It’s a question as old as time itself: if you could have one of Superman’s powers, what would it be? Super strength would obviously be cool, and we could all find a use for X-ray vision, but if there’s one super-power most of us covet above all others, it would be Superman’s time management skills. In the midst of stopping bullets and outrunning trains, the Man of Steel also manages to maintain a career as a journalist, court Lois Lane, build a solid friendship with Jimmy Olson, and remain a doting son to Ma Kent. Wonder Woman too. Sure, she’s a superhero, but she’s also the world’s only pilot of invisible jets, the sole representative of her Amazonian race, a damn good personal assistant, and a romantic interest for Steve Trevor. Most of us have a hard time juggling the basic responsibilities of life (marriage, kids, job) and here are a couple of people that find the time to do everything we do and fight crime. How humbling is that?
The same could be said for those rare athletes who balance a passion for their chosen sport with the responsibilities of a normal life. These superheroes are athletes like Jay and Monica Curwen, two of the top adventure racers in the Southeast who also happen to be full time parents, spouses, and owners of Black Dome, one of the most successful outfitters in Western North Carolina.
“I spend 70 hours a week at the store,” Jay says. “I was running the Mountains to Sea trail at 7am this morning. Monica left at 5am to teach a yoga class. Tonight, I’ll go for a paddle. That kind of stuff is sweet.”
The Curwens and a handful of other dedicated athletes are leading double lives, going from work to the trails while changing clothes in the car, tackling superhuman feats like ultra marathons and 24-hour adventure races and washing the dishes and watching their kids play soccer. While most of us are struggling to squeeze in a 15-minute jog on the treadmill, these competitors are performing at the top of their game and succeeding in their personal and professional lives. At least Superman and Wonder Woman had the suspension of disbelief working for them. These athletes have to lead their double lives while adhering to the basic laws of physics, space, and time. And according to recent studies, those laws are already being stretched thin by the American family.
A 1997 study published by the Families and Work Institute showed that 70 percent of working parents felt they weren’t spending enough time with their children. In the time-crunched frenzy of working parenthood, health and relationships inevitably suffer: McDonalds is the source of 10 percent of all family meals, the American lunch hour has shrunk to 29 minutes, and parents are spending 10-12 hours less per week with their kids than they did in the ‘60s, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Where do athletes-who are also devoted parents and spouses-find time for outdoor adventure?
Namrita Kumar and Eddie Odea think about that question a lot. Eddie is a fixture on the 24-hour mountain bike racing scene, finishing first at Southern Lights and most recently coming in second at 24 Hours of Conyers, just behind top pro Ernesto Marenchin. Namrita is a 24-hour mountain bike up-and-comer with a list of top three finishes on her resume. They both train 12 to 16 hours per week with professional coaches and maintain a full race schedule during peak mountain biking season. Living in downtown Atlanta, the couple has to drive at least an hour to reach a decent trail system, and that’s without traffic. They balance work, school, and play plus they’re getting married in the fall in the North Georgia mountains–and it's still not enough.
“I want to get more into the cycling community,” Eddie says, explaining why he recently left his corporate job to open a cycling performance center. Apparently, bikes and suits don't mix and both Eddie and Namrita insist on making biking a priority, even if it means other responsibilities get pushed aside. Like planning a wedding.
“I knew that once race season started, the wedding planning would fall by the wayside,” Namrita says. “But the whole process of wedding planning is ridiculous to begin with. I want it to be fun and I want our guests to be comfortable, but we’re not willing to put the thing we love on hold just so we can plan our wedding.”
And forget about cleaning the house. “It’s the first thing to get cut from our schedule,” she says. “It’s sad, but you get back from a ride and you put your gear on the floor and it stays there until the next ride. There isn't time for everything. If you want to race at a certain level, something has to be sacrificed.”
What many athletes find themselves sacrificing in order to maintain their level of competition, is the idea of having kids. D.C. trail runner Bill Bierman is hoping to put off having kids until the running bug is out of his system. “My wife wants to have children soon, but honestly, I can’t help but wonder what the responsibility of children would do to my running career,” Bierman says. “It’s hard to justify going for an hour run in the morning when someone has to make the kids lunch and get them off to school.”
The idea of spending 17 to 35 hours a week on childcare (the national average) has kept more than one athlete from having kids. And we’re not just talking about elite competitors. More and more, average outdoor adventurers are putting off having children as long as they feasibly can because they don’t want to lose their quality outdoor time. It’s simply a matter of math. If you’re working 40+ hours a week, sleeping a minimum of 30+ hours a week, and also taking care of a child 30+ hours a week, where do you find time to climb Linville Gorge or bike Tsali?
