When I was a kid, inspiration came from a box.
We watched elite athletes on TV and tried to do what they did — until we discovered we couldn't.
Now it's more like a game of tag:
One friend tags me with the urge to do a triathlon. I tag another friend, who's since done two.
I didn't realize our metabolically challenged 9-year-old was even in on this game — and now she's tagging people all over the world.
No one expected much from Colleen at Bluffton's Iron Kid Triathlon on July 21. Though some kids know her as an all-star first baseman — the only girl in the league — she's not exactly known for her speed. It was probably hard for them to picture her running all the way around the bases, much less a lap around the 4-H Park where the event was held.
She completed her 50-yard swim, left the transition area without a glitch and peddled off on the bike course, a 1.17-mile route through nearby blocked-off streets. We walked from the pool to the park next door to await her return for the .67 mile run.
We waited. And waited. And waited.
Finally, we saw her coming. Only she wasn't riding her bike. She was pushing it — gushing tears as she jogged slowly along beside.
Her chain had come off almost as soon as she got out of our sight. A volunteer tried to help, but it obviously wasn't going to be a simple fix. Determined to finish, she took off running with the bike in tow.
“Honey, let's just forget the run,” I said. “C'mon, let me help you with that.”
Colleen shook her head.
“No,” she gasped. “You took off work to come here. I'm going to finish!”
I winced. Yes, I'd played that card a time or two, reminding her that if a kid triathlon was worth skipping work for, it was worth training for. She'd been busy with baseball and swim team, and had only recently started jogging and biking. She knew she could make it, but just barely.
“Colleen, you've already run over a mile!” I said. “You don't have to prove anything here. You've got an equipment malfunction. It's OK.”
She didn't say anything. Just parked her bike, unbuckled her helmet — our helmet, the one I used in my triathlon and that we now shared — and trudged off toward the running course.
I ran off to grab some water and caught up shortly afterward. Parents weren't allowed to accompany her age group during the run, but the bike cop escorting her — the only kid still left on the course — told me to come along.
“Colleen, you don't have to do this,” I said over and over, as the bike cop filled me in on her ordeal. (He'd offered her his bike, but it was too big.)
She just kept plodding along, huffing and puffing and reaching for the water bottle every so often.
“You don't have far to go now,” the cop said as we rounded the last turn. “You can do this!”
Remarkably, she managed to speed up as she neared the finish line — where, just as remarkably, several people had stuck around to cheer her on.
“Right after I crossed the finish line, it felt like I couldn't breathe,” she said later. “It was like my lungs were stuck.”
She was still wheezing when she went up on stage to get her finisher's medal, proud yet embarrassed as the race director told how she'd persevered.
It was a gutsy performance by an Iron Kid who proved she belonged after all.
Since then, her Iron Kid saga has inspired triathletes of all shapes and sizes, from Australia to Saudi Arabia.
“If I'm ever having a bad race, I'm going to say, 'If Colleen can do this pushing her bike, surely I can do it,'” wrote Elizabeth, a Long Island Olympic-distance racer who shared Colleen's story on her blog.
And now the tag-backs begin:
Colleen wants to be my swim coach for my next triathlon. I didn't know I was doing another triathlon. The only one that fits my schedule is nearly two hours away, and I'd hate to pay for a hotel.
Then a friend who I tagged back in May tells me how she woke at 3:30 a.m. to drive to her last triathlon. And I think, “I could do that.”
If she can do it, so can I.
Pass it on.