COLUMBIA — Nine-year-old John Michael Hayes was covered in a slick sheen of sweat after crossing the finish line at the Hy-Vee IronKids Triathlon on Saturday morning.
By the time he met his family at one of the barricades closing off the race course, he was panting in the muggy weather, but he also had a broad smile on his face as he described the last leg of his run to his dad.
With his biking shorts and an identifying number pinned to his back, John Michael looks like an adult triathlon competitor, give or take a couple of feet.
By completing a three-part race with swimming, biking and running sections, he also received the full triathlon experience, the main goal of the IronKids National Race Series.
Hy-Vee IronKids is a partnership between the supermarket chain and the United States Triathlon Association that aims to promote physical fitness and introduce children to the sport of triathlon racing.
This is the third year Hy-Vee hosted a competition in Columbia, and 115 children ran, swam and biked this year. Though participation was down compared to last year when more than 200 children competed, race director Michael Zimmerman looked at the positives, saying that smaller races allow more people to qualify who might not have had the chance in bigger races with more competitors.
Standing behind the finish line to congratulate participants coming in from the last leg of the competition, Zimmerman cited the triathlon's change in venue as a possible reason for the decrease in participation. The event previously was held in Stephens Lake Park, but after last year's race, event coordinators realized they needed a bigger space.
"It was just that we outgrew it," Zimmerman said. "As we started to get more athletes, we needed to move the bike section because the path was just too narrow. It wasn't safe for the kids."
This year, organizers moved the triathlon to Albert-Oakland Park and Aquatic Center. To ensure that athletes had enough room to maneuver during the biking portion of the competition, Zimmerman got permission from the city and about 75 percent of residents in the area to block the roads around the park.
Despite the change in venue, the triathlon is a major draw for many families in the Midwest. Athletes from around Missouri and states like Kentucky participated in the race.
Sandra Sharp, a mother from Bloomington, Ill., whose 13-year-old son Justin competed in the senior division, said that it's difficult to find triathlons specifically for children.
"There's not a lot of kid's races in our area, so Justin competed with adults quite a bit, especially when he was younger," she said. "It's nerve-wracking to have a 9-year-old in an open-water swim with a bunch of grown men."
Besides coming from a variety of locations, athletes also displayed a variety of skill levels and training backgrounds. The children are separated into three different divisions depending on their ages.
Justin, for example, started training when he was 9 years old, and said he ultimately hopes to compete in an adult Ironman Triathlon.
Twelve-year-old Claire Smout from St. Louis also trained for months before Saturday's race, and logs so many hours of practice a week that her mother has to make her take days off.
Fourteen-year-old Sam Hawkins from Hardin bikes 8 to 10 miles a day in addition to playing basketball and football at school.
"I do the races with regular sports because nobody else does this," Sam said. "People look at me like I'm special. I don't know anybody else in my county who does triathlons."
Other children, like 10-year-old Jaclyn Sexauer from Columbia, just compete for the love of the sport. Jaclyn practices by running with her mom, but doesn't worry about competing with other participants in the race.
"Mostly I just like to have fun with them because I'm not really a competitive type of person," she said, waiting for the results. "If I qualify I'm going to freak out."
Hy-Vee sponsors 21 IronKids races in the eight states where it has stores. The top 10 participants in each local competition qualify to race in the company's National Championship, held each year in Des Moines, Iowa.
Jaclyn was later excited to find out that she did qualify for the championship race.
Supervising editor is Hannah Wiese.