Wednesday, April 1, 2020

How Endurance Sports Did (Not) Prepare Me for Natural Childbirth

I'm part of an ultrarunning group on Facebook, and at the new year, someone posted the question, "What ultra event are you looking forward to this year?"

I responded: "Childbirth."

My goal was to have a natural, unmedicated birth with few to no medical interventions because of the numerous health benefits for me and the baby. Although the birth didn't go 100% as planned (do any of them?), we did successfully have an unmedicated birth, for which I am grateful and might not have been willing to do without the amazing support from Jon and Alexandra, our doula.

I'll spare you the details of the labor and delivery (though I'm more than willing to talk privately about it), but, because this is an athlete's blog, I will share my metaphors about natural childbirth and endurance sports.

I've run marathons, never an ultra (it’s on my bucket list). But I would say that natural childbirth, for me, was like running an ultramarathon on a treadmill controlled by someone else (a sadistic someone else): the intensity could change at a moment's notice and I had no authority to slow it down or stop it. I also had no control over the distance or length of time of the event, which made it more challenging to pace. In addition, I had only trained for a marathon, and this was quite a bit longer.

It also made me think of swim practices when I was a kid. Coach Rusty used to have us do 25-yard sprints at the end of practice. “Just one more!” he’d shout, and I’d give it everything I had. But when I got to the end of the pool, I’d hear him shout again: “Just one more!” And I’d get to the end of the pool and hear him again: “Just one more!” This could go on and on and on and we'd be five minutes then ten minutes then 15 minutes past the end of our practice time and parents were waiting to pick us up and other swimmers were waiting to use the pool and I would have no idea how many more there actually were but somehow found power and motivation to give my all on each one. That is what the second stage of labor was like for me, but more painful and several hours longer.

I get to a point in just about every race, particularly endurance races and even some workout sets, when I question why did I signed up for this, why do I do this to myself? And that feeling eventually passes, or it passes by the time I'm finished, and I'm proud of myself for being able to stick it out. I definitely hit that wall during labor, probably in transition, when I wondered why I so adamantly wanted a birth experience that didn't include pain relief. But that passed and I was happy to have an unmedicated birth experience and I’m hoping that has helped our health and recovery.

I prepared for a natural childbirth the way I prepare for athletic events: learned as much as I could, listened to and read other people's stories about their experiences, ate well, kept a regular sleep routine, hired a coach, and practiced (in this case, practiced relaxation and pain-management techniques). I can't say that being athlete fully prepared me for a natural childbirth, I'm not sure anything could have done that, but it definitely gave me some mental toughness to draw on when I needed it the most.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Why I Keep Loving TRX

I've loved TRX since the first day I tried it. I like that the straps provide support for body weight exercises and that level of difficulty is easily changed in most exercises by changing your position to the anchor point. I also like how it focuses on core strength even when you're not doing abdominal-exclusive exercises.

Body-Weight Rows at 34 Weeks
So when I decided to do some more strength training, I thought TRX would be the perfect option. I signed up for a six-week class at the Y.

I was very visibly pregnant at 29 weeks when I started, and I worried that an instructor would feel uncomfortable with me being in an exercise class that is atypical for pregnant women. I imagined the instructor would either tell me I couldn't participate or treat me much differently than the other participants, like I was injured or disabled.

But my worries were totally unfounded. When I arrived to the class, the instructor introduced herself and asked if I had any physical limitations she should know about (which she asked all participants). I pointed out the obviousthat I was pregnantbut explained that I have been doing TRX on and off for years and was confident I could do everything except possibly direct abdominal work like crunches. I assured her I knew modifications but would be open to her suggestions, too.

And she was great and I looked forward to the class every week, even when I was exhausted after work. She gave modification options to everyone for all exercises, so we all could pick and choose what worked best for us that day. She offered alternative abdominal exercises for me, like holding plank rather than doing mountain climbers. And she was warm and encouraging to all participants equally. I felt liked I belonged there and not like I was a burden on the instructor or other participants.

Body-Weight Rows at 34 Weeks
In past TRX classes, I would always try the most challenge variation to each exercise, added in the extra plyo, pushed myself to get my feet closer to the anchor point. So that was mentally challenging to accept that my body wasn't up for squat jumps or more horizontal rows.

It was also a bit mentally challenging to look at my new body shape in the mirror for the whole 45-minute class. Yes, I have a very pregnant belly, which is to be expected, and, yes, my breasts grew over three cup sizes, which was definitely not expected. But in the past 8 months, I've also lost a lot of muscle and put on some fat, which has changed my body shape.

