A proud father, coming to terms with the fact he may no longer be the fastest lion in his pride, proposes a father-son off-road triathlon showdown in San Luis

By Gordon Wright

The family, including Ginny and Griffin (on right), in repose

One year ago, I went for a mountain bike ride with my son, Will, that changed my life. In the space of three miles of hardpan Mount Tamalpais fire road, I witnessed the birth of a multi-sport beast, got an unnerving glimpse at my own mortality and saw our family dynamic change forever.

See, Will was only 14 at the time, and yet he was, to paraphrase Phil Liggett, “dancing on the pedals.”  He chatted with other cyclists, popped bunny-hops and mini-whips off berms and generally behaved like a teenager — but he was also pulling away from me at will. Luckily for my pride, his puppy-dog antics sapped him enough that I was able to surge ahead at the end of our climb: a sketchy and steep pitch right at the top of Eldridge Grade, which I cleaned, and he didn’t.

Competitive? Oh yeah. Will dumped his bike after spinning to a halt just shy of the summit and let out a frustrated yelp. I summoned as much maturity as I could, and declined to gloat.

But I haven’t ridden with him since.

Building the Beast

If you could create an Ivan Drago-like off-road triathlete, you couldn’t have a better laboratory than our house. We have eight bikes, two kayaks, a pool, eight surfboards, 40,000 acres of open space trails above our home and loads of free gear from the clients that support my company, Outside PR.

Will has two active endurance athletes for parents. He plays water polo for Drake High School in the fall, building massive swim fitness. He plays rugby in the winter to hone his speed and toughness. In the spring, he rides for the two-time defending state champion Drake High School mountain bike team. He’s a crack surfer, a great baseball player and looks like an Abercrombie model.

Despite all that, I love him dearly.

But his year-long ascent into athletic excellence has been a bit unnerving. I’ve had a bit of success in the endurance world, taking home occasional wins and division podium placement in trail runs, tris and adventure races. The typical post-race comment from your kid — “Did you win?” — has a bit more freighted expectation in our house.

The Ego

My ego (and my profession) are closely intertwined with my self-identification as an athlete. I’ve been a competitive athlete since the 1970s in everything from football to Ride & Tie and while I’m not elite-level by any means, I certainly expect to do well in anything in which I compete.

Watching your oldest son (Will has a younger brother, Griffin, who won the bronze in the distance race in the county track championships, which may lead to another story like this in two years) become stronger and faster than you are is an emotional whip-saw.

My overwhelming emotion is pride: my son is not only a great athlete, but a better human being — and I’m already taking small victory laps in my head for bringing him up well (though that success is more properly due to my saintly wife, Ginny).

But there are other emotions. Passing the torch athletically is not only a stark manifestation of my own decline as an athlete, but of my inevitable plunge into middle age. Like the aging lion, I want to hold onto the pride of the pride for as long as I can. And like an aging lion, I can be dangerous — which led me to Scott Tinley’s website.

The Lion of San Luis Obispo

Tinley, one of the grandest old lions of triathlon, hosts a triathlon festival in central California every fall. Would it be possible to muster the last of my fitness, enter us both into the Extreme Offroad Triathlon and see if this grizzled veteran can hold off the youth and power of his own offspring? To plant my flag into this one, final beachhead and say, “I’m still the King”?

It’s unlikely. Early betting in our house is strongly in Will’s favor (said Griff when he learned about the race, “Will’s going to kick your butt!”). I’ll grant that I can’t keep up with my son on the bike, and he’ll be faster in the water.

But I haven’t put thousands of training and race miles under my hood for nothing. I’ve done plenty of open water swimming, which can even the field between us in Lopez Lake near San Luis Obispo. I suspect Will — who struggles to find the laundry basket next to his bed — will be slower in the transitions. And I can still run faster than he can, especially since I’m also running away from the demons of aging.

The Biggest Fear

For all that, my biggest fear isn’t losing. It’s winning. For as much of a beast as the kid is, his great attribute is that he doesn’t even know it. He utterly lacks the swagger and narcissism of a young jock. He’s a kid that even other kids describe as “sweet.”

As much as I want to summon the glories of my own past, I don’t want to step on the early stages of his. Assuming we post relatively equal times through the first three hours of the race, will it be possible for me to close in on, and pass, the lovely frame of my own son? Which is stronger — my competitive instinct or my fatherly compassion?

October 3rd is the date. A half-mile swim, a 17-mile bike, and a six-mile run.  Every Wright man for himself. The 46-year-old father versus his upstart 15-year-old son.

Both Will and I will be writing again in the next issue of Adventure Sports Journal to let you know how it goes. Will the old man retain his athletic-stud-of-the-household crown a little longer or will his offspring show him who the new king is? Stay tuned.

Gordon and his 15-year-old son, Will, will face off October 3rd in the Off-Road Extreme Triathlon, part of the Scott Tinley’s Adventures weekend, Oct. 1-3, at Lopez Lake near San Luis Obispo. The weekend of racing features four on-road triathlons (long-course, international and sprint distances, plus a kid’s triathlon for ages 7-14), two off-road triathlons (the Extreme and a sprint-distance race), plus two hill-climb time trials for mountain bikers. For details and registration info: www.tricalifornia.com