A runner’s thoughts on athletic romance

08 Jan 13
athletic relationships

As a female athlete, I’ve always had trouble finding guys who could understand my compulsion to exercise. When I met a guy, I’d put him through a series of tests. I wouldn’t shower for a couple days. I’d skip dates to do a workout. Then I’d whip out the old “Dude, check out my toenails” just to see how they’d react. I even tried to convert a couple guys into runners, but those relationships tended to end in shin splints and tears.

Then came the summer of 2010, after a disappointing track season and a bad breakup with a guy who’d quit playing soccer to spend more quality time with his X-Box. I’d gotten a job at a local outdoors store to fill some time.

On my first day, my manager said that my other coworker wasn’t there. Apparently he was away riding his bicycle in the woods somewhere.

“Wait till you meet Montana,” my manager told me. “You’ll really like him.”

Yeah, I thought. I sure do love a man in Spandex shorts.

I came into work the next day, and Jesus was standing at the register. He was wearing khaki shorts with sandals and a t-shirt with a picture of a green dinosaur riding a mountain bike. He had long dark hair falling into deep brown eyes, a Johnny Depp-style goatee on his chin. He glanced up to look at me from underneath long eyelashes.

“Oh, hey. I’m Montana.”

So it was a real name. I nearly swooned.

Our first “date” was a four-mile trail run—he used to be a cross country runner in high school. Halfway through, he knocked his head on a low-hanging branch and almost got a concussion. I laughed nervously and offered to buy him a Gatorade afterwards.

He was also an industry-sponsored mountain bike racer. So on our second date, I agreed to go mountain biking with him. That’s how I found out that the Spandex shorts were a necessary technical measure—every branch and jagger bush in the woods reached out to grab onto my Old Navy cargo shorts. Afterward jettisoning myself into multiple ditches, I wiped the sweat and dirt off my face and hoped to still look mildly attractive.

He convinced me to buy a mountain bike. Then he convinced me to be his girlfriend.

He was funny and smart—an excellent writer and an amazing athlete. Every morning I ran while he rode his bike. We went camping and read Jack Kerouac by flashlight in his tent. I showed him my black toenails. He didn’t break up with me. I was pretty sure I’d hit the jackpot.

We stayed together through the fall, the next year, and beyond.

In the past couple years, Montana’s tried to nurture my interest in bikes: patiently teaching me how to fix basic components (and then fixing them himself), advising me on what kind of gear to buy, taking me on easy rides in the woods. My bike handling skills have improved a lot since my first ride, but I always end up falling behind. We went on a ride together at Thanksgiving. A mile into the trail, he stopped and waited for me to catch up. I was already wheezing.

“Okay,” he said, “just hang onto my wheel.” I hate it when he says that. I glared at his back and rode behind him for a few minutes. Then we hit a technical spot, and he zoomed away. I mashed the pedals down harder, grinding my teeth and cursing under my breath.

During my off-season in the winter, he’ll run with me. But he’s fast. As he lopes along, I feel like I’m hauling ass, always a half-step behind. Usually I pretend that I have to stop to tie my shoe so I can catch my breath, glaring at him while he hops up and down to keep warm.

I go to his mountain bike races and sit in a camp chair with the other riders’ girlfriends and wives. Sometimes he wins, and I make him sandwiches afterward. I fake a smile and pat him on the back, feeling like an unfit loser, wishing I were out there winning something.

I’ve been on a steady athletic decline since high school, thanks to the general strain of being a college student. Since I have less time to spend training, I’ve gained some weight and gotten a bit slower. On the other hand, Montana eats 3,000 calories a day, doesn’t follow a training plan, and drinks beer with his friends every weekend. And he can still beat me in a 5k race.

If I think about this too hard, a nasty jealous bug starts squirming around in the pit of my stomach. Then I end up fuming and cold-shouldering him for a couple days. Poor guy.

In hindsight, I think all my annoyance stems from those previous boyfriends—the ones who were astonished that I could run for more than 20 minutes at a time. I’d gotten used to being the sporty one in the relationship. I get so much fresh air. Look at my glowing skin. Why don’t you get outside more? I’d thought that they didn’t quite understand me. But I was probably just keeping them at a distance on purpose, enjoying the feeling of superiority.

But Montana is different. He knows what it’s like to be obsessed with a sport. Like me, he really loves being outside. And the end of every trail, he’s waiting for me with a Clif Bar and a smile. He’s the kind of person I’d been looking for in the first place.

Maybe I need to find some ladies to ride with so I can stop making my boyfriend feel bad about being faster than me.

For the moment, I think I’ve found a solution: make him do something harder. Montana’s recently taken up mountain unicycling, and he’s paced me I’ve gone on a couple runs. It’s hilarious to watch him wobble along the trail in front of me. I don’t even feel obligated to keep up. But I do, because I like to laugh at him when he falls off. I also want to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself, because I still do like the kid a whole lot.

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