Love & Marriage in the Outdoors

To commemorate the month of love, five couples discuss how playing together is the key to staying together.

Alan and Shannon Dawkins

Shannon Dawkins started cycling as a teenager in New York. “I loved weekend touring,” she says. “I actually biked across the country when I was 18. I didn’t start racing until 2005, and that’s how I met Alan — through Auburn’s cycling team.”

The couple married and spent half of their Hawaiian honeymoon on bikes. Five years later, the couple still rides together at least once a week. “Cycling is a great couple sport,” says Alan. “We enjoy working together — communicating and taking turns drafting one another on our bikes.”

“And for both of us, riding really clears the air,” adds Shannon. “After a challenging day, riding together makes everything better. There’s just nothing like it.”

The couple’s favorite local rides include the climb along Suck Creek and riding Cove Road in North Georgia. “One day, we want to travel to New Zealand and tour the country on our bikes,” says Alan. “That’s on our bucket list.”

Aside from their cycling, Alan and Shannon are passionate about inspiring others to lead more healthy, vibrant lives. Indeed, both are consultants for Isagenix, a solution-based company helping people lose weight, age gracefully and enhance their athletic performance. And Shannon works as a relief veterinarian in Chattanooga and North Georgia.

“And we are proud foster parents,” says Shannon. “Our foster son rides a bike, too, and we really enjoy our together time riding with him. Seems like every aspect of our lives is complementary, and we feel blessed to have it that way."

Matt and Christy Brown

As lovebirds Matt and Christy Brown talk about their trip abroad, they laugh and giggle and finish each other’s sentences. Last summer, to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary, the couple traveled to Europe and experienced the French and Italian countryside up close and personal — by bicycle.

“We rented bikes in Italy and rode through the historic villages and spectacular vistas of Tuscany,” Christy describes. “We stopped one day at a hilltop winery for lunch and wine. I don’t know why, but I think about that day a lot.”

The couple also traced two of the legs of the Tour de France on their bikes — to the top of Col du Grand Colombier on the first day, then to the summit of Col de la Croix de Fer (the Pass of the Iron Cross) — on the second day. “It was an epic climb — maybe fourteen miles uphill,” says Matt. “We rode through areas that looked like postcards. The road wound along green valleys and overlooked rocky hills and mountains before reaching the cross. I’ll never forget that either.”

For the Browns, the romance of their vacation was amplified by the fact that they mixed travel with togetherness with their passion for cycling, and that’s a very good thing for their marriage say experts like psychologist Arthur Aron of State University of New York-Stony Brook.

Research done by Aron and others consistently shows that couples who play together are more likely to stay together. But that’s no surprise to the Browns. Their recreational companionship runs deep.

Their love story began while attending Vanderbilt University. Christy got Matt interested in whitewater kayaking, and Matt introduced Christy to cycling. Today, they are both members of competitive cycling teams and spend lots of quality time riding together. Last fall, the couple rode four centuries — 100 mile rides — in just four weeks. “We love riding together and completing a ride at or below a goal time,” says Matt. “Riding together is a cooperative endeavor where we share the work and most of all, share the experience.”

Heston and Christy Mercer

Cupid shot his love arrows into Heston and Christy Mercer twelve years ago when the two rock climbers met at Leda, a small roadside crag near Soddy-Daisy. “I always tell my single friends that they will find the right person when they least expect it doing what they love best,” says Christy. “That’s how it happened for us.”

The couple said their vows on a cliff at Sand Rock, a popular climbing destination in Alabama that offers an array of climbing experiences and challenges. Next month, the couple will celebrate nine years of wedded bliss. “We climb year-round — anytime we aren’t working, we’re off somewhere climbing,” Heston says. “We love everything about climbing — the hiking, the exploring of the land, the being outdoors, the sitting in the woods and the fact that we can do it as a family.”

For the Mercers, climbing is an almost spiritual experience, and though they once cherished the quiet, alone time that accompanied their climbing excursions, today, they share the adventure with their three children, Canyon, Lily and Violet.

“Climbing is not for everyone, but I think that everyone should try it,” says Christy. “Age and size aren’t constraints. It does, however, require a great deal of patience, time and determination to build up strength and maintain it. But it’s so rewarding — it has taken us to beautiful destinations, and we’ve enjoyed views that most people will never see.”

James and Jenny DeLong

James and Jenny DeLong fell in love as young nursing students attending Southern Adventist University and married in 2004. “James had been riding since he was 17,” says Jenny. “So he was spending a lot of time on his bike and I wanted to spend more time with James, so I got a bike, too. He was so encouraging and patient with me.”

In 2007, Jenny started devoting more time to the training required to be competitive. Around this time, the DeLongs began taking travel-nurse assignments. “The assignments were usually three months here, and three months there,” says James. “We went to Albuquerque, New Mexico, Bakersfield, California and the Bay Area. And with each assignment, we explored the region on our bikes.”

They returned to Chattanooga in 2009 and began careers at Erlanger. “We’ve even ridden up the Generals Highway to Sequoia and the Crater Lake region,” James says. “We’ve seen a lot of beautiful places on our bikes, and Chattanooga is hard to beat. We still love riding the back roads of Ooltewah, and the ride up to Lookout Mountain is one of the prettiest rides around.”

“I love breathing the fresh air,” says Jenny. “I love to ride in groups, but I also love to ride alone with James, too — just the two of us with no distractions. We have some really great conversations on our bikes.”

Neil and Emily Smoot

Newlyweds Neil and Emily Smoot tied the knot on the Walnut Street Bridge in December after a yearlong, whirlwind romance filled with biking, hiking, running, swimming, paddling and the great outdoors. “I think that most couples’ idea of the perfect date is dinner and a movie,” says Emily. “But not us. We prefer to be outdoors doing something active. That’s just who we are.”

“We’ve made a lot of memories together in the last year,” says Neil, who is a member of the Scenic City Velo-Village Volkswagen Elite Cycling Team (formerly the Krystal Cycling Team). “We trained together and competed in the Booker T. Triathlon, and we did well — both ending up on the podium. I came in second overall, and Emily came in first in her age group.”

And while on their bikes, the Smoots shared a terrifying trek down Stringer’s Ridge when a powerful windstorm moved through the area.

“At the time, we thought it was a tornado,” Emily recounts. “The wind was really pitching our bikes, and sand and dirt were blowing everywhere. During the descent, we both got hit by so much debris. It felt like we were racing for our lives. We were so glad to get to the car that day — safe and sound.”

Aside from cycling and triathlons, the couple loves to navigate the clean, pure waters of the Hiwassee River via their kayaks. Emily is an ACA-certified kayak instructor. Later this year, she plans to introduce Neil to the roller coaster rapids of the Ocoee River.

“Emily and I are both happiest when we are pursuing a healthy, active lifestyle, and we love to share our outdoor adventures with each other and with my daughters,” Neil says. “In fact, we recently bought life jackets for the twins, and now I can’t wait for the weather to warm up.”

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