Lexington's Mary Henson said "it was kind of a girls' weekend" when she and six or seven friends traveled to Greenville, S.C., to compete in a triathlon last October.
At first, she wasn't even aware that the half-Ironman also was a national championship event.
As it turned out, it was an event in which Henson qualified to compete for Team USA in the ITU Long Course Triathlon World Championships on Sept. 21 at Weihai, China.
Henson, 59, will compete in the 55-59 age group. The only Kentuckian who will be competing in the event, she qualified by being among the top 20 in her group in South Carolina — there were only nine entered.
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With the help of a recent fundraiser and the use of husband Don's frequent flyer miles, she was able to pay her way to the biggest competition of her life.
She's facing a 2.4 mile open-water swim, followed by 74 miles on bike and a 12.4 mile run.
"I'll probably be the last American, but I'll be in China!" Henson said with a laugh. "I'm excited and I'm nervous."
A lifelong runner, Henson didn't attempt a triathlon until 2004. Swimming was foreign to her even in her triathlon debut.
"I didn't know how to swim. I did the sidestroke," she said. "And I beat a couple of people out of the water. But then my bike sort of blew up when I went over a pothole. I didn't know you're supposed to kind of jump up when you're on your bike. All that stuff was kind of new to me, so my tire blew. I walked it back, crying, so I didn't get to finish."
Henson didn't stay down long.
She credits another Lexingtonian, Hall of Famer Susan Bradley-Cox, for teaching her how to competitively swim.
And in 2005 Henson finished her first triathlon in sleeting weather.
"You would think that that experience you would say 'never again,'" Henson said. "But when I finished, I was like, 'I think I can do this again and go faster if it's not sleeting.'"
In 2007, at 52, she completed her first Ironman-distance event.
She has been preparing for China under the direction of pro triathlete and University of Kentucky graduate Kevin Ryan.
Most Tuesdays, her workout will be a mini-triathlon of 2,800-3,200 yards in the water, two hours on her bike and a half-hour run.
She does much of her cycling on the Legacy Trail, where she has put in about 1,300 miles in preparation for China.
"A lot of times I have to go out by myself on a bike and, the Legacy Trail, I feel safe," Henson said. "I'm not going to get hit by a car. If something happens, there's people walking or riding."
Being clipped on a bike is where Henson feels most vulnerable.
Her only serious triathlon injury, a broken collarbone, came when she was knocked off her bike.
For now, though, she is more concerned about the 2.4-mile open-water swim she'll have to do in China.
"If I can get through the swim in the East China Sea and through the bike, and get my feet firmly planted on Chinese soil, I think I'll be fine," she said. "I'm a little worried about the swimming. Because it's a long swim and I've never gone for a swim in the ocean. You go and play around, but not really swim over 2 miles. It's going to be a first."
During local lake swims, she has been practicing sighting the shoreline in order to chart an efficient route.
When in the water, she also will count strokes between breaths and hum the tune Yankee Doodle Dandy.
She has favorite sayings, too, including "to finish is to win" and "the turtle won the race."
Which is exactly how she'll approach China.
"I have a lot of doubt and some fears, but I'm just going to think about everybody that really believes I can do this ... and I'm going to do it," she said. "I'm super-excited about China. I'm very nervous, too. I just want to finish, and I don't want to be a quitter."