Getting to the Starting Line: A Postpartum 100-Miler

Photo by George Orozco

Nearly two years ago, I told a friend that I was hoping to get pregnant soon but that I was terrified about the impact that doing so might have on my ability to run long distances. This friend replied with something like, “Are you kidding?! You’re totally going to be that badass ultrarunner mom holding your baby at the finish line of a 100.”

I lacked his optimism—I’m a chronic worst-case-scenario worrier, and many badass women ultrarunners I know have harbored this same dream, only for the often-harsh realities of pregnancy and postpartum life to interfere—but I appreciated him planting the seed all the same. Yes, I thought. Wouldn’t that be great?

As I was running the final four miles of Cascade Crest a little over a week ago, sandwiched between my amazing lady-crew of Trisha and Kate, they shared with me how excited people had been all weekend that I was doing this thing, as a new mom.

Hearing this lit me up with joy. As a kid, I’d once written a list of things I wanted to accomplish in my life, including concrete bucket list to-dos like skydiving, riding in a hot air balloon, and swimming with dolphins, plus a few less tangible ones, including: “inspire somebody.” So, OK, my inner 12-year-old was feeling pretty pleased to maybe get to check this latter one off the list this weekend.

But part of me felt something else, too: a desire to not be a poster child mom for “doing it all”—especially in a year that, frankly, has tested my mental health in many ways. How many times did I nearly pull my name from the Cascade entrants list? Many. This is less a story about why I’m glad I didn’t (though that’s true too), and more about why it would have been reasonable if I (or any overwhelmed new parent!) had.

Training for a 100-miler while working full-time and raising a baby was fun until it wasn’t.

I’ll start with the good stuff, around the new year, when Sahale was just a few months old. I was so delighted by the fact that pregnancy and childbirth hadn’t destroyed my body that every run, however small and slow, felt like a celebration. While George was at work, Sahale was often content to chill in her bouncer chair next to me while I jogged on the treadmill in our garage—and her smiles and happy little coos made treadmill time much more fun.

The tiniest cheerleader.

If the weather was nice and we had the opportunity, I’d bring her with me to the trail, strap her into a soft carrier on my body, and hike up a mountain.

Photo by George Orozco

In the spring, when I went back to work, George was able to take a full three months of paternity leave. This gave me even more opportunity to run, as he took care of our daughter while I headed out to the hills to reacquaint myself with running on trails I hadn’t spent time on in months. I logged some 40- or even 50-mile weeks—mostly flat miles around my neighborhood on weekdays, but often more verty fun on the weekends—and my stoke was high. (Big thanks to Banshee Running for putting on the virtual Banshee 401K, which provided the perfect dose of motivation and accountability as I was rebuilding my strength and mileage.)

But when George returned to work in May and we had to start navigating life with both of us working full-time simultaneously, everything got exponentially harder. He and I work opposite schedules; I work 7-3, he works 3-11:30, so during the week, both of us are pretty much constantly “on duty,” either working or caring for our baby. I began waking up at 4:30 to pump milk (necessary to reduce overnight engorgement enough to run comfortably), then squeeze a run in while George and Sahale were both still sleeping, but before I started my workday. I loved it—not so much the alarm clock itself as the early-morning fresh air, the bald eagle sightings, the blissful hour of me-time, and endorphins to carry me through the rest of my day.

In June, my dad and his partner, Shirley, visited us. It was the first time I’d seen them in a year and a half, and the first time they’d been able to meet Sahale—my dad’s only grandchild! I wanted to soak up every minute with them, so I took a full week off from training.

Three generations of Winns! Photo by George Orozco.

The morning we dropped them off at the airport, a historic heat wave hit Seattle. I set my alarm early the next morning with intentions of getting a workout in before the heat of the day hit and relegated me (and everyone else in our house, too!) to the single room in our home we could keep vaguely comfortable with our lone portable AC unit. But I didn’t account for the fact that heat wave + teething baby + loss of routine the previous week + loud, restless cat being confined to the same room all night too = baby waking up a zillion times throughout the night = virtually no sleep for any of us.

I tried not to beat myself up for sleeping instead of training when I’d already barely run a step in over a week; past-me would have written this off as the kind of laziness that interferes with the pursuit of greatness, or some motivational-speaker gobbledygook like that—but mom-me feels guilty over dumb stuff all the time already and my tolerance for self-inflicted guilt seems to have gone down. So I turned off my alarm clock and gladly relished the extra hours of sleep.

