was resistant at first.
"So he saved money in a sock in a drawer and paid cash for a bike," Elam said.
It wasn't just that she didn't have a bike before that. She couldn't swim either. But her sons were on a swim team and Elam asked the coach if she could use the pool to swim laps.
"I could not do one lap - the running did not translate," Elam said with a chuckle. "So that was baby steps. Everything I've done has been baby steps in the right direction.
"After three months I was able to do 80 laps without stopping. I just persevered through all the negative thinking, the 'I can't do it.'"
Her first race was the Acworth women's triathlon, and Elam's experience there is why she's doing the Iron Girl today.
Elam runs with a verse of Scripture printed on the back of her shirt. It's not large writing, so you have to be close to read the words, "I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me." Elam isn't trying to push her beliefs on anyone else - most of the time she doesn't even know anyone is looking at her back.
"It's not in large crowds, it's people one at a time, inspiring them to overcome," Elam said. "Because we all have things to overcome. I understand."