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Wednesday, July 15, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Steve Christilaw: After 16 years, Valley Girl Triathlon will make its final run

There comes a time in most careers when you have to think about timing and that fragile balance among an abundance of different issues. Health, finance, quality of life – they all come into play when it comes time to contemplate hanging it up.

Walking away isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

Sure, there are times when your body dictates your departure. Hard to argue there.

Unless you just won the lottery, financial considerations often make the choices more difficult to navigate.

A lot of it comes down to timing.

It would be great to retire the way Rocky Marciano and Jim Brown did.

Marciano is the only world champion heavyweight boxer to retire undefeated. The Rock had 49 bouts and 49 wins, with 43 by knockout. After six title defenses, including a ninth-round knockout of Archie Moore, he hung his gloves up at the ripe old age of 32.

That sounds young, but when you consider that he passed away just 13 years later the timing seems about right.

Jim Brown walked away from the NFL as arguably the greatest player of all time. Nine seasons, nine Pro Bowl invitations. Led the NFL in rushing eight times. With nothing left to prove on the football field, he left to pursue an acting career.

More often you see athletes try to hang on too long. Their final seasons are a mere shadow of their former greatness.

Marla Emde spent a good deal of time coming to grips with timing.

Emde and Robin DeRuwe created the Valley Girl Triathlon in 2003, a women-only sprint triathlon that has seen more than 12,000 athletes compete over its first 15 years. On July 21 in Medical Lake, the race will take its 16th and final bow.

Emde announced this will be the final Valley Girl before last Christmas.

“After 16 years it was a really hard decision,” Emde said. “As much as I love watching all those women and watching them achieve things they never thought they would do, it just felt like it was time.”

Triathlons were something new back in those early days, and the lone women-only race in the Northwest was a Seattle triathlon sponsored by Danskin.

“Danskin was a bigger race for a couple years, but it dropped off and then Danskin pulled out as a sponsor,” Emde said. “It was a tough venue – they had to bus women in and out in order to make it work.”

Emde said her goal from the outset was to create a self-sustaining race that did not live or die with a sponsorship.

Instead, Valley Girl set out to give back by educating and encouraging women to try something very much outside their normal comfort zone. They offered clinics and training sessions – concentrating on growing their own athletic base. And they offered a kids triathlon for a half-dozen years to get youngsters started early.

“It’s a little bit like putting on a circus,” Emde said after year three and the circus had grown from 350 participants in Year 1 to 500. “Once you get everyone inside the tent you tend to forget just how much work went into getting that tent up and bringing in the lions and tigers.”

A big part of that circus has been an army of volunteers – volunteers who consistently went above and beyond the demands of their responsibility.

Emde tells the story of a woman who got about a third of the way into the swim portion of the race in one of the early years. She felt overwhelmed and told a volunteer in a kayak that she couldn’t do it and was going to go back to the beach. But the volunteer wouldn’t allow it – sticking with her the entire rest of the way, offering support and encouragement.

When they got back to the beach after finishing the swim the woman broke down in tears and the pair embraced.

There have been so, so many inspiring stories – stories that regularly move organizers, participants and volunteers to tears.

There have been women who embraced the challenge of a triathlon as part of their recovery from cancer or domestic violence or as part of a dramatic weight loss regime. There have been youngsters who got hooked on running and went on to be part of area varsity cross-country teams.

“That’s the most incredible part,” Emde said. “There have been so many great stories over the years. We’ve had a number of three-generation entries over the years. We’ve seen women get hooked on running or on cycling and who went on to do something more specific.”

That’s the truly impressive part of just how groundbreaking the Valley Girl has been: There were seeds planted on its course that have grown and blossomed in so many varied arenas.

“I feel very proud of what we accomplished,” Emde said.

There is a great deal there to be proud about.

In some ways, the triathlon has lost a bit of its luster – with athletes focusing more on the Iron Man series.

After a long, successful run in Liberty Lake, the race moved to Medical Lake two years ago, where there was less of a need to close streets to accommodate the race and the number of volunteers needed was significantly less.

“I have some other things that I want to concentrate on with my life,” Emde said. “It just feels like it’s time.”

But oh, what a time it was.

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