Not long after, my early-morning workout routine disappeared anyway when Sahale began regularly waking up around 5, and a groggy-eyed George who’d barely been asleep for 3 or 4 hours after a stressful shift at the hospital had to take care of her while I was out gallivanting on a run. He was miserable, and I recognized I couldn’t ask him to sacrifice his sleep and wellbeing for the sake of my training goals.

I experimented with various options: I could intentionally wake Sahale up to breastfeed at 4:30 when I woke up, then try to put her back to sleep in her crib longer while I ran (which worked great, but only about 20% of the time), or I could put her in a Pack N Play in the garage while I did a treadmill workout (which worked OK until she learn how to crawl and no longer found chilling in the Pack N Play tolerable for an hour—and if there’s anything that kills workout mojo, it’s your little person who didn’t get enough sleep screaming bloody murder with tears streaming down her cheeks), or I could put her in the jogging stroller and take her with me.

Before she was born, I fantasized SO hard about being a stroller-jogging mama. I didn’t realize how not-conducive this would in fact be to good, safe workouts (at least for me) since (a) running with a stroller inherently involves altering one’s natural running gait, (b) the bike path near our house is a lovely place to run with the stroller during the day but at dawn, it’s not a place I feel comfortable running on my own (let alone with my baby), and (c) running most anywhere else straight from our house (and, I suspect, many people’s houses) involves a lot of stoplights, intersections, bumpy sidewalks, driveway divots, curbs, steep hills, staircases and other obstacles that are difficult to navigate with a stroller, especially if you’re trying to run a hard tempo or interval pace. (I have a lot of newfound appreciation for how non-wheelchair-friendly our world is. How much in life I take for granted.)

So I came to terms with the notion that this chapter of early-morning workouts had come to an end. I resigned myself to the next best alternative: squeezing my workouts in at home after Sahale went to bed for the night. We are fortunate to have a sweet home gym setup in our garage, complete with treadmill, Spin bike and a few weight machines. Evening workouts would not have been doable in Sahale’s first few months of life, when 8ish to 11ish p.m. was her stereotypical babies’ “witching hour” (and, oh, also because I was still recovering from major surgery, a separated abdominal wall and a mild pelvic organ prolapse)—but by the time she was seven months old, my body felt strong and healthy again, and I could fortunately now count on her sleeping deeply at this hour.

Seattle’s heat wave lasted most of the summer (though it ended mercifully just before the weekend of Cascade Crest). By 8:30 p.m. most evenings, our garage would be simmering in the 85-87 degree range. Some nights, I’d feel like a total baller getting on that treadmill at the end of my long day, cranking up the volume on my workout playlist, and sweating buckets all over our garage floor. I considered posting on social media about how grateful I was to have a goal like Cascade Crest to keep me committed to training even when it was a thousand degrees and I was an exhausted new mom.

But I never did because it didn’t feel quite honest.

Most of the time, I didn’t feel grateful; I felt grumpy, and dubious about my own priorities. And lonely. Overrun with pandemic fatigue. And tired. So very tired. Many nights, I couldn’t summon the energy or motivation to get on the treadmill. Why had I been so foolish to sign up for a 100-miler this year? I dreamt about pulling my name off the entrants list and being able to just shovel my body full of ice cream and beer each night instead of lactic acid.

One or two evenings a week, I’d spend an hour lifting heavy weights. This is not a thing I particularly enjoy, but George always had me do it when he was coaching me in years past, and it now feels indispensable for getting myself “mountain-fit.” Despite my dislike for weightlifting, I tolerated it when he and I used to go to an actual gym, together, and we could call it a date as we took turns on the machines and laughed about the silly pop music videos on the gym TV screens. Now it was just me alone in our sauna of a garage, grunting, yawning, sweating more than I knew was humanly possible, and wishing I was instead asleep in bed.

Awhile back, a fellow ultrarunner—Kaytlyn, I think!—posted a question on Instagram asking athlete/runner moms what their biggest barrier(s) are to training.

I’ve spent a lot of time since then thinking about how I’d answer that question. On one hand, I am spoiled rotten with factors that support my training as a new mom: despite having a C-section, I’ve had a mostly smooth recovery from pregnancy and childbirth; I was able to have weekly sessions with a pelvic floor PT for several months as I began rebuilding my running mileage last winter (and I sincerely thank all the runner mamas who instilled in me the value of doing this proactively, even if I didn’t have any obvious symptoms or issues); Sahale is a pretty decent sleeper overall; George is a devoted husband and father who shares equal responsibility with me for housework and caring for our daughter, and who also understands and 100% supports my desire to do ultras; I work from home full-time now, so have been able to repurpose commuting time to instead sleep/exercise/spend time with my family; the afore-mentioned home gym setup.

