Steamboat Springs Joy Rasmussen has meant plenty to the Steamboat Springs triathlon community. She's been one of the sport's biggest proponents in Routt County and was one of the main engines behind the annual Steamboat Triathlon, which went off for a fourth time this summer.
That sporting community got a chance to say "thank you" Thursday afternoon, with Rasmussen's friends, family and fellow triathletes crowding together for a surprise party.
"Thank you," was far from the theme of the gathering. Instead, it was "good luck."
Rasmussen said she was shocked but thrilled with the support, only three days before she boarded a plane to travel for what may be the pinnacle of her triathlon career.
Rasmussen, which might as well translate to "triathlon" in Steamboat-ese, is heading for her biggest race, next Saturday's Ford IronMan World Triathlon Championship in Kona, Hawaii.
Triathlon got its start as a sport in the U. S. in the 1970s, the first IronMan being run in Hawaii in 1978. That race quickly became an annual event, and it also quickly became the Everest of the sport.
Variations in distance make it so there's a dozen different ways to run a triathlon today, but the IronMan distance - 2.4 miles swimming, 112 miles riding and 26.2 miles running - still is the gold standard. And the race that begins and ends each fall on Hawaii's big island is the top of the bunch.
It won't be Rasmussen's first trip to the race. In fact, she stumbled across the IronMan in its infancy, reporting on the event for a Maui radio station in the early 1980s.
So much has changed since then.
"I thought everyone was nuts," Rasmussen said. "I sincerely believed the human body was not meant to do the triathlon at all."
She didn't consider running one herself until 10 years ago, and she's been trying to get back for the big race on the big island ever since.
"My first race was in the sprint distance (3.1 miles running, 12.4 biking and 0.5 swiming) and I did really well and finished third in my age group," Rasmussen said. "I placed in all three races I did in my second year, and placed all but one of 11 in my third year. I realized I have a knack for this."
She finally punched her ticket to Hawaii late last year, thanks to her finish at a half-IronMan in Monaco. She won the 50 to 54 women's division and has had her eyes on Hawaii ever since.
Rasmussen boarded a plane Saturday to head to Hawaii, but first, she had to get in one more workout.
She took an early dive into the pool at Old Town Hot Springs in downtown Steamboat Springs, a training book propped open at one end of her lane and her bike leaning near by, ready to go.
She later flew down U.S. Highway 40, riding to Hayden and back before finishing off with a late-morning run.
Preparing for the grueling race is like a job, she said. She put in as many as 20 hours a week and leaned heavily on friends, family and local health experts to get into prime shape.
Whether it was mornings with trainers at Old Town Hot Springs or afternoons working on her bike at Ski Haus and Steamboat Ski and Bike Kare, she said the community has been a great help.
"I worked six days a week, then did weights on my day off," she said.
Training in Steamboat's elevation may be an advantage for most athletes traveling to sea level, but Hawaii's climate has Rasmussen nervous.
The IronMan course sends competitors through the Kailua-Kona Bay, around the entire island on a bike, and 26.2 miles along the beach. The temperature should be in the low 80s, but that doesn't offer much relief considering the island's humidity and the piping-hot lava fields that flank portions of the trail.
Finish line on the mind
She's experienced enough to set her goal as "a high finish," but Rasmussen said first and foremost, she just hopes to finish.
"I thought about this a lot, and my goal is first of all to finish the race. My father died of cancer at the age of 52, and I'm 52 now. There wouldn't be any greater tribute to my dad than to finish this race at 52," she said. "My father will be in my mind the entire time."
After that, she said she hopes to finish in the top 10 of her age group, a classification that includes about 60 racers.
If all goes well, Saturday's race could be the end of an era for Rasmussen, and she eagerly talked of shifting her sporting goals. She still plans to participate in the sport and still wants to play a role in the Steamboat Triathlon, but finishing the IronMan could be life-changing.
"At this point in time in my life, this is the last IronMan I'm going to do," she said. "I want to take up other sports, maybe hike to (Mount Everest) base camp or do things that are more for a cause.
"I want to do things that won't be so much about me trying to win a race for me. I want to do things for other people."
From it being her last big race to the memory of her father, Rasmussen is sure to toe the line Saturday with plenty on her mind. There's nothing she can do about that now, one week before the starting gun.
There's no need to worry, though, she said. As triathlon enthusiasts across the Yampa Valley know, Joy Rasmussen already has done plenty.
"With all athletes, there's a thought process that takes place before a race. Did you eat well enough? Did you train hard enough? Could you have trained smarter? What about those days you couldn't train because of work?" she said. "I'm as prepared and as ready as I'm going to be."