RALEIGH--Nicole Sangastiano has a memento from the first time she ever competed in a triathlon: a number 1 tattooed on her left leg.

The stark black tattoo serves as a Post-it note to herself, harking back to the time, about halfway through last year's grueling Ironman 70.3 triathlon in Raleigh - a punishing endurance event that combines a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike trek and a 13.1-mile run - that she very nearly gave up. But instead she dug deep within herself and found the strength to persevere.

Now "when I look at my legs as I'm cycling or running, it's a reminder that ... we always have one more in us - no matter what it is," said Sangastiano, 32, a fifth-grade teacher who lives in Durham.

Sangastiano was one of more than 2,200 athletes, both professionals and amateurs, who competed in Sunday's LexisNexis Ironman 70.3. It began with a swim at Jordan Lake, continued with bicycling through rural Chatham and Wake counties, and ended with a run through the N.C. State University campus and downtown Raleigh.

Four years ago, Sangastiano weighed 300 pounds and couldn't even reach down to tie her shoes. So she wore slip-ons instead.

But, through a combination of dieting and an ever-escalating exercise regimen, she lost over 100 pounds over the next two years. When her weight-loss efforts plateaued, she hired a triathlete coach.

"Nobody has to do this sport. We choose it, I think, because it is almost like a gift to yourself," Sangastiano said. "You are making a stand for your health every day."

But it's a gift that demands a lot of you, given the intense training that's required.

"There are days that you're tired and you don't want to run two hours or three hours or swim in the pool after a long day of work," Sangastiano admitted.

But Kevin Morgan, 72, of Carrboro - who also participated in Sunday's competition - is a big fan of the training.

"To me, it is more about training than racing," he said. "I race to train rather than train to race."

"It has become for me a way of life," Morgan added. "It keeps me fit and young and focused on my physical health. ... It basically keeps me out of assisted living."

Another participant, Guillermo Tello, 42, an Army master sergeant stationed at Fort Bragg, took up triathlons after he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder following two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan."The discipline helped," Tello said. "It gave me a regimen to focus on."

It also appealed to his intensely competitive nature.

"I'd rather be carried out on a stretcher before I quit," he said.

With a $50,000 purse - including $10,000 each for the winning male and female athletes - participants came from 42 states and 18 countries for Sunday's triathlon.

Spectators, who typically had a personal connection to one of the athletes, lined the final leg of the race along Fayetteville Street.

"It's fun watching them because they work so hard to do what they do," said Amanda Aaron, 33, of Cullman, Ala., as she waited for her husband, James, to cross the finish line. "It's exciting to see them meet their goals."

Alex Kuss, 41, and Becca Anderson, 39, both of Raleigh, were on hand Sunday with their families to root for Meredith Kessler, whom they grew up with in Columbus, Ohio. Seven-year-old twins Milly and Campbell Kuss held a hand-painted sign that proclaimed, "Go Mer/Almost There."

Earlier, on Friday, Kessler, who now lives in San Francisco, took time out to talk to the Root Elementary School first-grade class that includes Milly and Campbell.

Among other things, Kessler - who was tops among the women in last year's race and finished second on Sunday - told the class about gumption. And Campbell was definitely paying attention.

"Gumption means to keep on going and to do your best," he said. "You don't give up."