Nine years ago, I crossed the finish line at my first 50k ultramarathon. Since then, throughout job changes and life transitions, trail running has been a constant. When I met my now husband, my trail running friends were among the first to give their seal of approval.
Why do I like trail running? I like the challenge, the always-present bigger or faster goal. I like the community, their deep wells of inspiration and encouragement. I like blend of physical and mental endurance—how the patience to pace well in the early hours, often before the sun’s crest, pays off when the sun arcs high overhead.
Last summer I accomplished two treasured running projects. In July, my husband crewed a self-made 100k route, starting from California’s Tomales Bay, ascending Mount Tam, and ending at the Golden Gate Bridge. Friends provided pacing and support for different sections, producing a day-long party. Then in August, my husband and I completed an all-day traverse through New Hampshire’s White Mountains, stocking up on caloric snacks at the Mount Washington Observatory and chasing sunset down the mountain range.
Afterward, my husband and I decided to take a “let’s see what happens” approach to family planning. Years prior, doctors had told me I might have difficulty becoming pregnant. Yet in just two months, a faint double line appeared on the home pregnancy test. Incredulous, I searched “false positive pregnancy test.” According to Google, false positives are rare. I bought another test two days later. We celebrated the confirming news: it was not a false positive.
Sluggishness soon set in my body. I begged off longer runs, no longer able to keep up. As my baby bump expanded, my distance and stride further slowed. Toward the end of the second trimester, various aches told my body it was done running. My fractured identity hurt more than discomfort from actual physical changes.
Nonetheless, I continued to show up to the weekly run meetup, saying hello to friends before the official start then walking at my own pace. I missed getting to run yet appreciated the connection and shared expectation of the baby-on-the-way. When my due date neared, we joked about whether I would be back the following week.
Giving birth was the hardest workout of my life. Unlike any ultra, there was no slowing down once the contractions rolled in just before my son was born. It was more like an interval workout where you must take each lap around the track as hard as you can, but you have no idea how many intervals remain.
There is struggle. There is pain. And then there is a baby’s cry, a tiny human nestled on your chest, and the knowledge that miracles are real.
Nobody told me that a baby’s early days are their own endurance event. How many times had I just closed my eyes when my son cried again to eat? He struggled to latch, and my body struggled to produce the milliliters of milk that he needed.
I felt the relief of the 5am sunrise, assurance that we had made it through another night. I felt the fatigue of back-to-back long days. I felt the cycles of emotion—delight to desperation and back again.
On day five of my son’s life, my trail sister visited, held my son until he settled, then told me, “Go take a shower.” The warm water was a first since coming home from the hospital. The cascading drops and rising steam brought new calm. After turning the water off, I tried to hurry but struggled with post-partum mobility. I worried the baby would cry at any moment. I called my husband to help me put on my sweats. “Take your time,” my friend reassured me. “The baby is still sleeping.”
The next day, a second trail sister sent dinner. The delivery arrived as we were starving but unable to summon the energy to prepare food ourselves. It was so delicious and so much food. It filled our bellies and our hearts, that night and the next.
These women had paced me through challenging races. Maybe their latest acts of kindness were yet another form of pacing. Their acts of generosity, on-trail and off, were riches I could not repay.
They say life with a newborn gets easier. It does. My son miraculously slept for a four-hour stretch instead of his usual two after 6 weeks. My days settled into a patient rhythm of nursing, burping, and swaying to settle baby. My body was still healing, but I was looking forward to running again.
Now I am a running newbie. Newer than newbie. Pregnancy and nursing have changed my body—how do I even find a sports bra that fits? After gleaning advice from the Trail Sisters online mom group, I take my first 15-minute shuffle.
The next morning, I badly ache from shoulders to ankles. Deeply disappointed, I don’t run another step all week. I try a more sustainable walk-run approach next, repetitions of four minutes walking with one minute running. Hopefulness battles discouragement. I tell myself, “Yay! It’s a start,” and I wonder, “Will I ever get back to ‘normal’?”
I still recall my friend’s incredible 50-mile race just 8 months postpartum. Her baby is almost in kindergarten now. “How did you do it?” I ask her.
“Don’t push it,” she cautions. “Your body has done an amazing thing to make space for your baby’s birth.” She continues, “Your tendons and ligaments are still soft. You don’t want to do longer-term damage.”
Her words encourage and console me. It turns out I need this consolation more than I expected. A sharp pain in my knee two weeks later tells me to back off again.
I am sad to miss the special weekend group run. Our friends come over afterward for brunch. They bounce our baby and delight in him, so captivated that the egg casserole goes cold. I wistfully recognize the happy exhaustion on their faces. I am grateful for their extra time with us. I also yearn for those conversations, shallow intertwined with deep, that surface best on long runs together.
Am I still a trail sister? It’s been a year since those two red lines on a stick first appeared. It will take even more time until I am a regular at the weekly run meetup. These days my training consists of repeats to the diaper changing table, mini squats to soothe my son to bed, and 3am wakeups to nurse. Yet as I watch my son fake eating in his sleep, his body cozy in my arms, my heart overflows.
Nine years ago, I ran my first ultra. Now, the challenge of being a new mom is exhilarating and sometimes daunting. Our community has been essential. The need for patience is ever-present.
I still love the sport. My current ultra just looks different right now.