One sweet summer before I became a mom, I completed two sprint triathlons. The first, a lovely event in Corvallis, Oregon, included a 750-meter pool swim, an 11-mile bike ride in the countryside, and 5K run. Admittedly, I did cheat on the run segment (by accident - I took a wrong turn and skipped the last half of the route!), but the event was still a great experience that I fully enjoyed. I remember the adrenaline at the start, my nerves electrified as I dove into the pool, how the swim felt almost peaceful as the water dampened all of the noise around me. I loved the little transition area where everyone's gear was laid out neatly and my bike waited for me like an old friend, ready to carry me over rolling hills, past sleepy neighborhoods to the outskirts of the town. Instantly hooked, I decided to participate in another triathlon a few months later. This time, I completed the entire distance and rightfully earned my plastic laminated finishers' medal.
That was 2008. This month, my graduating kindergartener turned six, and my "tri" days feel like ancient history. Though I've continued running, and even enjoyed some fun races this past year, my pace has never come close to the times I pulled off before having kids. I've often wallowed in self-pity over this fact, wondering if it will ever be possible to return to that level of fitness, to run with the same ease as I did seven years ago. To turn back the clock, show the world that, yes, I may be older and a bit wiser, but I'm just as competitive as before. Maybe I need to train harder, or invest in better running shoes, or study up on the latest techniques espoused by famous coaches. Or maybe, just maybe, despite my best efforts, my body just will not go there anymore.
Running has started to feel stale, an activity I still enjoy but can't fully immerse myself in without a certain flavor of disappointment. And this must be why, while surfing Google one random evening last month, I started looking into local summer triathlons. While none of the sprint triathlons fit into our family's schedule, I found a duathlon (run-bike-run) that will be taking place August 1st, practically in my backyard. I researched further and saw that my gym would offer a group training class throughout June and July. The timing could not have been more perfect, as if this event were tailor-made for me.
"I think I need this," I said to K, who immediately started researching bike racks for the car and told me how he and the girls would come to cheer me on at the event. Within days, I had registered for the duathlon, and signed up for the training class, which began this month.
At the first class, the other participants included a trim woman in her 50s who mentioned that she was following the Paleo diet, and a friendly middle-aged gentleman who handled his bike with ease. His daughter, an elite high school runner who averages a 5:30 mile pace, also joined us for the class. All of us would be participating in different races throughout the summer. Our group leader, a trainer at the gym, looked like a slightly leaner, life-sized version of the Barbie "Ken" dolls I played with as a child.
We started off the session with a 10-mile bike ride that took us past a local community college, wide open fields and spectacular secluded homes. In preparation for the August event, I had decided to invest in my very first road bike, and learning to ride it was an experience in itself. The new bike felt incredibly light and almost wobbly, so very different from the trusty, no-frills mountain bike I had owned for more than ten years. As we started the ride, my little legs spinning and spinning as I tried to find a comfortable gear, my thoughts raced just as wildly. Why are they going so fast? Is it normal to be this tired after only 30 seconds of cycling? Oh, this was a mistake...and - OH my God, I'm one of THEM now, I'm one of those crazy cyclists I always see coasting down the roads. Well, minus the rock-hard abs and fancy jersey, of course.
Though I was bringing up the rear for most of the bike ride, once I settled in, I began to enjoy the experience. And I started to understand what motivates those "crazy" cyclists to get outdoors and brave the open road, where the demands and cares of daily life fall away and for a blissful string of moments, you can just be a person on a bike. All I needed to do, all I really needed to accomplish was to keep my legs going while making sure not to lose sight of the other riders in front of me.
When I focused on this simple goal, all of my senses seemed to be at their sharpest. We passed broad swaths of farmland and I giggled when I saw horses wearing what looked like cozy embroidered sweaters. The wind whipped in my face and whooshed past my ears, and I lost count of how many bugs I had swallowed. The scent of lilac enveloped me with its sweetness. The moon was full and pasty white against the early evening sky. (The "day moon," my kids and I like to joke.) In the background, the soundtrack was an ongoing chorus of red-winged blackbirds, their song a single note that is both mournful and unapologetic, a sound that forces you to listen. As if to say, "I am here. I am alive."
