August 28, 2008

Meaningful Miles

By Jessica Marcy | [email protected] | 981-3340

Kati Derrick runs with her shoulders back and her gaze ahead.

Her face is bright red and her dark brown ponytail bounces steadily as she circles the grounds of Raleigh Court Elementary School. As she runs, a large red tattoo on the back of her right ankle flashes up and down, revealing the symbol of the Ironman Louisville, an M shape with a dot on top and a fleur-de-lis.

Her tattoo is loud, but she loves it. It reminds her of how completely empowered and euphoric she felt when she completed the Ironman last August.

The 35-year-old Roanoke mother tries to remember such feelings as she thinks about the pain that awaits her on Sunday: leg cramps, all- over body aches, total exhaustion.

She is in the home stretch of eight months of training for her second trip to Louisville, Ky., for an Ironman, a mega-triathlon that consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2- mile run, to be done in 17 hours or less. Derrick could become one of just a few women in the region to complete two Ironman-length races.

On a recent Monday morning, she runs past a man mowing grass, past her son Eli, 6, who plays on a slide, past her daughter Anna, 8, who sits bored under a tree. Past the jungle gym and monkey bars, she runs.

These days, she struggles to find the time for her intensive training as she recounts in "Kati's Blog: Just my thoughts & experiences as I try to balance being a mom, a triathlon coach and an Iron(wo)man."

As she runs, she thinks about a brown-haired boy named Garrett who died of a rare neurological disease before she had a chance to meet him. She will do the race in his memory, and he's the reason she's training so hard.

In the beginning

Derrick started exercising seriously five years ago, motivated to lose weight after giving birth.

She was 40 pounds heavier, out of shape and envious of husband Paul's long runs. She made a vow to herself: She would complete a 5K run before her son's first birthday.

Running became her time.

She became hooked on the adrenaline of competition, the sensation of crossing a finish line and the mental training needed to get there. She soon added swimming and biking to the mix and began competing in triathlons. She went on to place first in the 2006 Virginia Triathlon Series 30- to 34-year-old age group.

Derrick is now a personal triathlon coach. Before that, she worked as the youth and education director at Christ Lutheran Church but stopped so that she could focus on coaching.

In the living room of her Raleigh Court home, she has a sign that says "Love What You Do" in bright colors, and she sincerely believes she has the best job in the world.

Derrick and her husband had done several short triathlons together when she had a crazy idea: Why not celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary by doing the mother of all triathlons -- an Ironman -- together?

The Ironman began in Hawaii in 1978, and, over the years, the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, has become famous as the world's most prestigious triathlon because of its unique challenges, including hot weather, strong crosswinds and an arduous landscape.

Blacksburg coach Anne Jones Thompson did the World Championship in 1992 with her twin sister, Lynee Krulich, after both received places to compete through a lottery system, another way to gain entry into an Ironman beyond a qualifying time.

"The experience was incredible," Thompson said. "Being a thriathlete, that's the world series, that's the Super Bowl."

In 2007, there were 21 qualifying Ironman races throughout the world for the Ironman World Championship, including in Louisville.

Derrick and her husband were the only two Roanokers to compete in last year's Ironman Louisville.

"When I finished the Ironman, I said to myself, 'Never again in my life do I want to second-guess myself or shortchange myself,' because if I could accomplish that, I could really do anything that I set my mind to," she said.

Racing for Garrett

Derrick imagines this year will be quite different. She now knows she can physically do the race. And she now has the best motivation in the world -- Garrett Campbell -- to help.

Garrett's mother, Renee Campbell, is one of Derrick's closest childhood friends; they grew up together in Harrisonburg. The two remained close through college and were bridesmaids in each other's weddings, but they drifted apart in recent years.

Then, Derrick learned that her friend's 2-year-old son was sick in November.

At 15 months, he began experiencing cerebral atrophy, and his development sharply digressed. He became like a newborn and, in a matter of weeks, he lost everything: his mobility, speech, sight, the use of his hands.

