At 40 years old, Charlotte Mahan decided she did not like what she saw in the mirror and needed to make a change. That change came in the form of a triathlon.
A short 27 years later, Mahan, who retired five years ago from Lenoir City Schools, is still running, swimming and biking her way through the grueling races.
"I thought, this is really good," she said. "I lost like 17 pounds and all of a sudden you could see muscle again. It makes you change the way you eat, it changes so many things."
She has won two world championships along the way for off-road triathlon, both for the women's 65 and over division, with the most recent coming May 19 at Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham, Ala.
"The International Triathlon Union, which is the governing body for triathlons worldwide, just started putting on off-road tris this last year," Mahan said. "The one they did in Spain last year was rinky-dink. You could have ridden a bike you ride around town on that course because they just mowed through a field. The people from the United States said we need to get them over here and show them what a real off-road race looks like."
Mahan finished the race with a time of five hours and four minutes, her best on the course by 25 minutes. She credits a new bike.
"Some brilliant person out in California decided maybe 29-inch wheels would be better (than 26-inch)," she said. "When you come up to an obstacle, the 29-inch wheel just rolls over it easier and when you hit it on the 26-inch you have a lot more speed and strength to get over it."
As the only woman in her age group in the race, all Mahan had to do was finish, but she said she really wanted to do more.
"That's not the mentality," she said. "You want to beat your previous best time and beat somebody else just to prove that you're not the oldest and slowest. I accomplished both of those goals."
Mahan was able to pass a woman running in the 50- to 54-year-old age range - once on the bike course and again in the running stage.
"Since I'm at least 12 years older than she is, if not more than that, I thought I did really well," she said.
What also made the race a special one was that Mahan got the chance to represent her country. The ITU requires all runners to wear the uniform of their country to compete.
"It's like national pride, everybody's there and it's a little bit more emotional because you realize you're actually competing as part of a team rather than just for yourself," Mahan said, taking the top she wore in the race from a bag to show it off. "It was really cool."
Her first world championship came at a 2010 race in Hawaii.
"Winning that first championship was unbelievable," she said. "I had crashed three times before and not finished that race."
Mahan will return to Hawaii in October to race what will be a different course, which Mahan said means she hopefully won't come home with any scars. She has also traveled to Australia, Canada and France, a trip she said was quite memorable.
"That was an adventure because I don't speak French, I don't know anything about French," Mahan said. "My husband was supposed to go, but he just started a new job and wasn't able to go, so I had to go by myself. I mean, I'm a little small town girl and I used to be afraid to cross the street by myself. So going to France by myself, where I don't know the language, that was something that was quite an adventure for me."
Mahan memorized what some words looked like so she could read road signs while driving in a car she rented and find places to stay, which were not arranged beforehand.
"Here I am driving through France by myself," she said. "I don't have a clue. I've got this map and a book that says 'France for dummies'."
On the way back, forgetting new regulations in place for transporting liquid on planes, Mahan lost three bottles of wine to customs because she was afraid they would break in her suitcase.
"I go bopping up to customs," she said. "He takes them out and puts them in a bin. I lost my souvenir wine from France."
It wasn't until 2006 that she began off-road triathlons, something she decided to do after a knee injury made it harder for her to run.
"It really has been good rehab," she said. "What the trails do and the mountain biking is it builds your core strength. It builds muscle and strength in your legs and strengthens those muscles and tendons around your knees. It helps your whole body stay together longer, I think. I hope so, unless you hit a tree and split yourself in half."
Prior to beginning off-road triathlon competition, she said the highlight of her career was a bronze medal finish at a long-course duathlon in Richmond, Va. She also said she would like to compete in a half iron man competition in Cancun.
"That's an on-road thing, but I have just fallen in love with this off-road stuff and the people that do them," she said. "I figure when I'm 70 I'll do that.
"This off-road stuff is so hard, I can see why there aren't too many people my age doing them. I don't see myself doing this much longer. Certainly by the time I'm 70 I won't have the strength to continue to do these," Mahan said. "I don't want to be six hours doing an event everybody else finishes in three. You can't outsmart physiology. You can work and work and you can cut it back, but you can't stop it. But the on-road stuff, I can keep doing on-road stuff.
"I don't think I planned to do it for 30 years, but it just sort of self-perpetuates."