Sometimes, satisfaction in triathlon is a matter of perspective—and semantics.

Sometimes, satisfaction in triathlon is a matter of perspective—and semantics.

As a lawyer, one of the most amazing things I have learned is the power of semantics—the difference that a twist or a change of words can make in any case or situation. Triathlon, like the courtroom, is also a sport of semantics—small distinctions, tiny differentials. These differentials on race day, though, can make huge differences. Race day is like a 20-year reunion or a homecoming football game. Everyone has “seen” what you’ve been up to on social media or stumbling around the gym at 5 a.m. Perhaps they see your big talk and your pictures, and all the things you allege to be doing in your training. However, race day is where you prove that you were actually doing all those trainer rides and hill repeats. It’s the proverbial case of putting your money where your mouth is. In reality, race day is a giant novel, a series of semantics that must all come together. And so many small things matter on race day. Were you actually on the bike for five hours, like you said in the Instagram post? Maybe you were—but were they quality hours? Race day always seems to reveal the real truth.

Race day, like a legal trial, can also turn out to be one of life’s greatest mysteries. You can go into a race thinking that everything is perfect, just “knowing” you put in all the work, and swearing on that precious bike of yours that you are ready to tackle the day. However, out of nowhere, this giant Race Day Monster comes down and flattens you like a waffle with his gel-sticky hand. Race Monster grins and chuckles, “Today is not your day, woman.” And the small semantics? Well, Race Monster reminds you that it was something as simple as sodium—too much, not enough—that can change the whole day. “All that training down the tube,” you think.

Another case of semantics: all that training down the tube. That always strikes me as funny. Sure, we may have a giant race and it doesn’t go as we plan, but is all that training really for naught? Did it not keep us happy, healthy and sane in the middle of the stress of work and life? Did it help us stay focused on a goal? Those are the small questions that we should ask ourselves. Sometimes the answers are scary. Through triathlon, are we running from something—literally and figuratively? Do we do this sport so we don’t have to deal with our home life, our work life, our emotions, our addictions or depression?

My very first tri coach and friend, Gerry Halphen, told me something as a newbie, and it has really stuck with me: “Triathlon should be a good stressor. It should add, not steal, from the goodness in your life.” I have continued to appreciate this sentiment, and have carried it with me. Sure, sometimes, we may need to enjoy the escape that training gives us from the craziness that is life—and I do think triathlon serves a valid purpose in that regard.

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No matter what our triathlon truth is, it’s good to remember that triathlon is not life. When something gets in the way, all that training is not down the tube. (And even if it is … really, so what?!) If we are going to participate, we should do it with kindness, authenticity and heart and soul. We should adapt and adopt our semantics and our actions to make our triathlon stories meaningful. We should make racing about much more than just kicking someone’s butt all over the race course.

As I raced Ironman Louisville last year, I experienced a stretch of the bike course that’s pretty scary—an out and back on the highway—where one group of cyclists trudged up the climbs, and the people on the other side of the road flew down the hills. The road is narrow and has a lot of traffic. On my way up the climbs, I heard rider after rider screaming profanities because others weren’t going as fast or were in their way. I get that—people get in your way (like all the time) on a race course. But risking your life and the lives of others because you want a PR falls under the semantics of a triathlon problem. As we cleared that stretch and headed out on the open road, another woman passed and said, “Can you believe those idiots?” And I knew exactly what she was talking about. I said, “No.” As she pulled ahead, I heard her say, “Not worth it.” And I also knew exactly what she was talking about. We should really sit on that, and think about what motivates us, and what costs we are willing to pay on race day—the expense of harm to ourselves or others? Racing hard and racing dangerously contains only a single-word difference—but mean two absolutely different things.

I have the mantra “just keep moving forward” because those words are my little triathlon truth. I believe in the notion that, no matter what race day or life brings, that putting one foot in front of the other is everything. I started this sport in a place of darkness, and through swimming, cycling and running, I found so many bright lights. Even when I can’t go fast, I don’t look behind me. I desperately claw to go forward, to inspire (or drag) my children or other people (whoever will come!) with me. You can’t always predict what race day brings, but living each day with a mission and spirit of gratitude matters.

What’s your mantra? In this sport of semantics, what meaning will you draw?

Meredith Atwood is a wife, mom, attorney, Ironman, coach and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children, and blogs at SwimBikeMom.com.

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