When I became pregnant, I believed I’d fall into one of two categories with regards to running. Either I’d be the fittest pregnant woman to ever live, or I would be medically unable to run at all. There would be no grey area.
Only this is real life, and so of course there was fucking grey area. Despite my all-or-nothing attitude towards all-of-everything, I have been faced with continual examples of this throughout my 35 years of life. I’ve run races that ended with good results, but were far from perfect. I’ve had jobs that were better than other jobs, but not dream jobs. I’ve eaten tacos that were pretty good, but not life-changing. This would lead one (and me) to believe that pregnancy would be no different, but if I’ve learned anything over the years it’s that learning is for suckers and holding out blind hope for alternate realities is much more fun. I’m an optimist.
It all started when I couldn’t breathe. The first day, I thought I was getting sick. The second day, I really thought I was getting sick. And on the third day in a row of sucking wind on even the slightest incline, I realized I wasn’t getting sick, and something was very, very off. Still panting, I walked straight inside to the bathroom and grabbed a stick. I was still midstream when my hormones basically shouted: YOU ARE VERY PREGNANT.
A friend of mine once told me that running while pregnant was like constantly running at altitude. Seeing that I live at 6600’ and do most of my training in the 7’000-8000’+ range, I supposed that, for me, it was like running at altitude, but also at altitude. In other words, it seemed very reasonable that this was my first major symptom of pregnancy. Doing the math, I was only about five weeks along though. Surely I couldn’t be dealing with this huge blow to my running already? I still had 35 weeks to go.
A few days after finding out, I went running and backpacking for three days. It was exhausting. The following week, I helped lead a trail running camp in Virginia. By the end of the camp, nausea had set in. For the remaining months of 2017 and into January, I just tried to blame it on first trimester woes and struggle on through it – running 3-5 times per week and still aiming to get at least one run of over 10 miles in. Everyone said it would be better when I hit the second trimester.
Looking for inspiration, I did what we modern women do, and turned to the internet. It was here that I discovered that #pregnancyabs are a thing. I did not have pregnancy abs. I had a puffy, bloated belly full of raging hormones and a new set of DD knockers and was already being told by Kaiser Permanente that I needed to watch my weight. I had gained 7 lbs, and that was more than they recommended for the entire first trimester. They sent me an online course about food pyramids and incorporating 30 minutes of brisk walking into my routine for exercise.
Heading into pregnancy, I had battle hardened myself for what seems like the holy rite of passage for all mothers: societal judgement. I assumed that most of this would be related to continuing my active lifestyle in the mountains, including skiing and trail running, usually alone – and, true to form, I have definitely received some comments. But what I wasn’t prepared for was feeling like I wasn’t doing enough. That my mileage and pace would be drastically reduced from the get-go. That my motivation to push through when I felt like crap and hurt with every single step would wane. That my own doctors would tell me I needed to exercise more and that pregnancy wasn’t an excuse to “eat for two.” That instead of finally being relieved of an incessant obsession on body image, it actually got worse. Much worse.
I’m smart enough to know that we women come in all shapes and sizes, and that the Instafamous of the world are well versed in the value of good lighting and flattering angles. But since I’ve never been pregnant, I had no idea that this concept would also apply to women’s pregnant bodies. (Again with the “fuck applied learning/choosing blind hope” thing.) The pictures I’d always seen of pregnant women, and particularly pregnant athletes, involved an otherwise fit body with a perfectly round, little bump off the front. I just assumed I’d look like that, since I was also fit going into the whole ordeal. When I found myself with a lumpy, bumpy stomach and gigantic, floppy torpedo boobs, I was horrified. “I look fat not pregnant” and “how do I know it’s a bump and not just added weight” were actual Google searches. By me. “Why does my bump have a crease” even led me to the concept of a “B-Belly” vs. a “D-Belly” and from there, I spent a good 5 weeks convinced that obesity was my body type’s true natural state and the only way I had avoided it for so long was through my hobby of running ultramarathons.
To make matters worse, I came to pregnancy armed with inspiration from athletes I admired. Friends who had trained 50-60 miles per week and continued successfully racing while pregnant, professional athletes preparing for the Olympics through pregnancy, other ultra runners nailing workouts at 7:30 pace with cute, little bumps along for the ride. My midwife told me one of her other patients was training for a marathon. Another local runner won a 50k while only a few days further along than I. My brain wanted to try and do these things, but the reality was that if I ran much more than 9 or 10 miles at a time, I was all but crippled for the next few days – my hips aching so badly that I couldn’t even stand straight. Soon thereafter, I lost the will to even want to run farther than that, because the entire workout was always a struggle. I couldn’t breathe, and it hurt everywhere, and there wasn’t a single ounce of joy in any of it. But every time I came close to accepting the reality of my own, personal pregnancy, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was just making excuses. Maybe it was supposed to be that hard. Maybe it was supposed to hurt that bad. And maybe I was just being lazy.
