Of Love and Running

One thing I’ve found in the endurance running community is that most of us have interesting stories. In general, I think, you don’t run 26 miles or more without a good reason, so you meet a lot of people who’ve been driven to this by pathology, inspiration, crisis or some extraordinary level of drive towards personal achievement. It’s one of the main reasons that I think running is worth writing about. And the thing I hope this blog will be is a chance to tell my own story, which is probably at least a little bit interesting, if not particularly important in the grand scheme of things. Like most people, I have a deep need to spend copious amounts of time talking about myself, and blogging seems less destructive than getting drunk and blabbering at people at bars and whatnot.

If you don’t know me: my name’s Tim, I’m 31 11/12, I live in Seattle, I’m a nursing student retraining after spending a big chunk of my life deciding whether or not to become a priest, and I’ve been running for just over 2 years, starting during a bit of a 1/3 life crisis at about the same time that I decided to leave behind the faith of my upbringing (I told that story at length here, if you’re interested). Running is cheaper than therapy, and all they’ll tell you in therapy is to exercise and give it time anyway. I started out in January 2010 with a mile run with my wife (I was going to be an Episcopal priest - one of the kinds that can get married), followed by pastries and coffee, on the way to training for a sprint triathlon after we were inspired to get in shape by watching the Ironman on TV. In my first 30 years, I had never run more than a 5k and I was generally sedentary after I stopped swimming during my junior year of high school, but I worked my way up to 4 marathons last year, and I have my first 50k (31 mile) trail ultra lined up for April, as long as I don’t hurt myself before then.

There were a lot of reasons that my wife and I started running - I was probably driven by anxiety, anger and depression as much as anything - but love was one of the main things that kept us going. It’s February and Valentine’s and my wife’s birthday just passed, so that’s worth noting today. In fact I meant to note it on Valentine’s, but nursing school is too busy for that kind of thing.

We got married young - at 22 - so our 10 year anniversary is coming up this year. In that course of time a lot of our peers have been married, had kids and divorced, developed a hardened, bitter attitude, and sometimes married again. The lesson I’ve learned from that is that marriage - especially long term marriage - is hard. You fight all of the battles you need to, you learn everything notable about the other person that you care to, and whatever chemicals your body produces in order to bind you to the other during that initial romantic stage wear off after the first couple of delusional years where you believe that your partner is perfect, and that you’ll be able to make them happy forever. Marriage in the long term can be hard/mundane/frustrating/boring, and it’s easy to get out these days. They say that half of them end in divorce, so no one would judge you too harshly if you ended it and moved on to something else.

I’m not saying all of this to be a downer - I just want to point out the reality so we can work through it to find the things that are meaningful, and the things that ultimately make it work. I’m also not setting you up for some kind of cliche ‘marriage is like a marathon’ metaphor, if you’re worried about that.

They say that couples tend to go through a period of ‘7 year itch’, where the partners are supposed to have an irresistible urge to get out and have sex with younger people, or be romanced by someone more creative and muscular and sensitive, or whatever. I might be presumptuous in speaking for my wife, b/c I don’t know her secret inner thoughts, but I don’t think we really went through that, exactly (maybe because there is no one younger, more creative, muscular or sensitive than us). But it must be something that we started running together in the middle of our seventh year of marriage. My wife is an amazing person, and had accordingly developed an amazing career as both a family practice nurse practitioner at a community health clinic and a research clinician at a major vaccine research institute. I’m significantly less amazing, but was no less busy at the time with more than full-time work and grad school classes. As a result, I think, we were on the edge of de-prioritizing our relationship, and taking each other for granted, and sliding down to wherever that sort of slippery slope will lead you.

For some background information, we’ve always been the type of couple for whom a little bit of ‘us vs. the world’ has helped. We grew up together in a small town in Ohio, and started dating about a month prior to graduation from high school. At that point we had already decided on the colleges we would attend, and they weren’t the same one. I remember during our first few months apart hearing friends talk about how long distance relationships don’t work out, and thinking that I was going to stay with Angel (that’s her name), if only just to spite them. (Not really. I didn’t care that much about spiting my friends at the time, but you get the point.) We made it through, got married after college, and promptly moved to New Zealand for two years, which is not something you do if you’re from a small town in Ohio. There were a lot of reasons that we moved, but again, a lot of it was an ‘us vs. the world’ thing - we wanted to have an adventure, and to do something that we never thought people could do. Now, living in the big west coast city and being surrounded by a bunch of rich privileged liberals, I realize that lots of people do that kind of thing, but at the time it seemed outrageous and brave and a way to do something amazing together that would impress all of our friends (I’m not sure that it did - I think they just thought we were weird or were going through a manic episode or something). Mostly, I think, it brought us together because it was a challenge and a serious adventure that we made it through with each other.

Jump to seven years later, and we had allowed our ‘us vs. the world’ to become a couple of parallel ‘me vs. the world’s in our respective careers. Time and entropy can do that, I think, and real jobs are bastards in that they’ll suck everything they can out of you if you let them - especially jobs where it’s your job to help people. I personally was completely burnt out by a couple of paid roles working for the church and about a million volunteer roles helping people with AIDS, homeless people, teenagers, etc. etc. And the important thing to realize is that you really can’t let good things have all of your energy if you want to have a satisfying marriage - or any marriage at all these days, because divorce is easy.

So, on New Years Day in 2010, watching the Ironman on TV reminded us of the secret of our success at a time when I was in the midst of a crisis - deciding to leave my career trajectory and not knowing what I was going to do next - and when she was stressed by work, and by having a husband who was leaving his career trajectory and not knowing what he was going to do next. And so, we set a modest goal to finish a short weekend warrior triathlon - to not become lethargic and overweight in our thirties, but to start getting ourselves in shape. It gave us both a way to work out our stress, and a goal to work towards together - the therapy analogy is appropriate again - couples therapy. We registered for a small event in Moses Lake, WA, and we trained, and won it. Just kidding, we didn’t win it. But we finished it, and we moved on to another, and then to a half-marathon, and then to our first Marathon in Rome, and then to two marathons in two weeks to finish out 2011, one of which was a small race that Angel did in fact win with me pacing, in one of my favorite moments ever with her. And in the last couple of years challenging ourselves together with running has become our thing: working through injuries, pushing for faster times or longer distances, making adventures out of races and training runs, pushing each other to work when one of us doesn’t feel like it - it’s become a thing that we do together that neither of us thought we’d ever do, and that we probably wouldn’t or couldn’t have done without each other.

Running has produced a lot of peripheral benefits - we’re both healthier than we’ve ever been, we look and feel better and younger (although marathon gaunt might not be my best possible look), and we both have developed a strong sense of possibility when it comes to these big life challenges. (We could qualify for Bostorn or do an Ironman or run a hundred miler if we wanted to - we just have to train for it.) But I really do think, most importantly, that it’s gotten our marriage back into a groove again. It gives us a way to impress each other, and a common interest, and a shared challenge, and an ongoing arena in which to support each other in concrete ways. Essentially, it’s a place where we can prioritize our relationship, and guard ourselves against a creeping complacency about our marriage, and work on things together rather than apart. We’re at our best when it’s us vs. the world, and this stuff lends itself to that.