Like last month, I’m equal parts disappointed and relieved. On one hand, I wanted to get on with it. On the other, I’m excited to crack a beer and plot tomorrow’s adventure. I’m not pregnant yet. Darn, and also phew.
Let’s not mince words here, I know I want kids. I’ve always wanted kids. I went through a period in my late-20s where I made myself question the kid-wanting, and still, I arrived at the conclusion that it was, in fact, the kids that I want. It’s just that children were always a concept for me; a far off, nebulous “someday” that didn’t have to be real until I was ready.
My husband, on the other hand, was ready before we were even engaged. He even went so far as to suggest getting the party started while I was planning our wedding so we could just knock it all out at once. First of all, no. I want to drink at my wedding and second, just no. But third… well, therein lies the real truth. Third, I’m a runner. And I have plans.
One early morning in December of 2016, my husband and I went for run up our snow-filled canyon. It was the day of the Hardrock 100 lottery, the day I would find out if I was selected for my dream race, seven years in the making. But we weren’t talking about the race. We were family planning. You see, I had originally agreed to start trying after the 2016 summer season. But due to race lottery losses and random sickness, I didn’t have the year I wanted. So I needed more time, I told him.
Of course, I was always going to need more time. I can’t imagine myself ever arriving at the conclusion that I’ve done everything I want with regards to my running, calling it good, and fly-fishing off into the sunset. And besides, I’ve had my butt kicked by enough badass moms to recognize that life as a competitive runner is not over once you’ve opened the ‘ole ovaries for business. Far from it. But as a 33-year-old woman, it was definitely time. At least, time to make a time. And so, we agreed that regardless of whether I got into Hardrock in July, and regardless of what happened at Angeles Crest in August, come Fall 2017, I would stop registering for races for a bit and focus on starting a family. I felt good about it, I’m sure in part, because it was still over half a year away, and soon enough, doubly good about it, because I finally got into Hardrock. I knew that no matter what, I was going to be pumped to make a baby when September rolled around.
Only here we are, and here I still stand, conflicted. I had fully expected to feel really content at this point, considering I did have the opportunity to not only race Hardrock, but also have an epic training trip beforehand, filled with amazing adventures and plenty of time to myself. But that is only half of it. The other half looks at how I got myself into the best shape of my life this summer, and how there’s still so much more to achieve with my running. And how maybe I could achieve some of that right now by building off of that fitness. I’m not doubting my choice to put the competing on hold for one second, but that doesn’t mean I’m not grieving over it.
Brandy Erholtz, 40, of Dillon, CO shares a similar sentiment, and makes me feel like I’m not a selfish asshole for the duality. “Although I had many friends who had children by this point and told me of the joy, I was terrified about giving up my body and whether I’d be able to compete at the same level again,” she says. “Sponsorships, world championships, traveling, etc. can become a bit addicting. Just one more race, or one more year…” she trails off, and I find myself nodding in agreement. I’m over here wondering if writing this article alone is a mistake, given that I don’t yet have contract renewals from all of my sponsors.
By the way, Erholtz is a 5-time US Mountain Running Team member, with numerous world-class finishes at a variety of distances. The stakes were high for Brandy, yet she, too, had always known she wanted kids and knew it was time. So at age 36, with 24 years of running and over 10 years of competing at an elite level, she just did it.
Writing this article largely came out of my own desire to reach out to runners like Erholtz, who could perhaps give me some advice in traversing the hall of mirrors that is my pre-fetal mind. The internet had no shortages of op-eds on being a mom who is navigating running trails and ultras, but what about the trail/ultra runner who wants to navigate becoming a mom? As I scrolled through my rolodex (read: iPhone) of the trail running mothers I knew, I discovered that there was definitely an interesting classification of the group: those who became MUT (Mountain-Ultra-Trail) runners after having children, and those who already had established careers to put on hold for child-rearing. I was both in and interested in the latter.
