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Lost In Tri Translation: The Things Non-Triathletes Say

A drafting violation means you spilled your beer while riding your bike, right? Or maybe it's when a cyclist gets too close to another rider...and then pushes them over? And all triathlons are the Hawaii Ironman, right? In the spirit of the holiday season, we air our favorite "multisport gaffe" grievances.

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We all know that triathletes know a lot about triathlon. In fact, they won’t shut up about it. Ask any triathlete how many watts they put out on their bike ride, and they’ll likely give you a dissertation on their power output growth curve and the effects of various conditions (wind, heat, altitude, etc.) on race performance.

But do you know what’s more fun than asking a triathlete about triathlon-related topics? Asking non-triathletes about triathlon-related topics.

Many of us have had the joy (or possible dismay) of hearing our loved ones try to weigh in on our triathlon exploits. Perhaps it was Thanksgiving dinner, and Grandma interrupted you during your lengthy Ironman race report to ask you if that is “one of those 5k Mud Run thingies?” Or maybe it was sitting next to a random stranger on a plane as they try to comprehend the distances of each discipline. “I don’t even like to drive that far,” they exclaim as they change the subject to something less upsetting, like politics. And of course with with holidays upon us, there’s plenty of opportunity for multisport mixups—terms lost in tri translation, if you will.

I wanted to dig a bit deeper and find out just what non-triathletes know about some of the more detailed parts of our sport (spoiler alert: not much). To do that, I needed a captive audience. The venue? Ironman Arizona. Where better to trap unsuspecting non-triathlete spectators than at an Ironman event?

Personally, I learned a lot through this “man on the street” experiment. For one, it’s very easy to annoy people when you shove a microphone in their face and ask them to talk about race nutrition or bike parts. I’m very fortunate that I didn’t walk away with a black eye. But more than that, it is heartwarming to see how enthusiastic spectators can get about this sport that they know very little about. It goes to show just how much triathletes are loved by their support crews.

(Photo: Huw Fairclough/Getty Images)

Amidst the “ums”, “I don’t knows”, and blank stares I received throughout the day, there were some gold nuggets that were just too good not to share.

When asked how many watts the typical triathlete would put out during a race, some spectators wondered if the town of Tempe was being powered by triathletes. Why on Earth would triathletes need to power lightbulbs during a race? That’s a good question. Upon learning that watts were a measure of power output on the bike, spectators’ guesses ranged from 5 to 5000 watts. To be fair, the approximate answer falls somewhere within that range.

One thing that non-triathletes seem to struggle with is all the acronyms we use in our sport. Phrases like KQ, FTP, DNF, PR, and RPE are thrown around like confetti in our sport without much regard to the fact that nobody outside the world of endurance sport knows what the heck we’re talking about. (And for those googling those acronyms right now: Kona Qualifying, Functional Threshold Power, Did Not Finish, Personal Record, and Rate of Perceived Exertion. You’re welcome.)

RELATED: Answers to The Most-Googled Triathlon Questions

On the other hand, credit is owed to some of the interviewees for their unique understanding of these acronyms. A couple of my favorites were “full tire pressure” for FTP (I mean, who doesn’t want FTP on their bike ride?), and “donut nutrition force” for DNF. I’m going to circulate a petition to make donut nutrition force a thing.

As triathletes, we should thank our lucky stars that non-triathletes are not marshaling our races. When asked what they thought a drafting violation was, one thirsty spectator thought it meant that you spilled your beer while riding the bike. While that is certainly a party foul, I don’t think it would land you in the penalty tent (maybe the drunk tank?). Another person was pretty close to right answer (I suppose you could say he was “drafting” the right answer), but then it went dark pretty quickly. He said a drafting penalty happens when a cyclist gets too close to another rider… and then pushes them over.

Ultimately, however, that’s okay because that’s why we have the taper! The taper, according to this same gentleman, is the measuring tape used to make sure that athletes stay out of the draft zone.

Makes perfect sense.

It’s clear that non-triathletes have a lot to learn about our sport, but chances are that they will continue to live their lives in blissful ignorance to the ins and outs of triathlon. But that’s okay, we’ll continue to love them anyway, and they will continue to enthusiastically share their support by ringing cowbells, holding funny signs, and screaming as we pass by… even if they have absolutely no clue what they’re cheering for.

As you’re joining your family around the table this holiday season, instead of sharing your race exploits in the language of triathlon that your friends and family will simply not understand, instead try this: Ask them what they think your favorite triathlon terms mean. It may lead to much more entertaining dinner conversation.

RELATED: Triathlife: Family Holiday Etiquette Guide

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