In hindsight I can see I was heading into psychologically tricky terrain when, last spring, nearing midnight at the Houston Airport, I decided to text message Dara Torres about just how much we have in common. Random electronic bonding late at night on the road is never a great idea. It's especially ill-advised when you fail to recognize that you fancy yourself in competition with an Olympian.
Torres, you probably remember, is that 42-year-old Olympic swimmer with a breathtaking body who won three silver medals in Beijing.
On the night of my fateful text, I was flying to report a profile of her for the New York Times Magazine, a piece that turned out to serve largely as an excuse to print a remarkable photograph of a human being's abdominal muscles. Out of travel-induced loneliness and a shameless reporter's desire to connect, I decided to inform Torres about some rather stunning similarities between us. Or so they seemed to me at the time.
We're about the same age. We both have Jewish fathers in real estate and daughters in preschool. And I started out by telling Torres that I've been accused of being ambitious and competitive myself.
I sat at my gate and took a few bites of my super burrito. Torres texted back: "Hahaha. U r nothing compared 2 me."
For the next four days, I traipsed behind Torres, taking puny, illegible notes while she got fantastic amounts of exercise and had equally fantastic amounts of bodywork done. Forget the swimming; consider the weighted pull-ups. Before the trip I'd actually felt proud that on a good day I could grab an overhead railing of the slide at my kids' playground and hoist my face, twice, up to my wrists. Now that achievement felt small indeed, as Torres blasted through sets of 15, five pounds on each ankle, effortlessly and with perfect form.
En route home I felt like a duckling who'd mistakenly imprinted on an eagle: all well and good in the nest, but truly precarious when it's time to leave the aerie and pick off rodents from 5,000 feet.
So when Torres later asked me to co-write her memoir, Age Is Just a Number, I knew I needed to protect myself. Who wants to spend four months writing 70,000 words about a super-in-shape athlete while feeling like a sloth? I decided I needed to get very, very fit.
That meant no more hippy-dippy yoga. I dug out my running shorts and started training for a 13.1-mile race. I'd been a not-embarrassing runner in my 20s, but that was many years and two children ago.
On the day of Torres' last race in Beijing—which also happened to be the day a 38-year-old Romanian mother named Constantina Tomescu-Dita kicked ass and won the women's marathon—I laced up my running shoes, put on my infernal Nike+ pedometer, and set myself a goal: to run 12 miles at a sub-eight-minute pace. I was doing pretty well, actually, meeting my target times, until I got 10 miles out, and my body came to an abrupt and definitive stop. By the time I'd hobbled home, the left side of my rib cage was aligned over my belly button. Hours later I started up a relationship with my new chiropractor, Frank.
"How the hell did you do this?" Frank, a Red Sox fan, asked in his Boston accent.
I explained the deal with Torres and how I'd decided to use extreme exercise to head off potential psychic disturbance.
Frank did not think much of my plan. "Those people's bodies are different, you know," he said, putting my neck in a half Nelson. My spine made sounds like exploding popcorn.