“Children definitely cut into your adventure time,” says Jason Babkirk, who, along with his wife Rachel, was at one time one of the top sponsored climbers in the Southeast. As a couple, they helped put the New River Gorge on the climbing map, landing in magazines like Rock & Ice and Climbing.
“I climbed full time for eight years, four or five days a week,” says Rachel Babkirk, who is usually mentioned along with Lynn Hill when people discuss the best women climbers in the country. “When you have kids, something has to give.”
When Jason and Rachel had their first child, Kaya, three and a half years ago, that full-time climbing schedule is what gave. After Kaya was born, the couple focused less on the problems in New River Gorge and more on the challenges of raising a child.
“I’m definitely climbing less than I used to,” Jason says. “And Rachel isn’t climbing at all right now because she’s giving birth to our second child in four weeks. Rachel was and is one of the best female climbers in the country. She probably could have done a lot more with climbing, but it's hard to bring a kid onto the rock.”
Not that Rachel has any regrets. “I definitely miss climbing, but it’s good for your body and mind to take a break. It gives you perspective. When I was climbing full time, it started to lose a bit of its magic. It was a full time job. With Kaya, I understand that climbing isn’t everything in life. Now, when I go out, I’m blown away. I appreciate it more.”
When children move from the hypothetical to reality, the first thing a parent usually cuts is his or her own personal pursuits. Patty cake replaces mountain biking, and it’s no accident. Most of us are still working under the model for happiness that Sigmund Freud made popular at the turn of the 20th century. According to Freud, there are only two crucial needs for adults: love and work. For most adults, love and work become the only two priorities in our lives, and not necessarily in that order.
“People today devalue their play,” writes Lenore Terr, a professor of psychiatry, in her book Beyond Love and Work: Why Adults Need Play. “We tend to play less and less the older we become…and we are forgetting to realize how important play really is.”
Terr notes that even our dictionaries define “play” as an activity specifically for children-not adults. Those outdoor adventures that occupied much of our time as young, single, childless adults suddenly become frivolous and unnecessary when family comes into the picture.
“It’s a truly rare bird to find married couples with children that climb,” says Rob Macgregor, a part-time stay at home dad and owner of Nirvana Climbing Guides in Maryland. “I think it’s that way with any elite sport. It’s difficult to balance the active lifestyle with the married lifestyle.”
Mark and Anne Lundblad understand why athletes would be hesitant to have children. Both Mark and Anne are elite ultra runners; between the two of them, they’ve probably won more ultra races than any other running couple in the country.
“Before marrying Anne and becoming a step-father, I ran whenever I wanted,” Mark says. “Now, we look at our schedule at the beginning of the week and plug our runs in around our life. When you’re single and really giving it a go, you do the opposite. You plan your life around your runs.”
It's the running lifestyle tht gave Anne Lundblad pause when thinking of children. “I put off having a child for a long while,” Anne says. “I felt that once I had a child, my running career would be over.”
Obviously, that wasn’t the case. In 2005, Lundblad finished second at the IAU World Cup in 2005, finishing only seconds behind the winner and earning her place as one of the fastest female ultra runners in the world. And she did it while being a mother, wife, and a counselor at Warren Wilson College.
Monica and Jay Curwen struggled with the decision to have a child as well. As an integral part of Team Litespeed, one of the most successful adventure racing teams in the country, much of their free time is devoted to training for 24-hour multi-sport races.
“You’ve got to really want to have a baby,” Monica says. “You give up a lot, but there’s so much to gain. When you look objectively at the things we do, especially the workouts we insist on doing, you realize they’re really selfish.”
But Terr suggests the average American adult should be a little more selfish when it comes to reclaiming their free time and rediscovering play. She insists that play is equally important as love and work in a person’s well being and that “the lack of play dulls a person and it may well be that an overall lack of play dulls a society.”
Look at the Baby Boomers-a generation that coined the phrase “workaholic,” a generation that notoriously divided its time between work and family only, and a generation that experienced the sharpest rise in divorce rates in American history. It’s also a generation that discarded play as frivolous and provided the first multi-million dollar market for anti-depressants. The Baby Boomers are the most outwardly successful generation and arguably the unhappiest generation in American history.
Perhaps, as Terr suggests in her book, there is something wrong with the love/work paradigm. Perhaps play needs to enter the equation in order to achieve balance. The Curwens certainly think so.
“I need to ride my bike like a kid needs recess,” Monica Curwen says. “Workouts give me perspective.”
