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Don’t get divorced over triathlon

is triathlon putting your relationship on the rocks?
is triathlon putting your relationship on the rocks?
Will Murray

In a couple of weeks nearly 3000 athletes will descend upon Boulder for the inaugural Boulder Ironman triathlon race. Many of these 3000 triathletes will find their relationships in a precarious state. While the triathletes feel the accumulated fatigue of the many months of massive training, their partners are just as tired of some of the grouchy behaviors that their beloved triathletes may have inflected on them. But now is not the time to give up, either for the athletes in their final preparations, or their partners who can hardly wait for this event to come and go.

When people get tired, they may get cranky. Everyone has experienced that phenomenon, especially with children. Tired, hungry children may exhibit such behavior as short temper, whining, outbreaks of crying and tendency to throw tantrums. In many ways, a triathlete in the final weeks of Ironman preparation is like a tired, hungry child, and may demonstrate a charming cocktail of any and all these behaviors.

It’s not the triathlete’s fault, exactly. To prepare for an Ironman, the triathlete often follows a training program that inflicts a massive buildup of training volume and intensity in the six weeks before the race (peaking), leaving them deeply fatigued and more than somewhat depleted in a physical sense (i.e. tired and hungry childlike). If you noticed the similarities, you are not alone. In the two weeks or so before the race, the triathlete may sharply reduce the volume of training in order to taper, or shed the crushing fatigue from the peaking period and arrive at the start line in a condition rarely achieved but incessantly sought after: fit, rested and healthy. The taper period can be emotionally challenging.

During the buildup to the peak period, the triathlete was absorbed with all that huge volume of training. Five-hour bike rides, 20-mile runs and swim workouts that seemed to take forever. Now, during the taper, the workouts are much reduced in time, leaving the triathlete with much more time to interact with friends and family, for better or worse. During the taper, the fatigue is still there, gradually subsiding but still impatiently noticeable, and still acting like a tired, hungry child. As the race draws closer, the triathlete will increasingly turn attention to the mental aspects of the race, also known as fretting, worrying and generating pre-race jitters. This emotional condition, piled on top of the tired, hungry syndrome, makes some triathletes genuinely unfit for the company of other humans (yes, I am at this point lumping the tapering triathlete in with other humans, but that’s just for convenience).

Now that you know about the phenomenon that is playing out, here’s what to do about it.

There are three possible scenarios at work.

You are the triathlete.

Your spouse or partner is the triathlete.

Both of you are competing the Ironman Boulder race next month.

Each scenario requires a special approach, if the relationship is going to survive this race.

Scenario 1. You are the triathlete.

First, recognize that you are not yourself, and tell that to everyone. You might see your daughter first thing in the morning. Now that you are tapering and not already at the pool banging out flip turns every 20 seconds for 2.5 hours, she might fail to recognize you at first, and wonder who is this strange person in her home. Ignore that. Just say, “Hello. Remember me? I am your mother. See, there on the wall is a photo of us together last year, when we spent time together. And by the way, I’m tapering, so I’m not myself. If I say or do anything mean, it’s not me doing that, it’s my accumulated fatigue and attempts to shed it during my taper period.” Depending on the daughter’s age, this approach may be more or less successful—the younger the child, the more successful. If your child is in mid-teens, this prattle will fail like a front-tire blowout. There is no known approach for gaining empathy with a mid-teen, so we will now proceed to the partner.

Your partner or spouse also has a great amount of accumulated fatigue from your rotten behavior over the past months. Recognize this (only briefly) then quickly turn back to your own situation. “Hello, honey. I’m tapering now, which means I’ll be around the house a lot more now until the race. And, I have a special condition that means I might say or so something mean, but I really don’t mean it. It’s the fatigue talking, not me. I hope you appreciate that and cut me a little slack.”

Does this really work? Well, you can try it and see what happens.

You might also try being extra nice. Before you interact with your family, think about nice things you could do or say to them, and then do them when you get the chance. Your partner may wonder what on earth has happened to you, and look at you strangely, as if an alien being has invaded you or you have been replaced with a duplicate in every way identical to you, except for the nice part. It’s worth a try.

Scenario 2. You are the triathlete’s partner.

You have been traipsing around on your tip toes trying to avoid the grumpy person in your life. And just like doing a million sneaky squats with Tony Horton in P90X, you your own self are getting very tired. You may find yourself issuing a sarcastic phrase, such as, “You know, if I had a little help in here I wouldn’t have burned the broccoli,” and wondering where that came from. “Is that really me saying that?” you might wonder. No, it isn’t you at all. It’s the accumulated fatigue. You are completely off the hook.

But that doesn’t solve the issue, as your whiny grumpy child of a triathlete will react to your own behavior in a predictably non-helpful way. “Broccoli? Really? Broccoli? Do you know that broccoli has only seven calories per cup, and I need at least 757 calories to recover from my seven-mile run with 8 by 400 meter zone 4a and 4b over and under lactic threshold efforts with 60-second slow jogging intervals at the track before completing the run with 2.5 miles of zone 2 and 0.5 miles of zone 1 cool down, followed by 2 minutes and 50 seconds of jump rope immediately at the end of the run? Broccoli?

