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Victory in a triathlon isn’t always the fastest time

Triathlete Rachel Johnson cried as she traveled to southern British Columbia for Ironman Canada in August.

“I would get choked up just thinking about being able to participate in the race,” the Spokane Valley resident said recently.

It was more than the drive to push her body to the limit; the 38-year-old had several Ironmans under her belt. It was more, even, than the fact she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer 17 months earlier.

The tears were the result of self-discovery.

“When I first started training in January I told myself I wanted to see how fast I could do it, how hard I could do it,” she said. “I had this thing I wanted to prove to myself.”

That was the old Rachel.

The new Rachel had a different perspective.

“I started realizing it wasn’t the time that was important,” she said, choking up again three months after the race.

“I became very aware, the fact of me being there, was just a huge gift.” She didn’t abandon her time goals, but decided it was just as important to have a good time, she said.

“Driving up …tears would come to my eyes because I was so happy, so overjoyed that I was getting to be back where I was, literally a year after my last chemo treatment.”

Her “Eureka!” moment came near the end of a three-hour run in sweltering heat last summer.

Her thought? “How amazing is it that your body is able to do this? Why does it have to be about time?”

The inspiration came as she was pushing down 32nd Avenue in the Valley.

“I wished I was running somewhere pretty, it would have made a great story line,” she said.

On race day, Johnson took it easy in the 1.3-mile swim and didn’t hammer the 112-mile bike ride. Running is her strength and the plan was to hit the marathon, but she loitered just a bit at aid stations, filling water bottles and thanking every volunteer. She waved back to spectators and through it all kept the ear-to-ear grin that she wore toeing the starting line.

Then came the final five miles.

“I just felt awful … just how you feel at that point in an Ironman,” she said. “I just wanted to walk.”

Then she recalled her Facebook picture; taken by her husband just before surgery, it shows her in a hospital gown giving a thumbs-up.

“That was my drive,” she said, the tears returning. “I told myself, ‘That girl would want you to push yourself as hard as you can right now. That girl would not want you to stop.’ ”

After a pause to gather herself, she added, “I didn’t stop. I kept running. I was destroyed when I got to the finish line. I felt good about that.”

Johnson has checkups every three months and all is well. She still works out about five days a week, mostly running, but her focus right now is school. She’s studying at the community college to be a respiratory therapist.

“Ironman is important to me, I’m never going to give up that lifestyle,” Johnson said. But “I want to grow as a person. I want to help people. I want to excel at all areas of my life, not just one.”

She puts that Ironman mental strength into studying, with her competitive nature making anything less than straight A’s a disappointment.

And she shares her experience.

“I want to give people that hope,” she said. “People said, ‘You’re incredible.’ I don’t think it’s incredible. I had a goal, I wanted to get back.

“I’d rather have not gone through it but in some respects it’s brought a lot of blessings into my life.”

Again, a pause for tears.

“God blessed me beyond anything for me to be where I’m at in my life,” she said. “I’m hugely grateful for it. There are a lot of people that don’t make it, that don’t come out as well as I did. I’m just so thankful to be where I’m at.”