My friend and I were nearly three hours into a Saturday-morning run through the redwoods in the Oakland hills. We’re both in our 40s, both have two kids and both have spouses who woke up alone sometime after we left our houses in the pre-dawn hours to run.
My friend also happens to be a guy and attractive. We share a mutual admiration for one another as runners, and I didn’t want our feelings toward each other to escalate. I’m conscious of maintaining boundaries with friends because, a decade earlier, I became inappropriately entangled with another married runner, and I vowed never to repeat a mistake that nearly cost me my marriage.
Alone in the wilderness over miles of singletrack, he and I talked enthusiastically about training and the nuances of ultramarathon preparation. Gossip about so-and-so’s Strava data gave way to debating the contents of drop bags and the elevation profiles of different race courses—topics that would have made our spouses’ eyes glaze over.
“Why is it,” I asked him, “that the races I’m dying to do are out of state in late August and early September? I can’t get away when the kids are transitioning back to school.”
“I know,” he commiserated, “it sucks!”
Suddenly he stopped abruptly, looked at his watch and dropped an F-bomb. He had to turn back and get home to his wife, he said, because “if I don’t, she’ll bitch me out again.”
His voice had an edge of hostility that alarmed and saddened me. How would his wife feel, I wondered, knowing her husband spoke about her critically while he was running with someone else’s wife?
Their marriage is in trouble, I thought to myself. Then, with a twinge of guilt, I realized that I was testing the limits of my husband’s patience and trust once again. Is mine, too?
I considered asking my friend about what was going on between him and his wife, but I’ve learned the hard way how that kind of talk between running partners can lead to a bonding that some psychologists call an “emotional affair”—a connection in which you want to share details with the other runner that you don’t want to share with your partner.
So instead, I encouraged my friend to go back. “We ran a good amount,” I said. “I want to get home to Morgan, anyway. We have fun stuff planned this afternoon.”
Then we went our separate ways.
My friend and I are hardly alone in struggling to balance a passion for trail running, and for running-related friendships, with a commitment to our loved ones. Often, conflict arises when one partner’s casual interest in trail running develops into a much greater commitment, and the other partner doesn’t participate much in the sport and only grudgingly tolerates it.
“When somebody marries an Olympic athlete, they kind of know what to expect,” says Heidi Berrin Shonkoff, a couples therapist in Berkeley, California. When one partner’s participation escalates, though, “the sport can grow into something that the other partner didn’t necessarily sign on for. They both have to work together to make the relationship work.”
Accept the Relationship Challenge
I married Morgan, my high-school boyfriend, in 1990, and we have a teenage daughter and son. As we approach our 25th anniversary, our relationship feels rock solid and more loving than ever. We’re even having fun planning trips to a couple of trail races where he wants to volunteer and explore the area.
But my running has been a chronic sore spot between us over the years. My time and energy spent on the trails and away from him periodically leads to resentment and a loss of intimacy.
“I loved it when you only ran 20 or 25 miles a week and trained for one marathon a year,” Morgan told me once. “I wish you could go back to that level.”
“I wish you could appreciate how hard I train and how important it is to me,” I replied.
Joshua Landvatter, a 30-year-old trail runner from Salt Lake City, Utah, articulated the painful tradeoff facing many dedicated trail runners when he posted the following question to the Trail And Ultra Running (TAUR) page on Facebook: “Anyone have to choose between a relationship and running too much? It is a very uncomfortable place to be put in.”
His query elicited dozens of comments in just two days. Many in the discussion thread expressed that running should be the priority: “Never compromise on your passion,” said one.
Added another, “I am now happily single and spend most of my free time running; he was always jealous of all the time I would spend on the trails. He just didn’t get it.”
Others encouraged balance—“There is such a thing as running too much”; “Relationships are give-and-take. There are plenty of times I don’t get my run in because my family needs me.”
If you love both your partner and your running, it behooves you to spot running-related red flags in your relationship and work with your partner to mediate the conflict (see sidebar on third page). Otherwise, you could be running toward a breakup or stuck in the rut of an unsatisfying relationship.
Interviews with runners, their significant others and therapists reveal four main areas that couples need to address when running becomes a source of conflict or symptomatic of other problems in the relationship: time, sex, social relationships, and imbalances.
1. Make Time
Landvatter said he posted the query on Facebook because “my girlfriend had just given me the ultimatum of choosing either her or running. She was furious that I was not spending my time with her and that I would rather run for hours. … What she originally admired about me”—being a runner—“now had the opposite effect.”
He explained that his girlfriend is a runner, too, who occasionally races half-marathons. As a full-time worker and mother of a young child, however, she didn’t have as much time to run as he did.
“She felt as if she wasn’t a priority in my life … but I wasn’t willing to put my running aspirations on hold in order to meet someone else’s emotional needs,” says Landvatter. Using the analogy of putting on your own oxygen mask before assisting someone else when an airplane loses cabin pressure, he adds, “Running is the oxygen mask in my life that allows me to be healthy and happy.”
