Divorce by Triathlon

Being a psychologist in addition to being a health/fitness coach I tend to always be analyzing human behavior and what motivates individuals to do what they do. After all, no matter what we do has some sort of benefit to us either directly or indirectly. Skinner was always one of my favorites and I tend to shy towards the behavioristic models/theories of human behavior.

Having had a great deal of training and experience in working with individuals with suicidal tendencies/ideation, I was always aware of the phenomenon of "Suicide By Cop". If you are not familiar with "Suicide by Cop" it is the phrase used for individuals who are suicidal and decide to break a law that will involve police intervention. When the intervention comes in the form of an officer upholding the law the suicidal individual either draws a gun or makes a some sort of threat towards the police that will end in that individual's death. This is obviously a no win situation in that one person who needed help doesn't get it and the officer who is trying to do their job is left with the guilt of taking a life.

Where does triathlon fit into this equation? In reading blogs, knowing, coaching and being a triathlete myself, and combining all this with my background in psychology and behaviorism, I couldn't help but begin to draw some comparisons in this type of human behavior. It is a common and well known fact that Ironman distance triathlons or any ultra distance race (running/cycling) requires a great deal of time, commitment, and dedication to training. Those that take this challenge on know all too well what the are embarking upon. For some, this challenge and level of commitment maybe a way of building their self-esteem, feeling of purpose, feeling of accomplishment, or some combination of all three. For me it was mostly for the feeling of accomplishment and self-esteem. I am sure there were other factors involved that I am still unaware of that were playing a part in possessing me to wake up at 4am and ride my trainer and then run an hour at lunch time, only to bike another 2 hours outside after work. This type of behavior definitely warrants a psychological explanation though. I feel it was mainly a way for me to escape some things I was dealing with at work and also a way to feel that I was progressing in my life. After all, Americans are achievement junkies and I am no different.

Anyways, getting back to the high divorce rate in triathlon/endurance sports. I began to think that some maybe training for a host of reasons. One of them that came to mind is the idea of what I call "Divorce by Triathlon". Much like "Suicide by Cop" the individual begins to cause a situation in their relationship with their significant other that forces the desired result. In this case that result is divorce. When you have an athlete training especially for ironman distances it is not uncommon for them to put in 15-20 hours of training a week for months on end. This puts a great amount of stress on that person's spouse especially if they have kids and a job on top of everything else. Usually, the spouse tolerates this for the race, the triathlete finishes the race, calls themselves an "Ironman", and everyone goes back to life as usual. However, some don't stop there. They find that this lifestyle is quite nice and decide to continue to race and train for future Ironman events. No we are entering into a new realm I believe. This is no longer a one time event but a lifestyle change. Enter "Divorce by Triathlon".

Now there is no end in sight to the individual's training, racing, and time away from their "old" life. Most spouses tolerate this depending on their ability but ultimately the end result is "Divorce by Triathlon". The non-competing spouse becomes frustrated and problems begin. In my opinion it is not fair or reasonable to expect this from one's spouse. I know because I did it and have come to realize that it wasn't worth it.

I feel that some are able to compete at the Ironman distance and live a reasonably normal life. However, I feel these individuals are in the minority. I often wonder how many lonely wives, husbands, children of triathletes are out there wondering when the insanity is going to end. I know this is not going to go over very well with most Ironman distance competitors but I am also here to say that there is a life of excellent and outstanding fitness out there in case YOU decide to follow it. There is no shame in sprint distance or Olympic distance events. The belief that longer is better is in my opinion obsolete at this point IF your goal is to be a healthy individual. You will also find that a great many retired professional triathletes have come to these same conclusions. There is more to life. Being exceptionally fit does not mean you are exceptionally healthy. The two concepts are not the same.


sethmissile said...

Saw mention of you on today. Good points. As a coach myself, I encourage my athletes to focus on quality vs. quantity in training. Granted, that type of approach gets more difficult when a person starts training for a half or full-Ironman.

I hate seeing athletes train excessively to the detriment of the other areas of their life: relationships, work, children, etc.

