Jesse Thomas shares triathlon lessons from his two-year-old.

Triathlon lessons from my two-year-old

“Come on, buddy, we gotta go! We’re going to miss your race!”

“But I just wanna climb this slide real quick.”

“I promise it will be super fun.”

“Ummmmmmm … Ohhhhkaayyyy …”

I grabbed Jude, my 2½-year-old son, off the slide and ran-carried him over to the starting line of the Ironkids race the night before Ironman 70.3 California. Jude had never “raced” before, and I had no idea how he would react, or if he would even understand the concept. But he and my wife Lauren happened to be with me in Oceanside, and when I saw the super stoked looks on the kids’ faces while handing out medals the year before, I thought to myself, “Jude has to do this next year.”

So there we were, stuck in the mass of parents and little ones lined up in the finish chute to run the ½-mile kids race.

I set Jude down, got on my knees, looked at him and said, “Ok, buddy, this is called a race and it’s going to be really, really fun. We’re going to wait here until that man over there yells, ‘GO!’ Then we’re going to run as fast as we can all the way down the road to where we turn around, then run all the way back to the finish line! Then, you get a medal.”

“I get a MEDAL?”

“That’s right, a medal.”

“OK, daddy.”

With our plans intact, I stood up and grabbed his hand. He looked up at me briefly, then looked forward down the course.

“On your marks … get set … GO!”

Of course, it took a few moments for Jude to realize that we were supposed to go. After a, “Come on, buddy, let’s go!” he started running. Not super fast or determined; more of a bewildered jog. He loped along, looking at all the kids running past him, next to him, in front of him.

We went a solid 50 meters; I stepped back to take pictures and he stopped. “What are you doing, buddy?” He didn’t reply, just looked around, watching. “Jude, we gotta keep going!” Still no reply. I started jogging a bit. Nothing. I turned back to grab him and he says, “LOOK AT THAT CONE!” Then, of course, ran over to a giant orange cone.

He looked down the center of it, touched it, blew into it, all while I tried to explain that we needed to keep going to the turnaround. He knocked the cone over and laughed. I realized, as most fathers do, that I was only digging myself into a deeper hole by trying to make this thing happen. Most of the bigger kids had already passed us on their way back to the finish line, so I pivoted 180 degrees and said, “Come on, buddy, we gotta get to the finish line so you can get your MEDAL!”

He looked up with renewed interest and started running back to the finish line. I ran alongside him, saying “great job,” and about 12 seconds later he saw another cone, stopped, then knocked it over and laughed. 15 more meters, another cone. 15 more meters, another cone. You get the picture. The kid loves cones.

Eventually, we entered the final 20 meters and Jude did something unexpected. He saw people lining the chute, cheering loved ones and taking pictures. All of a sudden, he held up his hand and started asking for and receiving high fives. I know he’s seen me do this the few times he’s seen me race, and regardless of if that’s the reason he’s doing it, I immediately got teary-eyed and settled in behind him to observe and let him have his moment.

It was probably the slowest run down the finish chute in history, but he must have given 30 high fives in 20 meters. He crossed, and within a few seconds, was given a medal. He looked up at me with the proudest look I’ve ever seen in his face and said, “Look at my medal, daddy!” I looked down, wiped my eyes and said, “Great job, buddy. I’m very proud of you.” And I meant it more than I ever have.

Oceanside is a super tough race on many levels. It’s always a stacked field, super early in the year, usually my first race and my closest race to home. These factors give the event a high profile and weighty expectation that always plays on my insecurities like no other race of the year. It’s heavy.

But watching Jude the night before that race lifted the weight off my shoulders. It brought me back to being a kid. There were so many things that he did that are important reminders for anyone racing, but maybe most important for those of us who have been doing this for a while, at a high level and with high expectations. Here’s what I learned:

Race unintimidated. You know what Jude didn’t do? Look at his competitors and think about how he stacked up. He didn’t check out their shoes and wonder how much lighter they were or how much more breathable their sweat-wicking tops were. He just looked down the course and thought about, if ever so briefly, what he wanted to do for his race. Focus on yourself and what you can do; there’s no reason or value in doing anything else.

Enjoy the process. Yes, it was annoying for me, but Jude loved those damn cones and more power to him for checking them out. He enjoyed his surroundings, and soaked it in. It’s easy to get so focused on the outcome that you forget how awesome it is that you’re doing what you’re doing, the places you get to go, and the people you get to meet. Don’t forget that while you’re out there suffering.

Give and receive. There is a literal, even if unexplained by modern science, energy transfer that happens when you give another person a high five. I feel it every time I’m out there, and Jude’s natural desire to do so only cemented its importance. Whether it’s a volunteer, spectator or another competitor, give them thanks, encouragement, and energy and you’ll get some in return.

Do it for yourself. Jude certainly didn’t care what place he got and didn’t even care that he did about a quarter of the course. He had his own goal that mattered to him and he achieved it. In a hyper-competitive sport filled with an over-focus on extreme distances, this was an important and refreshing reminder of what matters.

Eat immediately after racing. Otherwise you could experience your own version of the terrible twos. Jude gave me an awesome reminder of this 45 minutes after he got that medal. Thanks for keeping me on my toes, buddy.