Shortly after adult triathlons were developed in the early 1970s, those pioneering jocks realized kids could participate in a mini-sized version of the sport, using pint-sized proportions of swimming, running and biking races for growing bones and muscles.
There are now dozens of events around the country, with the world's largest held each summer in Chicago. In the race, children ages 7 to 10 complete a 100-meter swim, 4-kilometer bicycle sprint and 1-kilometer run; those 11 to 14 double that distance.
"Kids are driven everywhere, they watch television and use computers," said Alisa Wright Colopy, a Cary, N.C.-based triathlete and mom. After discovering that her state ranked 49th in youth fitness, she started a local race series and now runs a kids' triathlon camp for ages 6 to 19.
"I wanted to get kids involved in lifelong healthy habits," she said, "and I love what a triathlon does for kids. It gives them self-esteem, health and fitness, and a realization that what they can accomplish is within their control."
Lynne Brenner is a similarly enthusiastic jock mom who introduced daughter Jenna Horwich, 10, to the sport three years ago. Brenner, who teaches kick-boxing, loves what the sport does for her daughter, though it's important, she added, to keep the training fun.
"The No. 1 positive is the self-confidence [training and racing] brings to them," she said. "It's amazing to watch their faces when they accomplish what they do. They're so proud of themselves. Also, there's the fitness factor; it gets her out of the house instead of watching TV, and she gets the confidence to do other things, like her homework."
Brenner doesn't have a strict training routine for her daughter, and that may be the better approach, according to pediatric exercise specialists.
"Kids just want to have fun and share time with you," said Susan Kalish, executive director of the American Athletic Medical Assn. and author of "Your Child's Fitness: Practical Advice for Parents" (American Running Assn.) (Children grow at different speeds, so activity depends on their physiological and mental state.)
Brenner and her daughter do "a couple of laps" around a track, or about half a mile. Bicycle rides consist of going to Grandma's house and other fun locations that add as many as 4 or 5 miles.
"It's nice in kids' minds if you talk places versus miles," Brenner said.
Boulder, Colo.-based triathlon legend Dave Scott, winner of six Hawaii Ironman (2.4-mile swim/112-mile bike/26.2-mile run) titles, also said youth triathlons should be fun.
"You're not trying to create superstars," the father of three said. "You want to create healthy attitudes and lifestyles, and I think a triathlon is fabulous for that.
"As adults, they'll gravitate to something they can do long-term, and endurance sports, like swimming, biking and running, are the best things for their health and longevity and hearts."
Nevertheless, that doesn't mean youngsters feel any less motivation than the adults. Ashley Bowman, 9, of Elmhurst, Ill., wants to win.
"I like winning, and I like having fun doing it and getting sweaty," said Bowman, who will be tackling her third triathlon in the McDonald's race. In her first year, Bowman won her age group; last year some transition-area confusion slowed her down and deprived her of victory.
According to USA Triathlon, the governing body of the sport, there were 60 officially sanctioned kids' races (ages 7 to 14) last year.
"The development of triathlons is becoming more of an emphasis now that we're an Olympic sport," said B.J. Hoeptner Evans, communications director for USA Triathlon.
"We're having more camps for high school and early college age, but for kids, we're trying to keep it fun for as long as possible. If they get older and want to stay competitive, then we start pulling them into a more serious aspect of the sport," Evans said.