I can’t wait for the full interview with marathoners Paula Radcliffe and Kara Goucher to come out. But for now, I’ll take this snippit.
As someone who has been pregnant and lives with a crazy marathon-running/training freak, I am in complete awe of these women. The professional, psychological, and emotional pressure to continue to run is in complete juxtaposition to not only society’s ideas about how much women should or should not exercise while pregnant (you are always doing too little or too much, of course) but also their own bodies. I recognize that they have the ability to train throughout their pregnancy because of their access to specialists, equipment, etc. (I mean, Goucher references using the Alter-G treadmill, which the magazine has to explain since you and I have no clue what the hell that means). But still. Damn.
Beyond that, I appreciate Radcliffe because of her post-pregnancy story with her first child (who is now three). As someone who has worked to get back to a comparable level of physical activity post-baby to what it was pre-baby and is still struggling with that goal, I was overjoyed when Paula Radcliffe won the New York marathon 10 months after giving birth. There was all this discussion over whether she should have come back that quickly. Was it ok? It was stupid chatter. But people love, love, love to police pregnant bodies and judge mothers for their decisions. And she basically gave them a gigantic middle finger.
I know that there are people who say that women like Radcliffe put more pressure on women to get fit after pregnancy because they are showing that you can do it, so somehow that means that all women must meet that same goal. But please, let’s be honest about what it means to be Paula Radcliffe, to be a world-class marathoner, and to bounce back from pregnancy the way she did.
What Radcliffe did almost no woman can do. She is the fastest woman marathoner in history (she has the three fastest times ever for women). She isn’t just a normal woman when it comes to running so acting like she has to represent the reality for any other woman is ridiculous from the get-go. For goodness’ sakes, she won the London marathon, a race during which she publicly pooped on the side of the road (Another reason I love her. Sure, it’s gross. But this woman faces enormous pressure from her compatriots and she was running the London marathon. It was either poop and win or don’t and lose. She chose to win.). She simply has access to resources that almost no one in the world, female or male, mother or not, have access to. That was true while she was pregnant and since she became a mom.
BUT her story directly contradicts the tired narrative that mothers can’t be athletic superstars and I think that is what I love. Mothers are just rarely a part of the story or the competition (for a reason, obviously, but I don’t think it’s because they physically can’t do it – that’s my point). Let’s take the last two Olympic games as an example. Of course most of these athletes are young so the chances of them being parents are less because of that fact alone. But it is a big. fucking. deal. when a mom is at the Olympics and especially when she competes well. Remember Dara Torres from 2008 (who, like Radcliffe, had access to some sweet resources while making her comeback)? [Also, in all honesty, her story was not simply that she was a mom but that she was old – 41] In 2008 there were 16 mothers who competed out of the 286 women who represented the US. In 2010, 207 total women competed and 15 were mothers. There was even one pregnant Olympian (the second ever).
The narrative here that I want to take away from these stories about Radcliffe, Goucher, Torres, and these other Olympian mothers (as well as the women I mention below) is that these women are autonomous over their pregnant bodies and even with post-partum bodies, they can compete. Yes, they are doing things that most pregnant women would never ever do because they can’t, don’t want to, don’t have time to, or think it is unnecessary (or crazy). But Goucher and Radcliffe, as representatives of elite distance running, are showing that not all pregnant bodies are the same, not all decisions regarding pregnant bodies have to be the same, and that pregnant women can be physically active at an incredibly high level if they have the ability to (I mean physically, with the right resources, etc.). Pregnant women aren’t waifs. They aren’t fragile. In fact, they can still be total badasses.
But, as an earlier report about Radcliffe’s and Goucher’s training-while-pregnant show, there is always an expert who will tell them despite all the experts who are guiding through both their pregancies and their training that their behavior is risky (implicitly “for the baby”):
Their training is intense but within the most recent physical-activity guidelines for pregnant women from the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
“The recommendations say women can sustain the level of their activity prior to pregnancy,” said Danielle Symons Downs, an associate professor of kinesiology and obstetrics and gynecology at Penn State who researches pregnancy and exercise.