I like to do my best at things. The “old college try,” for me, involves a full course load, D1 athletics, campus philanthropy, training for my first marathon, and being so distraught after my first B that my dad had to console me. (It was in a subjective art class, but it still troubles me to this day.). I attribute this less to an A type personality and need to be the best at everything, and more to a deep seeded fear that seems to pervade my every activity. Would the concept have been better if I’d just stayed at work until 2am instead of going home at midnight? Was it smart to lower my mileage this week or was I just being a slouch? I think I’m eating generally healthy, but am I really if I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing? I’m driven by my own guilt in the possibility that at any given moment I’m not doing all that I can to reach my full potential.
In maternity, this translates to the fear that by allowing my runs to turn to hikes or sometimes to nothing at all that I’m just using pregnancy as an excuse. Sometimes it feels like that is what the world is telling me – you’re giving up because you’re not actually that dedicated, you’re making excuses to lay on the couch, you need to try harder if you really want to be an accomplished athlete. I’m not certain if this is a result of the more modern focus on the value and acceptance of exercise and the competitive women who drive that message, or of my own lack of self acceptance. I’m sure it’s a combination of both. To the opposite end, I know that you’re supposed to take exercise easier and watch your heart rate and all that jazz, but at what point is it just being lazy? Where is the line? Why am I not “doing pregnancy” better? And why the hell can’t I find examples of anyone else here in the grey with me?! INTERNET, YOU ARE FAILING ME.
Of course, I know the answer to that one, because it has taken me until just now – entering the third and final trimester – to admit I’m struggling. No one wants to be the poster child for “just doing my best, but it’s way less than this remarkable woman to my left.” I mean, I sure as hell don’t. I want to be the remarkable woman on the left. Running 20-milers, winning races, holding single digit pace, looking all cute with the perfectly round/lump-free bump.
But I’m not.
I know exactly why when I search #16weekspregnant or now #29weekspregnant, I don’t often find women like me. I don’t find women who have widened out everywhere and have misshapen bellies, because just like me, they don’t feel super great about themselves and sure as hell aren’t going to post a picture. They, like me, have possibly gained over 20 lbs, yet not ever once been publicly asked or congratulated because despite being the largest they have ever been in their lives, it’s hard for most people to tell that they are pregnant. They, like me, aren’t running races or paces that they feel proud of. And perhaps they, like me, aren’t particularly loving being pregnant and are just looking forward to getting on to that next phase. They, like me, are afraid of saying anything negative about pregnancy, looking selfish for caring about their own body/hobbies, or offending someone else who might be experiencing a contrasting side of pregnancy. None of us want to be a downer, when compared to the gratitude we feel for the life blooming inside of us. The internet is a scary place when used irresponsibly.
To combat this, I tried to shift my focus to facts and figures. But as no surprise, there hasn’t been much research on women’s pre and post natal care in general, much less with regards to athletics. It wasn’t that long ago that they were telling us to eat for two and that running was dangerous. Hell, it wasn’t even that long ago that they told us that even not pregnant, running a marathon would lead to our uteruses literally falling out of our bodies. Now they’re telling us not to get fat and to exercise. No doubt the latter is a step in the correct direction, but perhaps these medical peeps with their dated studies and one-size-fits-all recommendations also suffer from the lack of grey problem. How am I supposed to learn to accept the in-between if the people in charge don’t acknowledge it either?
So I’m just making it up as I go. I’m discovering my own shades of grey and I’m hoping that by the time my own daughter might want to conceive, that variances of the norm are more commonplace and accepted. I’m learning to take comfort less in the stories of others and more in the rational thoughts of my own brain. I’m realizing that the majority of charts and recommendations are based on averages, and I have rarely ever been average. I’m trusting that my body knows what it’s doing here. And I’m admitting that I’m not having the perfect “fit pregnancy” and working on owning my place as an outlier. I hope it contributes to the conversations we, as a society, should be having.
In the short time that I began compiling this article until publishing, the span of a few weeks, things have changed yet again. I’m a little larger, I feel stronger kicks, and the checkout guy at Trader Joe’s became the first member of the public to verbally recognize my pregnancy. (He was complimenting me rather than scolding me for packing and lifting heavy bags of groceries, which is a huge win in my book. Three cheers for your progressiveness, Trader Joe’s guy!) Unfortunately, my hip pain has also progressed into some pretty severe sciatica and I haven’t taken a running step in a full week and a half. I’m learning to manage it, via frequent breaks for stretching and strengthening exercises throughout the day, but the reality is that if I have a busy day of working on construction projects in our house, running a bunch of errands or some other activity where I’m on my feet and moving all day, I can’t also add a run or hike in or I pay severely. Like, “crying so hard I throw up and my husband struggling to trust that I’m not in labor” type of payment. However, if I’m mainly working on the computer, a 30-60 minute jaunt in the forest is actually helpful. Even though things have gotten physically worse, mentally, I’m doing much better because there’s no longer any doubt that I’m going too easy on myself. A finite amount of activity is black, and one step over is white…. hot…. pain. The thin demarcation line of grey creates some helpful, radiating “hints,” at which point, I grab my big-ass pregnancy pillow and go lie in the fetal position for 30 minutes.
