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Columnist Susan Lacke learns stubbornness is a trait best left on the race course.
Before my first Ironman triathlon, my then-boyfriend Neil somehow managed to covertly place a printed label on the stem of my bike. On race day, after I got out of the water and exited transition with my bike, I looked down and saw four words:
Man the F*** Up.
The surprise made me laugh and inspired me—it was exactly what I needed to get through a grueling bike leg. Since then, this philosophy has been a recurring theme for our relationship, condensed into four succinct letters: MTFU.
“I don’t want to do hill repeats today.” “I want you to MTFU.“
“The lake water’s too cold! How about we go to the indoor pool to swim?” “How ‘bout you MTFU?”
“This race looks hard. I don’t know if I want to register.” “Let’s talk about it over a nice cup of MTFU, dear.”
On race day, when things get tough, I hear Neil’s voice in my head, repeating those four letters on a loop.
Like most triathletes, Neil and I are stubborn, driven individuals. We’re persistent and tenacious. We exemplify MTFU to the extreme, on and off the race course. As a result, we also suck at asking for help.
In September, only two days after Neil and I cemented our four-year relationship with a pair of wedding rings, I learned I’d be undergoing ankle reconstruction surgery, a major procedure requiring weeks of bed rest and months of rehabilitation. “In sickness and in health” was put to the test during what was supposed to be our honeymoon period. Complicating things further, the surgery was scheduled the week before Neil was to race an Ironman.
MTFU, as always, was expected to carry us through. It had to—there was no other option, as my husband is…how do I say this nicely? Not equipped with any sort of bedside manner. This is, after all, the guy who stopped at Taco Bell before meeting me in the emergency room when I crashed my bike in a race. I love the man, but Florence Nightingale, he is not.
“Don’t worry about using a vacation day for me,” I told him when I shared news of the surgery date, minimizing the details of the procedure so as to keep him from worrying. “I’ve got this under control.”
“You sure?” He asked. I nodded. Neil smiled and kissed my forehead: “That’s my brave girl.”
MTFU was in full effect.
In the days after the surgery, I tried to maintain a sense of normalcy in our household. Ignoring the doctor’s orders, I hopped off the couch and onto my crutches. Work was completed. Meals were made. Tri kits were laundered. Groceries were bought and medicines were picked up from the pharmacy, all without once asking Neil for help. I was proud of what I could accomplish with a few pain pills and a lot of MTFU.
“Aren’t you supposed to be resting?” He asked one day as I made dinner at the stove, propped up by my crutches. I rolled my eyes and waved him away.
But when Neil was out of sight, I’d immediately fall into a deep sleep. Normalcy was exhausting, but he didn’t need to know that. The last thing I wanted to do was be a source of stress before his race.
The night before Neil’s Ironman, I was awakened from my slumber by an excruciating throbbing in my ankle. I had slept through my medication schedule, and my pain medicines had worn off completely. Gritting my teeth, I fumbled around on the nightstand for my pills before realizing I had left them in the kitchen at my last dosage.
Wincing with every motion, I grabbed my crutches and quietly shuffled my way through the pitch-black bedroom quietly, trying not to disturb Neil’s sleep. I felt the nightstand, then the door frame, then the—whoaaaaa!
I fell to the floor with a loud crash, landing on the ankle that had just been cut up, drilled through, and stitched back together. The fall set our three dogs barking, and the lamp turned on to illuminate Neil, running across the room with a terrified look on his face. I rolled on the floor, grabbing the cast on my ankle.
“I –sob – was –sniff– trying to –sniff– get –sob– my medicine!” I wailed from the floor, throwing the crutches across the room.
“Why didn’t you turn a light on? Why didn’t you wake me up? I’d have gotten them for you.”
“Because I’m supposed to do it by myself!” I cried.
Neil crouched down on the floor next to me, wrapping me in a hug. “Who said you had to?”
“What about MTFU?” As I wiped my eyes on his shirt, I could feel his ribcage shake with light chuckles.
“Save that for the race course, babe.”
Maybe he does have a little bit of Florence Nightingale in him after all.
When two stubborn, persistent individuals come together in a relationship, they’re still two stubborn, persistent individuals. The only difference is that they’re not alone anymore. They’re a team, if they let it happen—nay, if they make it happen.
There’s no magic fairy dust that suddenly renders couples empathetic mind-readers, able to cater to their partner’s every need. That takes listening—to your girlfriend share her fears before her first Ironman; It takes doing—sneaking into transition to write “Man the F*** Up” on her bike stem before the race; But most times, it takes talking—swallowing your pride (and your MTFU) to admit you can’t do something by yourself.
Who said you had to, anyway?