And I am not saying this because I feel bad about my body or have body image issues. I am actually quite impressed with what my body has done and achieved in these past 8 months. I appreciate my body and I appreciated that I could keep up in class that helped me to build physical and mental strength and resilience.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Swimming at 31 Weeks Pregnant

At 31 weeks pregnant, I'm still active and still swimming a few times a week, though my workouts don't quite look the same as they used to.

Things I Can No Longer Do at the Pool:

  • Sprints. 
OK, so I still try to sprint, but I've let go of the expectation that I will actually be faster. Now it's more of an increase in perceived rate of exertion than an actual sprint.
  • Not pee in the pool. 
Let's be real: I have to pee every time I stand up. So add in the crunching of my abdominal region every few seconds when I do a flip turn…my bladder doesn't stand a chance.
  • Breaststroke kick. 
Not that I swim much breaststroke, but sometimes it's a nice stretch-out, warm-up, or cool-down stroke. Now it's too uncomfortable.
  • Push off the wall with power. 
My legs are as strong and powerful as ever, and I physically can push off the wall with power, but it yanks so hard on my abdominal region – probably the round ligaments – that it's not worth it. It's like getting a charlie horse in my pelvis. Not fun.
  • Pull myself out of the pool at the end of the lane. 
In my defense, the gutters at the Y are about 3-feet tall. I've resorted to using the ladder. Ho hum.

Looking Normal...

Things I Can Still Do at the Pool

  • Just about everything else! Flip turns, full laps of butterfly, normal yardage...

It's been a humbling experience not being at my "best" and making these accommodations, but that's what athletes do, right? When something isn't working, or they're tired, or they're injured, they make adjustments. I'm pregnant, and this doesn't mean I have to stop doing what I love; I just have to make adjustments.

Before I went to the Y this morning, I selected a 4,000 yard workout from my collection of swimming workouts. I was able to complete it almost as written, except I added 10 seconds per 100 yards to each interval, used a dolphin kick instead of a breaststroke kick when needed, and used 1 fast/1 slow method for 25 yard sprints at the end.

I'm a little tired now, but otherwise I feel great. Swimming makes me feel like me, whether I'm in top shape or looking like I've swallowed a basketball.

Looking Like I Swallowed a Basketball...

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Mistaken for a Boy while 6-Months Pregnant

My whole life I've regularly been mistaken for a boy or a man, and I've reacted with varying levels of amusement and annoyance.

To some extent, I get it: I live in a very binary culture in which people like to classify other people into neat little boxes because it makes them feel safe. And although my identity is very mainstream (cisgender, heterosexual female), I'm tall with broad swimmer's shoulders, I like short hair, and my clothing style is not deliberately androgynous – I wear what's sporty and comfortable  but I could see it interpreted that way.

a few moments before being called a boy
But when some random stranger looks me right in the face  with my basketball-sized, 6-month pregnant belly and breasts the size of melons pointing right at him  and says, "I can't tell if that's a boy or a girl. Oh, definitely a boy," that is unacceptable. Whether I was pregnant or not, that was unacceptable.

Those words were spoken by an old man who was clearly ignorant, out-of-touch, and unobservant  and who probably had rigid sense of gender  but he has not been the only person in my life to call me a man, nor the only person to call me one since I've been visibly pregnant.

I can usually laugh off other people's ignorance about my gender. I mean, I guess there are worse things to be accused of than being a boy. But this really pissed me off. I mean, really. And I've been trying to figure out why I'm so angry, especially considering I've often been called a man or a boy and because it was just some random, insignificant person who said it.

Part of it was that I was already at my capacity for bullshit from another incident that day, so that escalated my anger. Part of it was that my body is so different now from what it had been pre-pregnancy  or even just a few weeks ago  that it seems ludicrous that someone could look me head-on and not see that I am clearly a woman. Part of it may be that I'm grappling with this new identity of being a "mom," so someone else's confusion over a related part of my identity was too much.

And also part of it is that some people need to learn to think about what they say before they say it. I mean, seriously, he didn't even address me as a "you" but as a "that," not only stripping me of a significant part of my identity but of my humanity entirely.

Maybe I did look boyish that day. But so what? What business was it of his to verbally investigate my gender? Why do people feel so much better, safer when they can classify men and women into separate categories? Why do we have to have so many gender signifiers in our language?

Language matters. What we say and how we say it matter. Pay attention to it. My family and friends who will read this don't need this lecture  I know most of you are modern and tactful people. But maybe you will remember this and help others use more appropriate language. And maybe you can do it with fewer expletives than I did when I told that random stranger in no uncertain terms that his words pissed me off.

