My husband, George, is a triathlete. Triathletes compete in three sports back-to-back: swim, bike, and run. George started small, doing shorter Olympic-distance races. Then he moved up to half-Ironman races but didn’t feel that was crazy enough. He made it his goal to go “all the way” by competing in official Ironman races consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile marathon. He has attempted four Ironman events, finished two of them, and is “tri-ing” again in September. This makes me his Ironmate.
Pardon me while I pause to shudder over the insanity of it all.
You can just imagine how unsettling it was to watch my firstborn son train to compete in his first triathlon. Nick has never been interested in team sports—a trait that came from my genes, not George’s. I despised P.E. in school and wormed my way out of the physical education requirement for graduation by doing odd jobs for the P.E. teachers…jobs like tacking notes on lockers, grading written tests, and cleaning out desk drawers. No sweat. Literally. I don’t like sweat. It’s too salty.
Five years ago, at the age of four, Nick realized that scoring goals in soccer required drill and hard work, so he quit. He refused to set foot on the field and preferred to horse around on the sidelines, pulling up grass and throwing it up in the air to watch the breeze blow it away. He took swim lessons next but hated having to do what the teacher said. He just wanted to play in the water. Then he took gymnastics but hated doing sit-ups and drills and whatever else the teacher told him to do. He just wanted to jump on the trampoline.
Play is important to children. So are discipline and drill. For discipline and drill to be worth it, however, a child must care about the goal. Soccer, swimming, and gymnastics simply didn't inspire Nick to work. But when George told him that our YMCA was hosting a youth triathlon along with an adult sprint-distance race, Nick found his inspiration. The course for the 7-11 age group included a 100-yard swim, 3-mile bike ride, and a 1-mile run. George asked Nick if he wanted to do the race, explaining that he would have to work hard training for it. Nick insisted he wanted to do it.
George took Nick to the pool a few times and quickly realized his best option for the swim was breast stroke, as Nick’s front crawl looked a lot like drowning. What impressed me during these training sessions was Nick’s focused determination. I’ve never seen that in him for any other athletic endeavor, and my heart practically burst with pride to see him motivating himself to do something hard.
On the morning of the race, George left early to compete in the sprint, and I followed later with the kids. Nick was excited, and in the car, he said, “I’m going to win this race!”
Whoa, Nelly. I said, “Nick, triathlon isn’t about winning. Your dad has never ‘won’ a race. Triathlon is about finishing. If you finish, you win, no matter where you place. Finishing gives you a goal for the next race.” I don’t think he heard me.
We met up with George, who had pulled a muscle on the run of his race but still finished with a respectable time. He wasn’t wearing his finisher medal, and when I asked why, he said, with mild scorn, “It was just a sprint.” I matched his scorn and replied, “You are such a tri-snob!” I suppose when you have finished two Ironman races, a little sprint race isn’t such a big deal. I told him I was surprised he wasn’t wearing his Ironman finisher t-shirt, and he admitted he’d thought about it.
George walked Nick through the registration and set-up, helping him check in, strap on the timing chip, and set up his bike and gear bag in the transition area. Nick, in his baggy, Hawaiian-print, jammers-style swim trunks, looked like a surfer dude, but his competition, in black lycra swim shorts, looked serious.
As Jack and I waited and watched from the sidelines, I kept tearing up behind my sunglasses. My son. Taking on a major athletic event. I was torn between nervousness and pride, and I sincerely prayed he would be able to finish.
Nothing is worse than not finishing.
Finally, the athletes were called to the pool. George, Jack, and I watched as Nick took position about two-thirds down the line. Swimmers would enter the pool at three-second intervals. Nick looked focused, serious, charged to go.
As the first athletes hit the pool, George and I realized Nick needed better training for the swim. Those kids had obviously paid attention during their swim lessons and were wicked fast. Nick got in the water and did well for someone doing the breast stroke against skilled swimmers doing the front crawl. He didn’t panic as people passed him and just kept swimming. Before he came out of the water, George headed out to the transition area to be ready to help him there, so Jack and I were left to watch Nick finish the swim.
Nick left the water dead last by over half a length. I was so worried that he would want to quit, want to give up, feel like a failure. Instead, I snapped this picture as he ran to the transition area.
That’s no quitter.
Jack and I, along with other bystanders, shouted encouragement as we followed him to the transition area. He hesitated when he realized he would be wet for the bike, and stopped to dry his feet and legs thoroughly and to pull on his shoes and socks. He snapped into his helmet and off he went, pedaling as fast as he could.
We couldn’t see him for most of the bike course, but when he came back to the transition area, he was no longer last. He had to walk part of the run course because of a side stitch, but as soon as he realized the finish line was in sight, he pushed hard and ran across the line.
Nick Raihala, you are a Triathlete!
We walked with Nick to the refreshment area, where he chose a donut and root beer for his post-race recharge. He graciously shared his donut with his brother and basked in the glow of a race well done. George asked about the hill on the bike course, and Nick replied, “It was heinous!”
But he did it. And he wants to do it again. In July, we’ll be down in Mason, Ohio, for another youth race. If you’re in the area, come and cheer the young athletes on. Nick will be in lycra swim shorts and sunglasses, just like the other athletes, because George is already teaching him that gear is good.