This winter, like many, I spent way too many hours in front of the television cheering on our winter Olympians, celebrating in particular the incredible accomplishments of the women of the US team. The grit, the sacrifice, the determination, the strength, the passion, the sheer awe at what the human body can do. I felt the tears well up in my eyes as the women’s hockey team clinched the gold medal, and as Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall surged from behind to capture the first-ever US Nordic gold. As Diggins and Randall catapulted into the spotlight, my attention gravitated towards a small detail in the shadows: Randall is the only mother on the US Olympic Team; of 109 women, she stands alone (compared with 20 men who are fathers).
While there are certainly many factors that contribute to this statistic, ranging from the personal to the sociological, there is the simple fact that training and competing and pushing oneself athletically—at the Olympic level, or even far below that—takes a tremendous amount of time, as does parenting. Throw a full-time job into the mix—as us “laypeople” do—and the equation seems impossible to balance; which may be why I have given up on the idea of balance. Luckily, within the trail ultrarunning community, “balance” is not really required, so no one really cares that I lead a frazzled, sometimes fractured existence.
Questions of motherhood and ultrarunning have been prominent in our TS community, as recent articles by Katie and Silke have poignantly and provocatively explored the landscape of pre-motherhood and new-motherhood. When I took my own steps into motherhood, I voraciously collected stories from the mothers around me, weaving a safety net of solace and guidance from the variegated voices. Now 10 years into my journey as a mother, I continue to mine my community for stories, in a hopeful search for answers. I find myself wondering: how do we cobble together ultrarunning, mountain adventures, parenting, and work into something that, with perspective, looks like a beautiful mosaic rather than a toddler’s crayon rampage? Is it possible to be “good” at all of these things simultaneously? Is it possible to do so with any ounce of sanity?
The voices here come from Renee Janssen, co-owner of Go Beyond Racing and mother of 11-year-old twin boys; Angie Hayes, an Administrative Assistant for the Army Corps of Engineers and mom to Sydney, age 7 and Eli, age 5; Jay Bowen, a marketing strategist for an advertising agency and mom to 2 boys, age 3 and 5; and I am a high school English teacher and mom to Jackson, age 10. While our stories cannot serve as universal maps, sometimes knowing that maps exist—that others have found a way—will let each person imagine their own. Bowen explains, “I have heard a lot of moms say I cannot understand where you find the time. I think if you want to find the time for something you will, you just have to want it really badly.” Admittedly, finding the time often seems to be less about “finding” and more about creating the right combination of flexibility, and support.
Working full-time, flexibility can make a big difference. Janssen attests, “I live by my to-do list. Without it, I’m sure things wouldn’t get done on time. I’m pretty fortunate since I own my own business and work from home, I have a good amount of flexibility with my day. I’m able to do things at times that are convenient for me; like grocery shopping in the middle of the day, going for a run after the kids go to school. This also means I work a lot in the evenings. I work a little before the kids are up in the morning too. Squeezing it in whenever and wherever I can.” Bowen concurs: “Sometimes there are long hours close to deadline, but the nature of advertising agencies is they allow for a loose schedule so I can go run midday on a Wednesday and no one really cares.”
Hayes, while not working from home, has been able to negotiate more flexible hours that allow her to run a few days a week during her lunch hour, or get home earlier for an after-work run. “It is true that sometimes flexibility and our to-do lists can make us look far more like whirling dervishes than groomed professionals—and that I may have been brought to tears when the bridge over the river was up when I was dashing to pick my son up from school, in between a barrage of meetings and a “lunch run”—but an occasional melt-down or taking a conference call while still sweaty from a run are our secrets; no one in the real world has to know.”
Flexible work certainly makes “doing it all” feasible, but even more important is a solid support system. None of us could do what we do alone. Our partners, and our extended family and friends—they are our trail angels. Some of us share time on the trails with our partners; others tag-team and high-five one another as we swap parenting duties to ensure that each person gets their soul-time; each of us counts ourselves as incredibly lucky. Janssen explains, “I am very lucky. My mom lives nearby and helps with the kids often. The boys’ dad and I have a good relationship and we cover for each as needed. And Todd and I share the household chores. Todd [husband and co-owner of Go Beyond Racing] is very supportive of me and anything I want to do. My life is really good and I know I keep saying it, but I am very lucky.”
Hayes has a similar situation: “My biggest support is my husband. He is always encouraging me to reach for and set big ambitious goals. Then he helps me reach them. If he didn’t stay home with our kids, I wouldn’t be able to fit in all that I do. He takes them to school and is such an awesome dad, he does the cleaning and the grocery shopping. I’ve been so impressed by how much he gives to our family (though it’s a stumbling block because it isn’t in a traditional way and that affects him though he has enjoyed it). Also, our family is a huge support. My mother-in-law watches them regularly allowing Thomas and I to run our long runs together. My parents and his step-mother also regularly take the kids for a weekend enabling us to adventure together.”
Clearly, “the village” is necessary both in raising children and supporting an ultrarunner. Gratitude is palpable. Bowen adds, “I couldn’t do this without my husband Andy. He really is my biggest cheerleader in anything I do. He is also super chill about taking the boys for the day and just hanging out at the rugby field. He knows when I do the long runs and we plan well for it. He also knows how cranky I get when I don’t run, so it’s basically a win-win for both of us!”