Friday, November 29, 2019

On Being Slow (But Not Too Slow)

At the pool today, there was a woman who was almost keeping pace with me. I was doing a distance set with easy to medium intensity, and I have no idea what kind of set she was doing. Maybe she was doing a sprint set. Maybe she was on her warm up. I don't know, and it really shouldn't matter, yet it still irritated me that it took more than a little extra effort to keep her behind me. I'm not used to the everyday lap swimmers at the Y being anywhere close to me.

I get a little bit bigger and a little bit slower every day, but I know it's temporary. I have been practicing a lot of positive self-talk, letting myself know that I'm doing great and whatever I can do now will help significantly when I am ready to get back into competitive-athlete shape.

But still. As an athlete for 30+ years, I don't want to be slow. I don't want to lose muscle and gain fat. But my body has other priorities right now, and I have to respect that.
About two-dozen practice suits
that I don't fit into right now. 

I shared a lane with a man while I was doing a stretch-out/recovery swim shortly after I ran the Harrisburg Marathon. I was really slow that day, and rightfully so. When I stopped at the end of the lane between sets, he said, "Wow, when I get into shape, I hope I can keep moving like you do and be half as fast."

He had no idea I was pregnant, no idea I was significantly slower than my norm, no idea I was recovering from a marathon. He just saw a person swimming smoothly and confidently lap after lap. I was stuck in my head about being big and slow, so it was a nice reprieve to see myself from a different point of view.

Not that I need others to validate me. Not that I need to compare myself to other swimmers to validate myself. Most of my favorite workouts are the ones where it's just me racing the clock. But I don't live and swim in a bubble, and it helps to have others to push and motivate and inspire and give new perspectives.

So maybe I am bigger and slower, and maybe that's frustrating sometimes, but it's just a new kind of challenge that will make me mentally (if not physically) stronger.

[I just can't bring myself to end this post without saying that near the end of my set this morning, I finally noticed that the woman keeping pace with me was wearing fins, and that made me feel significantly better. Haha.]

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Marathon Race-Day Recap: Running (Pregnant!) to Support Children & Families in PA

Good Omens on Marathon Race-Day Morning:

  • I still fit into my pre-pregnancy running leggings and didn't have to wear the maternity leggings that I bought just in case.
  • I got to City Island before they closed the bridge.
  • My multisport watch was working (which it was not on the morning of the Harrisburg Half; it wouldn't hold a charge, so my mom let me borrow her watch for the race).
  • Perfect running weather and temperatures.
Under Prepared but Excited!

I didn't go into the event feeling like I was as prepared as I could be, but I did go into it knowing my limitations and knowing what I hoped to accomplish (finish 26.2 miles, preferably uninjured and not last).

In training, my long runs only got up to 15 miles, and I only ran 2-3 times per week (plus cross-training, but still not optimal conditions for running a marathon). My training was limited not by pregnancy (though that certainly slowed me down) but by the lack of free time and energy because of my new job, which requires me to drive 3+ hours round trip to Baltimore most weekdays.

In any case, I loved the training I did accomplish, I looked forward to my long runs with Fleet Feet every Sunday morning, was excited for the marathon for months, and was excited to stand at the starting line on the Market Street Bridge with several hundred other marathoners.

Race Strategy

A few months ago I stopped referring to the marathon as a "race" but as an event. I knew I couldn't race it, would be nowhere close to a PR, and I was OK with that. I just wanted to see what I could do with the new conditions my body presented.

My plan was to run at least 15 miles and then walk/run as needed to complete the marathon. And that's exactly what I did. I had a great first 14-15 miles.

And then it started to hurt.

Not pregnancy hurt, but under-trained hurt. My legs. My legs. My legs. My hips down to my ankles were on fire and throbbing, and I still had 11.2 miles to go.

The water stops were about 2.5 miles apart, so I ran to each water stop, got water and/or Gatorade, and walked while drinking and sometimes for a minute or so longer, then started jogging again. It was a little tough to see the pace groups start to pass me, but I told myself it didn't matter how fast I went: I was going to finish.

After the turnaround point at Fort Hunter, at about 18 miles, the run was really lonely. That's over 8 miles of lonely running. But I still knew I could finish.

The Finish Line: A Colorful Soundburst

I walked up the hill beside the Walnut Street Bridge and most of the way back down to the Harvey Taylor Bridge because I wanted to make sure I had the strength to run across the finish line a half-mile later.

I started jogging on Front Street a few yards before Pine Street, ran down Pine Street and turned the corner onto Second Street where everyone was waiting and cheering and I could see the blue banner of the finish line. Turning that corner was like when a black-and-white film suddenly turns to color or when someone turns up the volume of your favorite song when the chorus starts. It was exciting but emotionally overwhelming. I saw Fleet Feet running friends, my parents, Jon and his parents, heard people yelling my name. And I cried my way through the finish line.

