It Won’t Change My Running!

woman-preg

Let’s get things straight, I’m not and never will be a Liz McColgan or a Sonia O’ Sullivan. I am your average, 30-something, 30-miles a week plodder. Try as I might I have never won a race and can’t see that I ever will. But what I do have in common with Liz and Sonia (apart from our taste in sport and washboard tummies – I wish!) is that I too have been a pregnant runner. Unlike them I did not go on to win London Marathon records or win medals at the Sydney Olympics, but metaphorically speaking I’ve been there, done that, cut the cord and got the baby to prove it.

First Trimester (0-3 months)

I began my nine months with grand claims of, “Oh, nothing will stop me running. My baby will be born on a treadmill”. I’d sneak condescending looks at the pram-pushing community and pat my toned thighs, believing that I wouldn’t succumb to the cellulite of motherhood. I’d make it through on salad, yoghurt and a rich helping of mileage – no problem!

Didn’t I soon learn to munch on humble pie?

For the first time in my life, I was no longer in control of my body. From the moment sperm and egg met I became nothing more than a cosy nesting ground for my unborn child. Good intentions and pious claims were swiftly swept under a carpet of stodge. Within weeks of conception my weight soared. I was permanently starving. My stomach seemed to have devised an uncanny trick of making me feel nauseous whenever I felt hungry. And to add a helping of creamy irony to the sticky situation, I’d feel sick and bloated as soon as I’d eaten.

The first trimester also sees the end of your former sleep patterns. Shut-eye becomes the stuff you squeeze in between toilet trips and drink stations. But this somehow worked in my favour. I’d wake at 5am, alert and ready for action. This was the best part of each day for me. I’d put on my kit, and head out the door to run. I’d run when the streets were empty and the air was fresh and cool. I’d drink that freshness and feel it pumping energy around my body. I felt so good when I ran; I was calm and in control. Okay my breathing had altered, I was getting out of breath much more quickly than usual and had to adjust my pace to compensate, but that didn’t matter. Each mile gave me a rush of life, a sense of purpose. I’d return home after a very steady 10K, drenched in sweat but feeling good, really good.

During those first three months, contact with the medical profession is kept to a minimum. Naively, I was expecting weekly internals, externals and counselling sessions on being a modern parent – but nothing of the sort emerged. Naturally I wanted the professional green light to go ahead with my training. My first meeting with the doctor was a very light-hearted affair with him practically uncorking champagne to celebrate my news. “Yes, but is it alright to run?” I asked him, “I mean, it won’t fall out or anything will it?” (I was seriously under the impression that my magical little embryo could, in fact, drop out with all this pounding.)

“Good Lord, no,” my doctor laughed. His only advice was that I shouldn’t take up water skiing, as this sort of unexpected douche could do some damage. I assured him that I wasn’t about to embark on a nautical career, and set off for the gym, where I found solace in the whirring of the treadmill’s belt and glowing digital display.

I soon found that my kit, especially my crop tops, became tight and uncomfortable. Trying to yank them over my head became a feat of acrobatic expertise. A great red ring of pinched skin circled my ribs when I eventually got the damn things off. My back, rib cage and boobs were expanding at an alarming rate, and investment in a decent sports bra became essential. The day I bought mine I sighed with indescribable relief. It gave me a new lease of life; I no longer felt like some corseted Victorian lolloping along the roads.

At 11 weeks, something magical happened: I had my first scan, and saw my baby for the first time. The monitor crackled back a ghostly shape of arms and legs and a head with a nose and mouth. The invisible suddenly became visible. It was a miracle that brought me to tears. After that, every time I ran, I held that picture in my mind and thought of it being rocked to sleep by my strides. At last I could see the reason for all the itchy skin and hunger and nausea – my tiny wriggling child was running its own race deep inside of me.

Second Trimester (4-6 months)

People constantly offer you advice and information when you’re pregnant. One thing they got right was that these months are the best – so make the most of them. Energy levels are high, insomnia subsides, your normal appetite returns and those oily hormonal spots miraculously disappear.

Running still felt easy, although my breathing remained heavy and I was sweating more than ever. The old adage that you’re eating for two may be an excuse for some, but the truth is that you are most certainly drinking for two. Lots and lots of water is essential. With my weekly mileage steady at around 27-30 miles, I found that I was drinking at least every 10 minutes whenever I trained.

It was summer and we took a trip to the South of France to stay with my sister. She thought I was mad to be running in my condition. One evening, a doctor came round for an aperitif. I was all but internally examined on the kitchen table in an attempt to prove to him that I was in fact expecting a baby in five months’ time. He described my running as brave, and sucked at his pastis in an effort to hide his disdain.

I ran up and down shady Provençal lanes with the smell of lavender and rosemary filling my nose. The light was sharp and refreshing. Life felt good and pregnancy was at last fitting into my routine. Running formed the backbone of my day; the familiar sensation of a raised heart rate and sweat on the skin soothed me. The rhythmic motion of legs and arms working in unison set me up for whatever lay ahead, and I depended on this feeling more than I was admitting.

September brought with it dark, sodden autumnal nights. I decided that it was too dangerous for me to continue running on the road, so I joined a gym. One with a crèche seemed a particularly sensible idea.

