I felt like my body was falling apart.
Were it not for the bombing at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, I’d likely never have become a qualifier. I had one marathon under my belt in 2012 with a 3:52 time. The thought of chopping almost half an hour from that time to qualify—running close to 8 miles per hour for 26.2 miles—seemed like more pain than I was willing to tolerate.
It wasn’t a midlife crisis that motivated me, it was an act of terror.
I watched the horror unfold on live television; it wreaked havoc on my emotions. After a time, I realized that as a health and fitness writer, I felt a certain duty to be there the following year to be part of taking back the finish line and telling the story of the 2014 Boston Marathon from my perspective. I was a voice in the running community. It was my job to be there if I could manage it.
And I barely did. The last few miles of my qualifying run I experienced more pain than I felt I could tolerate, and collapsed before the finish line, crawling the last few feet, making the time with a scant 29 seconds to spare.
It wasn’t about proving something, and it wasn’t about pride. I was 45 and did not want to log those months of training miles to make the qualifying time. It was about honoring a commitment to my fellow runners that I would be a part of something important, so I could share the tale.
A short while after qualifying, but before running Boston, I was at CBC Radio and the drive home announcer—a man I’ve known over 20 years—heard my qualifying tale of woe and said, “You may be in pain now, but soon you’ll want to beat that time.” Me: “Nope. That’s going to stand as my PR forever.” Him: “Oh, I’m sure you’ll change your mind.” Me: “No. Not changing it.”
That was five years ago. Still haven’t changed my mind.
I recently read a piece on medium with the title “Extreme Athleticism is the New Midlife Crisis.” It tells the tale of people engaging in hardcore workouts and extreme endurance events as a way to bring meaning to their lives at a time when they feel like they’re lacking it. Toenails are lost. Ibuprofen is popped. Family and friends are ignored in favor of training.
I received a message from a woman a while back who I consider a “workout widow.” She has three small children. Her husband was training for his eighth Ironman triathlon while also working full time. He’d get home from work, shove food in his face, then leave her with the kids for the rest of the evening to go on lengthy runs or bike rides. He trained all weekend as well. She felt completely alone in raising their children.
She told me she was considering divorce.
I’d like to do an Ironman one day, mostly because I want to get that tattoo. But just one; I have no desire to be a regular on the Ironman circuit. When my wife was training for her blackbelt, most of the family duties fell to me. I told her payback would be Ironman training. Our relationship can handle six months of me ignoring her in favor of training, and moaning in pain the rest of the time I’m blobbing on the couch.
But if I repeated that again and again? She’d be vexed, and rightly so. Having an affair isn’t the only way to implode your relationship because you feel the years slipping by.
There are people who engage in ultra events again and again and make it work with their relationships, doing it in a psychologically and physiologically healthy way. And that’s cool. My warning is for those who are doing it in an unhealthy way, where it comes to rule their life.
Years ago I wrote about the dualistic model of passion in sport. Are you harmonious in your passion, or obsessive? The former is pleasurable and more autonomous, the latter more rigid and has a high degree of burnout.
I’ve been at this fitness thing a quarter century, and have never obsessed. I don’t lose toenails, I don’t pop painkillers, I don’t ignore injury.
And I’ve never been at risk of burnout. I will not quit.
I interviewed Howie Mandel a few years back about his running. Howie has mental illness, and running is what keeps him calm. I don’t have such illness, but I have come to rely on regular exercise for my happiness. It’s a source of immense pleasure for me. On a day when I do nothing physical, I don’t feel quite right. I didn’t get my fix. But it’s not obsessing over some regimen that must be adhered to.
The point of this post is to encourage you to be fit, but not at the cost of your health, your relationships, or your psyche.
I did not enjoy the training it took to qualify for Boston. I’m proud of the accomplishment, and crossing that finish line on Patriot’s Day 2014 was a great experience, but what it took to get there was an ordeal that took me out of my harmonious passion zone. For four months, my life revolved around training. There was a great deal of stress leading up to my qualifying race, wondering if I’d be able to do it. I was so messed up I couldn’t run for 16 days afterwards, and it created a persistent injury so that a year later I was forced to take four months off running to give myself time to heal.
Five years later, I’m running the same distances I did during that training, but it’s more runs and shorter distances. It’s slower, and I don’t do intervals. I just put in the headphones, head out the door and go at a pace I feel like and enjoy the experience.
Nothing hurts. I don’t have much of a schedule. I don’t ignore my family. I enjoy it.
And because I enjoy it, I keep doing it. And my body feels strong and capable, will minimal moaning and groaning. I’m not slacking in my household duties because I’m too exhausted from training. Exercise should lift you up, making you more energized for the rest of your daily life, not turn you into a wastoid who has nothing left over.
If you’re regularly too tired and sore from training to have sex, then I recommend re-evaluating your priorities.
James S. Fell, MBA, writes for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, AskMen, the Guardian, TIME Magazine and many other fine publications. His first bookwas published by Random House Canada in 2014. His next book, which is about life-changing moments, will be published in January 2019.