Teachers and school bus drivers were among the first to notice that Jennifer Ticknor was disappearing in plain sight. "I've had two of her kids in my class, and I didn't recognize her," confessed Mary Fischer, a kindergarten teacher at Kenai's Mountain View Elementary.
Last month, her own father failed to realize who she was. Ticknor herself sometimes gets a jolt when she walks in front of a mirror and wonders how a stranger got into the house.
Ticknor, 33, is a real-life version of the incredible shrinking woman.
Less than 10 months ago, the mother of four weighed 235 pounds. A mere trace of that woman -- 152 pounds, with the weight still coming off -- showed up at Sunday's Alaska Gold Nugget Triathlon, the race that inspired a strict seven-days-a-week training schedule that transformed Ticknor.
"She's gone down a whole person," marveled Kristin Morrow, another Mountain View teacher who watched the pounds melt away every week as Ticknor reinvented herself.
The triathlon was Ticknor's first, and it provided a grand stage for her racing debut. The race is one of those no-men-allowed affairs that give women the royal treatment at the finish line, where every finisher is greeted with cheers, and sometimes tears, whether they're fast or slow, big or small, young or old.
As Ticknor ran under the colorful balloon archway that marks the finish line Sunday, she looked swift and lean. She finished in an unofficial time of 87 minutes, a respectable result for a first-timer in an event that combines a 500-yard swim, a 10-mile bike and a 4.1-mile run -- and a phenomenal result for someone who, just last summer, couldn't walk to the end of her driveway without getting winded.
Ticknor was all smiles as she hugged her husband and her mom. Her four kids were back home with relatives, waiting, no doubt, for a text message telling them how mom fared. After all, the kids -- Dezmond, 11; Timothy, 9; Mickinzie, 7, and Isaiah, 4 -- are the real reason Ticknor decided to change her life last Aug. 4.
A DAY TO REMEMBER
She remembers the exact date, "because anyone would remember the day their eating, their life, everything they live for, changes," Ticknor said. "I decided on August 4th to go to the pool and get across it. I thought, 'Please God, just get me through 50 yards.' ''
At the time, her husband was a few months into remission for lymphoma. Chemotherapy had left Tim Ticknor weak and disabled, and Jennifer wasn't exactly the picture of health either. She had developed gestational diabetes while pregnant with Isaiah and it never went away, plus she had other health problems, some related to her eating habits.
"My weight was between 235 and 245 pounds and I had just gotten through watching my husband go through those terrible rounds of chemotherapy," Ticknor said. "I thought, 'If your husband dies and you're all that's left, what's gonna be left for your kids if something happens to you?'
"I had no intentions of all this happening. I thought if I lost 20 or 30 pounds I'd be healthier and I'd be OK. I just wanted to be healthier. It didn't have to be something major. But once I heard about the triathlon ..."
She turned into a machine on a mission. She vowed to exercise every day, keep track of her calories and change the way she eats. Soon a little bit of swimming turned into a whole lot of swimming, a whole lot of biking and a whole lot of running.
The results were immediate. Her first week in the pool, Ticknor lost seven pounds. By the end of August, she'd lost 23 pounds. By Christmas, she'd lost 65.
"She was just falling out of her clothes within a month," her husband said.
With Tim Ticknor physically unable to work and with Jennifer staying home to take care of him and the kids, the family's income is limited. Jennifer can't afford new clothes every time she moves down a dress size -- something that happens almost monthly -- so she pays frequent visits to the LeeShore Center, a women's shelter that has a closet of used clothing for women in need.
"I call it borrowing, because I bring it back later," she said.
NO STOPPING NOW
Later this summer, Ticknor plans to run the LeeShore 10-kilometer run, a fundraiser for the center, and she's already collecting sponsors. It's her way of saying thanks to the center for opening its closet to her, and of saying thanks to the city of Kenai in general. She said she's found unlimited support in her fitness quest.
Her former high school swim coach agreed to help her in the pool, a teacher at Mountain View helped her cross-train so she could take on a triathlon and a middle school teacher coached her in the weight room. A friend from high school loaned his racing bicycle. Grace Brethren Church followed her progress and cheered her on. And during the school year, Isaiah's Headstart classmates gave her a daily goal to shoot for every school day.
Part of Ticknor's four-hour early morning workouts during the school year included taking Isaiah to the bus stop in a trolley hitched to her bike. She'd drop off Isaiah and then head home on a route that temporarily kept her on the same streets as the bus, and each day the children turned things into a race.
"As we'd go down the road they'd have three or four stops. They'd stop, and I'd catch up and pass them, then they'd pass me again," Ticknor said. "They're always excited that they always beat me."
The little kids may not have noticed that Ticknor was melting away before their eyes, but the bus drivers did, and so did the teachers.
"It's kind of become a city event," she said. "It takes a village to raise a child -- and apparently a triathlete as well."
But no matter how much help she gets, it's up to Ticknor to do the work. She's the one who gets up when her alarm clock rings at 4 a.m., signaling the start of a daily, four-hour workout. She's the one who counts her calorie intake every single day. She's the one who only drinks water, and who seldom uses a car anymore.
People ask Ticknor her secret is, and sometimes when she tells them, they get miffed. "They think you take a magic pill," she said. "They don't take you at your word."
She's here to prove that you don't need a magic pill to go from fat to fit in less than 10 months. She did it with willpower, supportive friends and family, and a desire to join 1,400 other women in Sunday's Gold Nugget Triathlon.
"This has been fun," Ticknor said. "I didn't expect it to be so much fun. It's all about goals -- and if you tell enough people you have a goal, then you have to stick with it.
"I think everybody ends up at a point in their life where they say, OK, this is it, whether it's quitting smoking or going to church. You may have been contemplating it, but then comes a day when you say I'm gonna put my toes in the water."
Find Beth Bragg online at adn.com/contact/bbragg or call 257-4309.<