IronMom: How One Family Came Together Through Triathlon

A daughter comes to appreciate her mother's Ironman habit when she guides her through the marathon portion of Ironman Canada

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My mother is walking forward in the dark. Somehow, she’s still putting one foot in front of the other as midnight draws in.

“What do you want to do, Mom?” I say.

“I want to finish this race.”

We continue, guided by glow necklaces lining the trail and the light reflected off the lake. She begins to say something, pauses mid-sentence, and then forgets what.

All around us are the dark shapes of mountains: a small gesture toward the open sky, spilled with stars. In between trying not to think of the six miles left in this unforgiving marathon, I marvel at the beauty of Whistler, newly home to Ironman Canada.

As we come to an aid station, I jog ahead. “Chicken broth,” I say, “please can someone give my mom some broth?” She picks up a cup of coke.

“You want coke?” I say.

“Oh.” She looks down, confused. “No, I guess not.”

I gently take it from her, replace it with a cup of warm broth.

A man with a stethoscope touches the side of her face.

“It’s OK,” I say, “she’s going to finish.”

“You’re with her?” he asks me, and I nod. He gives her take a space blanket and I tuck it around her neck. “Don’t leave her,” he says, looking after us skeptically.

“That’s my mom,” I say. “I am not leaving her.”

Her name’s Bea Van Horne, by the way. She’s 62.

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When my mom turned 48, she decided to go from average runner to hardened triathlete. She had no interest in little sprints or whatever, her goal from the beginning was to finish an Ironman. Which she did, promptly qualifying for Kona.

That first year, I thought it was kind of cool she was getting in bad-momma shape.

But in short order, Dad took over most of the cooking and most of, well, everything else. She trained at night and was gone all weekend. When she was home, she went to bed early, but still seemed fatigued all the time. She became irritable and forgetful.

When I went away for school, she didn’t notice we sometimes went months without talking. They didn’t come to parent weekends or swim meets, there were no family vacations, and birthdays passed without a phone call.

Meanwhile, she competed in Ironmans all over the world: Brazil, Australia, France, Lanzarote. Dad went to almost all of them. The only time he ever came close to complaining was when he said, “Sometimes we’ll be on the plane, and she’ll have her stack of Triathlete magazines. And every couple minutes she’s reaching over, “John, John, look at this article!” He shrugged, looking sheepish. “And sometimes I just want to read my book.”

While I hated all of it, other women her age were ebullient in their admiration. When asked what had gotten her into it, she once answered: “I was tired of my family taking me for granted!”

The morning of Ironman Canada, my dad and I were up early with the other IMJ team spouses and supporters.

Watching all five IMJ athletes was a complicated orchestration, which quickly devolved into scurrying to be everywhere at once. IMJ’s coach, Scott Jones, had already finished by the time I saw my mom start the first loop of her run. She looked bloated and flushed, but all right.

Waiting for her to come around again, I thought about how much courage it had taken for her to try for another Ironman after not finishing several in a row, all the training she’d put in. Anyone who’s watched an Ironman knows this anxiety: you see your athlete for a moment, then literally hours go by where anything could happen.

And that was when I decided, rather than teeter in anxiety, I was going to get my running shoes and see her through the second loop.

When she came around a couple hours later, she was clearly unwell. She’d been vomiting since mile 7. Relieved to see us and kind of panting, she stripped off her long-sleeve shirt, her heart rate monitor, and some mealy looking bar.

She held my dad’s hand and walked with him a bit.

I showed her a sign on which I’d written, “Go Mom!” and said, “We’re going to do this together. You just have to come find me,” and I ran off ahead down the course.

For the next several miles, I’d run up ahead, wait, then run up ahead again. I’d cheer, I’d dance, I’d make up songs. I’d bribe, cajole, yell, anything to keep her focused and moving forward.

And for a while, it worked. But a person can only run so far without calories or even water, and for my mother that distance is 18 miles.

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The course has an out-and-back bordering the beautiful Green Lake. But it’s an out-and-back, and when your mother is walking and the sun is setting and you can’t even see the turnaround, just a long line of tired people walking or half-jogging, but you know she has to come all the way back — you find yourself thinking about how there are eight miles to go and man it would be nice if she could just, you know, hurry it up a bit.

“I’m so dizzy,” she said. “I’m going to finish, and if I run I’m afraid I’ll fall and I won’t. So I’m just going to walk.” My mother’s eyes were down, her whole body listed severely to one side.

I reminded her she’d had a lead of 1:45 coming off the bike. “If you can just finish,” I said, “you’ll win.”