Garrett turned 2 years old July 19, 2007, and was diagnosed with infantile neuronal ceroid lipofuscinoses that August. NCL refers to a group of disorders characterized by excessive lipopigments in the body's tissue.

Campbell cared for Garrett full time until he died in December.

Shortly after his death, she and her husband, Scott, started Garrett's Wings, a nonprofit organization that supports research for infantile NCL and provide help and nonmedical care for terminally ill children and their families.

Derrick started training for the Ironman last winter before she came down with mononucleosis in mid-February. The sick time gave her a chance to reflect about her friend's situation. She wanted to help but didn't know how.

She decided to raise money for Garrett's Wings through the Janus Charity Challenge, a fundraising program for Ironman participants that awards $10,000 to the top fundraiser.

With a cause in tow, Derrick has stepped up her training and said she hopes to speed up her time from 14 hours and four minutes last year to closer to 12 hours this year.

During training in July 2007, she clocked 341 miles of biking, 120 miles of running and about 10 miles of swimming. In comparison, she has done 527 miles of biking, 116 miles of running and 22 miles swimming this July. She logs her personal workouts, which also include yoga, at www.

Still, she says she wants her Ironman to be more about the experience and Garrett than her time.

This year, she's also coaching two other Roanoke women -- Robin Giordano, 41, and Michelle Hartman, 42 -- to do the Ironman Louisville with her.

Jones Thompson, who did the World Championship, said that Derrick does a great job of coaching and that several people she coaches have had strong finishing times in local competitions this year. "Her athletes love her," Jones Thompson added.

Derrick has even started training Renee Campbell for upcoming triathlons, and the two have talked of doing a half-Ironman together in the next year or two.

"There's a lot of hurt and anger, a lot of things that are toxic, and I think that exercise helps to get that out," Campbell said.

In April, Derrick went to Charlotte, N.C., to see Campbell run her first triathlon. It rained and hailed and was a miserable day for a race, but Campbell trudged through it, carrying one of Garrett's socks the whole time.

It was the first time the two friends had seen each other in eight and a half years.

Campbell describes Derrick as her champion, a friend who is helping the only way she knows how.

"What else do you do? You can't take the pain away, you can't bring him back," Campbell said. "She helps me remember that there is still good in the world."

Derrick said she is inspired by Campbell's strength. She asked Campbell to write motivational notes to read during the race. Derrick will wait till race day to read them, but on top of the package is a note that says, "You really will be Garrett's legs. He tried and tried but they failed him every time."

And she's off

As she runs again, Derrick thinks about the past weekend.

She had gone to Charlotte to be with Campbell on the day of Garrett's third birthday in July, the first since his death. She begins to cry as she listens to the song "Chasing Cars" by Snow Patrol. The words bring tears to her eyes: "If I lay here/ If I just lay here/ Would you lie with me and just forget the world?"

She runs through the tears.

She has a lot ahead of her. She thinks about her own children who are waiting for her to finish so they can go home for lunch. Later, she will take them to the pool to play as she trains by swimming laps.

She's dreamed of racing in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, and there are two slots for her age group in the Ironman Louisville. But, for now, it's just a dream. She says that being a good mom while training is much more important than devoting the necessary training time to go to Hawaii.

She stops running and heads home, walking happily with her two children on either side.

A typical training week for Kati Derrick during late July at the peak of her training for the Ironman: Monday: 6-mile run, 2.2-mile swim

Tuesday: 30-mile bike ride, 4.5-mile run

Wednesday:: 1 hour yoga, 6-mile run

Thursday: 2.2-mile swim

Friday: 70-mile bike ride, immediately followed by a 6-mile run

Saturday: day off

Sunday: 15-mile bike ride immediately followed by a 16-mile runTo help Kati Derrick raise money for Garrett's Wings:

Go to and click on "How to Donate." Then, search for either "Kathleen Derrick" or "Garrett's Wings."

As of Aug. 26, Derrick had raised $2,855.

To learn more about Garrett's Wings, visit:

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