Jen Benna, 38, of Reno, NV started running ultras in 2003 (that’s age 24, if you don’t feel like doing math) and didn’t have her first child until 2010. By then, she had already firmly established herself within the community, as had her husband. Realizing that there was never going to be a perfect time to start their family, they decided to go on one last pre-baby adventure – a bike-packing trip from Oregon to Mexico – and just leave the rest up to fate. Benna was pregnant by the time they returned. “If you’re 70% ready, that’s as ready as you’re ever going to be,” she told me with a laugh. “There’s never going to be 100%.”
A Trying Time
OK, so we’re doing this. Perhaps its a little unconventional to be scheduling conception attempts around a race calendar rather than ovulation, but here we are. And I say “we” in the sense that I don’t discount my husband’s experience for one second. As runners, it will be a huge change for both of us. However, he knows just as well as I that the, ahem, heavy lifting is going to lie on me, the woman of the family. I’ll be setting aside my running career, my professional career and while I’m totally willing, my husband won’t have to. At least not to the same degree. On more than one occasion, I’ve openly wished that he could carry the baby, instead of me. And I wasn’t joking.
Part of the problem right now is that I have stopped putting things on the calendar. Ultrasignup isn’t getting any of my money, and the only goal I currently have is to create a healthy environment to grow a human. Yes, that involves staying strong and fit, but its honestly hard to find the motivation to push, when there’s a part of me that is like, “what’s the point? I’ll be gaining weight and losing speed soon anyway.” Of course, maybe a little loss of fitness, a few extra pounds and a renewed focus isn’t such a bad thing.
Erholtz became pregnant very quickly after making the decision, and in retrospect, suggests I look at things a little differently. “I knew it would be mental anguish to take a pregnancy test month after month and get a negative result because if I hadn’t been pregnant, I would’ve still wanted to be as fit as possible to compete at my ‘normal’ level,” she says. “I don’t ever weigh myself but typically in the winter I gain 5-7 pounds – I can tell by the way my clothes fit – so I think this may have helped me get pregnant.”
Brandy isn’t the first woman I’ve confided in to tell me that chilling on the aggro peak-pushing, mileage bagging, hallucinatory-inducing adventures may or may not be the best thing for conceiving. Sure, there are plenty of stories to the contrary as well, but I’d like to think they’re right. My menstrual cycle was crazy irregular while I was training and racing this spring and summer, and now, though I’ve tacked a good 7-10 pounds onto my peak fitness weight, I’m regular. I’m not in fighting shape, but I still look and feel healthy. At their advice, I’m working on shifting my perspective to the fact that I’m doing exactly what I promised my husband I would – set aside my own goals, and focus on doing everything I can to create a healthy environment for a baby. It feels like the most important thing I’ve ever done.
Permission to Take a Break
My racing season ended a little prematurely this year. With the beginnings of an injury at the end of Hardrock, I foolishly tried to run another 100 only three weeks later. You know, because it was my “last one” and all. (I say “last one” like the true “woman who has never been nor come back from pregnancy” that I am. It honestly feels unfathomable, no matter what anyone says or does to the contrary. Pregnancy is crazy.) Anyway, I dropped at mile 75, barely able to walk, hobbled around on crutches for a few days, and still am rehabbing months later. I cried when I couldn’t sign up for the race next year. I couldn’t imagine waiting two full summers to avenge my failure. But also, there was a part of me that was secretly thankful for the excuse.
I think part of the curse of that second category of ultrarunners: those of us that got into it really early in life, is that there will be eventual periods of burnout. Especially when you tend to go all in season after season, and would just assume take a DNS rather than JFF it. (Of course, by JFF, I mean just-for-fun.). Looking back, I arguably went all-er in than ever this summer, choosing to live out of my truck for months and my only responsibility to go for four, five… nine hour runs in the mountains every day. When I came home and back to reality, I was exhausted. But like always, I already had my eye on the next prize.
