Christine Burke, a Lower Nazareth Township mom, wife, school nurse and accomplished marathoner, had declined multiple invitations from her running pals to compete in the Bald Bear Triathlon, a sprint-distance triathlon at Bear Creek Mountain Resort near Macungie.
“I don’t do lakes, and I don't do mud,” Burke repeatedly told her friends, all of whom are Lehigh Valley moms. They call themselves the "Mommies on the Run."
The "Mommies" met six years ago at the Bethlehem Township Community Center. Enrolled in First Strides, a beginner walking and running workshop for women, they found each other -- and themselves -- through running.
Over the years, the group has managed to balance family and careers while training and competing in 5K, 5-mile, 10K and 10-mile races, as well as half- and full marathons. They start and finish each race together, Burke explained.
Faced with the Bald Bear Triathlon, however, the 37-year-old Burke found herself going against the group's tradition of solidarity. When it came to triathlons, she balked at registering as a group.
But with some extra words of encouragement, Burke surprised everyone -- even herself -- and signed up with three other "Mommies on the Run" for the July 21 triathlon.
Burke would soon learn, though, that signing on the dotted line was the easy part. Burke's apprehension grew as she now faced the prospect of swimming in Bear Creek’s 5-acre lake.
“I’m a control freak,” she confessed. “I want to be able to see where I’m swimming. I kept thinking about gross things in the water, like goose poop. I had visions of wading through plants and whatever critters might be lurking in them -- maybe snakes!”
Burke, a seasoned marathon runner, had no doubts about the 2.3-mile run or her ability to handle the 16.2-mile bike ride. The first leg of the race, however, a 0.25-mile lake swim, had Burke’s nerves on edge.
Of the three events in a triathlon, open water swimming is generally viewed as the most difficult, according to a livestrong.com report.
“I had minimal swimming skills and less than three months to train,” Burke recalled. "I knew the basic strokes, but I never swam a lap. My favorite version of swimming was sitting on the side of a hotel pool with a little umbrella drink in hand.”
Accompanied by her children -- Joseph, a 4th grade student at Nazareth Area Intermediate School, and Genevieve, a 1st grade student at Lower Nazareth Elementary School -- Burke headed to the Bethlehem Township Community Center's indoor pool.
“I felt so guilty at first, making them wait while I swam,” she confided. “But then I realized that they were watching me chase my goal. I knew then that I couldn’t give up.”
Also helping Burke chase her goal was a fellow member of "Mommies on the Run" -- Jean Vincent of Bethlehem Township.
After a bad day and leaving the pool in tears, Burke began to question her decision to enter a triathlon.
The following week, Burke arrived at the pool to find Vincent, a former YMCA swim instructor, waiting for her.
“She came with her goggles to watch my stroke from underwater," Burke remembered. “Her critique was harsh, but I learned a lot.”
With Vincent's help, Burke was soon swimming six laps -- then eight laps. As the triathlon neared, she could do a quarter mile in eight minutes.
Race day came quickly, and Burke thought, "I’m as ready as I’ll ever be."
But she wasn’t quite prepared for the crowd of jostling swimmers. Deciding it best to swim in her own space, she waited for the other swimmers to pass.
Fighting waves of panic -- just now hitting her, the realization that her feet don't reach the bottom of the lake -- Burke gave herself a pep talk.
“I wouldn’t quit on my kids,” she said. “I would go to the ends of the earth for them. I can’t quit on myself. Not now.”
Still flustered, Burke, a nurse in the Nazareth Area School District, waived over a lifeguard in a kayak.
“Excuse me, I think I may be drowning,” she called out.
The lifeguard pointed Burke toward shallow water, suggesting she swim where she could also stand.
“I have two things to say about that,” Burke told the lifeguard. “First, [there are] plants."
Without further explanation, Burke said there was a hint of a smile the lifeguard was trying to suppress.
“Second,” she reasoned, “if I’m going to swim all that way [to the shore], I may as well swim the other way and just finish.”
“Good point,” the lifeguard conceded with a nod.
Just as she had forced herself to let go of the bike when her children learned to ride without training wheels, Burke let go of the patient lifeguard’s kayak and swam -- away from shore (and plants).
“I had to trust that it would be OK,” she said. “There was no sense in quitting. I couldn’t go home and tell my kids, ‘Mommy didn’t do it today’ when I was already halfway done.”
"Mommies on the Run" also has a pact: Leave no Mommy behind.
As Burke pulled herself from the lake, she spotted her fellow "Mommies" waiting patiently at the bike rack.
“I swam in a lake!” she triumphantly exclaimed before readying herself for the next leg of the triathlon. “Even though it added minutes to their own race times, those ladies waited for me.”
With the 16.2-mile bike ride and most of the 2.3-mile run behind her, the finish line was in sight. A friend ran beside Burke.
“You’re almost there," the friend pushed. "You’re almost a triathlete!”
Burke reflected on her day with combined relief and pride.
“I’m not last. I’m not dead. And I swam in a lake," she said. "Mission accomplished."
Burke and her fellow "Mommies on the Run" -- Suzanne Moore, Dana Neuffer and Vincent, all of Bethlehem Township -- finished the race the way they started it: together.