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Triathlete Love: Burnout

As the partner of a fellow triathlete, sometimes Susan Lacke has to step away from her role as his cheerleader and keep her mouth shut.

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As the partner of an endurance athlete, Susan Lacke’s role is not always to be his biggest cheerleader. Sometimes, it requires quite the opposite – knowing when to keep her mouth shut.

“I’m going to go for a sub-three hour time at the Tucson Marathon!” my partner, Neil, declared proudly between bites of pizza.

Having finished his third Ironman of the year only 15 minutes prior to that statement, he was ecstatic, even giddy. Meanwhile, I rolled my eyes. I knew a case of runner’s high when I saw it.

“Okay, honey. Let’s see how you feel about that in a week or two.”

But Neil was relentless. Over breakfast the next morning, he spit-balled plans for achieving his goal in December, a solid four months away. But first, he promised me, he would recover. And recover, he did. Soon, that runner’s high of August plummeted into an apathetic low.

For the entire month of September, Neil immersed himself in all he had missed during the regular season. For one blissful month, we slept in, lingered over lazy weekend brunches and went on many lovely dates. On one such date, Neil brought up his marathon goal:

“Hey, babe, do you still have that free entry to Rock & Roll Arizona?”
“Yes. Why?”
“Well, I was thinking Tucson is just too soon. I need a little more time off. Maybe I should push my sub-three back a month.”
“Well, let’s get you signed up for January, then.”

In October, he returned to the pool, but he wasn’t his usual self. As we drove home from yet another uninspired training session, he revisited his marathon plans:

“Honey, what do you think about the Lost Dutchman Marathon?”
“In February?”
“It’s my favorite course. Why?”
“I think I’m going to do my sub-three there instead. It feels right.”
“Okay, love.”

Come November, his workouts were still few and far between. Some days, I had to poke him with a stick as he lounged on the couch, just to make sure he was still breathing.

“You’re signed up for the Phoenix Marathon in March, right?”
“Yes.” By now, I knew what was coming.
“I was thinking…that race is mostly downhill. It’s perfect for a sub-three attempt. I could just let gravity do its thing, you know?”

As the partner of an endurance athlete, my role is not always to be his biggest cheerleader. Sometimes, it requires quite the opposite—a quiet, patient presence. To put it bluntly, it means knowing when to keep my mouth shut.

You see, burnout happens. If you haven’t experienced this phenomenon firsthand, it’s an odd sensation: knowing that you’re well within reach of your goals (say, a sub-three hour marathon), but just not being able to muster up the energy to actually do it. You’re motivated, but you’ve lost interest. You’ve got goals, but you’re tired. You care, but you simultaneously just don’t give a crap.

Though it’s never easy to see someone you love in this state, it’s even harder when you realize there’s not much you can do to fix it. It simply needs to run its course.

Like a fingerprint, burnout is unique to the person experiencing it. Symptoms vary from one athlete to the next, and each requires its own unique timeline for resolution. I don’t live in his body or brain, so it’s improper of me to make assumptions about what he wants, or when he’d be ready to return to training.

Which is why, when Neil pushed his return to training back yet another month, it wasn’t my place to throw a pair of running shoes at him and yell “GET OFF THE COUCH, YOU FATASS!” Instead, I had to trust that the fatass would make that decision himself, when the time was right for him.

In December, I woke up one morning to an empty bed. Neil had already left for a run. The next day, he asked if I wanted to go to the pool with him. Slowly but surely, we both fell back into our normal training routine—he for his first of three Ironmans in 2013, and me for my own preparations for a spring Leadman race.

Our couch is largely unoccupied these days. The leisurely brunches of September have been replaced with long bike rides in January. He hasn’t brought up the marathon since November, and I haven’t said anything about it. It’s irrelevant. What matters more to me is that, as I type this, Neil’s in our living room, whistling as he puts on his heart rate monitor.  He’s heading out for a run, and he’s happy. That makes me happy.

It ain’t a runner’s high, but that’s more than okay with me.

Susan Lacke’s “Triathlete Love” column appears every month on Lacke gives her humorous take on sharing a house, a life and a race schedule with the man of her dreams—an Ironman triathlete named Neil, who Lacke describes as “Insanely Hot.” (Then again, aren’t all triathletes hot?)

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