Things will change again during the next 2.5 months. And then they’ll change drastically. But then, they’ll gradually begin turning towards some sense of normal and I’ll have the opportunity to begin rebuilding myself as an athlete. As a rational person who understands the value of nutrition and exercise, whether the rest of this pregnancy gets better or worse is due to my own internal structure and mechanics, and mostly out of my control. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to fully embrace this rest as a meaningful, short-term break, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be a able to get over my own feelings of inadequacy and laziness. But just as I won’t accept running as fully “gone” for now, I’m going to keep trying. And when I really think about it, that’s the thing that truly separates the the excuse makers from those who get it done.
I’m 6 and a half months pregnant, and I’m getting shit done.
WHAT I’VE LEARNED, AND HOW I’M COPING:
- Running at altitude is definitely harder. When I go down to sea level for work, I am able to run much easier and faster and uphill-ier. I’d love some numbers here, but turns out, they don’t do a whole hell of a lot of experiments on pregnant ladies. So take this as an sample of one.
- Sometimes a combination of a first pregnancy and having a strong core can actually keep your belly from “popping” earlier. For some, this is #pregnancyabs, and for others it can just mean a more flattened or lump-laden bump for awhile. Entering the third trimester, I feel like mine is finally rounding out. (ALSO, WHO CARES?!) (I do.) (Kind of.)
- I’ve found some anecdotal evidence of athletic women who have put on a little more weight than what is considered acceptable by the medical standard. Their thought pattern is that the body needs to put on a little more fat to support a healthy pregnancy. All of the super accurate and helpful medical charts do state that women starting from a lower weight/BMI are recommended to gain more. But we all know that weight and BMI are often not a true indicator of actual health, particularly when you have the case of a more muscular woman. So it would make sense, to me, that the same advice would apply to a super fit/muscular woman who might weigh a bit more than a traditionally “skinny” woman. Only they don’t give us this advice… they tell us we’ve gained too much already and we need to eat less and take up walking. I’d love to find some decent research on this area, but have so far stricken out.
- I’m grateful to not be at the “medically you cannot” end of the spectrum, and try to be happy that on most days, I can get out and move. While I’m increasingly trending towards difficulty with running, I can still hike a few days a week. I went skiing over 40 times this winter and didn’t embarrass myself in a spin class. I build shit around the house, haul trash to the local dump and do push-ups (on my knees) every damn day. And as for that 30 minutes of “recommended walking,” I routinely crush that every day just by living my life. It’s a lot less running and a lot more “other things,” but deep down, I think I know I’m doing just fine.
- Just because my “fit pregnancy” isn’t going as “well” as I thought it would, doesn’t mean that my postpartum comeback is doomed to the same fate. And this isn’t that blind hope speaking. I’ve kept myself healthy thus far, and the possibility still exists that I’ll bounce back strong. And hey, if I don’t, maybe I’ll take some learning from the previous 9 months and know that it’s ok. (Let’s be honest, I probably won’t, but at least I’m aware.)
- There definitely are flattering angles. I still don’t fully understand the witchcraft of the perfect ‘grams from the #fitspirational, but every once in awhile, my husband takes a photo that doesn’t make me tear up and hide under a blanket. Sometimes, I’ll even let him post it, and once, I posted it myself! Point being: I really need to stop comparing myself to people on the internet.
- Buying a few items of maternity clothing helped strengthen my position of “pregnant not fat.” I have mostly been wearing my husband’s baggy t-shirts and running clothes, but investing in a few basic maternity T’s, jeans and tights with belly bands and even a few simple dresses has been a game changer. I also acquired a few new running pieces in larger sizes to more nicely accommodate the aforementioned torpedo boobs. Not only are they more comfortable, but infinitely more flattering. Perhaps it’s trivial, but I feel a lot more confident, and that goes a long way when the pregnancy hormones are raging.
- After purchasing these clothes (and picking/comandeering my favorites out of my husband’s closet), I packed up all of my “regular Katie” clothes, sealed that shit with duct tape and hid it in an upstairs closet. Not only do I benefit from the out of sight/out of mind mentality, but my life is a lot more organized. It was also a great opportunity to weed out my closet and put together some donation bags.
- I can hate my body and love it in the space of the exact same second. It hurts in weird ways and it’s awkward and cumbersome and weird – but I’m continually astounded that I’m growing a human. My mind can barely process it when I feel her kick. When I’m deep in the throes of own-self-body-shaming, it helps to shift my focus to just how amazing it is that my body knows exactly what to do to create life. Science is crazy, y’all.