On the other hand, I could write a book about the “barriers to training” I’ve experienced as a new mom. But they’re complex. And personal. And apparently require an overly long blog post to articulate because there’s so much more than I could convey in a character-limited message or blurb on social media.

I knew I needed to get some longer training runs in on the trails, but the nature of breastfeeding makes this difficult. Again, before becoming a mom, I didn’t understand that my breasts would fill up with milk every few hours and that I’d risk uncomfortable engorgement, clogged milk ducts or worse, mastitis, if I didn’t empty them on a regular schedule via either nursing or pumping. Come July, I still hadn’t done any runs longer than 15 miles since Cascade in August 2019 because I’d never been away from Sahale for more than about four hours at a time. I knew experience and “muscle memory” count for a lot at the 100-mile distance, but my confidence was lagging.

For an unrelated reason (hint: it involves baby teeth), in July we started swapping out a couple daytime nursing sessions for bottles of formula. It felt like a win/win: Not only did she do great on it, we got to continue breastfeeding but at times of the day when she was sleepy and thus less likely to bite me, and I was able to go for a few longer training runs (two, to be exact) without worrying about impact to my milk supply.

The first felt like a fantastic adventure. The next one, several weeks later, just felt like an obnoxious slog; I spent all five-and-a-half hours of it stewing, wondering why I was running alone in the woods when I could instead be spending time with George and our sweet little baby—an opportunity that people are constantly telling me will go by in the blink of an eye.

In late July, we took Sahale on her first backpacking trip one weekend. It was such an incredibly special experience that whenever another weekend rolled around, we just wanted to take her again. (The older three kids were visiting family in Mexico for a little over a month, so we had more weekends than usual with just Sahale and the two of us.) I was “supposed” to be doing more long training runs on all those weekends, but no part of me was interested in doing that at the expense of getting to take our little girl backpacking.

As a result, my running mileage through July and August fell to 10-25 miles most weeks. So, I guess, one of the barriers to training—at least for me—has been the reality of my changed priorities since having a baby. (A cliché if I ever heard one, but this is real talk!) It is a little scary to admit this out loud because in some ways, it confirms a long-held fear of mine—that ultrarunning might someday matter less to me. I wrote about this seven years ago, almost to the date:

How long can we find meaning and purpose in doing, essentially, the same thing over and over again? How long can we make running our highest (or almost highest) priority, at the necessary expense of other aspects of our lives? … Every run (as with all activities we choose to participate in) is, ultimately, a decision to not to do something else, whether that means relatively unproductive alternatives, as many drug-addicts-or-alcoholics-or-otherwise-turned-ultrarunners can attest to—or whether it means valuable ones, such as spending time with our families or (non-runner) friends.

As a final F-you to my training, I pulled my quad badly two weeks before race day. When the older kids got back from Mexico, we took them camping one weekend, and while trying to prove that I used to be a decent soccer player, I kicked the ball hard and instantly felt excruciating pain shoot through my right quad. I limped off the field and tried to figure out if I was relieved or devastated that this meant I might not be able to run Cascade after all. (Answer: Mostly devastated.)

I took the last two weeks off from running entirely and spent those taper-tantrumy days stewing in anxiety and disappointment, which friends patiently tried to talk me down from.

In the past, gearing up for race day had always been fun. I loved the preparations, the thrill of anticipation, the writing out of a race plan, the packing of my drop bags. This year, the very thought of having to pack drop bags or provide my crew with a lick of instructions seemed utterly exhausting. Life these days is a constant packing-of-the-bags every time we leave the house, trying to remember everything I need to bring to keep our little human alive/fed/happy/clean anytime we go anywhere, feeling anxiety that I’ll forget something critical. (The diapers! The pacifier! The pacifier tether so we won’t lose it! Snacks! A clean onesie in case of a blowout! Socks for her feet so they won’t freeze! Socks for her hands so she won’t yank out all my hair when she’s on my back!) For weeks, I had such a mental block against race prep that Trisha and Kate didn’t get an email from me with a “game-day plan” until 10:19 p.m. the night before Cascade, when I definitely should have been sleeping.

Sahale woke up half an hour later, wailing, and I said to her, Yes, me too.

