An informal race inspires reluctant exercisers to get off the couch and into the spirit of friendly competition.
The Kids' Triathlon illustration
Credit: Trina Dalziel

Like most young people, my daughters, Samantha, age 14, and Annie, 12, are passionate consumers of all things on a screen. They love watching movies and TV shows. They love playing games on their iPods and texting. When the hot days of summer roll in, they often prefer to stay indoors, on the couch, with a screen -- which drives me crazy. Of course, a little screen time is all right; it's almost inevitable these days. But I also want my kids to be active, and that can be a challenge when it's 90 degrees outside.

So I was grateful when a couple of summers ago, my friend Mary Jane decided to organize a neighborhood triathlon for the end of August. She'd always wanted to do a triathlon herself, and she also wanted to give the kids, including her own three, a healthy goal. The element of competition, she figured, would motivate them to get moving. My husband, Jeff, and I were eager to get our couch potatoes involved. The girls weren't so eager, partly because they didn't know what to expect. In explaining the event to them, I tried to make it sound like fun (which I knew it would be!).

The three-part race would start at our friend Martha?s pool, where four kids at a time would swim eight laps for a total of 320 feet. Next, they'd ride a three-mile loop on quiet nearby roads. Parents would be stationed along the way, directing the kids and watching for any mishaps. (Mary Jane had ruled that all participating athletes had to enlist a parent to help supervise.) The ride would finish at Diana's house, where the kids would drop their bikes and run to Mary Jane's, a half-mile away. There kids and parents would gather for a potluck dinner.

Maybe it was the potluck that tipped the balance: the girls agreed to compete in the triathlon. But they did so reluctantly, and only in part of it. Samantha ended up swimming and running for her team, while her friend Tom biked. Annie swam, and her friends Eli and Ryan biked and ran. Well, OK, I thought. Something was better than nothing.

The next year, the neighborhood kids got more serious. In the weeks before the triathlon, some got together to practice swimming or riding. My girls preferred to go it alone. Annie had a special goal: to master the steep hill in the middle of the bike loop.

Truth was, hills terrified her. Riding down our slightly sloped street, she'd often wind up on my neighbor's lawn in a heap. Somehow, she just couldn't handle her bike and the brakes at once.

One thing about Annie though, she likes to win. In fact, she revels in winning. It bothered her to be stymied by a slope. With the triathlon looming, she told us one evening that she was off to ride the bike-loop hill. "Will you go with me?" she asked.

That night, we conquered the hill. "Wow, I can't believe I was so afraid of that," she said after we rode it a few more times. Then she declared that she'd compete in the whole triathlon this time. Not to be outdone, Samantha decided to do the same.

Race Day

On the big day, an enthusiastic field of competitors showed up: 20 kids between the ages of 5 and 13. Given the wide age range -- and the fact that there wasn't enough pool space for everyone to swim at once -- Mary Jane stressed that the main point of the triathlon was to have fun. She told the kids simply to challenge themselves to finish each part. This directive didn't seem to dim the competitive fervor, but it did make it easier for the parents to emphasize safety over speed. After Mary Jane explained the rules, the racers lined up four at a time by the edge of the pool. The youngest and slowest swam first. Annie was in the second-to-last heat. Her strokes were long and graceful, and she was the third to emerge from the pool. She ran directly to her bike without a word. She was one of the first three kids to arrive at Diana's house, where another adult and I were handing out water. All three had the look of serious contenders. Annie didn't even acknowledge me. She just set down her bike and took off on the heels of the two boys.

By the time I reached the finish line, Annie was already chugging down a Gatorade. "Guess what, Mom?" she said. "I came in first." I couldn't help but feel proud. "You did?" I hugged her. "I'm so proud of you." I was proud of Samantha, too, who had finished in the middle of the pack. "Wow," she said, her face beaming and damp. "That was fun." The racers were delightfully sweaty and joyous. And the potluck dinner was a ton of fun, the perfect ending to the event. The triathlon had motivated the neighborhood kids to get active, and it cost nothing. It just took a little initiative and creative planning on Mary Jane's part, plus a few parents to cheer and guide their kids.

For Annie, the race had a bonus: it banished her fear of hills. In fact, she just rode a steep one the other day with friends. My girls will have many more hills to conquer in life. But if they face those challenges like the determined triathletes they are, they'll do just fine.

For a kids' triathlon that stays on course, follow Winnie's tips: Start small. The first year, we had just nine racers. For biking and running, choose routes with light traffic. Enlist at least one parent supervisor for each racer.

Winnie Yu lives with her family in Voorheesville, New York.

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