Competitive running's tough on a woman's body, and so is having babies. Put them together and you get a smorgasbord of interrelated challenges that could sideline even the most dedicated athletes and exhaust the most devoted parents.
An elite female athlete may have difficulty even becoming pregnant. When American distance runner Kara Goucher and her husband decided to have a child, she reduced the number of miles she ran per week from 100 to 30 so that it would be easier for her to get pregnant. (Elite distance runners often experience amenorrhea due to low energy availability.) In addition to reducing training enough so that it's possible for them to become pregnant, female runners must also accept that they'll have to reduce the number of miles that they run during the pregnancy. There also comes a point, for some women, that running during pregnancy becomes impossible. A female relative of mine who is also a distance runner reached a point where she was simply too uncomfortable to run. Furthermore, after giving birth, female athletes have to wait for their bodies to return to competition form and balance the demands of parenthood with the demands of their grueling training schedules.
In spite of these challenges, more and more elite female runners are opting to start their families now rather than waiting until they retire, often because running contracts now are much heftier than they used to be. Elite runners can make millions using their bodies, and thus it's in their financial best interests to stay an active competitor for as long as they can, and by the time the body gives out, it's often at an age where a successful pregnancy would be difficult.
Instead of opting to choose career and money or biological children, many runners are now doing both, thus making everyone else feel like a big slacker. Marathon world record-holder Paula Radcliffe had a baby last year and just announced that she'll return to race in this year's Berlin marathon, 2004 Olympic bronze medalist Deena Kastor gave birth to a baby girl in February, and American Goucher gave birth to a baby boy last September only to return to the Boston Marathon this April and place 5th.
Goucher's story, while extraordinary, is becoming a familiar one in the world of elite running.
Goucher ran throughout her pregnancy, and on the day she delivered, she lifted weights and went on a 50-minute run. Two and a half weeks after Colt was born, Goucher's coach called wondering whether she was ready to return to practice. She could not imagine even leaving her house.
She eventually returned to training, after her son was only a few months old.
When Colt was 3 months old, Goucher decided to wean him. She wanted to breastfeed him longer, but she was running 100 miles a week again and had grown too tired to breastfeed and run. She had prepared for this by pumping after she breastfed. She bought a freezer to hold three months of breast milk.
This weekend, Goucher placed second in the 10,000 meter event at the US Track & Field Championships, and after her race, she was able to run a victory lap with her son in tow.
It takes a special sort of person to run at an elite level, and it takes a special sort of person to be a mother. Someone who can do both at the same time falls into the "super hero" category in my book.