WHEN THE LOVE AND RUNNING BUGS MIX: CAN THEY WORK? (written for UK Athletics 06/08).
There’s surprisingly more ‘running couples’ around than you’d imagine. When two people share a passion for the sport they love so dearly; supporting each other through their training and racing trials and tribulations and creating opportunities to spend quality time together (even if they’re knackered whilst doing it) is an attractive relationship scenario for many.
Of course, there are downsides to being in a running-mad partnership; despite being committed to their sport and to each other, some spouses can become too intense and perhaps neglectful of their partner – running is after all, supposed to be a selfish sport. On the other hand, some runners may feel their partner just isn’t serious and dedicated enough for their liking. Then there’s the problematic case of one-half of the couple achieving more success than the other; with the couple being immersed by jealousy and resentfulness, or the workload of one can annoy the other’s aspirations for time for ‘romantic activities’– the list goes on...
The late promising American marathon runner; Ryan Shay said he would never date a runner; “In college, a lot of distance runners are obsessive-compulsive, and I didn’t want to deal with that,” the 2003 United States men’s marathon champion claimed. “But when you’re out of college, it’s totally different. Running is my career. It’s 24/7. Every decision you make will affect your performance. It’s hard to find someone who respects that.”
There are however, several examples of successful ‘running couples’ who have embraced a highly-structured, dedicated and time-consuming lifestyle; content to accept that running’s part of them and discipline is key. Being with someone who understands the need to stick to schedules, diets and generally being abnormal is a privilege and I for one, have had a handful of partners who didn’t make the grade, before finally finding a match.
My partner; Adam Sutton (27) and I (22) became interested in one another through our shared passion for running and on our first date; chatting about our past athletic achievements over dinner (pasta of course!), I invited him back to my place to watch an indoor international athletics meet, which the BBC were screening that same afternoon. It was clear neither of us really fancied missing it, even in the throes of our supposed-to-be-romantic first rendezvous and it gave us a chance to truly see how clued up on the sport the other really was! Absolutely taken aback by his expertise on the footwear and stats of the stars; combined with regaling me with stories of his running days and I was smitten. It was strange finally finding a guy who not only knew as much about athletics as me but who had also achieved more as an athlete but I liked it! Evidently in friendly competition with each other to see who knew most about the athletes in front of us, it was a lovely – and unique – scenario to find myself in; sharing a genuine, passionate love-affair with the sport, whilst trying to build a relationship with a male version of myself; certainly not something you come across very often.
Adam’s decrease in his training and racing coincided with his appointment at Nike. For a guy who’s addiction for running and for any sports apparel with a swoosh on it is equal to that of the Pope’s liking for the Catholic religion, it’s the perfect job – except, by working as Nike rep for the North of the UK and living out of hotels and travelling so much, his time for running has somewhat diminished. It’s a huge shame, too as he has massive potential as a distance runner. Attending Providence College in Rhode Island over in the States for a few years on an athletic scholarship, Adam had significant success – including two GB 10,000m appearances at the European under23 Champs - until an unfortunate Achilles injury ended his aspirations to do great things. Since meeting me however, I think he’s realised I can be very persuading and he’s starting to train more.
Although he hadn’t trained seriously for a couple of months before meeting me, Adam soon began doing the odd training run and session with me. I’ve never needed the company before; being an athlete who trains alone, but indulging in our favourite pastime together really gave us a chance to get to know each other more – and see each other in lycra or getting hot and sweaty! I was immensely grateful for his company in my first session back, a few days after my half-marathon debut (a collection of 600, 1000 and 300m reps); constantly talking, trying to make me laugh and take my mind off the soul-destroying ‘brick-legs’ and how many men would turn down a Sunday morning lie-in to cycle alongside me whilst I do my easy 15-miler? – yep, having a dedicated boyfriend/training partner has certainly helped me learn more about him as a person – a true gentleman, a great motivator and he’s either mad or must like me a little perhaps...his ultimate sacrifices come with his regular near 2-hour long drives to visit – and he still wants to run when he arrives (even without me) – impressive!
It’s a rare thing to have a partner who’s such a vital piece in my support network – he keeps me grounded and does his best to help me to be positive, philosophical and calm; all whilst offering me the benefit of his experience as a runner himself. I’ll be honest and admit on occasions there are times when it’s tough to drag myself away from ‘snuggling’ to go for a run, but the moment usually quickly passes and the satisfaction I’ll get from an encouraging workout can be shared on my return. Races, too have a new element to them – I now race to impress not only myself and coach, but my beau – at the very least to show my gratitude for coming along to support and brave the elements and, if I’ve ran poorly; my less-than-gracious and not-so-positive attitude. Having someone who understands what you’ve put yourself through is definitely a real bonus.