Even with love and support, planning, and stubborn determination, sometimes, we still have to make tough choices. I like to think of these decisions as choices rather than sacrifices to focus more on what we gain in each moment, rather than on what we give up. Sometimes, everything fits but not in the original order; as Bowen explains, “There was a day over Easter last year where I was training for race, and I stopped my long run, did the Easter Egg hunt with my boys at this big organized crazy Easter event, high fived my husband and then went back out and continued my long run. I remember finishing up at like 9pm. It was such a long day, but I needed to do it that way. It is so hard, but you want to be there for family events, but also have to run!” Hayes adds, “If I’m not mindful, I too easily spend my limited energy and time on the distractions rather than spending it on the most important things to me. It’s also hard to rest (all day long I go go go until the kids are in bed) or to find time for my own personal things each day. Hence why the commute to work hasn’t sent me looking for another job! I try to use this time for me – call a friend, plan out details for my adventures, catch up on FB, pray, read a book or (many times) do nothing.” Janssen certainly relates: “It’s all about hours in a day. It can often feel like there aren’t enough to get in my work, a run, and meals and quality family time. I am one of those people that really needs a good eight hours of sleep and I haven’t been successful at getting up at o’dark-thirty to get a workout in before everyone else wakes. It is about to get easier though since my kids are now old enough to stay home alone for a bit, so I can do things away from them that were difficult before.”
We all know that feeling of time vanishing into the black hole of Instagram, and can berate ourselves for not being intentional with our days; additionally, there are always the voices of judgment in our minds that tell us that in spite all of our work, our love, our planning, and our best intentions, we are still not good enough. Janssen summarizes it perfectly: “Social media can definitely make you feel like you aren’t running enough, fit enough, spending enough time doing important things with the kids, adventuring with friends, etc. I try not to seriously pay attention to that stuff because I know everyone just puts out their best moments. But I also find social media inspiring and get jazzed seeing what others are doing…Another area where I beat myself up is meals. It is very important to me to provide healthy, home-cooked meals for my family. With their sports practice schedules, and our race events, we spend way too much time eating out. You’d think that I could get dinner on the table pretty easily since I work from home, but too often I am head-down working and realize too late that someone’s gotta go to practice in the next 30 minutes.”
Bowen shares in the sentiment: “I constantly feel like I am failing as a mum, but I feel like this is not just an issue for ultrarunner moms! I am definitely not the fittest mom, the fastest mom, or the helicopter mom who can be there for my kids all day long. I need time away and time to run, and I feel like I am better for it when I see my kids. I also wish I had more time to just unplug and run, and because I can’t, I always feel like I have not trained enough. I envy friends who can just check out all day Saturday for adventures. I can do that maybe once a month but I definitely feel like I have neglected my kids afterwards. This is my issue as they completely don’t even notice, but I feel bad for taking a whole day away from them.” These themes of inadequacy and guilt are not new; they are not feelings endemic to ultrarunning or motherhood or work, but there is a certain level of amplification that occurs under the compounded pressure of competing demands and desires.
So, what do we do? We persevere with as much positivity as we can muster. Isn’t that the supreme lesson of both ultrarunning and parenting? We learn to embrace the highs and the lows, the ecstasy and the suffering; we revel in the strengths we have built. Janssen assesses, “I never considered myself a patient person, and there are times when I definitely run out of it, like when I’ve asked the boys five times to put their shoes away. But having kids has made me more patient and understanding. It’s also made me more appreciative. And I suppose stronger too.” Hayes expounds, “Being a mom makes me stronger by keeping me humble and open to change. I may master the stage my kids are in just in time for them to move into a new stage of learning and growing. This continual humbling leads to personal growth – my constant reminder that I don’t have it all figured out, to share with/learn from/respect other, take another’s perspective. I cannot stay contently in one constant state as if I’ve made it. I have to persist to gain more experience and wisdom. That is the strength that gets me through life’s challenges.”
The prism that our life-mosaics cast illuminates more than lessons, challenges, and personal growth. We may live by our check lists but we also love our Type 2 fun and have plenty of epic adventures planned for 2018. There will be Rim to Rim to Rims in the Grand Canyon; circumnavigations of several Cascade volcanoes; and a hundred-mile mountain bike race. There will be hikes, summits, and backpacking trips with kids, because as much as we are committed to our own adventures in the mountains, we are likewise committed to raising the next generation of mountain lovers. Our children are all learning early that the mountains provide spaces for challenge, fun, beauty and joy, and that it is our human obligation to protect them with all our heart.
As we tackle our big goals for 2018, we will all likely feel undertrained, a little sad for time we are missing with our families when we are on our separate adventures, and a little backlogged in work. It might be frenetic, messy, and even crazy to some, but we have each managed to map some semblance of order onto the chaos, and while the moment-by-moment truth may not often be pretty, these lives are pretty awesome. As I gathered these amazing women’s testimonies to how they manage to be moms, work full time, and adventure through the mountains, I heard so much of my own journey, and felt the power of that community. None of us would say that our path is proscriptive: there is nothing better or worse, no moral imperative towards working or motherhood or ultrarunning. But for me–and maybe for others—these stories offer reassurance that others are juggling the same insanity and loving it; and we will always have our secrets.