by Josie Vitale
You know that thing that happens when you meet people for the first time and they find out you do Ironman? You start to see them do the mental gymnastics in their head, adding things up. They are searching for a clue that will help them to make sense of why, and more importantly how. (Something just doesn’t add up.)
First they ask you, “Do you have children?” — because clearly that would be impossible. The the questions go on: “Do you work?” — since you do endurance events, there’s no way you could have anything else going on. “Are you married?” — obviously you must be living a lonely isolated existence. “Are your kids in juvenile detention?” — you must be a really terrible mom if you are that focused on work and triathlon. The questions range from honestly interested to sarcastic and occasionally condescending, but they all serve the same function: they seek to make sense of what seems utterly impossible.
This conversation always gets pretty interesting for me, and I’m sure many of my Smash and Dimond sisters can relate. I’m married; I have two daughters—Gigi, 10, and Lulu, 8—I work 60-70 hours/week in a highly technical job; my husband works as an attorney as well; and, if all that weren’t enough, we also have a dog. To say my life is a juggling act would be an extreme understatement. I would actually describe it as a well-orchestrated shitshow.
Often I watch friends on Instagram post about waking up at 4-4:30 a.m. and grinding out an epic pre-dawn workout. And I think for a long time people assumed that was my life too, that I had somehow cracked the code of work/family/training balance and I was a mythical creature who figured out how to “have it all!” I posted carefully edited pictures of me looking awesome doing something epic and amazing, and hugging my kids at the finish line.
And then my dad got sick, really sick, brain cancer sick. Suddenly, my Instagram story got *real.* It was basically me and my mom crying; me struggling to get though my workouts; six-hour trainer rides in the basement while intermittently trying to work on my laptop, direct my kids on how to make themselves lunch, and running back and forth to the rehab hospital to help my mom and dad. It was a total mess, but it was life! Lots of people called me out: “You should take time off,” “I can’t believe you’re still training,” “You’re going away to camp!?”
Something else happened too, people started sending me direct messages from literally all over the world, telling me what they were going through and giving me a little love to help me out. My little Instagram story suddenly had a small cult following and I think in a way it made it OK to admit everything isn’t some Norman Rockwell painting for most of us.
I think the thing that gets most of us is the guilt. If you focus too much on career, then social gender norms tell you to feel guilty because you should only focus on family. (I call BS.) If you seem too focused on your own personal goals—in my case triathlon, then you must be a terrible mom or a selfish wife. (I call BS.) If you aren’t 24/7 hovering over you kids, then obviously you’re probably also a terrible mom and your kids will end up living under a bridge or, at the very least, not getting into a good enough college. (Again, total BS.)
So lets get to the heart of the matter! Here are my answers: My kids have basically been raised in endurance sports—marathons, ultra-marathons, triathlons, Ironman—and not only are they totally fine, I’d argue this adventurous life has made them better off. They look forward to our “Iron Road Trips” every summer; they get to go amazing places and meet really incredible people. We always find fun things for them to do along the way and it seems like every time we travel to an Ironman together we’re all doing something EPIC!
My Mother’s Day gift, then, to you is NO MORE GUILT. For any of us. If you are a baby mom, a dog mom, a cat mom, an empty nest mom, a mom whose baby is her career or anyone else out there who needs to hear it—even the dads out there, like my husband Dave, who step up and raise the kids while women like me are out trying to conquer the world. You see the secret to making the juggle work is to be emotionally flexible, mentally strong and check your guilt at the door.
Here are my three rules to endurance parenting:
If I’m keeping it real, we all know some of these workouts can get long…really long. One thing I’ve noticed is that if I can be flexible, and at times creative with my workouts, I can involve the girls. For example, occasionally on a six-hour training ride, I might go out on the road for three hours and then finish the remaining three hours on a trainer with the girls watching a movie. This past winter I got lonely in the basement, so I started to move my trainer around the house. One day Lulu wanted to bake (the kid is obsessed with The British Baking Show), so I moved my trainer to the kitchen and kept an eye on her to make sure she didn’t burn the house down.
Sometimes with long swims I’ll grab the girls and drive to a pool 30 minutes away that has a kid’s play area next to the lap lanes, so we get to swim together.
