Not long before we planned to fly off to the Alps for our first vacation together, my girlfriend surprised me with a romantic weekend at Taos. Now, I'm a fine skier and all, but X Games, let's call her, turned out to be phenomenal.
She dropped into a shin-bang crouch and arced supersonic turns all the way from windblown summit to shadowy valley, airing off rock outcroppings, lumberjacking through trees, and zipping around intermediate slopes with the quickness of a Formula One race car. I cheered her on from far behind, more enamored than ever.
Not that I expected less. In the few months we'd been dating, X Games had proven ballsier than anyone I knew who actually had balls, and ogling her athletic greatness had become a sort of hobby of mine. She did it all—run, bike, ski, climb—with a grace that allowed her to smile even as she crushed me on a 100-mile road ride.
Like I said, she was super-cool.
"Yeah babe!" I hooted, floundering in the icy mist of her contrail. "Go, sweetness!"
Within the week, she'd dumped me.
Many Ryan Adams ballads later, I'd come to realize that her intuition was right; we didn't click. But as I watched her climb into her black V-8 pickup and drive away for good, one question lingered.
What if I skied better—would she love me then?
I suspect that she might have, if only for a couple more runs.
In retrospect, it's clear we suffered from what I've dubbed SDS, or Skills Deficit Syndrome, an affliction that's become all too common to relationships nurtured (and ended) in the outdoors. He enjoys jogging; she trains Kenyans. She likes to boulder; he soloed El Cap barefoot. The signs are obvious no matter what the imbalance. One person is slow, awkward, and exhausted. The other is either shouting encouragement ("What the hell!") or half asleep at the finish line.
From my unscientific research, SDS seems to most severely afflict mediocre outdoorspeople living in jockish mountain or beach towns. In other words, me and all my guy friends who know the lingo but can't do the moves. Surrounded by the perfectly toned couples of San Diego, Durango, or Jackson, we imagine that we too could be, if not the better half, at least one half of an alpha couple. We too could rise with the sun and surf a monster left-hand tube with our beloved... if only we didn't find big waves so scary.
Near as I can tell, there were no Gabby-and-Lairds back in the hook-and-bullet days, when guys just ventured off on their own to drink Stroh's and stab each other in the boots with frog-gigging spears. But then we discovered what Manhattan-based sex-and-relationships counselor Ian Kerner explained to me—"Adrenaline makes the heart grow fonder"—and now women and men share not only the trails but first ascents. In this brave new world, the alpha-couple dream is common, and keeping up with the Super Joneses too often leads to frustration.
Can you beat SDS? If not, then how do you live with it?
In search of answers, I contacted Evan Marc Katz, a bedroom-eyed "personal trainer for people who want to fall in love" and "America's leading dating expert," according to EvanMarcKatz.com. He was very busy and dismissed my concerns with a guffaw.
"Most people are just trying to find a partner!" Katz said. "We're not talking about a Middle East peace summit here. If he's a hiker and wants her to come along, then he has to slow down. If she wants to come along to spend time with him, then she's gonna have to speed up."
I told him it was rarely that easy.
He replied, "If that's so, you should count your blessings to know."
What was that, some kind of Zen koan in rhyme? Left adrift, I began to muse on my own dating history to see if there weren't some lessons to be gleaned.
Indeed there were.
Even during my infatuation with X Games, I might have seen that I was acting a bit eager.
I'd bake her desserts, ask if she wanted to go on a motorcycle ride, leave little "I miss you" notes made of twigs on her doormat—stuff I'd normally do. Just not all in one evening. When we took time to recreate apart, I'd slip away to ride bikes with the guys and she'd slip away... to ride bikes with the guys.
The tables turned when I met Cowgirl, an ebullient young woman who was fit from moonlighting as a circus trapeze artist but not too outdoorsy. We escaped to Telluride on Valentine's weekend so I could romance and—I now realize—scare the bejesus out of her.
After a snoozy morning of her favorite blue runs, I suggested (a couple of times) that we try a double black diamond. The couloir I was dying to ski started at 13,000 feet and gradually steepened until it couldn't hold snow. But instead of worrying her with the nasty bits, I focused on what tremendous fun she'd have. At the top I might have even said, "No, no, you'll do great."
Halfway down, she caught an edge, rag-dolled, and slid face first for a hundred yards before becoming entangled in a rope fence above a small rock band. I arrived to find her shaking and talking very softly. Once I gallantly rescued her, she quietly requested that I shut up.
Clearly, when faced with SDS, we men excel at finding the most deplorable course of action possible. What's more, we exhibit surprisingly bad manners while doing so.
