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Elite Mama Runners: Paving the Way


Can you be a fast runner and be a mother? Current and former professional runners and mothers, Neely Gracey, Blake Russell and Sara Slattery share what they think. 
Elite Mama Runners: Paving the Way

4 months ago


By Sheridan Wilbur

Running is selfish. It takes one to know one, and I’ve been doing this thing; where you swing your arms and try your best to work with gravity, consistently for thirteen years (oof). But if you want to move your body fast you probably gotta dedicate two to four hours of physical and emotional labor to long runs, track workouts and ‘easy runs’-- nearly every day. Or cloister yourself for weeks at elevation. 

Through repetitive practice, a runner learns to anticipate pain, accept it and maybe even push a little further. Long distance runners practice and perfect this internal relationship to their body (mindset); and this personal, dual understanding of body and mind, makes someone great. Or they learn to back off and rest when they need to. When they’re not training, they’re deliberately recovering-- maybe skipping happy hour with friends to keep the body as pure as a pre-race temple or going to bed early to catch up on sleep. 

All meaning-making aside, if you want to be great at this, you gotta want it for yourself. 

But what happens when you want to be a great runner and a mom? Women who become moms commit an eternal act of selflessness in my opinion. They put their kids first, no matter what’s on the training calendar. And usually, they rely on a support system. I don’t say running is selfish to make anyone feel bad. It’s admirable to spend time with yourself like that and frankly, I respect anyone who has the financial and emotional systems in place; to commit themselves to (sometimes) monk-like isolation and solitary labor to hone a sport, or craft. 

For many women, motherhood may be a goal that is as big and contradictory, as an athletic pursuit. And many can, and do, both. Of the top 17 qualifiers for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, five of them were also mothers. But motherhood is all about interdependence and caretaking, whereas running, at its core, is all about yourself. 

I’m awestruck at how many women navigate the tensions between elite running and taking care of little humans. And I was thrilled to have the chance to interview three mother runners; Neely Gracey, Blake Russell and Sara Slattery, who give voice to the range of experiences that women go through when thinking about having kids, being pregnant, and reintroducing training postpartum, and understand (hopefully a little better now), how they make it happen.  

Neely Gracey

(photo courtesy of Neely Gracey's Instagram)

31 years old. Top American woman in the Boston Marathon in 2016 and represented the U.S twice in the IAAF World Cross Country Championships. She has one son, Athens and is about 33 weeks pregnant right now with her second child. She has every intention of stepping foot at the 2024 Olympic Trials. Her lifetime bests are 4:36 in the mile, 15:25 in the 5k, 32:16 in the 10k, 1:09 in the half and 2:34 in the marathon. 

Blake Russell

(Photo courtesy of Blake Russell's Instagram)

45 years old. Placed 3rd in the marathon at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, and finished 27th in the Olympic marathon in Beijing. She has two children, and was the only American woman to finish the Beijing Olympic Marathon. Postpartum, she placed 4th in the 10,000 meters at the USA Track and Field Championships and won the women’s race in the San Jose Half Marathon, crossing the line in 1:11:55. 

Sara Slattery

(Photo Courtesy of Sara Slattery's Instagram)

39 years old. Two-time NCAA champion in the 5,000m and 10,000m. In 2007, she won the 10,000m at the Pan American Games and set the Games record time. She missed an Olympic spot in the 5000m after a fourth-place finish at the Olympic Trials in 2008. Today, she has two kids, Cali and Stevie, and is the head cross country coach of Grand Canyon University’s track program.  

Thinking About Having Kids

“At first, it seemed like being a mom and pro runner were conflicts, but as time went on, I was inspired by other mama runners like Sara Vaughn, Kara Goucher, and Steph Bruce who showed me that I didn't have to pick one or the other, I could be both!” 

-- Neely Gracey

 

“It’s easy to push it back… After an injury and the Trials, my husband was ready to move on. I was disappointed, but it was a good time to focus on something that wasn't running. It filled a family goal. I feel lucky because we got to experience running together. We ran different events, that’s very individualistic, but it felt like we were a team and the decisions we made, like having kids, were a non negotiable. I really wanted to have a family. Grateful to have a partner able to find that really important and value that time over everything.”

-- Sara Slattery

 

“I love grinding, and the selfish part of running. But for a long time, I always wanted to be a mom, and as a coach, [running pro] was wearing too many hats. Just really wanted to be there for my kids as much as I could.”

-- Sarah Slattery

 

“I kept pushing it off, it’s never really a good time. It’s wonderful and something you can do and still run. But it’s gonna be harder. You need a giant support network.”

-- Blake Russell

 

“I’m really glad I did hardcore running before my kids were born. I found it really hard to focus, because sometimes you have to be so focused on running. Lucky I made the Olympics before Quin was born.” 

-- Blake Russell

 

“I still have that excess skin from being pregnant. It’s there, I look like a fat cat doing planks. I still have good abs but still have lovely mom things, that’s fine.”

-- Blake Russell

In Pregnancy

“I really doubted returning after my first pregnancy when I gained over 50lbs. I couldn't run past 18 weeks, and had a rough recovery throughout the entire first year of motherhood… I needed a lot more than 6 months before I resumed high level training… Now, I tell myself to relax, enjoy the moment, and trust that when the body is ready, it will recover and rebuild.”

-- Neely Gracey

 

“Reebok paid me the whole time. I wasn’t reduced at all. With a quality company they’re gonna support you.” 

-- Blake Russell

 

“If I hadn’t pursued coaching, I could have gotten better in the sport, but there’s no guarantee. So I retired, my contract was up and it didn’t extend. I didn’t think [being pregnant] was possible under contract. Something brands are talking about more now, and trying to figure out.”