You are not a saint, and yet, the situation calls for you to exhibit saint-like behavior. Do this. Realize that alien beings have indeed take over your triathlete’s person, and the unwanted and downright crappy behaviors that you have endured are not really coming from your partner or spouse, but from the invading alien being. We might give this invading alien being a name—shall we call it accumulated fatigue?

One effective way to blunt the nasty effect of alien’s behavior is to reply with humor. Accumulated fatigue, in addition to fostering grumpiness, also produces a profound and discernable lack of intelligence. Yes, physically numb and mentally dumb are wrapped around the same axel of your triathlete’s wheel. You can crack all the jokes you want, and your tired, numb partner will not be able to make a coherent reply, as the glucose-depleted brain works too slowly to process the reframe shift that underlies all humor. To return to our example above.

“Yes, dear, broccoli, but those seven calories are precious, as broccoli is a chief source of broccolamine, a branched-chain amino acid that is shown in no relevant studies to enhance capillary densification, accelerate mitrochondrial recruitment and improve your catch. I do it for you, dear.” That should defuse any negative reaction, or actually any reaction at all, as your triathlete wanders off in a haze to go look for the swim paddles for the next workout.

Scenario 3. You are both competing.

If you have experienced something like this, as you straddle your bikes, waiting for your Garmin Forerunner 910 to acquire its satellites, you are not in a club whose members number exactly one:

“Where should we go on our 4.5-hour ride, with 5 x 19 minutes in high zone 4 followed by three minutes of easy spinning, two times through, dear?”

“I don’t know. I guess we could go to Carter Lake, but you decide.”

“I always have to decide. I want you to be part of this, you know. Just because I signed us both up for this race doesn’t mean that I need to make all the decisions.”

“Okay, Carter Lake then.”

“I’m sick of Carter Lake. We have worn a groove in the asphalt from our garage door to Carter Lake. The ski boat people of Carter Lake hate us. If I have to go past that little Carter Lake ranger stand one more time I’m going to torch an orphanage.”

“Okay, then somewhere else. I’m good with another idea.”

“Hell, do I have to do everything around here?”

Maybe you’ve never been inside this conversation. If not, lucky you.

If so, there is one possible path: (This URL is still available).

In case you want to avoid this and stay together, here’s the plan.

First, go out of your way to be kind. Pretend to listen. Say, “Yes, dear.” It usually works, regardless of what that response is actually responding to.

Second, remember why you signed up for this Ironman in the first place. At this point, you might be wondering, “Who thought this was a good idea to register for this race? Who thought doing an Ironman was a good idea? Who invented this sport anyway, and can I get my thumbs on his adams apple…Oh, right, it sounded like fun at the time. Okay, I’m better now.” But you did indeed have some picture in your head that attracted you to the notion of doing this race—the fitness level you would achieve, the camaraderie of your training partners, the idea of actually crossing the finish line and hearing Mike Reilly shout, “You are an Ironman!”

Third, act as though your triathlete partner is flatly incapable of functioning as would a real human being until after the race, that it’s all on you, and if your relationship is going to survive you better step up. This last idea could well be true.

In seriousness, there are plenty of triathletes who have lost their relationships due to the strain they undergo and the behavior that ensues during the training and racing of an Ironman. To compete in one involves metric tons of work, many sacrifices and deep commitment on the triathlete’s part and that reverberates to the partner or spouse as well.

All kidding aside, here are two things that might really help.

First, remember why you love your spouse or partner. What was it the brought you together in the beginning? In your mind’s eye, run a video of the most charming, romantic experience you had together early in your relationship. Make this video big and colorful and bright and see you two over there having the time of your life. Run key parts of it in slow motion if that helps you savor the memory. Feel the warmth in your chest as you relive the experience. Stop the video at the end, and pretend that you can capture a little bit of that magic, a tiny pinch of pixie dust from that time, and hold it between your thumb and finger. Then, whenever you need it from now and until race day, when somebody makes a snippy comment, just sprinkle a little of that pixie dust over the situation, feel the warmth again, and allow the seed of a smile to take over your face. Shake your head in wonder of how lucky you are to have found each other.

Second, and of utmost importance, develop amnesia. During this phase, you may be saving up a Pentagon-sized ammunition depot of things that your triathlete did or said. You might be thinking, “After this race is over, we are going to have a talk, and I’m going to explain how rotten all this behavior was, how all the mean things said made me feel, and how this is never, ever going to happen again.”

But don’t. Just disarm. Forget about your arsenal. Destroy the weapons of mass destruction. If you realize that it almost really is like an alien being has taken over your partner, that nobody really meant any of those ugly things that got said, that it really was the hunger and crushing fatigue talking—that it really wasn’t anybody’s fault—it gets easier to take. In the three weeks after the race, until things turn back to normal, pretend that they already are back to normal. Forget it was every any different. Let your triathlete exorcize the alien being, and watch for signs of the old self returning. Sprinkle the magic pixie dust wherever you can.

And if your normal person doesn’t return, the person in your movie who you created magic pixie dust with doesn’t start to come back, I know a URL that is still available.

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