So I have an increasing number of tri friends who are falling pregnant or who already have kids and are trying to balance life as both good triathletes and good parents. A lot of them are doing long distance races which require longer sessions and earlier starts. There’s no denying that it’s damn tough. There are a handful of pros who are also parents but often we forget that they have extra help or that they don’t also have to manage full time jobs around sport and family.
Now, I can’t give you any advice on how to manage it all because I don’t have a family myself. However, what I can do is give you the point of view of a person who grew up with both parents racing tri’s. I am an ‘ironchild’- one of three kids in a family who grew up with both parents racing varying distances of tri’s (including ironman) all over the country and also internationally.
My mum ran her first marathon when she was still breastfeeding me, to give you a bit of an idea of what I was in for. As a kid, lots of the memories of my parents involve them being sweaty a lot and of me being involved in their training one way or another. I was used as a bench press weight on the loungeroom floor by my dad whilst watching bananas in pyjamas on TV. I copied mums stretches on the front verandah and wrapped my ankle in a bandage so I could be like her and look like a runner. I walked on Dad’s back (not infrequently) – thinking I was playing a fun balancing game when actually I realise now I was giving a free massage. He paid for it by it usually ending in all three of us jumping up and down on his spine trying to push each other off like on gladiator- sorry Dad.
In primary school one weekend Dad dropped us off at the cinema and bought us tickets to two sequential movies and a kilo of popcorn so that he could go for his 6 hour ride. Pretty sure there was an element of “don’t tell your mother” in that arrangement as well. It wasn’t uncommon for mum to drop us off at the bus stop for school, get on her bike and ride for the whole day and then pick us up in her kit having just got in the door. Mum, I’m sorry for complaining that I was tired after a ‘long day’ at school! I’ve eaten growling dog bars as an afternoon snack, been embarrassed by Dad picking me up from ballet in his lycra, and waited for Mum at the top of the driveway with a towel and an umbrella because it started storming while she was on her long run. Often we would go out as a family and the kids would ride bikes while mum and dad got their long run in. Despite triathlon being around us all the time and inadvertently playing a large role in our lives, our parents never tried to push us into sports or get us to become the next big thing in triathlon. We thought that what they did was just normal, and didn’t think twice about it. They did a lot of races, and we liked it purely because it usually meant we got to eat a sausage sizzle and drink Big M’s whilst they were out there doing their thing. As we got older there was definitely an element of being proud that our parents were fitter than everyone else’s, and that they could play with us and take us on hikes when some peoples parents just sat at home on the couch and watched TV for fun. Seeing our parents outside so often definitely helped develop our love for being outdoors and our need to be always doing something adventurous.
We went to a lot of the Gatorade triathlons down at Elwood and St Kilda, and I never really appreciated how good they must have been but Mum was rarely not on the podium. When she qualified for worlds and got the green and gold suit we were a bit more impressed- tough crowd hey! These days I find it difficult to get my own shit together on race morning, let alone to have to get three kids under 10 ready for a day of spectating. Luckily I was a pretty bossy older sibling so had the other two under control once the start gun went, but getting us up and out the door so early was definitely no mean feat. I remember one year we went across to Geelong for the olympic tri. It was one that Mum had to get on the podium in order to get a spot for olympic worlds, so it was a big deal for her. Both parents were racing so stress levels were running extremely high. Dad had been in charge of booking accommodation and because he had waited so long everything was sold out. Classic! In the end we got a camping spot…not ideal. On race evening we pitched our tents and sat around a small fire because it was freezing. It was the easter long weekend so all three kids were also anxious, but more about whether the Easter Bunny would still come in Geelong. After we all finally went to sleep, Mum got up and put out easter eggs around the campsite for all of us and went back to bed. She was woken up again at 2am because the smallest family member had wet the bed (in Dad’s tent- but he didn’t want to deal with it.) That morning we got up in the dark, the whole campsite was freezing and covered in frost but we were running around high on Easter eggs. How Mum managed to come in third that day and punch her ticket to worlds I will never know. So legendary. That day was also the first time I ever really wanted to do triathlon. I had always thought it was just something that mum and dad did. But then I saw Emma Snowsill (now Frodeno) run past like lightning in the Aussie colours, overtaking a pack of boys, and I thought “Yep, I want to be her!”
The first full Ironman I ever went to was my Dad’s first one at Forster- which has now been moved to Port Mac. I was old enough by then to really understand what he was in for. I remember walking around outside transition and seeing the river they had to do the swim in. I distinctly recall feeing nauseous because I was so nervous for him and also thinking, “thank God it’s not me about to get in there.” I think I might have even told him that, which I’m sure he would have appreciated. That night we were at the finish to watch him run down the chute and I was absolutely captivated by the energy of that place and the event as a whole. It was like there was magic in the air. They had rows of tiered seating either side of the finish and people were cheering and partying long after the sun went down. I was still pretty young but I was nearly in tears watching dads face as he crossed that line after a hard day out on the course. I remember Mum telling me that I could do that one day too if I put my mind to it. She might not have realised at the time but she planted a seed that has been steadily growing a bit bigger every year since.
We mostly grew up completely oblivious to the fact that the amount of physical activity our parents did was bordering on insane. We just thought it was normal to swim/bike/run every day of the week and didn’t think much of it. We never felt like it impacted on the time we spent with our parents, and if anything we got to do more active things together. Watching them sweat onto a pile of towels on the wind trainer in the shed taught us the value of working hard to achieve our goals. Certainly one of the main things I learned and have carried with me is the notion that it is indeed possible to fit sport around busy lives. These days when my single, childless, uni student friends tell me they are “too busy” to exercise I just cant believe it!
So don’t think you have to completely give up sport when you have kids, or that ironman/tri training will take you away from spending valuable time with your kids. We loved those long bike rides, the atmosphere of races and the places we got to travel to for “holidays.” We watched our parents set goals for themselves and smash them, we saw their hard work and dedication and we soaked it up like little sponges. Mum and Dad, you didn’t ever force us into triathlon or any sport for that matter, but each of us has developed this unwavering need to go faster, further and push ourselves in any endeavour to see just what we can achieve. An iron-parent is one of the best role models a young child can have, and I’d encourage anyone with young kids to involve them in your sport, rather than try to keep them seperate. Teach them how to challenge themselves to achieve things they never thought possible, and get out there and show them that you aren’t afraid to do that either.