A buddy of mine who's normally very patient remembers ditching an attractive woman in the middle of a skate-skiing weekend because she had, thanks to bone disease, a rod in her leg. "She wept when she couldn't catch on," he remembers. "‘Come on,' I said, ‘It's just a steel rod.' And I skied off, a true dick."
Of course, now more than ever, it's the men who are dusted. But, nonetheless, we still become surly. "When I first started mountain-biking, I had a lot of success early on. I loved it," says Jen, a real estate agent in Aspen. "The guy I was dating, a ski patroller, hated it. He wouldn't go on rides. He wouldn't cheer me on at races—he'd just no-show. I'd call later that night to tell him about it, and he'd be like, ‘Oh.'"
So what is it you ladies want us to do? "If you're not a great skier and dating someone who is, sign up for lessons," says 30-year-old Sandra, who skis 100 days a year. "Tell her you're on a business retreat and secretly take a couple weeks in Jackson."
Annika, a ripper featured in seven ski films, says it's even easier: You don't have to excel at her sport—as long as you excel at something. "I want to be pushed and motivated by my boyfriend," she explains. "Maybe I can beat him to the chairlift, but if he's a better mountain biker, I can follow his wheel on the descents and learn how to corner."
Not coordinated enough to make it happen? Then simply try not to be a jerk. "Don't feel like you have to take me on an ‘adventure' down some closed run without any snow," says Jennifer, a former freestyle competitor living in Park City, Utah. "Get over your ego; have fun. And if that doesn't work, then just watch my ass and like it."
Now that I can do!
But, honestly, these tips are hardly astonishing. How did it ever come to this, these playground rules?
Helen Fisher, research professor of anthropology at Rutgers University and author of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, believes that at least part of the answer is that, well, millions of years of evolution have not brought us that far. Women still can't ignore Cro-Magnon sex appeal, a man who is strong and skilled enough to protect and provide in the wild. "A woman might not need these traits in the modern world," Fisher says, "but that doesn't mean she's not attuned to them." Guys, unsurprisingly, are even more shallow. "Men," she says, "look for signs of health, fertility, and youth, including a supple figure, clear skin, bright eyes, swishy hair, and a buoyant personality."
In other words, humans are genetically predisposed to suffer SDS.
Thankfully, fate sometimes intervenes on our behalf.
This was the case when I met Dancing Queen, a Swedish engineering student with a mischievous sense of humor and an abiding love of disco.
On our first sporty date, she skied almost as well as X Games. But what she loved most—"being out in the nature," as she endearingly put it—happened to be what I loved most. Over the next eight months, we kayaked, canoed, backpacked, mountain-biked, road-biked, horseback-rode, and trail-ran all over the Rocky Mountain West. Never once did she melt down and cry in her gorp, and I pitched exactly zero hissy fits after discovering that she could sooner make rainbows shoot out of her fingers than canoe a straight line. That winter, she invited me to visit her family in Sweden, and even through the darkness of a Scandinavian winter, we continued our adventures, including a little långfärdsskridskoåkning, "tour skating on natural waters."
We gathered up our tour skates, 18-inch blades that strap onto hiking boots; filled a backpack with Swedish PowerBars (hot dogs) and Swedish Gatorade (a thermos of warm blueberry soup); and set off to explore a cluster of islands off the coast. Our plan was ambitious: Enjoy the five hours of daylight.
Dancing Queen clipped into her skates fast and glided away on easy strides. From a distance, I could hear her faint cheer, each accented vowel and consonant bouncing back: "Ya-ay." I pushed off to catch up and slid a good 15 feet. Friction, that evil force that fights all movement, hardly came into play.
We meandered north, following cracks that ran like ribbons through the ice, chasing fish swimming lethargically in the watery depths. Dancing Queen held out her pole and, with the wind pushing us from behind, we glided in tandem, weaving and swooping like seagulls. It was cheesy as hell. And wonderful.
Unfortunately, Dancing Queen's U.S. visa soon expired, and maintaining a transoceanic relationship proved challenging. Texting, "Me compare u 2 a s's day? tho Rt + lovely & + temperate" wasn't cutting it. Eventually, I had to choose between America and Sweden.
Looking back on it, I no longer wonder why we got along so well, even more so since I recently moved to New York, where SDS is nowhere near as prevalent as GISPS (Guys in Skinny Pants Syndrome). Indeed, the other night at a wine bar, an attractive woman told me she thought more people needed to "do nature," as if the outdoors were a lunch date. Soon after, I was suppressing a crush on a gym-class instructor named Jewel even as she brutalized me in her Super Sexy Legs class. Right about now, living in the city, some SDS sounds great.
But I wouldn't call it a blessing.