In the kitchen of her Eden Prairie home, Judi Laurence keeps a little sign on a table that reads, simply, “Determination.”
That’s the perfect word to describe what drives this 46-year-old part-time firefighter and mother of three, who on Sunday morning will challenge herself again in the YWCA women’s triathlon at Lake Nokomis in South Minneapolis.
Don’t confuse this with the Life Time Fitness Triathlon, held at the same location last month, which attracted male and female elite triathletes from around the country. This event stresses fitness and empowerment for women more than competition. About half of the 1,000 registrants, including Laurence, have never done a triathlon before, according to race co-director Paul Johnson.
One year after cancer surgery and a leg injury interrupted her training, Laurence’s goal is simply to finish the race, which includes a 500-yard swim, 15-mile bike leg and 5-kilometer run.
“This is a goal I will attain,” she said, “even if my knee is swollen and I have to walk.”
This is what happens when Laurence puts her mind to something. She finally became a firefighter in 2006, at age 42, more than 20 years after she first considered it while attending Winona State. Firefighters she knew back then discouraged her from applying, telling her she was too puny at 5-foot-3 to handle the physical requirements. Laurence, who grew up in Edina, became an emergency medical technician instead.
All those years working in tandem with various fire companies kept that little dream smoldering as Laurence and her husband, Roger, raised three daughters. “It was always high in the back of my mind as something I’d like to do,” she said. Laurence finally went for it after attending a women’s firefighting expo and finding she could indeed carry fire hoses and climb ladders with heavy equipment.
Her sense of accomplishment? Immense.
“People see me in my fire shirt and the first question they ask is: Is your husband a firefighter? And I say no,” Laurence said. (Roger Laurence is the communications manager for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.) “And then they say, ‘Are you the secretary?’ and I say no.”
The triathlon represented another physical test. Laurence wasn’t much of a runner, hadn’t been on a bicycle in 15 years and never even owned swim goggles. But she figured she’d give the race a try after hearing about it in January 2009.
A few weeks later, Laurence felt a lump while rubbing her neck that felt unusually tender. A biopsy revealed it was cancerous, and surgery followed in March. Laurence did not need chemotherapy or radiation and resumed training.
Then in July, while vacationing at their cabin on Lake Roosevelt in Itasca County, Judi and Roger went out on their pontoon boat for a little night fishing. As Roger steered the boat into the dock, Judi stepped off. But her foot slipped and her left leg smashed into the dock, bruising the tibia and damaging nerves so badly she lost feeling in her toes for months. Roger had to fish her out of the water.
“She had a lump the size of a grapefruit cut in half,” Roger said. “That’s what it looked like almost instantly.”
Laurence was still on crunches a month later, when she volunteered in the race medical tent instead of competing. After six months in a leg brace, Anderson needed two tries to pass her annual firefighters’ agility test, a requirement to keep her job. Even now a bruise remains below her left knee and she can’t move her toes certain ways.
“That happening, right after my neck surgery, was very depressing,” she said. “I was in a brace, unable to move, feeling sorry for myself. It was very frustrating, and very, very hard.”
By January, Laurence had recovered enough to consider the triathlon again. The YWCA of Minneapolis put on the race its first two years at Baker Park Reserve in Maple Plain. But the site could only handle 500 entrants, and the demand was so great the Y moved it this year to Lake Nokomis.
“We were leaving hundreds of women on a waiting list,” said Johnson, the former track and cross country coach at what is now St. Catherine University.
“For us, it’s really a way of bringing women together to celebrate their strength. That’s kind of our motto, but it’s really what it’s all about.”
By taking the Y’s four-day triathlon training course at the competition site, Laurence said she has some idea of what to expect, like getting a mouthful of water in the first few strokes of the swim start. Too much, though, is unknown. She has never biked farther than 13 miles, two miles shorter than Sunday’s bike leg, and she wonders if her legs might be wobbly going into the run.
Roger Laurence said he will be proud of his wife whether she finishes or not. But Judi Laurence is determined — that word again — to cross the finish line.
“I think all three of my girls are going to be in town,” she said. “I heard they let people join in for the last two yards or whatever in the run. It would mean the world to me if my girls could join in. I’m kind of doing this for them, showing that a 46-year-old mom can do this for the first time.
“My best friend from Iowa is coming out, and my husband will be there to get the hugs. I’ll be crying my eyes out.”