My priority in any gym has always been the quality of their treadmills. I like to know what programmes they offer, how many there are, what speed they can go up to and so on… The gym we chose seemed adequate as I passed a cursory glance at the rest of the aerobic equipment. The step machines, the elliptical trainers, the bikes and the rowing machines – none of these held any joy for me. They always seemed to me the soft option of the gym world. The treadmills were the only machines worth bothering with; everything else was just ‘recreational’ fitness.

My training began a new lease of life here as I left behind the rain and pounded the rubber belt instead. My body found it quite hard to cope with the temperature at first, and I had to stop more frequently to drink. I ran no faster than 8:45-miling, and for no further than five miles at a time. Occasionally I’d cool down on the elliptical trainer. I say ‘cool down’, but after 10 minutes at a medium resistance on the cross-country circuit I was usually done in. Maybe there was more to this cross training business than I had formerly thought. After using free weights for my upper body, I would swim to stretch out my back and legs. The water felt so good after all that impact, and my baby wriggled and turned in my tummy. There was something about the pool that brought it alive. I’d cup my hands around my abdomen and feel it push and squirm against my skin. Running put it to sleep, but swimming brought it to life – funny, as they had exactly the opposite effect on me.

Third Trimester (7-9 months)

Disaster! What I dreaded happening happened. At seven months, my left hip packed up. Like all true athletes I tried to run through it, believing that it would miraculously disappear. It didn’t.

Visits to a chiropractor and a physiotherapist confirmed that my sacro-iliac joint was jammed and that the muscles around it had gone into spasm. The pain was unbelievable. Movement in the most general sense became something that was carefully considered, and running was completely out of the question. Even turning over in bed was something that involved a second thought and a sharp intake of breath. I was given a series of stretching exercises to do, and was told to ice the tender area regularly, but nothing seemed to shift the pain – not even deep massage. I phoned my midwife to get the go-ahead to take some painkillers; at least they provided some temporary relief.

People’s reactions towards my acquired limp were varied, but I felt that most harboured a sort of ‘told you so’ attitude. They were the ones who had warned me against the perils of exercising in my condition. I wasn’t going to let it stop me, though.

As my bump, grew I felt the need to continue with my regime more than ever. A tentative trip to the gym found me scaling the pedals of the elliptical trainer. Non-impact work was okay, the physio told me. Gingerly I pushed the rubber tread and felt no pain. Wonderful! I had joined the brigade of ‘recreational’ gym users. I stepped alongside women who wore full make-up and wobbly men who were trying to find their slimmer selves. It felt pretty wretched to have to stare at the empty treadmills and imagine what I could be doing, but now was the time to listen to my body and reassess what I was capable of. My baby pushed and wriggled inside me trying to find a comfy spot as I strode up and down computerised hills. Eventually it would relax into the rhythm of my exercising body. Mother and baby were doing well.

The discipline of continuing to train for an hour five or six times a week was still fundamental to my overall sense of well being. My bump swelled, but my arms and legs remained toned and firm. I was strong and full of energy. Regular weight sessions and lengths in the pool added to my fitness. Side glances from strangers at the gym often spelled out disbelief when they saw me doing my stuff. To be honest, I rather enjoyed this unspoken heroic status.

I left work at 38 weeks. It felt like the tapering down period before a marathon. I’d, in effect, done my last long run. I was fit and full of energy. My hip pain was now bearable as long as I didn’t place any undue impact on it. I’m sure that I felt none of the fatigue some women complain of in the last few weeks, because of all the exercise I was doing. I had put on nearly two stone in weight, but felt strong and mobile.

The estimated date of delivery drew nearer and nearer on the calendar. Like a marathon, I knew it would be a day that required energy and endurance. Despite all the training, like any marathon, it could still go wrong. Would I hit the wall? Would the pain be too much to bear? I continued to exercise until the day before I gave birth, trying hard to put these questions to the back of my mind.

Surprise Valentine

Our beautiful daughter Mollie Beth was born at 1.12pm on Valentine’s Day – a true bundle of love. However I’d be lying if I said the birth was a breeze and that I was back on the road skipping out the miles that very afternoon. Let’s be honest about this: it was the most painful experience of my life and I had had a ‘normal’ delivery: no tears, no stitches and only a bit of pain relief. Believe me, this made running a marathon look like a Sunday stroll in the park.

I am, however, convinced that much of my control and stamina through those agonising contractions derived from my ability to withstand pain while training. With every contraction I would see myself running intervals on the treadmill or pushing hard up a steep slope, only to enjoy the rest on the other side. Controlled breathing eased the journey. It also, crucially, helped me relax. Like any hard-run race, the pain disappears the moment you cross the finish line. This was the same with childbirth, only this time I had won the race and received the most magical trophy for all my efforts.

Back To Normal?

It’s truly amazing how quickly your body recovers from this nine-month trauma. I ran my first 5K, albeit very cautiously, eight days after Mollie’s birth. My hip pain had miraculously vanished. Slowly, slowly the mileage crept up and, three weeks later, I was back to running around 25 miles a week. My weight has pretty much gone back to what it was, although my body has definitely changed shape. (No more washboard tummy – I wish!)

While the rest of my life is in chaos, and revolves around feeds and nappies and sleepless nights, running once again provides me with some order to my day. It stimulates me mentally and physically and gives me the energy to cope with the most exhausting race I’ve yet to endure – a real ‘Race For Life’ – motherhood.