The Events DC Nation’s Triathlon celebrates its 10th anniversary Sunday morning, and you can bet Hilary Cairns will be at the Potomac River start for the Olympic-distance race, swim cap pulled snugly atop her head.
Cairns, 44, hasn’t missed the event since its inception. In fact, she won the first women’s race and is still playfully waiting former race director and founder Chuck Brodsky to give her the bike jersey promised to the winners.
“There was supposed to be some special jersey that never arrived,” jokes Cairns.
The race is dear to Cairns for multiple reasons. Raised in Minnesota, college educated in Massachusetts, she has lived in Washington D.C. for 22 years and it’s the only triathlon held in the nation’s capital.
“It’s home for me,” she says.
The swim course passes Arlington Cemetery. On the bike, cyclists pedal by the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and the World War II Memorial. The run takes in the Jefferson Memorial.
Cairns has won the race “a couple of times.” Finishing atop the podium is routine.
A serious athlete, Cairns does not take herself too seriously. She pokes fun at herself, pointing out that the only time she was ever penalized in a race came at … The Nation’s Triathlon.
Her error: failure to pick up a water bottle that fell off her bike. She argued that it would have been more hazardous to stop and pick up the bottle. A race official docked her two minutes for abandoning equipment.
Cairns’ athletic background is similar to many age-group triathletes. She played tennis in high school, ran track and played tennis at Williams College, continued running post college, beat up her legs, suffered stress fractures, looked for something kinder and gentler on the lower extremities and a triathlete was born.
Cairns’ story differs in that she dabbled in swimming competitively from about 8 to 11 and cycled for practical reasons.
“I always biked everywhere, to tennis lessons,” she says.
Even now, she bikes six miles to work and home.
“I buzz by cars that sit in a ton of traffic,” she says.
She trains daily, typically running three times a week (one track workout, one tempo and one long run) for a total mileage of about 35. She swims 3,000 yards five days a week. Besides her short daily bike commute, she gets in one 50- to 60-mile ride, plus another hour on her long-run day.
Of her penchant for training, Cairns says, “It’s just what I do. I’ve done it forever. It’s natural for me, like drinking coffee for some people. It’s chances for me to breathe.”
Cairns, you can sense, is a bit of an achiever. She earned her undergraduate degree in American Studies, plus a Master’s in Public Policy. She also earned a law degree.
Cairns is married with three children. Her oldest child, daughter Page Lester, has followed mother into the swim-bike-run world and will be competing later this month at the ITU World Championships in Chicago.
As for Nation’s Triathlon, here’s another reason she likes the event: buoys every 100 yards on the swim.
“If you get lost (on the swim) at Nations, I don’t know,” sighs Cairns. “You need to practice a lot more.”