I finished. I finished. I finished.

Love & Gratitude

I felt so well supported through not just the marathon, but the whole build up to and aftermath of the race. I have so many people to thank, from Fleet Feet coaches and running friends, my parents, Jon and his parents, all of the volunteers and spectators on the course who cheered for my by name, all of the volunteers and spectators who cheered for me by race number, those who gave me hugs near or at the end of the race, everyone who sent kind words and encouragement and pregnant-athlete stories before the race, and everyone who donated to my fundraiser to support children and youths in central PA. My heart is full of love and gratitude for you all. Thank you.

Children & Families in Central PA

At 21-weeks pregnant, I participated in the Harrisburg Marathon (26.2 miles). To keep myself motivated, I used the event to raise money for children & youths at the United Methodist Home for Children in Mechanicsburg, PA. Thanks to all of you who generously donated, I met my modest goal of $500. Thank you! If you'd like to learn more about my journey and fundraiser, please check out the donation site and consider donating. 

Saturday, November 9, 2019

How Are You Feeling? Is It a Boy or a Girl?

People who know I'm pregnant ask me the same two questions:
  • How are you feeling?
  • Is it a boy or a girl?
These are polite and appropriate questions, the same questions I've asked other pregnant women, and I'm touched that people want to know more about my experience.

However, one reason I've waited a while to tell people I'm pregnant  and it's still not something I go around announcing  is because I still want to have conversations about athletic goals, and when some people know I'm pregnant, they assume I've stopped participating in athletic activities or think I'm being unsafe by continuing athletic pursuits.

I love it when people still ask me what I'm training for or what I'll train for after the marathon. Part of me wants to say, "I'm training for childbirth." And that's true. We're taking Bradley Method for Natural Childbirth classes, and I don't know too much about it yet, but it works on the premise that you need to train your body and mind with the help of a birthing coach if you want to have a healthy and relatively comfortable natural childbirth experience. There are lessons on nutrition, exercise, relaxation, meditation, and other areas of focus that are similar for athletes. So preparing for childbirth is like preparing for a sporting event! But different.

When asked what I'm training for, I'll usually say I don't have anything picked out yet. In reality, though, I aspire to compete in 1-2 swimming competitions in August 2020. I'll be about 4.5 months postpartum. I have no idea how I'll feel then or if I'll even have time to train. But August 2020, you're in my sights.

For those of you who want to know how I'm feeling or if I'm having a boy or a girl, here are my answers.

How Are You Feeling?

I feel fine.

First trimester had some ups and downs: easily winded; fatigued; experienced brief bouts of nausea that I could quell with well-timed meals and snacks; had round ligament pain, which isn't supposed to happen until the second trimester, but I felt it more in the first. Emotionally I was eerily well-balanced.

Now in my second trimester there are some mornings I wake up and feel totally normal in my body and don't think about being pregnant until something happens like I bend down to put on my socks and I can't quite reach my feet without straining. Some days after a long day at work I feel like crying (do cry) but it's mostly from being tired from driving 3+ hours to and from work. Oh, and I moved to a new home again this week, which is stressful no matter how well-prepared I was and how smoothly to move went.

I'm still swimming, running, spinning, using the elliptical, going to TRX classes. I can't power through these workouts like I used to, but I'm still doing them at my own pace and ability. Some days my abdomen cramps up when doing flip turns or push ups. Some days it doesn't.

Is It a Boy or a Girl?

It's a…I don't know yet!
Swimming fins or running feet?
I didn't want to find out until birth, but Jon wanted to know as soon as possible, so we agreed that at our anatomy scan (which was Tuesday this week) we'd ask the ultrasound tech to write down the sex, seal it, and give it to Jon. Now it's his to do what he wants with it. I figured that as soon as he found out, I would be able to read it all over his face, but he's been good about keeping it a secret so far: sometimes referring to the baby as a boy and sometimes as a girl. (I'd like to go on the record as saying I don't have a preference but I have the feeling it's a boy.)

He will reveal it to me and our parents when I finish the Harrisburg Marathon tomorrow (November 10). He has something planned, but I don't know what! The big reveal is definitely motivation to get me across the finish line.

Shameless Self-Promotion

TOMORROW (November 10), at 21-week pregnant, I will participate in the Harrisburg Marathon. It'll be a much different kind of adventure than the one I anticipated when I signed up for the marathon. To keep me motivated, I'm doing this as a fundraiser. Find out more about my new journey and fundraiser and please consider contributing to help children and youths in central PA.