Not too many athletes list pregnancy in their season’s accomplishments, but the reality of sport these days is that more and more women are staying in sport through pregnancy and after having children. While the professional world in general does not recognize fertility as an achievement (unless of course you are a celebrity mother, and your return to your pre-baby svelte figure a measure of your success), taking a break from training to have a baby is a monumental process for a professional athlete.
This year, I have a unique racing score chart, in that between March and July I recorded three podium finishes at National Championships, (Gold at 10k road and 10 000m track, Silver at Half Marathon), raced in two Olympic trials (athletics: 10 000m and 5000m), ran a personal best for 10 000m (32:46) on what might have been one of the best track races of my life, and then bested my own times for road 10k another three times. By July, it was all over. The Olympic Trials came and went and with it, my dreams of going to the Athens Olympics, as so many of us were left off the teams this year in light of the harsh Canadian Olympic standards.
A week after the Olympic Trials, I had one of those fabulous early morning training runs. I was very fit, so fit that seventy minutes was perfect for getting into a wonderful fast and athletic aerobic rhythm. I was running the converted railway trail above the town of Penticton, dancing above the lake, trough apple orchards and floating past vineyards with their beautiful architecturally designed houses—all wood and glass reflecting green vines and blue sky. The sun was barely up as I ran in the shade of the hillside, though the morning was already warm with the summer valley heat and I was alive, free and totally happy. I was running. The disappointment of not going to the Olympics had not set in yet; I was purely in the best shape of my life and doing what I do best. Gliding quickly on foot.
It’s funny how this morning sticks out in my mind. This run is like a dream loaded with positive energy though it was just a Sunday morning training run. This run contained my entire athletic prowess, my professional career, my soul, my future plans, for both the remainder of the season, and for the next. It was both effortless and yet, in hindsight, it had monumental meaning. Two days after this run, reacting to the gut knowledge that women seem to possess about their own bodies, I took a home pregnancy test. It came back positive.
Even though it took several more weeks for the fatigue and nausea to set in, for that first trimester exhaustion that reduced me to twenty-minute walks and bouts of lying on the sofa, my career changed in the moment my suspicions were confirmed by the magic blue line in the window of a white plastic stick.
As an athlete I live for the moments that I am training, moving my body through space and being the best I can. As a professional athlete, I have dreams and I set goals. I visualize future races and future successes. With my coach (and in this case my coach also happens to be Lance: my soul mate, husband and business partner) I plan and develop my training programs, we strategize about the business of racing and my training becomes a joint project.
The moment I found I was pregnant, my foreseeable future changed. The training run in the orchards of Penticton became symbolic of the last true training I did without the knowledge of having a life inside me. From that moment on, my training became more maintenance exercise and certainly less directed towards a specific goal. I have no trouble training without a goal for I love to be active and I am committed to staying healthy for the rest of my life, but as a professional athlete, it is a significant change, to not be working towards some sort of outcome every day.
I have been pregnant before so this professional disruption was not such a new thing to me, but this pregnancy was markedly different in the circumstances. When I got pregnant with our first child, Maia, I was just getting over a frustrating six-month injury, an injury that had made me become overly introspective into my life, running and the meaning behind it all. I had not had a significant break in my competitive career since I was 19 years old. I was ready for the wonderful change that pregnancy brings and emotionally ready to move on from being Number One all the time.
This current pregnancy comes four and half years after Maia was born. Since that time I have reached my peak years as an athlete, have matured light years (the responsibilities of parenthood will do that) and this year I was at the top of my game physically and also mentally. My Olympic campaign represented all my twenty years of experience in sport, a balance between my pure joy of running and the intense pressure of competition and qualifying. I put together everything I knew about training, commitment, sport psychology and racing in order to execute my season and I had the support my husband, of a national training centre, a whole town and my personal sponsors Nike and PowerBar.
With the knowledge of the pregnancy, came the overnight shift in plans, goals I was excited about and races I was looking forward to racing. I had to cancel my attendance at the World Half Marathon Championships and I couldn’t race at several world cup duathlon events or the Canadian Duathlon Championships in order to qualify for next year’s world championships. Going to professional road races on the American circuit was out, as was a fall marathon in Victoria, my hometown.
The thing about being pregnant, is that all the things that are taken away are more than replaced my the euphoric sense of the abundant love of motherhood: knowing that you are carrying a child, a living breathing human being that is actually growing daily in your womb, and that will someday be a new addition to your family and will be somebody that you will know and love for the rest of your life.
But motherhood is not quantifiable in the business world and in the life of a professional athlete; pregnancy and babies remain mainly a personal experience. Pregnancy is not relevant to the world of scores and times, heart rate and training schedules. Pregnancy is not compatible with the exertion of our daily workout schedules, or the risky nature of many types of things I do in training. As a writer, I can continue to write while pregnant. (My writing may actually be better as I am more emotionally vulnerable and reflective during this time of great hormone rush). As a coach I can continue to coach, from the sidelines even if I cannot go out and run with the group. As I mother, I can continue to play with Maia. But I cannot continue my professional athletic career in the same way. This takes some getting used to.