My little bike did not disappoint me. It felt so light and nimble, its thin frame and tires providing only a small barrier between me and the ground. With minimal insulation from the earth whizzing below, I felt every bump and rock on the pavement, a sensation both thrilling and terrifying. Every jolt in the road made me gasp as I feared I would fly off the bike and smash into the concrete beneath the pedals. And I felt a sense of terror that perhaps only a parent can understand, the fear of getting seriously hurt and not being there for my kids.
As our ride continued through a peaceful lakefront neighborhood, the aroma of a summer barbecue filled the air and suddenly transported me back to 25 years ago, to some campground in California. In an instant, I'm 10 or 11 years old, hanging around a tent, my skin and clothes tinged with a light layer of dust and campfire smoke. There is laughter, there is food to eat that probably came from a can and tastes delicious. My mom, dad, brother and sister are there. I don't know where "there" is exactly, only that it happened. The body remembers what the mind can no longer grasp.
When we finished our bike ride and transitioned to a run, I looked with envy at the high school athlete. She had handled the bike segment so effortlessly, keeping pace with the leader for most of the course, and now sauntered ahead of the group as we jogged behind her. At that point, my legs felt like one of those wiggly snake water toys we used to play with growing up, and I was mildly concerned that I had peed my pants. I had to admit that I felt slightly bitter watching this girl, with her tan, glistening skin and dazzling smile that came so easily, which I interpreted as the sign of a carefree mind. She was just so young, her body strong and pure and untarnished, not grizzled and gnarled by years of caring for children, of health catastrophes both big and small, or the weight of too much swallowed resentment.
Yet there's a richness and a complexity to the years that separate this girl and me. People and experiences that I'd never trade, because I couldn't imagine my life today without them.
Yes, the past is so comfortable, so achingly familiar and safe, like the cozy blanket you drape across your legs when settling in to watch your favorite Netflix series. And when we focus on what we've lost - fitness, youth, a sense that nothing scary can happen to us - the past always seems infinitely more appealing than the present. But we can't turn back the clock. We can only move forward.
I'm still nervous and excited about the duathlon, and the training leading up to it. So, yeah, I might look into buying some elbow and knee pads and a super upgraded titanium-reinforced helmet (do they even make those??) just for fun. And I've resolved not to beat myself up mentally if I need to stop and take a breather during the event. But I'll stay committed and keep working toward my goal. Because whatever it has awakened in me might just be a part of the past that I can take with me.
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Postscript, September 2015: The duathlon was an excellent experience! As I summed it up to friends, I met two important goals: (1) I survived (finished), and (2) I did not come in last! Even better, now I have a third medal to proudly showcase in my collection.
My youngest daughter turned four this March, a fact that surprises most people when they see her for the first time. At 26 pounds and just over 35 inches, Lily still fits in clothes that would be snug on the average two-year-old. Toddlers tower over her, and her legs barely reach the pedals of the tricycle that our kindergartener outgrew years ago.
Let’s be realistic: I’m only 5 feet 2 inches myself, and my husband is no giant. Our children were never destined for basketball stardom or the state rowing championship. But Lily isn’t small only because of genetics: she was born nine weeks early after a complicated and scary pregnancy, weighing two pounds and five ounces when she entered the world. Lily met the neonatal intensive care unit’s definition of a classic “grower and feeder:” free of the many complications premature babies often face, she simply needed to get bigger.
Fast forward four years to today, and “getting bigger” is still the overriding goal in our household when it comes to feeding Lily. It is the sacred mantra my husband and I hear beating in our heads whenever our family sits down for a meal. If our oldest daughter decides not to eat, we sigh, but it ends there. With Lily, who at this writing is exactly at the 0.37 percentile on the growth chart (that is, compared to 1,000 other four-year-olds, she would be smaller than all but three of them), we don’t feel we have the luxury of letting it go. Instead, the way we nourish our youngest daughter has become the ultimate exercise in deliberate and strategic thinking, designed to get her to consume as many calories as possible. Protein and fats take center stage in her meals and snacks, and whole milk is a staple in our household. I make animal-shaped sandwiches and pancakes cut out like snowflakes, generously topped with butter. My husband has become an expert in preparing protein-packed meals, sneaking almond butter into smoothies, and strategically serving the ground beef and cheese before the lettuce and tomatoes on taco night. We’ve been known to snatch the carrots off Lily's plate so she has no choice but to gravitate to the higher-calorie options.
When our daughter eats a decent amount, we all breathe easier and high five each other across the table for a job well done. When she refuses, leaping from her chair for the seventh time to go play with toys, peace rapidly dissolves and the dinner table becomes a power struggle where no one wins.