A few weeks later, however, he says he realized, “I needed to learn how to flexibly manage both my recreational and personal life. Just like a rewarding view at the top of a mountain, a relationship takes work and effort.”
Now he’s waking up extra early to fit in running and also running on his work breaks, so he and his girlfriend have more time together. He’s also making more effort to include her in his races, so she feels like a part of his support team.
“I feel both worlds are becoming more balanced, and I’m reaping the happiness of them both for now,” he says.
Carefully negotiating and scheduling time together and time for running is key. Therapist Jim Bowen works with many couples in Denver and Boulder who entered therapy because one partner’s commitment to an endurance sport led to estrangement and conflict between them. During sessions, he says, “I’ve had to literally ask the athlete to pull out his training schedule to see if he’d modify it” to schedule more time together as a couple.
The next step, Bowen adds, is to be fully present with your partner when you are together. That means that couples should turn off their devices, get off Facebook and tune into one another, nurturing good conversation about something other than running. “Don’t make everything about you and your sport,” he says.
Rusty Speidel, 54, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his ultrarunning wife, Sophie, says his wife’s focus on running even when she was with him was in some ways harder to take than her time away on the trails.
“She’d run all day, then pick up Ultrarunning or Trail Runner and read until she fell asleep,” says Rusty Speidel. “The first year, when she was training for MMT [Massanutten Mountain Trail 100], there were 18 straight weekends like that. I started to wonder what was wrong with me. When I asked for some balance, I got serious pushback. … We finally agreed that when she was home, she had to be present and put the running away. It only partially worked.”
Sophie, 52, doesn’t disagree. In hindsight, she realizes, “I ran long in the mountains almost every weekend, because I thought that was how I needed to train appropriately for a 100. I now see that I totally overtrained.”
What changed? They both met each other halfway and rekindled an emotional connection. “We had some necessary and hard conversations in those early years, and I had to adjust my training and expectations,” says Sophie. “Also, I made a pact with myself that if my kids’ sports or school schedules conflicted with a race or run, I would bail on the run. Now I only race if everyone involved is good with it. Interestingly, as a result of this more relaxed approach, I’ve managed to run PRs in the past three years.”
Rusty changed, too. He took time to get involved at one of her races and consequently became more supportive when he witnessed Sophie’s effort.
“When we went to Western States together, I finally saw the sport for the awesome adventure it is,” says Rusty. “By mile 90 I was hooked. When she finished that race, I was a truly proud hubby and have remained so. But the early training was rough. As the non-running spouse, I would say that the runner must make time to be present—emotionally as well as physically—or there’s going to be trouble.”
2. Have Sex
Several trail runners have told me privately that they find it difficult to spend a half hour with their partner in bed, finding pleasure with each other, even though they have no problem running for four or more hours on a Saturday morning. Why?
It’s a combination of factors that, of course, varies with each couple: You’re tired. You worked up a sweat and got your endorphins from running. You have a dozen things on your to-do list and kids who need attention when you get home. What’s more, your partner may feel annoyed toward you, because you’ve been gone for hours on a run. And, perhaps you’re not feeling much attraction because you compare your partner’s softer, rounder body to your fitter runner friends. You both begin to view each other critically.
Sex, if it happens, devolves into an obligatory and infrequent quickie. Couples slip into a platonic dry spell, where they live together but rarely connect physically or emotionally, except when feelings erupt during fights.
Melissa Johnson*, 34, races several ultras annually and runs 50 to 125 miles weekly. She and her husband of eight years used to argue about her running, and she says he would give her “the silent treatment.” Their different bedtimes—she goes to bed a couple of hours earlier than he to wake up early and run—exacerbated their estrangement.
“We would be stuck in a ‘I’m-not-speaking-to-you’ day or week,” she says. “When we were intimate, it was great, which would lead to a good week, but inevitably something would come up and we would slip back into no sex for weeks again. Rather than saying, ‘Hey, I really missed you all week, can we just have a night alone?’ he would get angry and put down my interests and friends,” she says.
“Because I feel so passionate about running and volunteering at races, it really stung at my core when he put down these things,” adds Johnson. “I would be so hurt I wouldn’t want to spend time with him.”
Therapists say the best way out of this anger and alienation is to make a date—and a commitment—to literally touch one another, reconnecting physically and empathetically, even if neither of you feels like it.
To do this, it may help to think of sex as analogous to your training. Just as you get out and run even when you don’t feel like it—and almost always are glad you did—you can think of sex as something you should do even when you’re not excited for it, having faith that it will feel good once you’re warmed up.
Bowen counsels his clients who are endurance athletes to think of sex as cross training and bring their physicality and desire to exhaust themselves into the bedroom. He teaches them to use breathing exercises and other methods to become fully attuned to one another and more passionate in bed.
Similar to the adage “never judge a run by the first mile,” never judge sex by those first minutes. Give yourself time to warm up with talking and massaging.
Often, sex with a longtime partner and co-parent is a decision, not necessarily a drive, says Shonkoff. You make the decision to get in bed with your partner because it’s important for the relationship. If you wait for the drive—the anticipatory feeling you had in your 20s or in the first year of your relationship—then sex will be infrequent. But once you cross over the threshold, sex can be as arousing as ever.
