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David Petraeus: The loneliness of the long-distance runner

Much has been written about “l’affair Petraeus” and many have attempted to understand what could possibly have possessed the general to act so recklessly, to risk it all; his career, his stirling reputation, on a dalliance. The noted author and foreign affairs analyst, Mackubin Thomas Owens, in his essay Petraeus’s Bathsheba Syndrome at National Review Online, delves into the general’s psyche, and comes closest to the truth, but his analysis lacks one key aspect; simply that Paula Broadwell is a runner.

What I have read leads me to the conclusion that this was the first affair for both. Broadwell was clearly smitten with her erstwhile mentor, and likely was the initiator, or at the least she made it obvious that his advances would not be unwelcome. But Petraeus, just what the heck was he thinking?

People can be divided, segmented in many ways. One is those who run, and those who don’t. Petraeus is a lifelong runner, and a highly competitive one. So is Broadwell. Among runners, there is a bond. That’s why we are out there, in the rain, in the snow, in the freezing cold, most every day. That’s why we get up at 6am, after having gotten home a few hours earlier. That’s why, when on a business trip, or a vacation, we pack our running gear.

Holly Petraeus is by all accounts a lovely lady, who was the consummate military spouse as her husband climbed the ranks. She does wonderful work for the troops (thought her near $200k position with the CFPB smacks of cronyism and all that is wrong with big government). Though no doubt I will be accused by many of sexism, looking at a picture of her today, it is doubtful that she is capable of WALKING a 5k. Yet their wedding pictures showed a slim, vivacious bride; as indeed, the pictures of the Petraeus’ daughter at her wedding a short while ago mirrored her mother.

And the same applies for Dr. Broadwell. Pictures suggest that golf is his game of choice, and he probably uses a cart. Very few physicians, given the long hours of the profession, get up at the crack of dawn to run. Far more likely, it’s because they have to be at the hospital`first thing.

Marriages often fail after many years when one spouse, for whatever reason(s), lets themselves go physically. However, I don’t believe that’s the complete cause here. Rather, it’s because Holly Petraeus was unable to share in, to participate with her husband in his greatest passion, running, that probably led to his downfall.

If Paula Broadwell had been a gymnast, a model, a Hooters girl, or the starting quarterback for a Lingerie League football team, I doubt an affair would have resulted. The running is the bond that brought them together, that sparked the “fatal” attraction, and ultimately led the general astray.

If you doubt me, here’s a simple exercise to prove my point. Find a decent sized 5k race, one with more than 200 runners. It’s not hard, millions of Americans enjoy running. Look at those who appear to be over age 50. I suspect that at least half are single (how to tell?… look for the wedding rings) And again, of those who are married ( and again, look at the wedding rings), after the race, most get in their cars and drive home alone, or with another runner. Most races will start at 8am on a Saturday morning, so you have to get up at 6am, to get there, get that cup of coffee, and your race packet, and stretch out. Most non-running spouses won’t bother to get up, they’ll just roll over back under the covers.

So when you meet someone who shares that same passion, AND even better, is your equal at it, well, it’s not surprising what can happen. After all, NIKE tells us all the time..“Just do it!”

This in no way is meant to be an apology, a rationale for Petraeus’ behavior. Given his position, his clearances, his responsibilities, his actions are inexcusable. If he was unhappy in his home life, and couldn’t reconcile, then separation is the next option. There is nothing better than being in a good marriage, and nothing worse than being in an unhappy one. But I don’t really think that was the case here.

Someone once defined courtship as “a man chasing a woman until she allows herself to be caught.” If the lady in question can do a six-minute mile, that’s a moving target that a passionate runner will find irresistible.

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