You can race triathlon and still have a very balanced life! In the end that sort of balanced approach is more rewarding as you will have more people to share your successes with.

Pete said...

You are right. That is why I call my business "Balanced Training Solutions". You can be in great shape and have a life as well. You just have to be reasonable when it comes to how much time you have available to train and what your other "responsibilities" really are.

Matthew said...

In the day of training plan wizard writing software, libraries of pre-written triathlon programs, and a glut of free online workouts, it basically takes a chimpanzee to tell a triathlete when to swim, bike and run (that, or good copy-and-paste skills on the computer).

triathlon coaching

Pete Simon said...

You miss the whole point of having a coach. A coach isn't giving anyone a secret workout or any info they can't find on the internet. A coach is more than anything an objective voice that helps guide someone along towards their dream....whatever it maybe. To discount this as valuable only indicates ignorance and arrogance.

shirley ernst said...

I am one of those wife who suffers from an iroman husband and it is 100% true what you said.
My husband and I have been very close to get divorce many times because of that. I have a 9 years old special kid and 5 years old boy .. I am always alone (physically and emotionally ) Where is my husband ??? running, swimming and biking.
Everything that became an addiction CAN't be good. He lost the perfective of reality and what is important in life.
MOST of Triatlon people are VERY selfish .. it always about what they want, what they enjoy and what they deserve.
My husband and I are goig to therapy right now. I don't know if we are going to make it. What I am 100% is that I don't want lo live that way anymore.

Sofia_Henao said...

Dear Shirley I am really sorry to hear what you are going through, your comment really touched me. I am not married but I have been living with a Triathlon boyfriend for three years. At first he trained two or three times a week and I was happy to go and see him compete on some weekends. Everything was perfect but last year I got a job in another city and he started to train more and more. By the time I came back he was training every single day, at least two hours and competing in popular races very often. We talked and he said I am the most selfish person on earth and that I do not respect what he likes. I ask him directly to train less, that three times a week should be enough, but he said at home he is bored because we don´t do anything interesting plans. He also said that he want to train every day and that he does not do it he will feel bad, he also said he is like that and that he is not going to change. I really dont know what to do, he is never home, only while he rest after lunch. He arrives home at 4 then eats the lunch I cooked sit on the couch to watch sports on tv and he is all the time online buying some more things for his races and trainings. Then at 7 he goes to the gym and then so swim, ride bike or run. I want to show him that this is becoming an obsession and that is killing our relationship but I dont know how to do it! what can I do???

Pete Simon said...

The problem is on several fronts. First off people are confusing endurance with strength. If someone wants to truly be strong then lift weights 3 to 4 times per week for an hour per session. Then throw in 3 or 4 cardiovascular (bike or run) workouts at relatively high intensity.

Really competitive triathletes couldn't fight their way out of a etc paper bag. They are exhausted most of the time and physically look emaciated. Not my idea of "ironman" at all. But you can't convince some who insist on destroying themselves. I know as I've been there. I've lifted weights done high intensity training and also lost myself in triathlon. I can tell you....unless you're a natural endurance athlete (which I am not) you are only fooling yourself to think you can hang with one who is. It's an unfair match. I don't see many triathletes weighing in at 145 lbs trying to bench press 300 lbs.

As per relationship issues....triathlon is just another way to escape via fitness as a front. If you want to be fit and look good there are many other ways to accomplish that goal in a fraction of the time it takes to prepare for a long distance triathlon.

Your options are limited in terms of what you can do. You can support them and wait to see if they figure it out. You can leave. Or you can become one yourself. I believe most triathletes slowly back off over time due to burn out, injury, and fatigue...don't forget money either. Just a matter of how long or how patient you are.

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Ian Mathiesen said...

my wife has become more and more involved in the exercise industry over the past few years and started doing marathons, triathlons etc... she moved out 3 days before our 24th wedding anniversary and is now living with her personal trainer so I can say that yes "divorce by Triathlon" is very much a reality !!

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