July 06, 2009
From The News & Observer

Young triathletes, tough as metal

IronKids 6 to 15 swim, bike and run at NCSU's Centennial Campus

RALEIGH -- She may be a kid, but Whitney Throneburg talks about running triathlons with the assurance and determination of a seasoned pro.

"I even did it with pneumonia once," she said.

And the pint-size 11-year-old from Albemarle likes to win.

"I like the medals," she said. "I've done events like this five times before."

Whitney was one of about 90 kids who came out in their best Sunday Spandex to compete in a triathlon for children and young teens. The race covered considerably less ground than adult versions would, but that didn't stop some kids from putting on their best game faces -- and gear.

Some wheeled around with bicycle disc brakes costing upwards of $1,000, while others wore sleek swimsuits comparable to Olympic medal-winner Michael Phelps' personal collection.

It was all to compete in IronKids Raleigh, the third in a national series of triathlons for children 6 to 15. IronKids is an offshoot of the World Triathlon Corp., which holds international fitness competitions such as IronMan.

The event took place at N.C. State University's Centennial Campus. The kids swam in Lake Raleigh, then biked through Main Campus Drive and finished off with a run on a trail just north of the lake. Participants were divided into three age groups with different distance requirements.

The top senior division, for kids 12 to 15, had to swim 300 yards, bike eight miles and run two miles. The intermediate division, 9 to 11, had to do half that. Juniors, 6 to 8, swam 50 yards, biked two miles and ran 500 yards.

"It's something these kids can do as individuals," said Michelle Payette, director of the IronKids program. "When they cross that finish line, their moms didn't help them. It's all on their own."

Before her race, Whitney said she had butterflies in her stomach.

"For any big event, I feel nervous," she said. "But I know my mind and body will come together."

The morning drizzle didn't deter area kids and many out-of-staters, including a sizeable number from Florida and Georgia, from coming out with their families. Many families had multiple participants, which sometimes led to some high-intensity competitive displays from mothers and fathers.

"Go, go, go buddy!" one mother yelled while sprinting alongside her son and pushing along a baby stroller. "Let's get moving!"

Whitney's mother, Beth, said she has competed with her daughter before -- when they both had undetected pneumonia.

"I saw a mother-daughter team once, and I decided I wanted to do that with her," she said. "She beats me big time in events."

But Beth said that's because she's out of shape -- another reason Payette said she thinks the event is valuable.

"We're inspiring kids and families to be healthy," Payette said.

Nathaniel Whyte, 14, of Fort Mill, S.C., has participated in triathlons for two years. He trains almost every day: running with his school's cross country team, swimming with a summer league and biking 10 miles every other day. The IronKids Raleigh race was his eighth.

"I enjoy the rush," he said, adding that the biking is his favorite leg of the competition. "It's just really fun."

Whyte was the first to cross the finish line in the seniors division. It wasn't the first time he has won a race, so this time he said he's keeping the celebration simple.

"I think I just want to go home and sleep," he said.