My wife and I have a deal: every time she joins me for a run around the park near where we live, I buy her flowers. I’m still not entirely sure why I agreed to this, but so far the arrangement hasn’t driven me to destitution. In the past five years, we’ve gone running together three times. She’s more of a yoga person.
Not that I wish it were otherwise. Being a runner who lives with a non-runner has its upsides. For one thing, it allows for a little healthy perspective—a reminder that some people, indeed the vast majority of people, really couldn’t care less about whether they manage to get in at least eight miles before dinner. There are tragedies in the world of much greater consequence than the fact that you missed your Sunday long run—like meeting your significant other at a trendy brunch spot dressed in split shorts and a singlet.
The flip side is that the lunacy of running becomes more apparent when your partner is a nonparticipant. After all, you’re the one who takes a lap in the park at 11:30 p.m. You’re the one who goes for a “rest day” jog in blizzard conditions. You’re the one who returns home from early morning races, your significant other still fast asleep as you furtively climb back into bed like a sweaty philanderer. (You’ve had a fling with an uptown 5K—you and 5,000 other freaks.)
I wasn’t always this dedicated. I was a decent runner at university, but I adopted a more casual relationship with the sport after an injury ended my competitive career early on. Most of my friends were more interested in binge drinking than hill repeats, so I took some time off—by which I mean about nine years. In 2013, the desire came back. I joined a club and started doing intervals again. I ran the New York City Marathon. I started referring to my “weekly mileage,” like this was a normal thing to do.
Nora, my wife (girlfriend at the time), was supportive of my increasing fanaticism, although I think it still baffles her that anyone would take running so seriously. In this, her attitude is consistent with that of her alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design. The school’s basketball team is called the Balls; the hockey team is called the Nads. (Chant: “Go Nads.”) The mascot is a cape-wearing phallus called Scrotie. To further bolster the art-school-student cliché, Nora owns a T-shirt that reads “SPORTS.”
I think there’s a cultural aspect to this contrast, too. I’m half-American, but Nora is from Austria, the country where we both grew up. It’s a place where the prospect of adulthood always felt much more austere compared to the fun-loving USA. In the “old country,” everyone over 18 is expected to be unflamboyant about their athletic pursuits. (Skiing being a notable exception.) Members of our parents’ generation might have belonged to a tennis club or have occasionally gone for a jog, but it is all very understated. This is changing, if only gradually. In the United States, meanwhile, exhibiting an active lifestyle is encouraged, no matter how old you are: “26.2” bumper stickers, corporate lawyer “dadbros” who shred on weekends, the Lululemon set. In this sense, I’m much more American than my wife. I drank the Kool-Aid. These days, I own five pairs of racing flats.
Even though it’s a subject I frequently write about, I’m always bashful about bringing up my own running. (Though clearly not bashful enough.) In the opening paragraph of his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami writes that “a gentleman shouldn’t go on and on about what he does to stay fit.” He then goes on and on about something millions of people do to stay fit. I understand his initial hesitancy. I’m not remotely close to being a professional athlete, so who cares about the tempo I did last Thursday? At times, it feels hard to justify doing it at all.
But when you live with someone, it’s not easy to be discreet about your jock habits. Your dirty laundry is always on display. I mean that literally. There’s a drying rack in our modest-sized New York City apartment, which, more often than not, will be laden with my pungent workout attire. I’ll be thinking, “Hey, it’s not so bad,” while Nora is lighting incense in the next room.
Such challenges of cohabitation are real enough, but traveling is the ultimate way to see how well a relationship holds up under duress—especially when one of you is a runner. On trips, you’re more tethered to one another than at home; that post-breakfast 18-miler becomes a shared burden. We’ve forgone the scenic route many times in favor of bombing down some loveless stretch of highway just so somebody could get in a jog before sunset. Lest anyone should accuse me of not knowing how to show a girl a good time: on a recent visit to California, we spent the better part of an hour driving around a desert town in search of a 400-meter track.
We started taking tango lessons last year. To say this is a form of reparations is not strictly accurate, since I do actually want to learn—or, rather, I want to already be really good. Nora is already really good. Me, not so much. The idea is that dance, unlike running, is something we can actually do together. This is certainly true in theory. Our instructor is a middle-aged Serb named Dragan who likes to hijack my wife to demonstrate his killer moves.
I’m starting to think that maybe we should take up badminton.