from Running Times, March 2007
There was a time in my hapless dating life when I told friends I was looking for a man who was STYF: Smarter, Taller, Younger, and Faster.
It didn’t seem too demanding a list. But like many such lists, it was reductive and stupid and not so helpful. Smartness is a tricky category. I like to learn new things, and tend to hang around people from whom I can glean knowledge. I need to be with someone whose mind zigs and zags in ways that enchant me, whether by listening to him talk about Penrose tiles or by watching him pack a moving truck. Likewise, I want someone who wants me because he likes the sounds my sentences make on those rare occasions when they sing. A man smart in exactly the right ways is hard to find, even though, according to some quick-to-email Running Times readers, there are invertebrates smarter than me.
Taller isn’t a tall order: I’m 5-foot-3. But like one of those yappy little dogs with a big dog personality, in my own eyes, I stand at least six feet. Some gentlemen prefer blondes; I go for tall men. There’s no accounting for taste and I won’t make excuses for mine.
Younger — well, that gets easier by the minute. By the time this is published, I’ll be 45. Practically older than dirt. Younger men are used to seeing strong women in positions of power. Show me a fellow who can articulate why he hates everything Hillary Clinton stands for, but would never think to call her “opinionated” and that’s a guy I’d like to date. When I get fired up about something, when my passions give voice to ideas, I don’t want to hear that tired TV line, “Why don’t you tell us what you really think?” You might as well pat me on the head and coo, “Settle down there, little lady.” Younger men tend not to say stupid shit like that.
Finally, I’m a runner. Not only that, I’m a snob, if being a snob means that I value excellence. This past summer I basked in reflected glory by hanging out with Nate, a D-III runner, who won every trail race he went to. Nate was describing a girl he was interested in. I asked what compelled him about her. “She’s really fast,” he said, in as close to hushed reverence as a college boy can get. Anything else? Fast was enough, it seems. He explained: Speed Goggles. I’ve been around enough college students to know about Beer Goggles — those late-night accoutrements that transform friends and strangers into hookup partners. I’d never heard about Speed Goggles, but as soon as Nate said it, I knew I wore them too.
How many times have I met a guy who offered nothing in terms of mate potential, only to hear his PRs and think, My, you’re rather attractive. I find out that someone who seemed stupid, old, and short can still run a 2:30 marathon? Come on over, big boy. You broke four minutes when you were in college? You’re cute. Some will say you’re only as good as your last race. I don’t agree. I’ll never run a 2:30 marathon or a 3:59 mile. I am attracted to people who can or did.
Being fast is more than about being fast; it’s about commitment to an activity I value. I’ve heard that Frank Conroy, the late director of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, used to tell incoming students that writers needed two things: talent and character. The latter, he said, was harder to come by. There are plenty of runners with innate ability. But to be fast — to be excellent — requires something more. It requires commitment. I’m enough of a feminist not to need a man to take care of me, but enough of a girl to swoon at displays of power and accomplishment. Perhaps that’s just human: We worship sports stars whose personal behavior and other attributes are often less than human. When I meet someone who does what I do, but better — much better — I tend to be impressed and will often, perhaps unfortunately, overlook less savory qualities like, say, defects of character.
I’m always interested in how people talk about their PRs. When I worked in college admissions at Duke, I read an application from a kid who’d run a 4:18 mile. Ren Provey’s essay was about how he acquired his nickname, “2:10 Ren.” A soccer player who got roped into running, Ren ran 2:10 in the 800 as a freshman. When I got to know him, he told me that he chose to write about his debut 800 rather than his mile time because, well, he was embarrassed. The combination of speed and modesty is winning. Frank Shorter apparently said that everyone ran 4:30 in high school. That tells you something about Frank Shorter, not about “everyone.” (Frank Shorter is, however, pretty hot.)
I know lots of great and handsome men who slog through marathons at a slow and steady pace. It’s not that I wouldn’t go out with them, but when I see the cadaverous guys striding out before the gun goes off, my heart begins to race. It’s possible that Khalid Khannouchi, Don Kardong and Ian Torrence are not attractive men. I wouldn’t know. They look darned good to me. Once I met a guy I wouldn’t have talked to in a bar. Then I found out he was trying to break 2:30 at the St. George Marathon. What first seemed like skeletal geekiness was transformed into, well, you know. Speed Goggles.
I’ve been divorced a long time, and have gone on a lot of dates. I’ve given up on trying to find a STYF man; he’s proved as elusive as an ivory-billed woodpecker. Plus, I’ve come to accept that I’m not everyone’s cup of decaf skim chai: I don’t cook and I’m kind of mean. At this point I’d settle for an interesting running partner who pushes me to keep up and never calls me “opinionated”; someone who teaches me new things and knows the value of a semicolon. If that’s still too much to ask, maybe what I really need is a dog.