Summer Reading from the pages of the New York Times.August 11th, 2011
Hitting a ‘Bad Patch’ but Continuing the Race
REST STOP Gordon Bakoulis and Alan Ruben with their sons, from left, Sam, Danny and Joey.
When you smack into it during a marathon or a marriage, you press on. Perhaps no New York couple knows the phenomenon better than the runners Gordon Bakoulis and Alan Ruben. She has finished 29 marathons; he, 52.
During a nearly 15-year marriage, the two have put up with each other’s athletic idiosyncrasies, from smelly socks to odd hours around training times. They also now have three sons: Joey, 13; Sam, 11; and Danny, 6.
Neither is the chocolate-and-roses type, and both are hard pressed to cite other than practical reasons for their love for each other. “She is good to me, very good to me,” Mr. Ruben said.
But they have no trouble talking about their first true loves.
“Basically, running just makes me feel better,” said Mr. Ruben, 54, a computer systems analyst for the Montran Corporation, where he has worked for 20 years. In May he ran a marathon in London, and he is about to begin training for his 25th consecutive New York City Marathon — on Nov. 6, about a week after the couple’s 15th wedding anniversary.
“Running makes me feel more alive and more connected to the world,” said Mr. Ruben, whose personal best is 2 hours, 29 minutes, 41 seconds.
Ms. Bakoulis, 50, said the sport gives her something she hasn’t been able to find in any other aspect of her life. “It’s very cleansing, purifying, and puts things into perspective,” said Ms. Bakoulis, who has run 13 marathons under 2 hours, 40 minutes, with a personal best of 2 hours, 33 minutes, 1 second.
During races, they have both learned to deal with obstacles worse than the wall: someone opening a car door in front of them, a sudden kink in a body part or a need to answer nature’s call.
“It’s called a bad patch,” said Ms. Bakoulis, editorial director at New York Road Runners, which is responsible for organizing the New York City Marathon. She has also been a coach for Athena New York, a women’s running team, for 19 years, and has written three books on the subject of training. She has qualified five times for the United States Olympic team trials in the marathon and has twice placed among the Top 10 women in the New York City Marathon.
“A bad patch is anything that happens during the race or in training that throws you,” she said.
A bad patch can also test the very foundation of a marriage. For Ms. Bakoulis, the first challenge occurred three months after their first child was born, in October 1997, when Mr. Ruben’s mother (deceased 10 years now) flew out to visit. For three long weeks.
Ms. Bakoulis said that she and her mother-in-law had very different perspectives on child rearing, and that they went head to head on almost every point.
“She was hourly after me, and her attitude was very clearly, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ ” But Ms. Bakoulis wasn’t willing to concede on certain points, like putting the baby on schedule versus nursing on demand. “For one thing, I didn’t agree; everyone feeds on demand these days. For another thing, he was my baby.”
She went out for a run one dreary winter morning, after just being given a sound lecture on a subject she has since forgotten. “I ran about 200 yards and broke down. This really cathartic moment. I ran straight back and threw myself sobbing into Alan’s arms, basically telling him that he had to tell his mother to back way, way off.”
He listened and held her. “And then he said: ‘I understand everything you’re saying, I really do — but I can’t just dismiss her, she’s my mum.’ ”
And that is how Ms. Bakoulis said she had the epiphany of her life: “I got the whole thing. There was this love that belonged to the two of them, like the love between Alan and me, and the love between me and my child — and it was sacred, too. The four of us, including Joey, were going to have to work it out — because we were a family. I had married him, and so I had married his family. I could get as upset as I wanted, but I couldn’t just push her away. It wasn’t going to be easy — in fact it would be difficult and painful — but I would have to work it out.”
With time, Ms. Bakoulis (who now realizes it wouldn’t have killed her to give in a bit) came to a deeper understanding of her mother-in-law’s intentions. “I knew what was underneath everything: she wanted to embrace us, and to be embraced by us, too. We all want to control our own little piece of the universe.”
It seemed a given they would have only two children. “You get into this stage at life where you kind of map things out,” Mr. Ruben said. “You ask, will we have enough for the kids to go to college and the rest of it? You do a lot of calculations that bring home the enormity of having a third child.”
At the time, Ms. Bakoulis had just turned 40 and intended to come back strong as a master runner for her new decade. “I had a really good year and a half — and then had an overwhelming urge to have a baby. It came out of the blue and it was my idea,” she said.
Still, Mr. Ruben didn’t quite think it was going to happen, he said. “But then she was like, guess what? It was fait accompli.”
And once she was pregnant, he was totally on board. “Flesh and blood is different from calculations,” he said.
The scariest patch in the marriage came the night of their youngest son’s birth. After Danny was born, Mr. Ruben left the hospital. At 1 a.m. the hospital called, asking him to return immediately.
Ms. Bakoulis was bleeding. “It was something women might have died from only a few years ago,” he said. He was terrified and felt helpless. All he could do was “watch the doctors going back and forth in the operating room — going out and then going back in again.”
She had an emergency hysterectomy and spent the next 24 hours in the intensive care unit. Nine days later, she was home. Mother and child were fine. And Mr. Ruben embraces the “completeness and rightness of the whole family.”
Since then their course has been smooth, until now. They disagree over the possibility of moving.
He wants to stay in their mortgage-free Upper West Side apartment, where they have lived for 16 years. “I like things the way they are,” he said. “We put a lot of work into the apartment, and it’s kind of comfortable.”
He is not on board with his wife’s dream of moving to a less expensive place in Harlem. “My view is, we’re pretty comfortable financially,” he said. “We’re not going to run out of money anytime soon.”
Mr. Ruben kind of feels it’s his turn to win one.
“It’s not settled,” Ms. Bakoulis admitted, even as she continues to hunt for a new and cheaper dream house. “But if there’s one thing I know, if you can know anything for certain in life, is that Alan and I are going to grow old and die together. He will be my friend, lover and companion for the rest of our lives.”