On Sundays, Dave and I usually do long runs together. Instead of getting a “date night” babysitter, we choose to do a long run date and then after we all go out to brunch. (We vote on who has the strongest “brunch game.”)
Sometimes being away for a super long workout is unavoidable and for that I suggest you grab your girlfriends and have a day out—or as I like to call it “homegirls and hundos.”
You may have to be flexible with races too. I find that there are certain venues that are more kid-friendly than others. This summer will be my third time going to Mont Tremblant. Why? My kids love it there, and it’s great for spectators and family-friendly, with lots for them to do. I feel the same about another Canadian race in Muskoka. Is the race tough? You bet! It’s soooo hard, but the resort is awesome for the family, and transition and the finish line are both within the resort, making its easy for the family to access in between their own activities. When the kids are happy and having a great time, then I can focus on racing and doing my thing.
It comes down to is setting yourself up for success. Find little ways to include your family in your training, choose races that are in kid- or family-friendly venues, and don't sweat the small stuff. If you have to be out for eight hours of training, then just go for it—you can always pick something fun for the family to do afterwards!
It Takes a Village
The first time I did a 70.3 was at Timberman in 2013. I was so nervous. The girls were 4- and 5-years-old at the time and I couldn’t wrap my head around navigating my race nerves and my kids. So Dave and I headed up to New Hampshire and left Gigi and Lulu with their aunt. I thought it would make me feel calmer to not have to worry about the girls while I was racing, but it was the total opposite. The second we got to Ironman Village, Dave and I both looked at each other and said, “the girls would love this!” That was the last time we didn’t take them to a race.
In 2016, we were so incredibly grateful to have our friend Maliyah travel with us to Mont Tremblant. She watched the girls all summer as a babysitter/big sister and would pick them up from summer camp every day. That allowed me to get afternoon and evening workouts in after work. When Maliyah’s parents agreed to let her travel to Mont Tremblant with us, we were overjoyed. She hung out with the girls and did every activity in Ironman Village, while I chewed my nails waiting to toe the line at my first Ironman and Dave had an extra set of hands to wrangle the kids. We finally did it right and I could not have been happier to share that moment with the entire family.
My advice is don’t try to do it all by yourself. Ask for help. There are so many people out there who will want to support your journey. Maliyah has become part of our family and I’m grateful to have such an accomplished young woman as a role model for my girls. If you look around the room at an Ironman, or Smashfest training camp for that matter. you start to notice something. These are exactly the type of people you want your kids to know and to look up to. These women are professional athletes, entrepreneurs, surgeons, veterinarians, chemists, engineers, attorneys and overall awesome human beings. When given the choice I’ll keep my kids in this Village as long as I can!
No More Guilt
This should probably be rule #1.
I learned this lesson from a very special friend of mine, Shannon Kelly. Shannon is an amazing business woman and has been a mentor to me throughout my career and my life. I was lucky enough to be working for her when I had my daughters 18 months apart and made the tough transition back to work. My youngest was four weeks old when I went back. Let’s be honest: no one ever talks about it, especially not ambitious career-focused chicks like me, but going back to work after having a baby totally sucks! There is plenty of guilt to go around and you place it all on yourself. Shannon taught me that there is no room for guilt—not in life, not in work, not in parenting. She helped me realize that we put all of this guilt on ourselves for having to be away from the family, but at the end of the day what our kids really need from us is our love and our example.
We don’t need to tell our kids who we are; its so much easier to show them. If you’re into Ironman or any endurance sport, you are showing your kids who you are in your soul every time you toe that start line and every time you cross the finish line. My kids have seen me absolutely petrified and still standing at the start line ready for the cannon to sound, and they have seen me reduced to tears of joy at the finish line no matter how long it takes me. I can tell you that through your actions you are teaching your kids one of life’s most important lessons— ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.
So no more guilt. Go train: you and your family are better for it. And Happy Mother’s Day!
Josie Vitale is an ironwoman and SMASH-Dimond team member. This summer she will be taking on the challenge of 3 ironmans in two months! You can follow her on instagram at https://www.instagram.com/josie.vitale.