Anchorage — Twenty-seven years and 99 triathlons after her debut race, Helen Holmes will return to the event that started it all Sunday when she dives into the Bartlett High pool for the opening leg of the Gold Nugget Triathlon.
Much has changed since 1986, when Holmes entered the race with two teenage daughters. She didn't have a bike helmet, so she wore a motorcycle helmet. She misunderstood how swim laps were counted, so she trained by swimming 250 yards and was surprised to learn on race day that she had to swim 500 yards.
She rode a three-speed Schwinn and packed a cosmetic bag -- something Holmes deemed necessary for the swim-to-bike transition.
"I got out of the water, took a shower, combed my hair and put on makeup," she said. "I did, honest."
Holmes was 43 back then. Now she's a savvy 70-year-old who will bring as much experience to Sunday's race as top-seeded racers less than half her age. She rides a sleek Trek Madone bicycle, wears all the latest gear and no longer stops mid-race to do her hair and makeup.
Sunday's race will be her 100th triathlon, and it's not a coincidence that No. 100 will take Holmes full circle. A former Anchorage School District special education teacher who retired to Washington in 1996, Holmes planned her race schedule this year so that her milestone race would be the Gold Nugget.
"When I realized how close I was, I went down to Arizona and did one in February, and then we have a local one in April," said Holmes, who lives in Clarkston, Wash. "I did those so I could do this one in May and it would be my 100th."
The longest-running all-female triathlon in the nation, the Gold Nugget Triathlon is a favorite with scores of girls and women. In its 30 years, it has inspired hundreds if not thousands of girls and women to learn how to swim and has served as a goal for those beginning fitness or rehab regimens.
For Holmes, the Gold Nugget was an introduction to her life's passion.
"I tell you, I was hooked from that very first time," she said. "I just loved it. Only I decided the next time I would try to train a little more so it wouldn't hurt so much."
A handful of years passed before Holmes did her second triathlon, and then it was like a dam burst. She entered the Eagle River Triathlon, the Mat-Su Triathlon, and any other triathlon she could find. She became friends with another triathlete, and together they traveled to the Lower 48 one summer to compete in the Danskins Women's Triathlon Series.
In 2002, the national triathlon championships came to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, not far from where Holmes had retired. She entered and earned a spot on the Team USA age-group team, an honor that paved the way to world age-group competitions in Mexico and New Zealand.
She spent two years on Team USA while in her early 60s, a period when she hit her peak, setting a personal-best in bicycling and getting strong enough in swimming to contend in races with mile-long ocean swims.
These days Holmes swims twice a week, runs three times a week and bikes at least three or four times a week. She said she sees herself doing triathlons through her 70s and possibly into her 80s.
"It's just an emotional thing," she said. "I guess it's my main hobby in life. I just really, really like the people in triathlon."
And she really, really, really likes the Gold Nugget Triathlon.
"It's just a real supportive kind of attitude there," Holmes said. "When I went to nationals in Coeur d'Alene I was the only woman there in my age group who had baskets on my bicycle, and I was kind of looked down on: 'What's she doing on our (bike) rack?'
"That was so not that case with the Gold Nugget. Everyone thought it was so great you did it, that you finished."
And so Holmes will celebrate No. 100 by competing in the race that started it all. Accompanying her will be daughter Kristen, who was there for Holmes' first triathlon all those years ago. The family still has a photo from the 1986 race that shows just how far Holmes has come.
"I'm wearing my motorcycle helmet and I have this big baggy shirt on," Holmes said. "Now I've got all the fun stuff. Oh, you ought to see me now."
Reach Beth Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.