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By Jeff Matlow
The name is all wrong. They should call it tiredathlon, not triathlon.

“Tri-” comes from the Greek “trei” meaning “three.” “-athlon” comes from the Greek “athlos,” meaning “contest.” “Tired,” on the other hand, comes from English, meaning “I’ve had enough — I think I’m just going to lay down on the side of the road by these pretty daisies and take a nap.”

Literally speaking, triathlon means “three contests,” or, in modern terms, participation in three sports. To the unknowing eye, all we triathletes do is participate in three sports. But as we all quickly come to realize, that’s bull-hockey. Triathlon is so very much more tiring than just playing three sports. Yes, we swim, bike and run, but let’s face it, that’s really just on race day. It’s not like we are doing three sports in a row every day or even every week. It’s one of the crazy things about triathlon — you don’t really have to actually do all three sports together very often to be a triathlete.

Herein lies my first reason for the name change: being a triathlete is not about doing triathlons.

Think about this one and humor me for a minute. Let’s say I hadn’t raced a triathlon in 10 years. So for the past decade I haven’t done a swim-bike-run all in a row. But I hang out with other people who are racing, and my regular workouts involve juggling each of the three sports separately. To the vast majority, I am still considered a triathlete. A non-racing triathlete, but a triathlete nonetheless.

If I had hadn’t run in 10 years, I would no longer be a runner. Yet because I swim, bike and run, and because I have friends that swim, bike and run, somehow I am still a triathlete — even though I don’t even come close to actually doing a triathlon.

Am I the only one who thinks this is weird?

It begs the question of how you become a triathlete in the first place. The answer, as it turns out, is pretty straight forward: you become a triathlete the moment you cross the finish line of your first multisport event. Once your foot hits that line, you’re in the club. You suddenly have the unalienable right to define yourself as a “triathlete” whenever and however you want. Put it on your résumé, make it your Facebook status, bring it up at cocktail parties, use it to pick up shady people in shady bars — it’s all fair game.

By finishing a race once and simply continuing to train with others who still race, most people would still consider you a triathlete. As if being a triathlete were simply a case of osmosis. Or a contagious disease — like mononucleosis — but more tiring. This is name change point No. 2: being a triathlete is about whom you train and hang out with.

Of course, the key concept in that last sentence is the word “train.” Being a triathlete means that, to some extent, you live a life that centers somehow around the three sports of swimming, biking and running. And the fact remains that if you are going to swim, bike and run on a regular basis, it is going to start taking over chunks of your life, whether you like it or not. Which harkens right back to my original point about being tired.

To balance swimming, biking and running in your life requires commitment and sacrifice. Hour after hour, day after day, in the mornings, at night and sometimes both, we’re out there straining our bodies, often to limits that probably aren’t even real healthy for us. We spend valuable hours and effort setting up, tearing down, cleaning and caring for a ridiculous amount of gear. We use up any free moment to stretch, soothe and go to massage, yoga or physical therapy. And just when we finally collapse from exhaustion, it’s time to drag our respective butts out of bed to do it all over again.

Oh, and raise your hands if you’re trying to balance all of this training with a full life, crammed to the furrowed forehead with a full-time job, a fuller-time family, friends, pets, must-see TV and endless hours spent browsing the Interweb or playing games on your iPhone. It’s tiring just thinking about it.

And for many of us, it doesn’t even stop there. We get sucked into the vortex of a triathlon life. We read and talk and try to learn more. We spend our few free minutes volunteering, blogging, writing articles or coaching friends. Our lives begin to be controlled by the sport. Triathlon quickly becomes our master, and we are the servant, pushing our limits and sacrificing our time. And for what? For a feeling of fitness? For a sense of accomplishment?

For many of us ADD, out-of-control types, triathlon helps to keep our lives manageable and in order. For others, it lets us explore deeper sides to ourselves that have otherwise lain dormant. Maybe some of us feel that stretching our limits is where true growth happens. Maybe in this way we’re like the plane pushing against the wind, knowing full well that the force trying to push us backward is the same force that will lift us higher than we’ve ever gone before.

Or maybe we just need a lot of therapy. And it just so happens, our therapy is athletic movement.

Or perhaps there’s another reason. Perhaps we just like to be tired, and that in itself is the reason for it all. Because at the end of the day, it’s only when we’re completely exhausted that we feel like we’ve accomplished so much and stretched ourselves to the very limit of our abilities. Maybe being tired is not the result of this sport, but the actual purpose of it. We’re not here so much to do the sports, as to fatigue ourselves. We are tired. We are athletes.

So all you tiredathletes of the world, unite. We have nothing to lose but our sleep.

Jeff Matlow is trying to take a nap.
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