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 sign 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.

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