The case of the pregnant marathoner

Paula says, I'm still faster than you, even when I'm pregnant!

You knew I was going to write about this, didn’t you? It’s okay, you can admit it.  Two of my coworkers came over to talk to me about this first thing in the morning.  I know my reputation and how far it precedes me.

It pretty much goes without saying that I am filled with admiration for this woman, particularly as someone who finds her childbearing years are coinciding with my love-of-running years.  My husband and I have actually plotted our baby-making time around the Big Sur International Marathon, because we’ve already signed up and I thought it would suck to be seven months pregnant when the big day comes around.

But thanks to Amber Miller, who is now famous as the woman who ran the Chicago Marathon while 39 weeks pregnant, then delivered the baby a few hours later, I’m now wondering if we should bother waiting:

Amber Miller was nearly 39 weeks pregnant — expecting her second child any day — when she set off from the starting line of the Chicago Marathon Sunday.

She ran and walked even as contractions started kicking in toward the end of the race. But she managed to cross the finish line — and grab a bite to eat — before giving birth to baby girl June Sunday night.

And now that the shock-and-awe dust has settled, the next phase of internet fame has emerged in the form of the concern troll.  Over at Jezebel, commenters are already questioning the intelligence of Miller’s decision.  (They are among the more polite naysayers.  Some are saying Miller should be arrested for child abuse.  You stay classy, random news website commenters.)

Never mind that her doctors and marathon officials gave her the go-ahead.  People who have never met the woman and know nothing about her feel as though reading a 330-word story has given them enough information to make judgment calls about her decision.

Ah, it’s fun being a woman, ain’t it?  Especially a pregnant one.  It’s such a delight to know your body is property that belongs to the whole world, that by virtue of incubating a new human being in your abdomen, you’ve handed over ownership of your body to the church lady across the street, random people on the internet and Congress.

So allow me to set a few things straight about pregnancy and running.  Yes, I have never run while pregnant, but I actually just finished reading a book on this very topic in preparation for my own hopeful future as a pregnant woman, so I do have a teeny bit of information that I think is worth sharing, if only to do some myth-busting.

1.  It’s okay to run while pregnant.

There was once a time when the standard advice for pregnant women was to do nothing, lest they shake the baby free of its uterine moorings too early and trigger early labor, miscarriage, apocalypse, whatever.  These days, the general line of thinking is that a woman with a healthy pregnancy can do pretty much anything she did before she got knocked up.  If you ran before you got pregnant, you can run while pregnant.  They are less enthusiastic about women who want to take up running while pregnant.

2. It’s okay to run a marathon while pregnant.

Believe it or not, Miller isn’t the first woman to run a marathon while pregnant.  This isn’t even the first time she’s run one while pregnant.  Fuck, this isn’t even the first time I’ve heard of a woman running a marathon while pregnant.  In mile 24 of the 2010 Disney World Marathon, Brian and I came upon a woman who was wearing a t-shirt that read “Smile! You’re losing to a pregnant woman!”  Sure enough, she was visibly pregnant.  It can be done, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you hate your baby.  It just means you love to run, and in the case of Miller, you’ve already paid a ton of money to run in a major race.

3.  Marathoners aren’t necessarily taxing their cardiovascular systems.

Listen, I am totally not trying to take away from the fact that a marathon is hard, because it is.  But I also think it’s important to point out that there are ways to make it less difficult, and one of those ways is the run-walk.  That was how I did my marathon, by using the Galloway run-walk, where I walked for one minute then ran for three minutes.  The benefits were two-fold: I never bonked because I had plenty of energy (enough to sprint across the finish line, even), and it made the distance psychologically manageable for me.  Miller ran-walked with a ratio of 1:1.   She wasn’t out there with the elite pack, turning out five-minute miles.  Her pace was only slightly faster than that of people who were practically walking.

For the average marathoner, the difficulty is not with your lungs or your heart, but with leg strength.  Miller sounds like the above-average marathoner; I doubt leg strength was an issue.

4.  Only the most reckless runners don’t hydrate properly.

I’ve seen people questioning whether she hydrated properly, because dehydration can be harmful to the baby.  Well, here’s an interesting fact – dehydration can be harmful for the runner too!   Races take this into consideration, which is why they have water stops regularly placed throughout the course.  If that’s not enough, a runner can carry a water bottle with a strap, wear a fuel belt, or even wear a CamelBak.