It’s hard to just step away from it all. Whether you’re flying high, racking up win after win, or trying to race yourself out of a rut of disappointments and DNFs, there’s always something else. Benna knows this cycle all too well. While she decided to let fate determine her first pregnancy, her second came amidst a string of DNFs and races she didn’t feel were up to her potential. Given that she was also having more trouble conceiving the second time around, her instinct told her it was time to step back. It’s not a choice she might have made for her running, if it weren’t for the choice she made for her family.
“Pregnancy is the most perfect natural break for your running body,” says Benna. “You finally give yourself permission to have a meaningful break. For me, it’s been necessary in my running.”
Ashley Nordell, 37, of Sisters, OR wasn’t looking for a break, but got one. And in retrospect, credits the downtime during pregnancy as having profound effects on her longevity in the sport. “I was not that mom who could run though the pregnancy and be out running ten days after giving birth. That was how I envisioned myself before I had my daughters,” she tells me. “Now, years later, I am actually grateful for the forced rest time. I feel like I was able to come back fresh, excited to run, and so much more grateful for the ability to run once I could.”
Alright ladies, you’ve convinced me. I’m feeling better about it, and am actually starting to experience more hope and less dread for that second line when I test. Plus, Benna told me that there was a definite hormonal shift when she became pregnant, complete with motherly instincts, wanting to nest and overall just feeling really joyful. This is the exact information I have been praying for. I’m counting on you, hormones!
Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that the FOMO isn’t real. Sometimes, brutally so. Carly Koerner, 36, of Ashland, OR had already been racing competitively for seven years before becoming pregnant with her first child. Like Benna, she went with the “fate” plan with regards to kids, and her first came as a bit of a shock. Pregnancy wasn’t the bliss that the internet told her it would be, and it didn’t make things easier having the world of trail running keep revolving while she couldn’t participate in it in the same way.
“I did feel resentment at times and had to really find my own strength to persevere,” shares Koerner. “Until birth, and even for awhile thereafter, it wasn’t as much a reality for my husband as it was for me, and that was a huge challenge. Not only because I was jealous of what he was able to do (late in our pregnancy), but also because I couldn’t physically be there. It sucked! I felt unsupportive and also left out. It also challenged me as a someone who doesn’t ask for help, or know how to receive it. We weren’t set up well in our relationship to navigate that, so his ability to carry on as usual really got to me.”
My husband, too, is one of those people who can roll with just about anything, and find happiness in everything. An amazing trait, no doubt, but jealousy of him is something I’m already experiencing as I watch him cycle back into training while I head off for what can only be described as half-assed jogs, trying to find the joy and meaning in it. I’ve taken Koerner’s advice to heart, and am talking openly in our home about both my mental state and how I can still be a part of the racing environment through him. It’s helpful to know he’s sympathetic and supportive of my situation, and to feel included in his process even though we’re no longer out there doing workouts together. I often, with a wink, remind him that he’ll be racing for two.
I may have something to look forward to, in that regard. Benna’s husband had his best year of racing while she was pregnant. She shares that crewing for him and other friends and getting on the “other side” of the sport made for the most enjoyable year of her life. “Sure, you longingly look at trails while you’re driving. At races, sometimes you feel left out for a second, “ she says. “But then you’re like, man I’m growing a baby, this is rad.”
Erholtz chimes in with another piece of Mama-FOMO that I’m dreading. “Although it was nature’s way, I found myself irrational, angry, sad, feeling guilty at times for my feelings as I knew what a blessing pregnancy was. In addition to not being able to train/trace/travel at my normal level, I enjoy a good craft beer and good coffee both of which are taboo while pregnant.” YOU AND ME BOTH, SISTER. Among my biggest vices in life lie beer, coffee, sushi and sparkling water, and I’m very aware that pregnancy will allow me to have exactly one of those things.* The thing is, I think its less about the act of setting aside my favorite treats, and more about the fact that I have to. For many of us, a post-run coffee or beer are woven into the social fabric of our sport. And while trivial, it feels exceedingly unfair that I will no longer be able to participate in any part of the ritual. Sure, there’s hiking or running slower behind the group, decaf coffee, and its not illegal to hang out at a brewery without ordering a beer. But since the joys of motherhood are a 100% unknown for me right now, it feels like yet another annoying way my lifestyle has to change, while my husband’s can proceed as normal. Honestly, I’ve felt really ashamed for even having these thoughts, so it’s really helpful to hear that other trail sisters have felt the same way.
