The Athlete Mixed Marriage

“What are you thinking?” is a booby-trapped marriage question. I know this, but I can’t always resist its shiny lure.  


My husband John and I were on a long car ride not long ago. Our son was taking his first solo airplane trip to visit my sister, and we were driving to a wedding. I was stirring poignantly existential thoughts about the Passage of Time in our family life, and the impossibility of our child’s maturity.

“What are you thinking?” I asked John, secretly expecting and hoping for the same kind of portentous fare.

 “I was thinking… Power Bars.  In a triathlon, IS there such a thing as eating too many?”

John and I are an athlete mixed marriage.  He is one—and how—and I’m not—at all.

Say half and he thinks of the half ironman he just aced.  Say half and I think half carafe.

In his heaven, he’ll be staring at the bottom of a pool for an hour while doing laps, and then climbing on his Merckx bicycle to ascend the dizzyingly steep Alpe d’Huez. In my hell, I’ll be staring at the bottom of a pool for an hour while doing laps, and then climbing on my Merckx bicycle to ascend the dizzyingly steep Alpe d’Huez.

 On the plus side, when you’re the inert partner in an athlete mixed marriage, you enjoy the status of “exercise-by-association.” You can claim the indirect sanctimony of being linked to an athlete, even if you’ve never touched a bike chain.

Depending on how active your imagination and your self-delusional capacities are, you can even begin to internalize the notion that your spouse’s good habits are more or less your own, and helping your body—through the same kind of biological magic, perhaps, that causes your uterus to repel a rapist’s sperm.

If your husband tells you about a workout in excruciating detail and you manage to listen (Him: “I was under three hours and 8 minutes faster.” Me: “That’s… fast,… right?”), then it’s kind of, sort of like having done one…

Then there’s the down side—the mutual incomprehension and inattentiveness that torments an avocation-mismatched couple. John and I are unwinding at the end of the day. The talk is meandering around to running shoes, orthodics, sleek GPS watches with 10 inscrutable buttons, and split times. I can feel myself entering into the Marital Screensaver mode, the half-alert, half-asleep look of the habituated and powered-down spouse who only pays gestural, token attention.

The charming and maddening oddity of the athlete mixed marriage is that one spouse cannot live without something that the other spouse cannot imagine doing.

We’ve found happier ways to combine the writerly and the athletic life, too. During the Tour de France each summer, fans like to run alongside the cyclists, for mysterious reasons, dressed in random, goofy costumes, or nearly nude. When I published my book last year, John offered to spend the summer in France to follow the Tour live—while running alongside the leaders, squeezed in a sandwich board that featured a blow up of my book’s cover on both sides.

In turn I’ve shared cleverly-coined advice with him on his athletic life, high-level gems that he’d not have thought of on his own, such as: “Don’t die of heat exhaustion,” and, “drink water.”  I’ve magnanimously allowed him to leave the house at 5:00 a.m. to run and swim, and given him weekend get out of jail free passes, to spend training in the sweltering heat.

 It doesn’t sound like much of an act of spousal generosity, to “permit” your husband to reduce himself to a puddle of sweat and to cycle 50 miles over teeth-jarring potholed city streets.

But one of the pleasures of an athlete mixed marriage is that you score brownie points for giving your spouse things that you absolutely, positively don’t want.

 “Just think,” John says. “If you were a runner, we’d have to compete for who gets to do the one-hour run in the morning!”

 John and I are out of step with the marriage times. Hyper-compatibility between spouses in temperament and lifestyle is one of the strongest marital trends of the last decades.

 By “assortative mating,” we’re marrying people with almost the exact same educational background, earning potential, job experiences, ambitions, hobbies, interests, class background, and values.

 In other words, we’re marrying ourselves.  In my parents’ generation, husbands and wives were more elementally incompatible, almost prescriptively so. Spouses were expected to have “nothing in common.” Certainly, their roles and interests in life were assumed to be different. Men might have dreamt of being a surgeon, and women of marrying one. There were like-marrying-like exceptions, of course, but generally, wives weren’t out before dawn with their husbands “bricking” (a bike-run combination) in anticipation of their upcoming husband-wife competition.  

Recently we were at a party at the local pool. I sit in a lawn chair, with a circle of funny and convivial people, watching the sun go down. For a few hours I don’t budge from my chair more than six inches, and then only to grab a slice of pizza.

Occasionally, we inert landlubbers glance over and see John’s arms rising and descending, one after the other, in a perfect, smooth cadence out of the lap lane at the other end of the pool. He flips, turns, and does it again.

We admire his feat and have no inclination to emulate it. By way of partying that night, John swims 3000 meters. At the end of the evening, he and I exclaim almost simultaneously about what a perfect time we’ve had.

 An acquaintance looks at me, and shakes her head, amused, with the unstated but unmistakable question: “how did you two end up together?”

Maybe things would have made more sense had we chosen by the outward signs of compatibility, years ago.

Certainly, this is what 21-st century “techno romance” promises us: ever more carefully calibrated sameness, and love-by-algorithm to pre-reject the incompatible. John and I wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Maybe techno-romance has it right. I don’t want to be a Luddite. Then again, the world is so over-sorted, pre-sorted, niche-marketed, and micro-defined as it is. We’re almost always in the company of compatible people, echoing our own compatibility back on each other.  So there is some lingering charm to being the marriage riddle--the couple that in at least one or two ways just doesn’t make any sense.

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