“Behind every great man an’ all that,” tweeted Beverley Turner last weekend after James Cracknell, her soon-to-be-ex-husband, became the oldest winner of the Boat Race. At 46, the double-Olympic gold medallist and six-time world champion had just rowed to victory as part of the Cambridge crew against Oxford. It was, everyone agreed, a remarkable feat.
It’s a fair bet that fewer people last Sunday were considering Turner’s own remarkable feat, in remaining in her marriage for almost 17 years. The following day she made sure this changed: writing in a national newspaper, she vented what one imagines was many years of frustration by reminding an adulatory public of just what goes into the achievements of a national sporting hero like Cracknell. Everything could be summed up with five seemingly innocuous words of hers: “I continued drying the pots.”
Behind every great man is a woman drying the pots. And doing the laundry. And feeding the children and taking them to swimming club and performing all the other myriad tasks involved in keeping a household hanging together. While Turner was drying the pots, Cracknell was off to Cambridge to start an MPhil in human evolution. (Not a sporting feat in itself, but one that would enable him to compete in the prestigious Boat Race.)
Turner, a television and radio presenter, put it less obliquely when she added: “I wouldn’t want my children to view such an exit from familial responsibilities as something to aspire to.”
Some will argue that if a talented sportsman (or woman) is to shine, we should perhaps let them off loading the dishwasher occasionally, or even – like the adventurer Ben Fogle – from ever attending a single school parents’ evening. But the likes of Cracknell and Fogle – men whose exploits are sufficiently noteworthy to afford them something near national treasure status – are merely the tip of the iceberg. There are many more modern day action men, albeit lesser known, who set out to scale Everest or compete in the Marathon Des Sables, while their wives stay at home with the children, picking up the pieces in their absence.
More prevalent still than either of these species of daredevil athletes is a third tribe of man, whose members can be found countrywide every weekend, cycling for miles through the rain or pounding the pavements in their Nikes. They are the midlife fitness freaks, who are constantly competing in triathlons or training for a forthcoming marathon. And behind them is an army of forgotten “weekend widows”.
Nick Auger, who took part in the 1996/97 BT Global Challenge, an around-the-world yacht race, left his wife and four young children at home when – at 42, and then an insurance broker with his own business – he set off on the four-and-a-half-month adventure.
“It was a very selfish thing, and I admit that, but it felt I needed to do it,” he says. “People said it was a midlife crisis but it wasn’t that. It was a challenge. It was the ultimate experience for me. It was just something I needed to get out of the system, really.”
And his wife’s response? “She accepted maybe this was something I needed to do, but she wasn’t happy, and still isn’t. If we ever have an argument, she’ll hark back to ‘well, you went off and did this and left us alone.’ Which I accept I did. In some ways it’s like going off and having an affair.”
Auger, from Harrow, north-west London, now 64, went on to write a book about the experience, entitled Once in a Lifetime. For others, however, the adventures are rather more frequent. One friend, a 39-year-old mother-of-two from Surrey, says her husband, a 37-year-old accountant, had always been an exercise devotee, but stepped things up dramatically once their youngest daughter was about four, and really got into running.
“In 2015 he did three marathons in a year,” she recalls. “One Mothers’ Day, he did a half marathon at Silverstone race course. It was a really cold day and I was shivering by the finish line waiting for him. I could have killed him!”
Like many committed runners and cyclists today, her husband is almost as obsessed with measuring his distance, time and heart rate as he is with the exercise itself, using the latest wearable tech that enables us to chart our every step.
“I can understand the theory behind it, but as the wife of someone like that it’s really annoying,” sighs my friend. “People praise him for his marathon times and I think ‘yeah, but you can only do that because I’m at home with the kids.’”
His latest plans involve tackling a 100-mile ultra marathon. Has she ever asked him to just be present a little more? “In some ways I’d rather he just did it because he’d be quite grumpy otherwise,” she admits. “I miss him, but it’s like having a husband who works away a lot: you get used to it.”
Another mother-of-two from Surrey, 44, says her 45-year-old husband, who works in marketing, is similarly hellbent on pushing his body to the limit. Just after their second daughter arrived, he decided to do an Ironman triathlon, and was away doing 100-mile bike rides most weekends when she was a baby. “I just used to factor him out of things,” she says.
But what impulses lie behind this passion that is often, though by no means exclusively, found within men of a certain age? In considering what propels them to leave their families for hours, days, weeks at a time, to engage in what many of them will admit are “selfish” pursuits, I’m reminded of Kristin Scott Thomas’s epic monologue in the recent series of the BBC’s Fleabag. Women are “born with pain built in,” she reflected, memorably, while men “create wars so they can feel things and touch each other; and when there aren’t any wars they can play rugby.” We might add to this that they can compete in triathlons and 100-mile marathons, and a long list of equally punishing activities.
Perhaps, given the decline in manual labour in Britain, and our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, there’s a certain amount of latent physical energy that must be burned off somehow. It can prove addictive, too: the adrenalin rush, the dopamine, the camaraderie, the competitive need to push oneself to ever greater heights. When there’s little physical hardship in our comfortable modern lives, it seems some people feel compelled to create it for themselves.
Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist, believes a combination of factors lies behind the phenomenon. “There’s both a societal pressure and an evolutionary pressure,” she says. “The evolutionary status for a male is that he is physically powerful. That is going way back in history, but it’s what attracted the female – they went to the most physically powerful male. So there’s going to be a deep unconscious drive [for men] to remain physically powerful.”
At the same time, while women feel culturally pressured to defy age by looking young, men are pressured to do so by proving what they can still do with their bodies, she suggests. She advises wives who feel hard done by, to be left drying the pots, not to suffer in silence but to level with their husbands.
Sean Blowers, 58, a former London’s Burning actor who also took part in the BT Global Challenge when his children were aged 11, eight and one, got his wife on board (though not literally) by flying her out to meet him in Rio de Janeiro. “There’s a buzz,” he explains. “I haven’t done anything [similar] since, because I haven’t had the opportunity. I would have though, because it’s in me. I think it burns within you. There’s an element of risk-taking, same as buying a motorbike.
“If someone had come to me and said ‘let’s go row across the Atlantic’ a few years later, I might have been drawn into it – but I might not be married now.”
He understands both the impulse behind such adventures, and the “implications” of pursuing them, is what he’s saying. “But sometimes a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”
Sometimes women, like Turner, have to emit “silent screams in the shower.” But she has managed, this week, to make sure everyone hears them – even if they’re halfway up Everest.