[*I realize that there is conflicting advice out there on what is actually considered safe during pregnancy, but this is not that article.]
As for my final fear, it was confirmed by Nordell. Overanalyzing my theoretical pregnancy, because that’s exactly the sort of thing I do, I thought myself right into a nice conundrum. If running is what helps me work through all of my biggest mental and emotional battles, what will happen if I can’t run? I know quite a few women who, for a variety of reasons, were not able to run through their pregnancy, Nordell being one of them. ”Every time I left a doctor’s office with some stressful news, I couldn’t go get that release on the trails,” she recalls. “I was fortunate that I could still cross train – I took lots of walks and even cross-country skied a bit – but I could only do anything that didn’t cause significant jarring.”
While trail running would definitely be in that “significant” category, I can’t think of anything more jarring than having it taken away at the time when I need it most. But I find hope in looking at Ashley, who with two beautiful daughters, ages 3 and 6, is definitively back to gracefully crushing the ultra running scene. At some point in our running careers, most of us will have a temporary setback limiting what our bodies are able to do. Pregnancy, when viewed as such, is actually awesome because you receive not only your health, but the prize of a tiny human at the end.
There have been more than a few comparisons to injuries, forced rest and setbacks in this article, all which at some point plague the life of an ultra runner. But in the modern era of the sport, what really are the implications for time off from competing during pregnancies?
Let’s take my Hardrock family planning conversation as an example. Last December, I had six years of lottery tickets in the mix, and a qualifier from the 2015 Angeles Crest 100. Since a qualifier is only good for two years, and I did not run a 100-miler in 2016, I knew that if I didn’t get in to Hardrock, I would have to complete a qualifying 100-miler this year if I wanted to have the possibility to run the race after pregnancy. If not, I would have to wait another full year to earn a qualifier, assuming I could even get into one of those races, and I would miss out on two years of accruing tickets.
Lotteries and qualifications are a valid concern. Many of us women want to run these big races, such as Hardrock, Western States and UTMB, and are encouraged to do so to make the fields more competitive. However, the rules for selection are set up in a way that do not favor a woman who wants to start a family. Currently, none offer deferment for pregnancy, although the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), controversially does offer it for injury. According to Stephanie Case’s excellent reporting on the matter for Outside Online, UTMB RD Catherine Poletti told her that, “when you wait for a baby, you choose it. When you have an injury, there is no choice. We need to accept what we are.”
I’m no biologist, but I’m pretty sure that becoming pregnant isn’t as simple as making a choice. It can take months or it can take years. It can be as planned as possible or a complete surprise. It can involve a healthy pregnancy right off the bat, or it can include agonizing miscarriages. And here’s the real kicker: 100% of the time, it is the woman who will become pregnant. When you add the mandatory 9 months of gestation, plus the 6+ weeks off after birth, the few months to safely get back into shape, and any additional pre-conception time one might have taken away from hard training to regulate their cycle, we’re talking a full-year plus away from the scene. And in the case of races like UTMB, away not only from competing in the race but also for running qualifiers to be able to compete after pregnancy. Assuming I have a baby sometime in 2018, I will have to start completely over with accruing qualifying points in 2019, and won’t be able to even enter the UTMB lottery until 2020. Guys, it’s 2017.
Western States has added a tiered refund policy, which seems like a step in the correct direction for pregnancy-friendliness. Currently, prospective runners are rewarded for entering the lottery year-after-year, and lose their tickets should they fail to qualify or apply for a year. However, if selected, you are automatically charged and entered to run. It would behoove a woman who has accrued multiple tickets to play roulette here, although if she is selected, she will have to pay 25% of the entry fee and she will also lose all of her tickets anyway.
