Father-son showdown turns into a transformative event — and a springboard to stardom

By Gordon Wright

At what point will you get your butt kicked by your own child?

I suppose it’s different for every active family, though my father offered little in the way of benchmarking. He was an egghead — a myopic lawyer with Mr. Magoo coordination; a man who considered a vigorous martini shaking to be a good workout. By the time I was 12, I couldn’t play catch with him for fear of bouncing a fastball off his chronically distracted dome.

But like Death and Taxes, the Intergenerational Beat Down is a certainty, even for the most competitive and active parent. As I wrote about in the last issue of ASJ, my day was nigh: more than a year ago, it became painfully apparent that my 15-year-old son Will was by far the strongest mountain biker in the family.

There’s no shame in that – in the spring of 2010 he was ranked among the top 20 high school freshmen in the state in mountain bike racing. He also plays water polo for his high school, thus moving me down the family podium in swimming as well.

But as a doting father, I felt that Will needed a graduate-level introduction to multisport racing and that maybe my stronger running would level the playing field. I knew he’d be good at triathlon, and it would be nice to see him kick someone else’s butt for a change. Plus, as a sweet kid whose chronic niceness sometimes got in the way of his own athletic success, he’d gain some serious competitive confidence if he did well.

Thus: triathlon. Especially, off-road triathlon. Specifically, Scott Tinley’s Extreme Offroad race on October 3rd, which is about as hard a short race as you can find on the West Coast. We had come to the race not only to compete against each other and test the current limits of father and son fitness, but to see if Will’s catholic taste in sports could all be summoned into one shining example of confidence-boosting excellence.

“But what if he doesn’t do well? What if you manage to catch him? What are you going to do, pass him?”

These questions were lofted by my wife as I packed up to head south toward San Luis Obispo. In a typically male example of emotional cluelessness, I dismissed her concerns, blithely putting my son’s sporting confidence up for grabs, in a sport in which he’d never competed.

We got to San Luis the afternoon before the race, picking up our race schwag before wedging in a nice surf session at Pismo Beach. A fitful night of homework and sleep in a local motel led to an early wakeup call that got us to the race site at Lopez Lake with just enough time to spare to prep our transitions, get a little food in us and suit up. For someone who had absolutely no idea what he was getting into, Will looked completely composed — informed, no doubt, by the thousands and thousands of yards he’d put in at early-morning pool workouts.

Terry Davis, the Tri California impresario who runs such benchmark events as the Escape from Alcatraz and Wildflower, gave a short convocation before sending the roughly 50 athletes off into Lake Lopez.

I knew I’d be in trouble on the swim. Will’s water polo team is one of the best in Northern California and his typical training day in the weeks leading up to our tri looked something like this:

First workout, 6:30am – 7:45am:

  • 15 x 100m freestyle on the 1:30s
  • Ball handling skills
  • Cool down 400m

Second workout, 3:15pm – 5:30pm:

  • Warm-up 500m
  • One hour scrimmaging
  • 45 minutes, drills

My swim training looked something like this:

  • June: Swim 900m, surf 6x
  • July:  Lose goggles, surf 5x
  • August: Buy new goggles, swim 1200m
  • September:  Surf 8x, try to swim 800m without stopping

By the first buoy, Will had pulled away as I intermittently gasped for breath, swam into other racers, and tried not to drown. Will – in a four-millimeter surf wetsuit – shot out of the water after the half-mile swim with the 9th fastest time, while I foundered in like a carp in 25th.

My secret plan was to obliterate his faster swimming by blitzing through the transition while my son, whose feet grow a size seemingly every month, struggled to put on his bike shoes.

It worked. He left the transition area seconds before I did, and I managed to keep him in sight for all of a mile before his superior fitness and strength-to-weight ratio left me with a stark realization: I wasn’t going to be anywhere near him on the bike.

As Will and a cluster of stronger riders pulled away, I resigned myself to slogging through the rest of the 17-mile leg. The Extreme course hugged Lake Lopez and featured mile after mile of singletrack, which would have been delightful but for the fact that I walked many of the uphills.

I got passed on the uphills by at least five or six guys – which I didn’t mind much. I got passed twice on the downhill – which I did. I’d like to think it was the surf session the day prior, but the wretched ache in my legs was simply the result of being older, slower, and closer to death.

