I scan the sea of people, my eyes resting on each small blonde head before moving on to the next. I left my phone in the car, and I forgot my watch. I have no idea what time it is, but I am positive my daughter should be here by now. The last time I saw her she was running, her ponytail bouncing side to side with every step until she disappeared behind a copse of evergreens. How long can it possibly take a 6-year-old to run 400 meters?
I am at the finish line of her first triathlon. Or at least I think I am.
When Charlotte asked me to sign her up for a triathlon, I pretended my heart was not doing the running man inside my chest. With all the coolness I could muster, I said, "Sure."
A few weeks into my pregnancy, the first thing I bought was not a stroller or a crib, but a treadmill. As an Ironman triathlete and marathoner, I had no intention of quitting my endorphin habit once I became a mom. As an infant, Charlotte watched from her bouncy seat, transfixed, while I logged mile after stationary mile. As a toddler, she would relax (or cry) in the bike trailer while I pedaled to the park, the library or the farmers market.
When she was little, I often felt suffocated by her seemingly constant needs. Now, though, I find myself missing being needed. A few days before the race, she had started first grade. Ignoring her protests, I drove her, instead of letting her ride the bus on the first day of school. After we crossed the parking lot, she turned to face me. With her head cocked to the side, very matter-of-fact, she asked, "What are you still doing here?"
I shrugged my shoulders as a dense ball of longing lodges itself in my throat and tears prick my eyes.
"Have a great day," I said, willing my voice not to crack. I crouched down to kiss her, and I swear I felt her rolling her eyes as my lips brushed her smooth, freckled cheek. I stood, planted on the sidewalk, as she trotted toward the playground, her brightly colored owl backpack growing smaller as the distance between us stretched.
I recalled the image of her bald head nursing at my breast, then pausing to gaze up at me with a milk-drunk, toothless grin. It had been four years since she had announced, "I'm Mama!" while toddling around in a diaper and my red wedge sandals, but it felt like 40. Our connection, once as thick as climbing rope, now felt more like a strand of dental floss.
So when she expressed an interest in my sport I felt like renting a small plane to blast my joy through the sky with a message: I am still needed. Instead, I did my best to keep my facial expression neutral and did an online search for "kids triathlon." Scrolling through coming races, I imagined our future selves training together. Instead of fighting over winter jackets and hair brushing we'd spend mornings chatting while exploring trails. Maybe we'd run silently, under a pink sky as the sun rose. Endorphins might absorb the rage she seems to save just for me.
As I complete the online race registration, Charlotte looks up from her United States puzzle, holding Montana.
"I don't think I'll be good at the swim," she says.
"All you have to do is cross the pool," I tell her. "You don't have to be good. You just have to try your best and have fun." She nods and returns to her puzzle.
On race morning, the crisp late August air announces summer's end. For once Charlotte does not shriek as I brush her hair. I imagine her ponytail bobbing as she crosses the finish. I set up her transition area, folding a beach towel in half, meticulously arranging her running shoes and her bike helmet on it. It is exactly how I would do it for myself.
Walking to the pool I ask if she is nervous.
"A little," she admits.
I tell her that is normal. She is silent for the rest of the walk.
At the pool's edge, I kiss the top of her head, whisper, "Good luck" in her ear, then nestle into the crowd of parents. I smell chlorine and anticipation. Echoes of laughter and conversations ping across the pool and off the high ceilings. In that huge room, surrounded by children, Charlotte looks tiny. I watch her brown eyes dart around, taking everything in, the same way she did as a baby.
Now, 20 minutes later, I am tapping my foot, searching every face, wondering where my baby is.
When I finally see her gap-toothed smile, she is holding my sister-in-law's hand and wearing a finisher's medal. How did I miss seeing her finish? I want to throw something. Instead, I take a long breath and ask her how it was.
She says it was awesome, her brown eyes glittering as she looks up as me. She does not know what place she got, but says she had fun and tried her best, and that is what matters.
Among the crush of people, I feel her energy. She practically bounces toward the transition area to retrieve her bike, helmet and goggles, as I apologize for not being at the finish. In response, she asks what snacks I brought.
A few weeks later, I see Charlotte's writing journal at back-to-school night. The triathlon entry catches my eye. In her careful, albeit crooked penmanship are the words, "I had fun!"
She had fun. What else could I have wanted for her?
Sitting on a child-size chair across from the teacher, I let go of the hollow ache that had filled my chest when I thought of my absence at the finish line. Yes, I would have been thrilled to see my daughter's face at that moment. But it was never my moment to have. It was hers.