There were rumors this year that pregnancy deferral was on the topic list for discussion by the Hardrock Board, however it appears they’ve actually taken a step in the reverse direction. Previously, a runner could receive a full refund if they withdrew from the race before June 1st. Now it is only 50%. I recently found myself in the position of deciding if I wanted to risk $150 to maybe get to run or maybe be pregnant, and maybe accrue another ticket to increase my odds of being selected to run two years from now. I went ahead and did it, because I have no idea if I will actually be pregnant or not, and putting everything on hold for one or possibly two years doesn’t seem fair.
Sure you could argue that not everyone wants to run these big races, and that there are plenty of others that can still give us our post-pregnancy fix. I totally agree, by the way, and I’m thankful for that. But there are a whole host of competitive women, myself included, who are motivated by these big events and lining up with the best in the world. You could also argue that setbacks happen and why should a woman who chooses to take time off to have a child receive special treatment over anyone who finds themselves injured or dealing with some other life event that prevents them from competing? To that, I sympathize, but I also argue that, for many women, pregnancy isn’t so much of a choice as it is a biological duty that we shoulder for our families. And many of us do it right when we are at our peak age of fitness. In a sport with a meager 33% participation rate – a much lower percentage in certain, mountainous races – it often feels like this is just one more way the chips are stacked against us.*
*According to the number of ultra running finishes by gender, Ultrarunning Magazine’s 2016 Stats Roundup, Jan/Feb Issue.
Another major issue many women face is the issue of sponsorship. I casually mentioned it earlier in this article, but I’ve been scared to publish this article. In fact, I wrote it four months ago, and am just now working up the courage to let it loose. I honestly fear that if companies know that I am prioritizing trying to get pregnant over trying to run races, they might not see the value in supporting me next year. And from a business standpoint, I kind of get it. But I also know that I am not the only one wrestling with these sort of choices, and until we have the courage to make them a more commonplace conversation in society, we’ll all have to continue to make decisions in the dark. I dream of the day pregnancy won’t be seen as an inconvenience to employers.
In that regard, it’s like any job, really. I once worked with a female art director who was in a freelance-to-hire position. As the terms of her contract took longer and longer to iron out, she confided in me that she was pregnant and afraid it wouldn’t be long until someone noticed. “Why would they hire me when I’m going to have to go on maternity leave soon?” she thought, and she was right. While illegal if admitted, no one has to admit it and the burden of proof is almost impossible. Sponsorships are the same way, and I’m sure at least partially responsible for why no professional athletes have written on the subject of pregnancy until the kid situation is a done deal. As in, not a concept, but reality. While I know that my value with the companies I work with lies beyond winning races, and I’d like to think supporting me through pregnancy would be of value to them, I do know many women whose sponsorships are largely based on podium incentives and racing competitively. And for many, racing competitively means earning spots in those aforementioned races. In a sport where monetary support is already low, and drastically lower for females, it can feel like time off for pregnancies can kill the dream of being a professional runner.
And as for those women who have no interest in being a professional runner, and maybe even no interest in running the big, lottery-driven races, many of these principles still apply. Some races will offer refunds or deferrals and some won’t. Depending on entry periods, some of us will have to risk hard-earned cash so that we don’t miss out on multiple years of our favorite or goal event. And even if it all works out in a certain case, I’d like to think we all feel for the women at the top of our sport. We’re inspired by them, we want to see them grow careers that equal their male counterparts, and we’d hate to see them having to choose between their running and becoming mothers to the next generation. We are truly all in this together, sisters.
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: I realize this section of obstacles is horribly incomplete and deserves its own entire article. I am currently working with a data scientist to further research the barriers on female participation in ultramarathons, and we hope to publish our findings sometime soon.]