I have tried not to forget my great accomplishments from earlier this year, though they seem to be fading into memory, in sharp juxtaposition to my growing belly. The months move quickly towards my due date, much quicker than with Maia I might add, and soon I will have a tiny little newborn to care for, I find myself dreaming of my return to form. There is nothing quite like involuntarily, but willingly gaining twenty or thirty pounds. There is nothing like the love a mother feels for a newborn baby. And there is nothing like the feeling of floating effortlessly above the trail on a magical summer morning.
c. Dec 9, 2004
In 1989, the great Kenyan runner John Ngugi won his 4th consecutive World Cross Country Championships. Running over a rain soaked golf course in ankle deep mud, John ran off the front and raced solo for most of the race. He appeared to skim the surface of the track, floating above it, running suspended in air, yet moving so fast. I know, because I was there, and I saw him race. I have a vision to this day of John Ngugi racing over mud like it was smooth hard asphalt; such was his ability and his prowess. John Ngugi went on to win another World title in 1992, making for a total of 5, and then Paul Tergat, another great Kenyan, won 5 in a row from 1995-99.
I was in Stavanger Norway at my first World Cross Country Championships, the first of 5 world cross country events that I attended from 1989-1993. Back then, the races were run on one day and there was a single event for the men and women to run. Endurance runners from the 1500, 3000m, 5000, 10000, and marathon all converged in this one mass start cross country event. The races were an elite smorgasbord of World, Olympic, and European distance champions. The World Cross Country Championships were so competitive that Phil Ligget, the popular sports commentator, called it the “fiercest foot race on earth”.
I was the Canadian Champion, but at 22 year of age, inexperienced and amongst this calibre of athletes I was overwhelmed by the level of competition, and the magnitude of the event itself.
It rained all week leading up to the event, and the ground was sodden and soft. At the race site, all countries were assigned an outdoor 'room' in the sprawling centre of green army tents that had been put up for the event. We Canadians arrived, and silently, nervously, we found places for our gear off of the wet ground and out of the rain. Team members came and went from the tent, quietly performing their pre-race rituals. By the time the junior women and men had raced, the hilly course was deep mud. As I paced alone nervously through the warm up area of tents, I could hear singing and laughter coming from one of the rooms and as I walked past I could see it was the Kenyan team tent and a large group of runners (juniors, senior, women, men) were in there. They were laughing and singing and some were even dancing together in a circle! I was amazed and intrigued by the sound of joy and the happiness that was coming from that tent, before such intense competition! Like children playing, the Kenyan athletes possessed a magic that was completely alluring. I was enchanted by the evident joy and the camaraderie that existed between then… there was something about the attitude that suggested a far greater importance than the races about to be run. I have never forgotten that laughter, those smiles on the faces of the relaxed runners, or the singing and I have witnessed it at many events since.
Although I was too young and far too nervous at the time to fully understand, I learned a lesson that day that became a huge part of my path as an athlete: that I needed to be serious and dedicated to training, but light-hearted about my career. There is a passion, and that passion comes from softness, not hardness. That running for joy is a childlike freedom. I realize now that my whole athletic career has been a process of moving closer and closer to finding that place of fun again. I am forever grateful for the way those Kenyan runners sang freely out loud in the rain before the World Cross Country Championships in 1989.
10 More things I learned from racing Cross Country that I continued to use throughout my career:
1. Be Assertive. I always tried to be first off the line and first into a corner.*
2. Make Space. Cross is crowded: I would try to get out in front and put space between me and a pack, especially going into trails.
3. Use your Strengths. I was a front runner. I didn’t care if anyone knew my secret, when I went out front, and ran scared like a rabbit I was really motivated by the fear of getting caught!
4. Run down Hill Fast. I did lots of crazy hill training, but never neglected to practice running downhills very fast.
5. Start Fast, Go Fast in the Middle and Finish Fast: or, never stop pushing.
6. Own the Course: I would pre run every course, sometimes several times if it was not in my hometown. If the race was in my hometown, then I would train on that course relentlessly and own every inch of the course and would know where I was going to make my move if I had to.
7. If the weather is bad then that’s good news. In rain, snow or hurricanes, bad weather is a chance to be tougher than nails. Just make sure you always have a selection of spikes, including 10mm!!
8. Get Lost. If I was ahead, then I would try to put more time once I hit a corner or a wooded section. When people can’t see you, they don’t try as hard to catch you.
9. Run corners fast. Take tangents, run the corners at speed and try to get a step ahead of competitors in the corner.
10. It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over. Run hard past the finish line. There may be someone to catch just before the chute, or in the case of the Worlds, if you stop pushing for even one second, ten runners push by.
*Once, I was a little too aggressive into a corner. I was running neck and neck with Leah Pells down Citadel Hill at the Nationals in Halifax. There was a downhill sharp corner about 600m from the finish. I attempted to cut into the inside of that last corner, but slipped in the mud, lost my balance and wiped out. Leah surged ahead and beat me to the line.
Lucy Smith started running in Halifax, Nova Scotia, racing cross country in the Bantam category. She went on to win 5 Senior National Cross Country Championships and 2 University Cross Country Champs. She raced at World Cross Country Championships 5 Times.