Radcliffe and Goucher, she said, are “right in the guidelines with their vigorous activity.”
Other experts disagree.
“I don’t know it’s safe for high-level marathon runners to run at that level during pregnancy,” said Dr. Mona Shangold, the director of the Center for Women’s Health and Sports Gynecology in Philadelphia. “It has not been shown that running for that long, for that intensity, is safe.”
Nonetheless, Goucher and Radcliffe are planning to convene for the New York Mini 10K, a women’s race on June 12 in Central Park put on by the New York Road Runners.
Here’s a great article from CNNSI about that June 12th Mini 10K, placing their pregnancies and their running accomplishments in a historical timeline that only goes back a few decades:
Back when Kathrine Switzer was running road races in the 1960s and ’70s, some doctors made a point of telling her that all that running around would cause her uterus to collapse and that she would be unable to have children.
Even if she could have a child, one doctor told her, “the childbirth will be tough because your muscles are too firm and taut,” recalled Switzer, who in 1967 became the first woman to officially complete the Boston Marathon, (but not before a race official tried to body slam her off the course).
So it was fitting Saturday that Switzer was holding one end of the finishing tape at the 39th New York Mini 10k, the country’s oldest all-female road race, with the other end held by Kara Goucher, America’s top female marathoner who is pregnant and still running 60 to 80 miles a week and doing light track workouts. After 20-year-old Kenyan Linet Masai broke the tape in 30:48, Goucher, who decided not to “fun run” the 10k because of a back injury, perfected the symbolism by jumping in to jog the last few meters with her friend Paula Radcliffe, the British world record holder in the marathon who is also pregnant. Goucher and Radcliffe have been training together — in a scaled-down version of their normal regimens — and both are due to give birth on September 29th . Both Goucher and Radcliffe planned their pregnancies to give them plenty of time to return to form for the 2012 Olympics.
Radcliffe, btw, ran that 10K in 44:36. My amazing marathoning husband runs a 10K in about 41 minutes. And he’s not pregnant.
This all reminds me of tennis player Kim Clijsters and US basketball star Lisa Leslie. The title of this article says it all about Leslie: “First-Time Mom One Year, Four-Time Olympian the Next”. And like an athletic phenomenon, her post-pregnancy story sounds similar to Radcliffe’s:
In 2007, just four months after Lauren was born, she was back on e court with Team USA during its College Tour. As she told NBC, “Since returning to the game, I have a lot more to play for with Lauren sitting on the sideline with my husband and it’s just been awesome to be able to come back and play after having a baby.
Clijsters won the US Open grand slam tennis tournament when her daughter was 18 months old. She was the first mother in almost 30 years to a win a grand slam tennis tournament. It was an amazing story and a huge accomplishment. Of course, it couldn’t just be that a mother had done something unexpected and totally awe-inducing:
Beneath the surface of all these stories might also be a referendum on the state of women’s tennis. If an unseeded mother who has been away from the game for two years can beat five top-20 players and win the U.S. Open, maybe the talent pool isn’t so deep.
Fuck that. These mothers are amazing. Mothers are amazing. Let’s just simply celebrate all that the human body can do, all that pregnant women can do, all that mothers can do, and all that women can do. It’s okay to do this while remembering that these women are not me, are not “regular” or “normal” mothers and that I will never be able to be the athletes they are (I couldn’t ever be the athletes that they are as mothers before I was mother so to act like their stories mean I should be aiming for that is just plain silly – we talk about them and focus on them because they are extraordinary). Celebrating them doesn’t diminish the rest of us who are just trying to get an hour of exercise once a week as our child is about hit two years old. Let’s just revel in the ability of the female body to adjust and to recover by giving some attention to these women’s remarkable and unique stories of pregnancy and motherhood. And let’s leave it at that.