Life After Birth (for mom)
As I’m steering into this new direction in life, I look to the four women I interviewed and all the trail running moms I know as a reminder that everything, truly, has its season. Every single mom I’ve ever met doesn’t regret their decision for one second, and its that incredible joy that makes me absolutely resolute in my decision. To many, this discussion may seem petty – like, how dare I lament giving up a few races and a few beers when we’re talking about the miracle of life?! Well, first of all, it’s more than a few beers, and second, I am fully aware I’m only woeful because I haven’t yet experienced this magnitude of love. And third, I want the child, I just don’t want to be pregnant, which I’m hearing is actually more common than I thought. It has been incredibly helpful to hear my trail sisters share that they, too, experienced these emotions when deciding to have children, and that while its obviously all worth it, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t hard.
Of course, there’s a lot to look forward to, as well. Again, the joy of a love you’ve never previously known being foremost, but there can also be some pretty significant bonuses upon your return to running. For starters, there are the unexpected lessons during pregnancy. “I learned that if I started out at an ungodly slow pace that I would warm up gradually and be able to run longer and subsequently further,” says Koerner. “And that has seriously served my in my 100-mile races thereafter.”
As a fierce competitor, Erholtz also found that pregnancy served her well in, and for, the long run. “It gave me a chance to step back and just appreciate the gift of running, the experiences and the people I gain from the sport. Now that I have both kiddos, getting to the starting line is such an accomplishment, I almost look at it as “vacation” time!” This, particularly, resonates with me, as a runner who never seems to be able to find satisfaction from her performances as of late. I am fully aware of the idea of gratitude for the experience as a concept, but adoption is not something I’ve yet mastered. My friend Brandy here has suggested that perhaps one of the miracles of childbirth is being able to get me out of my own head. I’ll be looking forward to that one.
Benna also credits motherhood with her ability to make better choices with regards to that little line all competitive athletes often face: how much is too much? She recalls a particular post-child experience at Western States, racing herself into the ground to the point of peeing concerning colors and her body clearly telling her it was seriously damaged. “I was like, ‘you are a mother now.’ If shit is not right in a race, you are going to have to put your own dreams aside and have your priorities.” While still in the top-10, Benna dropped in the final miles of the race. “ I don’t know if I would have made the same decision when I wasn’t [yet] a mother.”
That doesn’t mean that Benna has eased off the gas pedal at all. With two children, now 3 and 7, she’s just getting started. “I think I became a competitive athlete after I became a mother,” she says. “I think you get a different confidence as a mother. You can suffer a little more.”
Koerner agrees. “[Now], the time I have to run and race has a whole new meaning, and that, for me, is really huge. I am stronger and more confident in my ability to succeed. My drive has been more focused and more rewarding. And OMG, how rad is the life we are creating for our children!?! I’m so motivated by what this experience looks and feels like to them. It’s really special to bring them up in the community we live in as runners.”
Let’s Do This
When it comes to officially trying to get pregnant, I’m realizing it’s like any major decision in life. There are aspects I can control and many I won’t be able to, so it’s up to me to shift my mindset to one that serves me. Until now, that has been difficult, as there isn’t much public dialogue concerning this monumental choice. But reaching out to my trail sisters and engaging in such honest and open conversation has been absolutely paramount to my own mental health in the matter, and has even made me a bit more excited about the prospect of growing a human.
As for where it’s left me in the matter, there are things I’m looking forward to, and things that I am upset about. I’m excited about having a child, but not looking at all forward to gestating it. That does not make me a terrible, selfish person. Just an honest one. Hell, maybe it’s even the opposite. Not one part of me wants to give up my athletic pursuits for a year in order to have a child, but I’ve never experienced a single iota of hesitation in my willingness to do so.
“You’ll look back super fondly with having done and accomplished so much before you had a baby,” says Benna. “Not that you don’t have a bunch more goals, but it will morph into having satisfaction and you won’t have regret.”
“You will never regret doing it, but perhaps you will regret it if you don’t,” adds Koerner. “You can choose to make it easy for yourself or you can choose to make it hard. So all control is not lost. Unless we’re talking the bladder kind.”
Thank you, Brandy, Ashley, Jen, Carly, and all of my other trail sisters who have shared their pregnancy stories with me. I have been struggling, but now I know, more than ever, that I’ve totally got this.
Read more Katie Grossman: A Woman’s Place