“Talk to me,” she said. And I did, about hiking when I was little, about books I like, whatever I could think of.

Over the years, my mom has become less strict about her training schedule. She still swims at 5 a.m. and in the evening can look like she’s going to fall asleep into her mashed potatoes. But she’ll move workouts if my sister or I plan something: it’s not quite the same as having her around when we’re making breakfast, but it’s better.

She’s also gotten back into gardening. It’s still dad who answers when I call home, but he’ll just as often say: “You’re mother’s out with her headlamp planting bulbs. I’ll bring her the phone.”

For my part, I had been a swimmer and runner for years, but had always asseverated: “I hate biking. I will never do a triathlon.”

This year I went back on all that, and had a first triathlon season of which I’m extremely proud. On a bike my mother bought me last year: a speedy girl I call Damien. No one was more surprised than me when I finished as the third female at SavageMan 70.0.

But the biggest surprise seems, in retrospect, rather obvious: triathlon has brought my mother and I together. I’ve called her panicking about whether to wear tri shorts or a bikini. We’ve giggled about passing guys in aero helmets. When I told her I didn’t know what to wear when it got cold, she gave me a warm cycling jersey and those funny little booties.

Several years ago, my mom had her first DNF at an Ironman. And then three more followed. My mother hates change, but I had just met Scott Jones and knew he would do great by her. So I made a deal: if she switched to IMJ, I would come see her race Ironman Canada in its first year at Whistler — after not having seen her race since her very first time at Lake Placid in 2000.

From the aid station at mile 20, I could finally see the lights of Whistler village.

We’d been walking side-by-side, but when I saw the first group of spectators, huddled on lawn chairs under blankets, I ran up ahead and showed them my sign. I started yelling and jumping up and down: “My mom’s coming, please cheer for my mom! She’s 62 years old, and killing this race! That’s my mom!”

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And everyone got super excited, they just couldn’t believe this old lady was out there getting it done: beat in body, but somehow smiling lopsided back at them. One woman said, “I’m your age, and I couldn’t be doing this. It’s my daughter who’s out there racing. You are incredible, such an inspiration!”

As we neared the village, the groups of spectators became more regular: some with beer, others with coffee. Every time, I’d run up and scream my heart out for my mom. She would see all these strangers smiling and clapping and yelling for her. It was the only time she was able to perk up a bit, enough even to start jogging.

There’s a last turn before the course begins a looping mile through the village and to the finish. “Mom,” I said, “we’re so close to seeing Dad. He’ll be waiting for you around the next bend, c’mon, let’s go get Dad!” And I hoped silently, desperately, he had found the right spot, that he was still there waiting for us alone in the dark.

It was too dark to see if he was among the small crowd at the corner, but I ran up anyway and started yelling, “That’s my mom!! Let’s hear it for my mom!”

And all of a sudden she was surrounded. My dad was there, but so was all of IMJ, even Scott Jones and the others who had already finished — putting off dinner or beer or bed or a shower to stand here, in the dark, to wait for who knows how long for my fatigue-stricken mother.

Earlier, my mom had confessed that, by surrendering to walking, she was letting all these people down. But as they buoyed her toward the finish with their love and cheers and confidence, it was clear she had done the very opposite.

I’ve thought about that night many, many times. I still cannot explain why she kept going, why any Ironman does. Nor can I qualify my gratitude for every single person, still out there in the dark, who cheered, “Go Mom!!”

Maybe, years ago, she had started Ironman to prove something, as a way to defy her family for taking her for granted. But as night fell, her odyssey became something else.

Every single person she passed was somehow lifted up by her perseverance. The steady glow of inspiration she carried — I like to think it lingered on within each person who cheered for her.

Animated by IMJ and the tremendous crowd at the finish, she ran across that line with a smile to light up the night. It took her 15 hours, 15 minutes: first of only two women over 60 able to finish at all.

I missed 12 years of my mother’s races. I should have been happy she was happy, and tried to understand why this sport was so important to her.

My mom had approached triathlon out of bitter defiance, unapologetic and uncompromising about how it would upturn our family. I wish she’d invited my sister and me to understand the cycles of her training plan. I wish she’d asked what things were important in our lives, then tried not to miss those things.

But what I hope is this: that when my mother thinks of me, if she starts to think about our fights, the times we’ve been embarrassed by each other, the dinner table when I said, “Can you just like stop talking about stupid triathlon stuff?”

I hope she instead thinks of us being together those 13 miles in Whistler. That she remembers one time when she needed something, and I found some kind of — what? love? — and came to simply be with her.

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