Besides enjoying sex and reaping a more satisfying relationship, becoming intimate again has the added benefit of making your partner more supportive of your time spent running. “If a non-running partner feels their partner is engaged emotionally and sexually, they will be way more tolerant of all the things involved with running,” says Shonkoff.
3. Manage Friendships
Johnson used to feel uncomfortable hanging out with her husband’s non-runner friends, because she felt they negatively judged her for abstaining from alcohol when she had a long training run the next morning. “Often his friends don’t even meet before 9 p.m., which is my bedtime,” she says.
Then she joined a running group and began going out with her runner friends for social gatherings. “Finding a group of others who liked to talk about races, running and nutrition finally made me feel like I belonged,” she says. “But this of course made my husband feel left out.”
Their relationship deteriorated as they grew more distant from one another, and her husband became increasingly jealous of the time she spent running and with her friends.
“Looking back on that year and a half, I regret all that time we lost not communicating better,” she says. “Therapy helped me realize that what felt like perfectly acceptable behavior with friends—early morning runs, Facebook chatting at night—felt like traitorous acts to him. He also had to remember that I’m a good and trustworthy person, and that I’m out there because I love running and want to feel safety in numbers.”
When one partner begins to feel excluded or resentful because of the other partner’s involvement with running, the problem is not long-distance running per se, says Shonkoff. Rather, it’s the challenge of introducing third players in general. These “thirds” can be any person or task, such as a co-worker, a computer or smart phone, a work project or a sport—or even one’s children and friends.
A healthy, full life includes people and activities outside the primary partnership, she says, but “the problem arises when a partner has an overly intense or exclusive relationship with one of those people or things, and the other partner becomes marginalized. Both partners have to be absolutely committed to each other’s well being. If they’re regularly putting running, television, work, other relationships or anything else before their primary partnership, the relationship will be threatened.”
Transparency—that is, being open and honest with your partner about your plans and interactions with friends—is key to maintain trust and nurture support. If you find yourself hiding the fact that you registered for another trail race, for example, or you made plans with runner friends and sent them texts or emails that you don’t want your partner to know about, then you could be on a slippery slope toward poor communication, dishonesty and infidelity in your relationship.
Ironically, Shonkoff adds, when the commitment is securely in place, then both partners actually feel more freedom to pursue important interests and spend time with other people.
Melissa Murphy Thompson of Chicago, a dedicated runner and clinical social worker who counsels couples, is married to a musician, and they have three sons. Her running and his music no longer cause problems between them because they make time together and reconnect.
Thompson says it’s important that both people in a partnership have something they’re individually passionate about. “We are different and should enjoy our differences,” she says.
Says her husband, Jeffrey, “The wonderful thing that has happened is that I can understand how important training and racing are to her, because she is just as interested in how a new song or a new venue went for me.”
4. Find Balance
Someone who makes little time to be with a spouse or significant other, but spends as much free time as possible running, “most likely is running away from something,” says Thompson. “We need to look at what running may be providing that’s missing in the relationship.”
If your trail running tends to feel escapist or begins to play an outsized role in your life, it’s time to ask yourself what you might be avoiding and to seek more satisfaction in other realms of your life, say therapists like Bowen.
“People get so identified with their athletics, but they’re so much more than their performance or heart rate or the length of their run,” says Bowen. He encourages the athletes he counsels to broaden their scope of interests and deepen their connections with family and friends so they can find additional ways to experience pleasure and relief, “instead of believing you are totally dependent on exercise to calm and feel good about yourself.”
Says Sophie Speidel, “I definitely see my early years in ultras as an escape from the grind of work, parenting and marriage. … I got a lot of affirmation about myself as an athlete, and this felt really good to my ego.”
She still runs 50-milers and 100Ks, and she loves her time on the trail with her mountain-running group, “but I no longer feel that running ultras defines me, nor do I escape to the trail to deal with life’s struggles. I turn to Rusty instead of turning away.”
Rusty, who’s pursuing his own hobbies of music and cycling, went from struggling to understand his wife’s ultrarunning to being her biggest fan. “We’ve learned to make the most of the time we have to pursue these hobbies, and then to bring the experiences home to enrich our days,” he says, “and we’ve learned to be more present when we are together.”
Red Flags In Your Relationship
If any of these situations sound familiar, you and your partner should talk openly and empathetically about the issue. Consider seeking counseling if you can’t resolve the conflict.
1. Your partner thinks you run too much.
2. Your partner feels you care more about running than about being together.
3. Physical contact with your partner is becoming less frequent, and you’d rather run or sleep more than have sex.
4. You share details about your life with your runner friends that you feel you can’t or don’t want to share with your partner.
5. When you make plans for long training runs or you register for races, you downplay or hide those plans from your partner rather than express your enthusiasm about them.
6. Running is the main thing in life that you find satisfying.
Sarah Lavender Smith is a Bay Area runner and contributing editor at Trail Runner who blogs at TheRunnersTrip.com. This article originally appeared in our June 2015 issue.