5. Her doctor said it was okay. 

I spent a year working for seven ob/gyns, and they were super-conservative when it came to the health of expectant mothers.  Understandably so – not only do they care about what happens to their patients, but ob/gyns are among the most vulnerable to malpractice lawsuits.  If her doctor thought there was a reasonable chance of inflicting harm on either baby or mother, I doubt s/he would have been okay with it.

Frankly, it seems to me that the majority of people who have issues with this are people who are not runners.   They look at runners and they think we are beating our bodies up, that we are destroying the cartilage in our knees and making our hearts all huge and misshapen and destroying our fertility.  They think we do this because we enjoy pain and suffering.

The truth is, most runners who have been at it for a while don’t experience pain – unless they want to.  Most of us who run do so because we enjoy it.  It gives us pleasure.  It helps us feel good.  I’ve often said that I will be a very sad Caitlin if I find myself unable to run – or to even swim or spend time on the elliptical – when I get pregnant.  Running gives me a very deep, enduring joy that carries into every part of my life.  (And seriously, I have to give up sushi and beer when pregnant – don’t make me give this up, too.)

So when I hear about Miller and her marathon miracle, or when I see photos of Paula Radcliffe and her pregnant belly passing a shocked man during a 10K, or when I come up upon a visibly-pregnant woman during a road race, I feel excited and inspired, because it means that it will be possible for me to keep doing something I love while pursuing my dreams of mama-hood.

Obviously this isn’t to say that pregnant women who don’t run marathons are failures.  If you take that message away from this, then I suggest you do some serious soul-searching to figure out why you’ve got such a deep-seated inferiority complex.  There is no reason why hearing about the impressive feats of others should make you feel like you are somehow worth less as a human being.

But what this does mean is that we are continuing to move away from a model of pregnancy that views women as delicate, crystalline vessels who must be handled with utmost care lest they crack into a billion pieces, and toward one that recognizes the power and strength inherent in a pregnant body.

I mean, those are the same bodies we are asking to push and stretch and expand to accommodate the entrance of new human beings into the world.  A marathon is nothing compared to that.

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9 responses to “The case of the pregnant marathoner

    • Well, to the Jezzie commenters’ credit, a lot of people were like wtf stop it. They were way better than the comments on the Chicago Tribune site, which made me want to alternately die and kill other people.

      • I was trying to be one of them! Some people just won’t deal with evidence and the concept of “adult woman entitled to do what she likes”, though.

        Personally, I think Amber Miller is amazing. Serious admiration over here!

      • Yeah, as a society we have a tendency to be very paternalistic towards pregnant women. It’s like we don’t trust them to be pregnant! (I was going to say that we then turn around and trust them to raise the kids, but we don’t really do that, either.) My husband said he saw comments online that were asking why her husband didn’t step in and prevent her from running. I was like, what the hell is this, the Old Testament? Gah! The whole thing is just frustrating to me.

  1. LOVE this lady! I have also been confronted (politely) by two co-workers about it. There were a lot of bad comments on the local news affiliate’s FB page, but Richmond is a big running city and there were plenty of people and runners to back her up. I can only imagine that her labor was much more easy and peaceful due to completing the marathon.

    I once saw a very visibly pregnant lady at a trail 8k wearing only her running skirt and bra. She looked AMAZING. I only wished I was bold enough to have gone and told her that to her face.

    Also, regarding being at risk to give birth at the Chicago marathon…. there are medics EVERYWHERE. She was probably closer to medical attention during a marathon than she would have been on the couch at home.

    • My coworkers were actually super cool about it and were more like HOLY CRAP than all ARREST THAT WOMAN. Maybe because they know I would have yelled at them. 🙂

      I do wonder how her labor went, if she was totally flooded with endorphins from running when she gave birth. I’m so fascinated by this woman and want to know more about her.

      Good point about the medics! Also, I think it’s worth noting that her baby was born healthy. All of the people who are all “what if something went wrong” really need to STFU and consider maybe they don’t know everything in the world.

      And finally, that woman who was running that trail race is a stud. I’m getting to the point where I feel comfortable in just a bra, despite not really having the “runner’s body,” and I can see why she’d choose to go that route. It’s just so comfortable to go sans shirt.

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