“I'm not going!” snarled my 14-year-old niece.
It was 4:30 a.m., and my sister was attempting to rouse Madison for a 2-hour drive to a triathlon. Traci, who'd done last year's event to celebrate turning 40, had formed a team to introduce her daughter to the sport. Madison was our swimmer, Traci was the cyclist and I was going to run.
Assuming, that is, Traci could drag Madison out of bed.
In a way, I knew how Madison felt to have her needs – in this case, for more sleep – sacrificed for the good of the team.
I'd hoped to run a late-September marathon, but gave that up to join the family team. Instead of distance runs, Traci emphasized speed work. My running shoes had holes in the toes and my bike wouldn't shift gears – but I spent $50 getting my son's bike fixed so my sister could ride it in the Sept. 29 triathlon at Potato Creek State Park near South Bend.
But I wasn't exactly seething with resentment. New shoes would be wasted on a muddy trail race, and I wanted our team's cyclist on the fastest bike in the family. Besides, my “sacrifices” had hardly gone unrewarded: At 48, I was running faster (or at least less slow) than ever before.
I was a bit wistful to be a mere role player in this triathlon, but at least I wouldn't have to plunge into 68-degree water. That was Madison's job. Or at least that was the plan.
Unlike us, Madison was a swim team veteran. But she was also a teenager, prone to unpredictable moods. She'd only grudgingly agreed to sign up, primarily because she hadn't had time to train during volleyball season but also because – though she wouldn't admit it – she wasn't sure she wanted to go along with her mom's wishes.
As they pulled in the driveway that morning, Traci pulled me aside.
“I stuck my wetsuit in the back, in case she backs out and I have to swim,” she whispered. “Don't say anything to her. Just let her sleep.”
It was still dark when we arrived, but music pulsed through the parking lot. Madison stirred, taking in the gaudy equipment trailers, high-tech bikes and exotic outfits. Earlier, she'd insisted there was no way she'd wear a wetsuit. But after surveying the scene and inspecting the lake, she slipped into the one we'd brought for her without a word.
“I've swam in colder water than this,” she announced, dipping a toe into the water. There was no turning back now.
We'd told ourselves there was nothing at stake here.
“No pressure,” we reminded Madison as she waded into the water. “This is just for fun.”
But as we watched her pass swimmer after swimmer – most of them guys competing solo – we couldn't help getting excited. Traci forced herself to turn away and go get the bike ready, so she didn't see Madison come out of the water.
“Go!” I yelled as she ran, dripping, up the hill to the transition area. She ripped the velcro timing bracelet off her ankle and wrapped it around her mom's, already astride a bike pedal. “Good job!” Traci said, zipping off on Ben's ancient but lightweight Schwinn.
We figured she'd be out on the 11-mile course 40 minutes or so. Instead, apparently motivated by her daughter, she got back in 36:19.
“I think I'm gonna die!” she gasped as I grabbed the timing bracelet and ran off toward the trail.
My lungs were burning by the time I got to the woods. “Calm down!” I told myself. “Control your breathing!”
I didn't want to let my team down. But I didn't want to flame out, either. Just ahead a guy with much longer legs than mine was loping along with much less effort, though he'd already swam and biked. I focused on him, trying to absorb his relaxed rhythm.
The mud wasn't as bad as I feared after an all-night rain, but the hills were grueling. At one point another runner passed me and settled in between me and the guy I'd been following. I was tempted to follow her and let him go.
“Don't do it!” I thought, locking my eyes on my pacer.
I didn't have much left when we emerged from the woods. I tried not to think, just run. Then suddenly we were at the finish line.
“Wow!” said Traci, “You did great! We all did! I think we might have done really well here today!”
Though we didn't have time to stick around for the awards ceremony – we had a family bridal shower to get to – it turned out we finished first in our division. There were only a couple of other teams, but it was still a great feeling.
As we rehashed the race on the way home, Madison fretted over her time.
“It was a lot better than we would've done,” I said.
“You did great,” Traci said, “especially considering you haven't been practicing. You'll do better next year.”
Madison refused to say whether she'd ever do it again. But she didn't hesitate to post our picture on Instagram.