Why we’re still in awe of Sophie Power

Sophie Power

Like many new parents, Sophie Power, 36, knows what it feels like to survive on less than an hour’s sleep over the course of a weekend. In early September, however, her sleep deprivation wasn’t the result of a crying newborn; rather, it was the consequence of her taking part in – and completing – the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), one of the world’s toughest races.

Starting and finishing in Chamonix, France, the UTMB challenges competitors to cover 106 miles and climb 31,000ft – a greater ascent than summiting Mount Everest from sea level. The weather is frequently horrendous, while the challenging terrain tests even the most sure-footed of runners. Of the 2,561 starters in this year’s event, roughly a third failed to make it back to Chamonix before the 48-hour cut-off.

That Sophie managed to do so – while stopping to breastfeed her three-month-old son, Cormac, along the way – is nothing short of extraordinary. ‘Initially, I never thought about finishing the race;
I just wanted to experience the start line and possibly the first night,’ says the mother of two. ‘The UTMB has been a bucket-list race of mine, and I think a lot of women become mothers and then forget about their own dreams. I’m not suggesting that mums can go and do a race like this from scratch. However, with the right support and training, you can keep challenging yourself – whether that’s signing up for a parkrun or running the UTMB.’

How did you prepare for the UTMB whilst being pregnant? 

Staying fit during pregnancy also helps to prepare women for the physical demands of motherhood, says Sophie. ‘During pregnancy, it felt like all the advice was to put your feet up and get fat, as anything else was taking a risk,’ she says. ‘This is not the best way to prepare for motherhood – staying fit, healthy and strong is so important, and how you can safely do that needs to be talked about more.’

Related: New study finds running in pregnancy does not lead to premature birth 

In Sophie’s case, staying healthy without taking risks meant stopping running after the fifth month of pregnancy, but she continued to strength-train up until two weeks before the due date. As most UTMB runners use trekking poles, Sophie knew she had to build a strong upper body, which she did so through a series of triceps dips and chin-ups, while aerobic fitness was maintained through gentle workouts on a stairmill.

Following the birth, Sophie didn’t take a single running step for the first eight weeks, as her pelvic floor wasn’t ready. In fact, it wasn’t until a successful test run in Chamonix the Tuesday before the UTMB that she felt ready to tackle the race. ‘That’s when I then said to my husband, “This isn’t about me getting to Courmayeur [about halfway through] or getting through the first night: I’m running the entire course.”’

an interview with sophie power

How did you run the race breastfeeding your three-month-old baby? 

Coming good on this promise was a triumph not only of endurance but of multitasking. ‘Cormac usually feeds every three hours and it took me 16 hours to get to Courmayeur, where he could first meet me, so I was hand-expressing everywhere I could. I was possibly the only runner at aid stations who was also supplying food.’ Her husband would then take the milk back to feed Cormac.

Although Sophie had ensured in the weeks before the race that Cormac would accept formula, it was important to her to continue to breastfeed. ‘The UK has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in OECD countries,’ she says. ‘I wanted to show people that you can keep doing what you want and carry on breastfeeding, even in uncomfortable environments such as aid stations.’

While most runners who make it back to Chamonix promptly collapse, sleep for 24 hours and luxuriate in some well-earned kudos, Sophie wanted to get back into parenting mode as soon as possible. ‘My goal at the UTMB start line was: how do I get my body around the course as gently as possible, taking all the time I can take, and being in a fit state when I cross that finish line to go and be mum to my two boys again?’

This meant taking things relatively easy, an approach that Sophie says she enjoyed. ‘In other years, I might have been thinking, “I want to run it in under 36 hours [she finished in 43 hours and 33 minutes]” and I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much.’

Knowing that her oldest son, Donnacha, would be waiting for her at the finish line in Chamonix also provided Sophie with some added motivation. ‘I don’t think three-year-olds understand DNFs,’ she says. ‘It was just so wonderful to see him at the finish and run the final steps together.’

an interview with sophie power

Taking part in the race also offered Sophie a break from the stresses of day-to-day life (she is co-founder of a company that tackles air pollution). ‘Running the UTMB was a mental break. For a couple of days, I could just focus on putting one foot in front of the other. I’ve returned refreshed and ready to take on the world again.’

While Sophie’s ultrarunning achievements have – rightly – drawn accolades from far and wide, she is keen to not be labelled as some kind of  ‘supermum’, saying she is simply ‘a normal person’. ‘I’m not a lifelong runner,’ she says. ‘In fact, I was one of the slowest runners in my class at school. I took up running in 2009 and dived straight into ultras, without taking any of it very seriously.’

If her achievements since then seem extraordinary – alongside the UTMB, she has also finished the 153-mile Spartathlon in Greece – they’ve been achieved on fairly low weekly mileage. ‘I run no more than 35 miles a week, plus a few strength-training sessions,’ she says. ‘I’m a mum and I run a business – I just don’t have the time or inclination to be running 70 miles a week.’

Her experiences have convinced Sophie that many more people, given the right support and training, can tackle ultramarathons. ‘Unless you’re at the front end of the race, ultras such as the UTMB are mostly a hike,’ she says. ‘And hiking while pregnant is great training – you’re just carrying your pack on the other side of your body.’