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.