But when my alarm clock went off in the morning, I woke up with hope in my heart and an excitement to see the ultrarunning community I love so much, and have missed dearly during the pandemic. I felt excited to reconnect with the part of myself that identifies as an athlete. I scooped Sahale out of her crib, marveled at her as she breastfed in my arms, and whispered to her how excited I was to share Cascade Crest with her for the first (and hopefully not the last!) time. This race has seen many little ones grow up over the years, and I hope that winds up being true for Sahale, too.

Saturday morning at the start line with the 9 a.m. start wave. (Staggered starts due to the pandemic.) Photo by George Orozco.

Getting to the starting line really did feel like the achievement I’m proudest of this year, since it came so close so many times to not happening.

Cruising through Olallie Meadow. Photo by Takao Suzuki.

But I’m proud of how my race went, too, which was better than I could have dreamed. I felt grateful for so much: the joy of running itself, the always-wonderful conversations along the way with fellow runners, also the longest and loveliest swath of alone time I’ve had in nearly a year, the kisses from George and Sahale at Stampede Pass and Hyak and Silver Creek, the wonderful shared miles with Trisha and then Kate, the beautiful sunrise (and pacers who take photos to commemorate such moments) …

The Needles never looked so good. Photo by Kate Woodard.
Descending to French Cabin. Photo by Kate Woodard.
Down, down, down we go. Photo by Kate Woodard.

… and of course, getting to hold my sweet little girl at the finish line. The moment I scarcely let myself imagine because, once upon a time, it seemed so very improbable.

Photo by Cassie Gavin

I was several hours slower than last time I ran this (though, mercifully, it’s hard to compare times since a quarter of the course was different this year due to wildfire-related DNR land closures) but I still scooted in under 24 hours, which was good enough for a hat trick at my favorite hundred—unexpected, but I’ll take it!

The best crew: Trisha, Kate, George and Sahale. Photo by Rachel Bearbower.

I know Sahale is too young to form a lasting memory of this past weekend, but I hope someday she looks back on these photos and this rambling story and that it brings her even a fraction of the joy this weekend ultimately brought me.

To George, Kate, Trisha and so many other friends who gave me much-needed pep talks and support along the way this year, I can’t thank you enough.

To Dr. Lawrence, the amazing OB who delivered Sahale last October and promised to sew up “all those runner muscles” in my abdomen as well as possible, and to Dr. Nguyen, the fabulous pelvic floor PT I worked with last winter, I thank you both, too!

To Rich, Adam, Wendy, Jess, Jill, Gretchen, Rachel, Jeff, Tim, Takao and all the amazing Cascade Crest volunteers, runners, pacers, crews, families and so many other countless folks, y’all are forever my heroes for making this magic happen every August. I’ve loved this race since I first volunteered and paced at it in 2012, and I always will.

This, obviously, has been less of a race report than a postpartum training recap—and despite churning out most of it in the first few days after the race, I’ve sat on my own rambling words for nearly a week, wondering if they’re worth sharing. I don’t want to speak over the voices of those whose postpartum running journeys have been less positive than mine. I also don’t want people looking at my journey from the outside and thinking it’s been a walk in the park. Getting myself ready for a 100-miler this year was hard for many reasons I hadn’t anticipated (rather than the reasons I had), and I’m not sure I want to do it again next year.

On the other hand, I know that before I became a mom, I heard enough horror stories about postpartum running to nearly scare me off from getting pregnant myself—so if I can add a mostly positive story to the mix (with the disclaimer that every pregnancy/childbirth/postpartum experience is different), maybe that’s worth sharing, too. I know I was grateful for each and every person brave enough to share their own experiences with postpartum running; hearing those stories helped me immeasurably as I have figured out how to navigate my own new world. (And I’ll say it again and again to anyone who’s recently given birth: go see a pelvic floor PT! It’s not standard postpartum care, but it absolutely should be, especially for anyone who loves being active.)

I’ll wrap this up with Anna Frost’s recent and beautiful words on the notion of “getting back” to training/racing after childbirth, which I couldn’t agree with more:

We do not need to compare ourselves to anyone. But we do need to celebrate every momma. It’s a hard job. There are so many sacrifices. My opinion…there is no ‘getting back’. Only moving forward. With a new body, a new strength and weaknesses, a new family, a new sleep/fatigue/hormone/energy balance/imbalance. There is no rush, our babies need us and they are only babies for such a short time. Our bodies need us and we only have one. Running is not who we are, it is what we do. 

Anna Frost

Post-race recovery