Exercise is great for your heart, but a regular fitness routine can wreak havoc on a relationship, especially if your significant other’s idea of movement is reaching for the remote control.
We’ve all heard about “golf widows’’ bemoaning the hours their partners spend in pursuit of the little white ball. And for every person who is thrilled when his or her spouse goes from fat to fit, there’s another who resents the fact that Chunky Monkey has been banned from the freezer.
But triathlon, with its extreme time demands and its power to transform athletes both physically and emotionally, may be one of the toughest challenges any couple can face.
Triathlon has been called the “divorce sport” because the commitment it takes to complete one of these run-bike-swim events can leave the noncompetitive partner feeling neglected, and perhaps even abandoned.
We talked to three couples who have found their own ways to cope with the challenges of rigorous regimens — while making good relationships even better.
Julio and Jolie Velez met more than 40 years ago when they were both working at a department store in New York City. She was a 17-year-old with a part-time job. He was a 21-year-old starting his career. It was love at first sight.
Twenty years and three kids later, Jolie decided it was time to get in shape, hoping to control the asthma that she had suffered from since she was a child.
“I am a physical therapist,” she said. “I wanted to be healthy.”
In 1998, she started running, just a mile at first, but gradually she increased her distance to the point that she could finish a 5K. “There was a tremendous sense of accomplishment,” she said. “I felt great.”
Julio, however, was overworked and out of shape.
“I was proud of her, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “But there was a little tinge of resentment.”
But inspired by his wife, Julio eventually quit smoking, modified his diet and started exercising. He ran and walked, ran and walked, until eventually he could cover a mile without stopping. Forty pounds of fat melted away.
The Velezes ran a couple of races together and then they decided to try a triathlon.
“The only trouble was that neither one of us could swim,” Jolie said. “I was deathly afraid of the water. You grow up in the city, you don’t have a lot of access to pools.”
So at ages 52 and 56, Jolie and Julio took swimming lessons. “It took us about a year to get comfortable in the water,” Julio said. “But we stuck to it and did it together.”
In 2005, Jolie entered her first triathlon, on Long Island. Two years later, now living in Seminole, Fla., Julio finished the St. Anthony’s Triathlon. Since then, they have raced together several times.
“We have always had a tight relationship,” said Jolie, now 59. “But this whole experience has brought us closer together.”
“It has been fun,” said Julio, 62. “We’ve been really lucky.”
Chuck Wasson has a stressful job, working in insurance. If he didn’t have an outlet, he’d go crazy.
“I started doing triathlons back in 2000,” said the 47-year-old Largo, Fla., resident. “I really got into it. It is almost like having a part-time job.”
But Chuck has seen the sport ruin marriages. “It can really pull people apart,” he said. “For it to work, you really need a supportive spouse.”
Chuck and his wife, Wendy, have been married for 21 years and have two daughters.
“I know that this is his passion,” she said. “He also likes to cook, which could be a bad thing without all the exercise.”
Wendy and daughters Rebecca, 15, and Sarah, 17, are Chuck’s biggest supporters.
“We go to all the races,” said Wendy, who prefers to do her own workouts at the gym.
“We carry the towel and the sweats. We are there at the finish line.”
Chuck, too, has made adjustments to make his workouts work with family life.
“When I’m training for an Ironman, I get out of the house when it’s still dark out,” he said. “I try not to let it take too much time from the family.”
Even at the height of the season, Chuck sets aside at least one weekend a month for a family activity, and he and Wendy never miss their date nights.
“If Mom is happy, everybody is happy,” he said. “The key is balance.”
Joan Kuykendall, 49, has been married to her husband, Chip, for 16 years. The Belleair, Fla., couple are veterinarians by training, but Joan put her career on hold to stay at home with their three children.
Back in the summer of 2006, their daughter Ana, then age 7, saw a triathlon and wanted to do one. “So I trained with her,” Joan said. “I wasn’t fast. I just wanted to finish.”
But Joan kept at it, eventually getting good enough to enter an Ironman-distance event. “It’s a lot of work, getting up at 4:15 to train and then getting back in time for Chip to get off to work,” she said. “But it’s been worth it.”
Her 42-year-old husband is hardly a couch potato. “Chip has always been a competitive soccer player,” she said. “He played in college and then adult leagues, and now he is a coach and a soccer dad.”
But recently he decided he had enough time on the sidelines and went out and ran a half-marathon, “just like that,” Joan said.
“I love the fact that she competes,” he said of Joan. “It gives her a chance to express her personality and it gives me a chance to show my support.
“But in the end, that is what relationships are all about. You got to be able to give and take.”