-- Sara Slattery 

 

“Shane Culpepper didn’t run the entire pregnancy, and let her body rest. [Culpepper made the Olympics in the 1500m and after her child, she made the Olympics in the 5k]. She came back stronger from each pregnancy and was a really big mentor to me when I was pregnant. She told me not to worry or stress about being a certain fitness. She told me to enjoy that time.” 

-- Sara Slattery 

With Children

It took me until Athens turned 2 to feel like my mind and body were working together towards my goals… Having more than just one identity has been crucial for my happiness. I believe I was in the best marathon shape of my life this past fall.”

-- Neely Gracey

 

“Mom Guilt is real. I felt more guilty when I would leave for a run and the baby is crying. I’d do my whole run and think about my baby crying then come back and the baby-sitter says “she stopped crying two minutes after you left,” but I agonized the whole time. There's a self induced Mom Guilt that doesn’t need to be there.” 

-- Blake Russell

 

“You have a little human you are taking care of so that means they come first... I love watching them turn into funny little humans that start making fun of you. They have these little jokes. Makes life more exciting… My little girl loves snuggle time.” 

-- Blake Russell

 

“Interrupted sleep all the time. Take advantage of sleep when you can, and don’t stress about not getting the perfect amount, because you’re running on being tired all the time. It’s easy to have little mental breakdowns and feel exhausted. Breastfeeding forced me to lay down and relax. I’d go off into a room and not let anyone come in. It was nice bonding time with the baby, sneaking in time to rest is important.”

-- Sarah Slattery

 

“I wish I had the mentality I have after having kids, when I was competing. I stressed about things way too much, but you can be consistent and a little more relaxed. I always had a Type A personality and wanted to control everything. After having kids, a lot of things are out of my control. If I show up and put in work it will come together, making me bigger things outside of what I'm doing. Not to stress over little things.” 

-- Sarah Slattery

Goals

“This morning on my run (errrr waddle) one of my neighbors said, “you training for the Olympic Trials?” I responded “YES”, not this year obviously, but absolutely my goal is 2024 and qualifying for my 4th Olympic Trials!” 

-- Neely Gracey

 

“To fit into my pants, just general fitness.” 

-- Blake Russell

 

“After having my second one, Cali, it was important for me to see what I could do after kids. I ran and trained for the half and full. I missed the qualification by 7 seconds in the half. My husband convinced me to run on the track, and I hit A standard for the 10k, but injured my hamstring, right before the trials, I couldn’t really run on it after.” 

-- Sara Slattery

 

“I don't like to run slow all the time, sometimes I'll jump on the track. But now I have 40 athletes to keep track of. I run between 40-65 miles/week. No certain training plan but I like to do something hard every day.” 

-- Sara Slattery

 To stroller run or not?

“You should ask my husband.... he's the one that primarily runs with the stroller. I have done up to 8 mile runs, I slow down, and enjoy it.”

-- Neely Gracey

 

“This is the most horrible thing I’ve ever done. I see moms doing it and I’m so impressed with any mom that can do it. Luckily I didn’t have to do it much, I would put Quin in there and he would start chucking bottles and cups. I’d wait for John to get home instead but lots of moms don’t have that luxury.”

-- Blake Russell

Thank you Mama Runners

We are still waiting for federally paid maternity leave, pelvic floor therapy covered by insurance, lactation consultants for everyone, changing tables in all gender bathrooms, affordable childcare, and the biggest request of all: to not set careers back when having a baby. 

 But the experience of being a mother runner is shifting, thanks to the women who came before, and the spousal, familial, career and company support networks, as well as larger organizations like &Mother and the #DreamMaternity movement that came after. Thank you moms. 

2 comments


  • Not sure why this is a question – “Can you be a fast runner and be a mother?” Doesn’t sit well with me…The first 6 paragraphs don’t explain the physiological aspects of being a mother…you might as well ask the question “can you be a fast runner and a dad?” Where is that article? I appreciate the sentiment but it seems like this article missed the target. Hopefully my tone doesn’t come off rude…just wanted to share my view as a mother-runner. The real challenge isn’t “navigat[ing] the tensions between elite running and taking care of little humans” (which elite dad runners do too.) It’s the breakdown of the body, stretching of tendons, weight pushing on the pelvis, abdomen separating, sharing your nutrients to your growing baby, swelling, tearing, stitches, mental exhaustion, nursing demands, etc. Then rebuild all that to elite shape before the next racing season. Whew, the pressure! Would have loved to see more insight on what really goes on. But thank you for at least shedding light on the topic. Looking forward to more articles on mother runners!

    Vanessa on

  • Not sure why this is a question – “Can you be a fast runner and be a mother?” Doesn’t sit well with me…The first 6 paragraphs don’t explain the physiological aspects of being a mother…you might as well ask the question “can you be a fast runner and a dad?” Where is that article? I appreciate the sentiment but it seems like this article missed the target. Hopefully my tone doesn’t come off rude…just wanted to share my view as a mother-runner. The real challenge isn’t “navigat[ing] the tensions between elite running and taking care of little humans” (which elite dad runners do too.) It’s the breakdown of the body, stretching of tendons, weight pushing on the pelvis, abdomen separating, sharing your nutrients to your growing baby, swelling, tearing, stitches, mental exhaustion, nursing demands, etc. Then rebuild all that to elite shape before the next racing season. Whew, the pressure! Would have loved to see more insight on what really goes on. But thank you for at least shedding light on the topic. Looking forward to more articles on mother runners!

    Vanessa on

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