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Races for a cure: A 40-something cancer survivor does a triathlon in every state

Jenn Sommermann, a petite, bubbly woman with perfectly-toned limbs, was not always an athlete. When she was 39, her best friend called. “We’re turning 40,” she said. “We need to do a triathlon!” They signed up for the Danskin Women’s Triathlon in Seattle, said Sommermann recently in a speech at L’Oreal Paris’ offices in Manhattan. “And I became completely obsessed.”

Two years later, in 2006, Sommermann got a different kind of call. She had stage III ovarian cancer. Sommermann’s symptoms were so minor that she barely noticed them—five pounds of abnormal weight gain, indigestion, fatigue—all of it could easily be rationalized away. Looking back, she’d had the symptoms for 6 months, she says. “But I blew them off. It’s often said that ovarian cancer is the silent killer. It’s not silent. It just whispers.”

Because Sommermann’s cancer was so advanced, she had an immediate hysterectomy followed by 6 months of chemo. The tenacity that goes with being a competitive endurance-sport athlete helped her make it through the difficult time, she says.

While Sommermann was still in treatment, she came across an ad for the U.S. Women’s Triathlon Series to benefit the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund (OCRF). “When I survive, I’m going to do these races,” she thought. Sommermann did three races on OCRF’s team HOPE, and then she came up with a bigger idea: “I decided to do 50 triathlons in 50 states by the time I’m 50 to raise $100,000,” she says. The OCRF signed on, and since then, she hasn’t stopped running, biking, or swimming.

So far, Sommermann has finished 20 states and raised $28,000 dollars. Her plan is to do 12 states next year, 10 in 2012, and 8 in 2013. She chronicles her journey on her blog, Jenn Sommermann: Triathlete for a Cure.

“I want to use the sport that saved my life to help save others. I race for women who’ve lost their battle, I race for women who are undergoing treatment right now, and I race for women who are yet to be diagnosed,” she says. —Lisa Elaine Held

Support Jenn’s efforts to find a cure and a method for early detection for ovarian cancer by visiting her blog at