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Julie Gerstenblatt Headshot

My Husband the... Triathlete?

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Artist, yes. Successful businessman, sure. Snarky comment maker, indeed. But here are words I'd never thought I'd utter: I'd like to introduce you to my husband, Brett, the triathlete. When Brett and I met in 1996, he was merely a summertime tennis player, and, when I was not chain-smoking, I occasionally attended a step-aerobics class. In Central Park, we went to Sheep Meadow to hang out instead of going for a run around the reservoir. I thought we were perfectly matched in every way.

When we moved in together in Brooklyn a few years later, we joined a gym and attended spin and yoga classes side by side. Skip ahead 12 years, and you will find that spin and yoga is where I still remain. Brett, however, has moved on. Way on.

My husband now goes to the gym. A lot. He has a trainer. He does something called box jumps. He wears something called a weight vest. When I said I'd marry him in sickness and in health, I didn't know quite how healthy he meant.

I think it all began a decade ago with a Memorial Day mile road race near my aunt's home in Norfolk, Connecticut. Norfolk, known as "the ice box of Connecticut," because of its lovely winters, is not what you'd call a competitive, cut-throat place. With its pretty little town of rolling green, Norfolk serves as home to the Yale Summer School of Music and the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, and has a strong reputation for attracting artists and craftsmen of all types to its quaint little corner of the Litchfield Hills.

But this setting is deceptive, because it has turned my art-schooled husband into a road warrior.

At last year's race, he had to "beat his time" from the previous years. It was all he talked about. And then he did it! Yay, Dad! My kids cheered. We were all so excited! But the thrill of victory was quickly tainted by the agony of defeat, which in this case, was placing fourth in a race with only three award winners. Sure, Brett ran 5 consecutive 7 1/2 minute miles, some of them uphill, but he missed out on receiving a plaque from the Norfolk Fire Department in the male 30-39 year-old category, and that just wasn't good enough. So, this year, he had to beat his time as well as everyone else's. At the very least, he had to be the third fastest man in his age group and win a plaque.

Brett was faster than ever. He beat his previous year's time by 40 seconds. He was so fast that he was shaking at the end, unable to talk. Memorial Day was hotter than heck this year, and I was concerned that he had pushed himself too far.

Lacking a bit in competitive spiritedness, I felt a mixture of pride in Brett and worry for him. What was he trying to prove? I wondered. Wasn't it good enough to be able to participate in events like this? Why did he have to win?

The Norfolk Firemen posted a list of finishing times to a nearby evergreen. I hesitantly checked the stats. Brett was fourth again.

"It's okay, bud," Brett said to our 10-year-old son, Andrew, who was concerned that Dad was disappointed in himself. "All you can do in life is try really hard and still place fourth."

You see, I married him for his humor.

On the walk to the car, we rationalized that, next year, Brett will be the youngest in the 40-49 year old age group and will therefore kick the old guys' butts. Our spirits were lifted.

This 5-mile road race was like the gateway drug for Brett. Apparently, it's not enough to try to outrun people. Now he has to run, bike, and swim his way to healthy. Next month, Brett will compete in a "sprint," which I understand to be a practice for a full-length triathlon. His first Olympic-distance triathlon is in September.

I am of course proud of my husband for wanting to accomplish something of this magnitude. Training for an event like a trialthlon takes real discipline, both of the mental and physical variety. It also means spending lots of quality time away from his family in order to train. There are the daily runs, the 20-mile bike rides, the weekly "Super Human" class at Equinox, and the Sunday swim club followed by a tennis league... just for fun.

It's hard to stand by your man when he's constantly moving in the other direction.

I know golf widows. I don't feel bad for them, because they belong to some posh country club in order to indulge their husband in his choice of sport, and thus, reap the collateral benefits of this by sitting by the manicured pool, flirting with the tennis pro, or golfing with the other ladies. But there is no home-away-from-home for the triathlete widow. No group support country club. No built-in tennis pro just waiting to fill my time while the kids are in mini-golf camp and daddy is training. Women who lose their husbands to golf might feel like their husband is having one affair. Triathlete spouses have lost their mates three times over. And there is no one I can turn to and sigh and say, "Mine's mountain biking today. Where's yours?"

(In all fairness, I also know several women who train and have competed in triathletes, so I understand that the feeling of being left behind by your uber-fit spouse is not gender specific.)

I was feeling a bit jealous of people who have couch-potato spouses until the other day, when I heard about a guy who makes my husband seem lazy. Meet Josh Zitomer. He is a personal trainer who personally trains himself by preparing for and competing in one of the sickest, craziest events I have ever heard of, the Spartan Death Race. Like Tough Mudder, the Spartan Death Race (visit youmaydie.com) mixes insane outdoor challenges with the spirit of mortal danger rarely seen outside of true combat. The creators of this race actually seem to want you to die. It's counter-intuitive that anyone would pay a $900 entry fee for this right, when eventually, everyone gets to die for free anyway, but I digress.

According to Josh (who is a friend of a friend of mine), the race director begins by saying that "we don't want any of you to finish... we will encourage you to quit." Less than 10 percent of the starting group makes it to the finish line. Now, right there, hearing that, I'd give up. But Josh says that being pushed to the limit like this and being told he might not live makes the challenge even more exciting. But then again, he has competed in many double and TRIPLE Ironman competitions. I can't even do the math on that.

This isn't a guy who could sit through a three-hour Verdi opera like Brett can, I'm guessing. Everyone has their skills.

Yes, Josh has a family that he runs away from too. In order to train, he gets up at 4 a.m. so as not to upset his wife who does not like to sweat at all (I instantly love her) and who, I can imagine, feels like a Spartan Death widow, which is way worse than a golf widow or triathlon widow, because she might actually end up... a widow.

A typical workout for Josh might include flipping a tractor tire up a 1-mile hill. Or an hour-long run with a 40lb weight vest. One session was simply 3,000 burpees. Another was a mile of walking lunges with a 70 lb. log. Once a week he'll test his strength, speed and endurance with a timed climb up the side of a mountain... while carrying a 5-gallon bucket filled with rocks.

Suddenly, a swim, followed by a bike ride and a run doesn't seem so bad.

Did I introduce you to my husband, Brett? He's a triathlete. And, I am so proud of him and I love him just the way he is and I really hope he'll find the strength to stop right there, because being a healthy, well-balanced husband, father, businessesman, artist, and triathlete is more than enough. Even without a weight vest. Even in fourth place.

Especially in fourth place.