Understandably, top elite ‘running couples’ have to be even stronger, more dedicated and understanding than most. Combining gruelling training, travel and competition schedules together with the media spotlight put immense pressure on such duos to perform and stay strong. And top of the ‘celebrity running couple’ pile are Paula Radcliffe and Gary Lough.
It can’t be easy being constantly referred to as ‘Mr Paula Radcliffe’ but Lough insists he’s much more than merely just the trainer and baby-sitter in their marriage. In the mid-1990s, shortly after Radcliffe won the World junior Cross Country title, Lough was as promising a talent as the girlfriend he had met at Loughborough University -he represented Northern Ireland in the Commonwealth Games 1500 metres, and had a best time of 3:34.76.
Occasionally chided for a passing resemblance to David Beckham, he even featured on the cover of the International Athletics Annual in 1995, chasing future Olympic champion, Nourreddine Morceli in the World Cup race. Radcliffe; the future World marathon Record-Holder, in contrast did not merit a mention. Then a succession of injuries conspired to end his career, and he has since had to endure the frustration of backing up his increasingly famous and mind-bogglingly successful wife, while being perceived as the miserable, brooding presence on the sidelines.
Lough, 37 is effectively Radcliffe’s manager, race-organiser, fee-negotiator, training partner, and emotional prop. But he admits it was difficult at first. “For a while, I turned from being my own person to being Paula Radcliffe’s boyfriend. That only lasted five minutes in my head, but once I moved on from there, everything changed. Now other people find it harder to cope with than I do. You see sportsmen with wives in the background, but if you see a woman with her husband in the background, people assume that you’re a freeloader or whatever. Some people still ask me what I do, they say, ‘well, she does this running, what do you do?’”.
Radcliffe, 34 sympathises. “He handles it so well, considering his career was cut short, and he’ll never know what he could have done. But he still has to go to all these races that he’s been to as a runner, and just stand and watch. I think he handles that far better than I’d be able to. The worst was when he was still training, then breaking down at the last minute. But when he made the decision to retire, he was a lot more relaxed. If he ever said, ‘this is too much for me, I don’t want to do it anymore,’ we’d get someone else to do it. He doesn’t have to be my manager; the most important thing is the relationship. He takes the stress off me”.
Another highly successful ‘running couple’ comes in the form of the Yellings. Britain’s number two marathon runner and two-time Olympian, Liz Yelling is married to international Triathlete; Martin and the pair run a performance, health and wellness consultancy; Full Potential.
Liz explains their relationship; “Martin is my manager and so he deals with press and race directors and sponsors. He helps me with some of my training, coming on the bike and handing me drinks and gels. He is very supportive and makes me feel good about my running.”
Another elite British pairing is the Pavey’s. World 5,000m fourth-placer, Jo Pavey married Gavin; a former middle-distance man, in 1995 and has been coached by him since 2001. The couple met when Pavey (34) was aged 15 and trained with Gavin (36) in Exeter – they became a couple two-years’ later and married after graduating from university.
Jo elaborates on their partnership; “Our relationship has always been really great. We are both very committed to what we are doing but we are naturally fairly laid-back types and not argumentative. We like to banter a bit for fun when training and I always like to try and beat him if I can. I really enjoy being coached by Gav; he is so supportive and it is also fun to work towards goals together.”
There’s also a plethora of examples of ‘high-achieving running couples’ from across the Pond, too. Ryan and Sara Hall have are married to each other and their sport, akin to those previously mentioned, and the Ryan; an up-and-coming marathon World-beater acknowledges he is blessed with more than just phenomenal running talent; "Sara and I spend most of our time together, mostly exercising or traveling—just like a retired couple," he says.
Mr Hall explains Sara; a talented 5km and 10km specialist, has “made a lot of sacrifices to help me prepare for races” and surely there’s no other face he would rather see first when he crosses the finish-line. “Yes – there’s no one I wanted to see more,” he said. “When one of us accomplishes something, I feel like we both accomplish it.” Instead of running on a track at sea level, Sara has spent six months training at altitude, often running on trails in freezing temperatures. Ryan said that his training left him exhausted at the end of the day and that Sara “played homebody for a while, and that’s not really her personality.”
Our second American - and final couple are the Gouchers. Kara; the World 5,000m bronze-medallist and Adam; a top middle-distance and cross-country specialist are the US equivalent of Radcliffe and Lough; mobbed by the World’s media and admired by ‘running couples’ the World over and - as with each of our documented couples - they are certainly ‘together for the long run’.