My legs are heavy like sacks of sand and my breath comes short now, almost four hours in. I am supposed to be running, but what I manage is a trot. It seems ridiculous that I swam a mile and biked thirty for the privilege of doing this in the hot sun on the high plains.

Yet no part of me wants to stop, not even my burning quads. I will finish this because that’s what endurance athletes do.

At first glance, the word “athlete” might not spring to mind to describe me. Maybe “mother,” “soft,” or “plump” – and those are the kinder words. What five seasons of triathlons have taught me is that the first glance gives little indication of the heart within. In my triathlon club, Karma Multisport, women from twenty-something to seventy-something train and race and celebrate together. It doesn’t matter how fast any one of us is, what matters, entirely, is the heart within each of us. I am inspired by these women, especially the ones I learn have also endured illness, injury, and loss – which is almost everyone. What these women are able to bear and to carry with them through the miles makes them unspeakably beautiful to me. I am a white American woman of privilege, and I have also endured many things in my nearly fifty years that would surprise you, including hunger and fear and violence, thankfully in smaller doses than many. Still, I carry these experiences with me, my Girl Scout badges of endurance. You can’t see them, and I rarely talk about them, just as when a race is finished I don’t focus on the way my foot started hurting two hours and fifty-three minutes in. I focus on the feeling that flooded me when I crossed the finish line.

What if we women could value the ability to endure like we value beauty? We would celebrate the woman who cared for her ailing parents for ten years, the woman who lived through starvation and violence in a Congolese refugee camp, the woman who worked two full-time minimum wage jobs and gave up sleep so that her children could eat. If we could value them, could we learn to value this quality in ourselves? To make living through, maintaining, moving forward more important by far than a smooth jawline or a perfectly plucked eyebrow arched in judgment? Let’s learn to bank the fires in each other, as my coaches and teammates in Karma do for me, rather than pick apart the physical flaws, the weaknesses, the apparent beauty or lack thereof. Let’s value the ability to endure, to recognize it in ourselves and to celebrate it in other women. Because — let’s face it — we have to keep moving forward. What other direction is there?   Rebecca Arno is vice president of communications for The Denver Foundation (www.denverfoundation.org), a community foundation serving the seven-county Metro Denver area.