I knew I’d likely be faster the Will on the run: I do a fair amount of it, while Will logged exactly zero training runs (and had only once in his life run as far as the six miles the day called for). But just how big a hole was I looking at given our huge disparity in cycling power?

On the last out-and-back section of the bike course, with just a few miles to go, I got my answer. I saw my son ripping toward me, keeping pace with a hard-looking competitor in a college tri kit. We exchanged a delighted low-five, and I hit the split timer on my watch. When I passed that same spot after my own turn-around, I got the answer: seven and a half minutes down.

After deploying my secret weapon again by logging the day’s second-fastest bike to run transition, I dashed out on the course, determined to at least get within shouting distance — and it was here that decades of endurance training paid off.

I passed five or six runners on the first of two loops, but still no sign of Will until, with just under two miles to go, I saw a lean form with a shock of blonde hair striding a hundred yards ahead, as familiar a form to me as my reflection in a mirror.

All the emotions I’d been fearing — competitiveness, doubt, relief — were absent. What I felt when I saw Will was pride, and the sort of love that comes from seeing your child take up something monumentally hard and unfamiliar, and excelling at it. Or to use the current teenage argot, “dominating.”

He was suffering, for sure. But when I eased up to him for a sweaty on-the-run kiss, he was relieved to see me, and still cracking jokes.

“This is the most awful thing I’ve ever done,” he said.

“Yeah,” I replied, “But you’re still ripping. Let’s run it in together.”

We held hands as we ran for a while, his feeling huge and unfamiliar in mine. We shared some water and a banana. We talked about how to tackle the course’s last, huge hill and just as he was telling me about a tarantula he had seen on the first loop (I immediately worried he’d been hallucinating), damned if the same gigantic hairy spider didn’t crawl across the road right in front of our feet. We pounded through the last mile while I tried not to cry, finishing strong, and holding hands once again.

The finish was a welter of bodies and confusion, as they always are — a situation compounded by the fact that the Extreme course finishers were interspersed with the day’s Sprint competitors. We tottered on ropy legs over to our bikes to sit down and mull over what we’d just done.

I thought we had done well. Will didn’t know what to think, until I dragged him — with some reluctance — to the timing tent. My wife’s worries now boomed in my head as we bent over Tri California’s laptops and took a peek at the results.

In first place in the Under 16 group: Will Wright. As an afterthought, I checked my results. Third.

A double podium.

But the surprises for the day weren’t over. At the awards ceremony, Terry Davis dropped a bomb: “I’m proud to announce that the winners of each age group have just qualified for the ITU Offroad Triathlon World Championships next April 30th in Extremadura, Spain.”

I looked at Will, stunned. “Dude,” I stammered, “You’re going to Worlds.”

His face was beatific, angelic. He floated through the rest of the morning as we packed up and headed north, falling twitchingly asleep in the car for two hours as his winner’s medal bumped softly on his chest.

Watching him sleep, it was clear that competing against each other was ridiculously not the point. Surfing together was the point. Swimming together was the point. Riding bikes, together, was definitely the point.

So what if Will’s the stronger rider and swimmer? Who cares if I can still run him down? All I knew was that in addition to inheriting his mother’s good looks, Will had inherited a healthy competitive spirit, a love of outdoor play, and a world-class level of triathlon goodness. Now I just had to figure out how to beat his little brother in skateboarding…


Three days after his race, Gordon got this email from USA Triathlon:

Dear Athlete,
Congratulations! You are being contacted because you have earned a spot on Team USA for the 2011 ITU Cross (Off-Road) Triathlon World Championships because of your outstanding performance at the 2010 Scott Tinley Adventures. The 2011 ITU World Championships are set to take place April 30, 2011 in Extremadura, Spain. This event will be ITU’s inaugural World Championship in this discipline. You don’t want to miss out!

It turns out that the qualifiers run five deep at the Extreme Off Road Tri, and that there may be another Wright family showdown in 2011!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Let the official race results from Scott Tinley’s Offroad Extreme Triathlon show that Will Wright finished in 3:05:36 and Gordon Wright in 3:05:37 — one second completely inconsequential yet loaded with fatherly love.