Eddie Odea and Namrita Kumar aren’t planning on giving up mountain biking after they have kids. “Kids are definitely in the future, but I’m not going to give up riding. I may race less but I’m not going to stop riding,” Kumar says. “If anything, I’m looking forward to introducing our kids to mountain biking. Eddie’s already joking about trying to get them sponsored.”
Eddie might be on to something. Active parents are struggling to accomplish two things: spend more time with their kids and spouses and find time for their own adventurous pursuits. Combining family time with outdoor adventure could prove to be the silver bullet for the time crunch phenomenon facing active adults. And according to recent research, playing outside might even save the American family.
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Kaya Babkirk is worried that she won’t be able to climb any more because she sustained a wrist injury, or as she puts it, she got a boo-boo. Kaya, first daughter to Rachel and Jason, is only three and a half. The Babkirks, while they no longer climb full time, still hit the rock as often as possible. And more importantly, they’re teaching their daughter to climb.
“I built a climbing wall in her playroom,” Jason Babkirk says. “It’s a vertical wall so she’s already bored with it. She’s moved on to the 40-degree wall we have out back.”
The Babkirks even had a full body harness for Kaya when she was younger: a sort of baby-on-board approach to sending routes. “Now Kaya’s getting to the point where she can go out and climb easy routes for a short day,” Rachel says. “We just have to be back home for nap time.”
Meet the new American Dream: loving parents, 2.4 kids, and a garage full of outdoor gear…that they actually use. While some athletes are avoiding family life like a diabetic avoids a Twinkie, others are taking the family plunge and figuring out a way to have their cake and eat it too. More often than not, that means taking the kids into the woods with them. The Curwens are frequent practitioners of the baby-on-board method of adventure. “I take our son Childon out for hikes and bike rides at least a couple of times a week,” Monica Curwen says. “He goes really hard and then dies out so I end up having to carry him. He weighs 35 pounds now, so it’s a lot like an adventure race on its own.”
And then there are the races, which often include Childon in one form or another. “We call our race weekends our quality time together,” Jay says. “We just did a tri in Hiawassee, Ga., and after the awards ceremony, we paddled around the lake with Childon. He loved it. We try to get everything wrapped up in one. Time management is key.”
Anne and Mark Lundblad couldn’t agree more. While Emma, now six, is too young to keep up with her parents on a lengthy trail run, the couple still finds ways to include their daughter in their outdoor lifestyle.
“Emma likes to swim,” Anne says, “so I’ll do some pool running while she swims next to me. She loves to camp and hike too. We’re raising a healthy child and instilling a love for the outdoors, so I think we’re doing something right.”
Raising a healthy child with a love for the outdoors isn’t just right, it could also be the key to family happiness. According to Dr. Scott Bandoroff, a psychologist in Oregon specializing in family therapy, the family that plays together just might be the family that stays together. Families that attempt to maintain their outdoor pursuits while juggling everyday responsibilities might even prove to be the healthiest households on the block.
“Don’t underestimate the magical healing properties of nature,” Dr. Bandoroff says. “The time out that the outdoors gives you provides an intense situation to work on inner-family communication and trust.”
Bandoroff is on the forefront of “family adventure therapy” which applies the basic model of wilderness therapy, popular for treating troubled youth for decades, to families. Bandoroff leads families on four to five day wilderness expeditions that include rock climbing, whitewater rafting, camping, and specific challenge courses. Most of the families Bandoroff works with are having “emotional reattachment” issues. They simply aren’t connecting, which could be a side affect of the American family’s busy life. A working dad averages 17 weekly hours with his children-most of it on weekends, according to a Penn State study (working moms average 35 hours per week). Subtract the weekends, and your typical father spends roughly one hour a day with his children during the week. It’s no wonder families are desperately struggling for “emotional reattachment.”
“The fact that we’re living in such a hyper-time-sensitive world is all the more reason to make time for play,” Dr. Bandoroff says. “The idea of putting other things aside and reaffirming our commitment to family is key. And there’s no better forum for that than the outdoors. Everything in the outdoors requires a group effort. Rock climbing alone is a natural metaphor for cooperation and communication.”
Family dynamics aside, Jason Babkirk simply likes climbing with his family. “It’s nice when you can actually play with your spouse and kids. It’s fun.”
Ideally, “fun” is what outdoor adventure boils down to, even for highly competitive athletes. They don’t keep running and riding and climbing because they’re obsessed with standing on the winner’s podium. They make outdoor adventure a significant part of their lives because they love it. And having a family has only added to that love for these athletes.
“There’s nothing better than doing what you love with the people you love,” says Monica Curwen. “When you have a family, you get to share your passion for the outdoors with someone else. That’s what it’s all about.”