“I’m full,” she announces, after two bites of toast, some blueberries or a sliver of cheese.
“You are not,” I respond, taking her into my lap and aiming a forkful of food at her mouth, trying to cover the desperation in my voice.
Sensing we are losing the battle, my husband and I use all the tools at our disposal. We coax, bargain, and wheedle.
“Just three bites, c’mon sweetie, you like this stuff!”
“If you eat one more piece of cheese, you can go play with your toys.”
“Dada would be very happy if you would finish just one half of your sandwich.”
We often wonder if our approach is horribly wrong. Eating therapist and author Ellyn Satter maintains that once you’ve presented a healthy and balanced plate of food to your child, your job is done. Only your child can decide if, and how much, he or she will eat.(1) As much as I agree with this logic, I worry that without our finagling, pleading, maneuvering and planning, our girl would wither away to a mere shell of her already petite self. On the rare occasions we’ve tried calling her bluff and letting her subsist on a miniscule amount of food at dinner, inevitably we will break down, running back to the kitchen after bath time to prepare a hasty snack of cheese, crackers and nuts.
It’s not just mealtime that reminds us how important nutrition is when it comes to our youngest daughter, and how badly we want to get it right. It’s every visit to the pediatrician, when Lily steps on the scale and we hold our breath, waiting to see the final sum, the result of all our tears, sweat and frustration. It’s the casual comments from strangers, and even friends and family, who can’t help but notice her tiny stature.
“Oh, she’s such a peanut!”
“Well, hello, baby! Aren’t you adorable?”
Lily scowls when people look at her and call her “baby,” as if she knows they’re not taking her seriously.
Every mention of my daughter's size brings me back to the pregnancy, to the frightening and unexpected setbacks and the 41 days she spent in the neonatal intensive care unit, fighting to gain one more fraction of an ounce. She came home at 37 weeks, weighing in at four pounds.
I’m still heartbroken that my own body couldn’t nourish my child better during the pregnancy, but I can’t let that color the way I feed and parent her today. I don’t want my worries about her growth to impact her negatively, or give her the sense that she’s not acceptable at whatever size she may be.
Ellen Frankel, an author and eating disorder therapist who is 4 feet 8 ½ inches tall, describes her experience growing up as a short child with loving parents who were very concerned about her height. During the teenage years, Ellen’s mother would prepare daily high-protein breakfasts, and measured her daughter’s growth every month against the garage door, making a pencil mark that never got any higher. Today, Ellen still remembers the mark, calling it a “black spot that I associated with failure despite my successes.”(2)
In a society that often presents mixed messages about food, nutrition and appearance, I’m still trying to find the right balance in the way I approach these issues with my own children. I know that I want my daughters to grow up with a healthy, positive attitude toward food, to think of it as fuel for the fun activities they want to accomplish. I want them to enjoy a little bit of everything as they explore and develop their own palates. But most of all, I want them to know intrinsically that their value doesn’t depend on their physical size or appearance. That life is not about what their bodies can’t do, but what they can do. I think about the role models who can support this message, like the Olympian gymnasts who may appear diminutive but have nerves of steel and strong muscles to match. I smile when I think of Yoda, the small and powerful Jedi Master who famously asked, "Judge me by my size, do you?”
On the advice of our pediatrician, we'll visit an endocrinologist to confirm that Lily's growth pattern isn’t the result of an underlying deficiency that needs treatment. No one is expecting any surprises; the most likely explanation for our daughter's stature is that she’s simply small because of genetics, and she's following her own steady growth curve. If indeed this is the case, the knowledge should be freeing. It will always be tough for me to resist the impulse to control my daughter's eating, to do whatever I can to make her bigger. But I know mealtime will be much more peaceful if I can accept this fact: that no matter how much we plan, strategize and agonize about Lily's nutrition, regardless of how many protein smoothies she consumes or what the number on the scale happens to read today, she will likely end up reaching the size she was always meant to be.
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(1) Satter, Ellyn. How to Get Your Kid to Eat…But Not Too Much. Boulder: Bull Publishing Company, 1987.
(2) Frankel, Ellen. Beyond Measure: A Memoir About Short Stature & Inner Growth. Nashville: Pearlsong Press, 2006.
I'm Gina, mom to two girls, writer, and seasoned coffee drinker.