Ultramarathoner Sophie Power on breastfeeding while running 106 miles
I was never sporty growing up. I was second to last in the mile. So my friends find it hilarious that I'm an ultramarathoner now. Perhaps even more so that I'm now famous for breastfeeding my 3-month-old son, Cormac, during a race, which I finished in early September.
I started weight training for the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), a 170-kilometer, nearly 106-mile race around the tallest peak in the Alps and Western Europe, when Cormac, my second child, was 4 weeks old. I kept on the stair climber as well as the treadmill with up to a 15 percent incline. I did a little bit of run training, but the real focus was getting my core back together, getting my arms strong in the gym and then walking uphill.
The experience was completely different from any race I've done before. I started at the back of the field because I'd be breastfeeding, and that's how I could get to feed. I had to take my time and go slowly, hiking the hills and eating at every aid station just to make sure I was getting down enough food to maintain my milk supply. Normally I'm an aid station queen. I'm super-organized and in and out in minutes. I just want to finish the race and get back to my kids.
Here, I couldn't do that.
I'm normally a good downhill runner, but I couldn't push the downhills because I was worried about my undercarriage. I had some issues with my pelvis a few weeks before with downhills and realized my body isn't ready to undergo that. So I had to go slow both up and down the hills.
If I were to have done the race a year from now, I'd probably have been aiming to break 36 hours instead of my actual finish time of 43 hours, 33 minutes. I was doing pretty much the opposite of pushing my body.
Still, it wasn't without its challenges. I had no access to a breast pump or a baby for the first 16 hours of the run. That was the difficult part. Luckily, Cormac doesn't feed at night anymore, and the race started at 6 p.m., so I fed him on the start line, but then missed two usual feedings before I got to him at 10 a.m. the next morning. Until I got to the baby or the pump, I had to hand-express milk just to relieve the pressure.
But in other ways, being a new mom was perfect preparation for this race. Since it starts in the evening, you're going into your first night sleep-deprived already. I was definitely the best-prepared person at that start line for that. I was like, "I've been training for sleep deprivation for weeks!"
Being a mom has made me a lot better runner in several ways. When you look after children, you get much better at multitasking and thinking, "What do they need at this moment?" When you're looking after yourself in a race, it's kind of the same questions you ask about a baby. "Have they had enough to drink? Enough to eat?" You're going back to the basics with yourself as well.
You also learn to be prepared for every eventuality. It's like the massive rucksack [backpack] I carry when I'm taking my two boys out. There's something in that rucksack to deal with everything that could happen. But the most brilliant thing about being in a race as a parent is the mental break. The only one I had to worry about was myself.
It sounds strange, but I pretty much felt great the entire race. I was really taking care of myself. My feet were great. My quads weren't hurting because I wasn't pounding the downhills. I was on a massive running high.
I did have a real low point at the climb to Champex-Lac [a lake in Valais, Switzerland] the second night. I hadn't slept, and I was hallucinating really badly -- seeing animals run at me in the woods. I just couldn't focus. I got to the aid station where my husband, John, was waiting, and I took a 20-minute nap, got some food and got to pump. I felt much better.
For all the attention that my pumping and breastfeeding has gotten since the race, no one out on the course even noticed. At aid stations, people are dealing with their own logistics. No one blinks an eye at anything in an ultramarathon. You have to be focused on yourself. The only people who really paid any attention to me were the medics who were so kind and got me some blankets and a bit of privacy. I have a hard time pumping when it's so cold, so I would try to find a toilet to get warm. Behind a tree in the cold was just never going to work. It's probably one of the least glamorous things I've ever had to do.
But pumping and racing is kind of normal. No, people don't normally do it with the UTMB. That's the crazy part. But most ultra-runners who are mothers are racing shorter events again by the time their child is 6 months to a year old, and if you're nursing, that means you have to pump. That's what we do.
As women, we can do incredible things with our bodies, and we don't have to wait until the kids are grown to get back to being an athlete. There are some amazing role models around, for example Serena Williams and British Olympian and long-distance runner Jo Pavey, but we need more women to show us that it's possible.
For me, it's essential to have a goal. If I didn't have the UTMB in mind, I wouldn't have carved out the time for training. The first thing that goes when you're a mom is the time for yourself. I think it's important to have a conversation with your support network and say, "This is my goal. These are the times I'm going to need to train, and I'm going to make sure I have those available and prioritize." Otherwise you put it off because you always come second and your children always come first.
We had three goals for this race. The first was to get to the starting line in good shape and get through the first night. Get some time in the mountains. My second goal was to get to Courmayeur, [a hilly resort town in northern Italy at the foot of Mont Blanc]. My family was waiting there to take me home.
The dream goal was to finish the race and finish it feeling great. I never expected that was going to happen, but everything fell into place. It was beyond my expectations. But it was also the result of literally years of planning, going back even to my first pregnancy. It never would have happened without my support crew. My husband, my nanny and my two coaches were the four people who got me to that start line. And the reception through Chamonix [a commune in southeastern France], where I ran with my older son, Donnacha, and picked Cormac up before the finish line, was just incredible.
These last couple of weeks have been crazy with all the attention I've gotten, but I think these articles are giving women so much confidence. We need to change the dialogue that when you're pregnant you shouldn't exercise. The message I gave myself was that the fitter I am during pregnancy, the quicker I'm going to recover and the better mom I'm going to be. You really can maintain fitness and get back to what we all love, which is being an athlete.
Ultramarathoner Sophie Power is co-founder of Airlabs, a start-up creating clean air zones in cities. Power resides in London with her husband, John, and sons Cormac and Donnacha.