Sunday, April 8, 2018

Birthing a Marathon?

Birthing A Marathon? The way I see it, running a marathon and birthing a baby are very similar. I have attended well over 500 births (but under 1000 for those who are into numbers), and these three answers are the most common ones to the prenatal question I ask: "What is your greatest fear?"
  • Dying
  • Pooping in public
  • Not being able to do it
I am a ravenous running nerd, and I read everything and anything to do with running, and I believe these are the three main fears of the marathon runner too: no one wants to die (hence the plethora of articles about people dying at races; no one wants to have to poop suddenly while running (more articles; EVERYONE worries about not finishing a race, for whatever reason.

When I am working with a pregnant woman (get over it), I always speak to her about her fears for the coming event. The number one fear is that her or the baby will die. Number two, fittingly, is that she will poop during the pushing phase. And number three, as in a marathon, is that she will have a DNF which actually is impossible in birth but, unfortunately, a definite possibility in every runner's mind.

Birthing and Running are the Same?

No, they're not the same, obviously, you can't compare a baby to a piece of bling!

You can compare some of the feelings, though. The hours, days, weeks and months of preparation. Finding a program or a method that matches your philosophy, or hiring a running coach (or a doula - we used to be called "birth coaches"); learning about nutrition; getting excited, then nervous, then depressed, then excited again; talking to other people who have done it ... of course, if this is your first baby or your first big race, all these feelings and choices will be felt and made in technicolor. If you're more experienced, you will still feel the same range of emotions, and you'll be "in the club".

That's where the similarities end, unfortunately.

Running the Drugs?

Runners, imagine this: You're at mile ten, almost half way through your marathon. You're keeping a good pace, maybe you started a little too fast, because this is your first. Your training went well, and you're feeling good. Mile eleven, you have to pee. You take a quick pee stop. At the next station you have a sip of Gatorade and you start to feel a little queasy, the way you ALWAYS DO when you have some carbs around miles ten to fifteen. You know this about yourself. It's a thing.

Suddenly, a car drives up and a bunch of people jump out, looking at their watches. "Your pace has slowed down too much! You're not gonna make your BQ! You might die!". In your head you know they're wrong, and you try to shut them out and run faster, anyway. But their worried expressions start to seep through your endorphin rush. "Oh, shit, does my heart feel weird?"

You let them know you're feeling a little tired, and you had that queasy feeling. All of a sudden, the car speeds up and they make you an offer: "Take some drugs, get in the back of the car, we'll drive you to the finish line, you'll get the bling anyway, all good, no shame, no worries." You protest - you're okay! But a voice in the back of your head says that actually, you're not okay. You need the drugs and you need the car ride. By this time, you're at mile 20 and you hit the wall. Take the drugs, get in the car.

Real Emergencies

Of course real emergencies exist, both during marathons and during birth. In those cases, there's no question that you need the damn car, preferably an ambulance, and you need drugs, and speedy medical intervention, and everything you could possibly grab for a life-saving conclusion to the RARE instance when you are actually in danger of losing your life (or if you're birthing, your baby's life).

Your Choice?

I'm not one of those airy-fairy militants who advocates a natural, candlelit birth for every woman. I've seen babies die, and I've seen women close to dying (Thank God for modern medicine!!). But I  do advocate CHOICE. I was just speaking to a fellow runner this morning. She's been running for twenty years and she's never gone further than 15k. She never races. She runs slow. Me, I've been running seriously for just over five years and I love to race. I push myself ... not too much ... but just enough.

I was at a race about a month ago - it was kind of tough: it was pretty cold and at one point the course turned into a muddy, icy puddle for about a kilometer, and it was a loop, so we had to do the puddle twice, once about the middle of the 21 k and once closer to the end. As I was coming up to the first mud puddle, I saw a runner with a weird gait... I got closer and I saw one of the yellow-jacketed medical people going over to him with a concerned air. The runner told him to go away. As I got closer, I heard him groaning with every step. He sounded like a woman in the deepest labor, feeling that baby's head right down low. A second medical person ran up to him: "Non, non, ├ža va, merci." ("No, no, it's okay, thank you!") I ran past him and didn't look back.

Here's the thing: I knew that if he was in that much pain already, there were two possibilities: either he would not finish the race, and spend months if not years fixing the damage he had wrought on his body; or he would finish the race and ditto. But, for whatever reason, he MADE THAT CHOICE and it was his to make. Obviously, if he was in cardiac arrest, or lying on the ground unable to move, the paramedics would be in there in a microsecond, doing what they need to do. But he was birthing a marathon HIS WAY.


I've witnessed a tiny number of births that ended up to be medical emergencies, where mother or baby could have died. But most of them are normal, scary, joyful, life-changing, painful, pleasurable, primal events. Unfortunately, the people who work in the maternity care field are usually unwilling to adopt the "marathon runner" model, and instead use the "air crash" model. In the latter, birth is simply an accident waiting to happen. In the "marathon runner" model, the birthing woman could be treated like a marathon runner: during the nine months before the event make sure you are healthy (I got a cardiac ultrasound done last year before starting my marathon training because of a risk of familial cardiomyopathy); create your team; and start preparing.

Obviously, there is a difference between the ongoing medical care that a runner has compared to a pregnant woman. A pregnancy needs to be monitored by a trained medical caregiver, either a physician or a midwife, to rule out conditions that will mean more intensive care.

Let's skip ahead to the "event": the runner has been trainings for months. She followed a training program, or had a coach guide her through the realities of training to run 26 miles. The birthing woman has been preparing for this day for months as well, and she has been following the advice of her physician, midwife, doula. Both the runner and the birthing woman have possibly been reading everything they can about their upcoming event, and both may have suffered setbacks along the way.


And, now, what happens when you're running a marathon? You join a big, happy crowd of people, and you start. As you run the miles, you are handed water, energy drinks, yummy gels, bananas. All along the route there are smiling people, holding funny signs, cheering you on, giving you high fives ... letting you know you're doing great!

No one looks at you with a worried look, even if you're the oldest person in the race and the slowest (happened to me on my 60th birthday), they just keep on smiling and cheering, unless, like I said, you're on the ground.

Then why, oh why, did my lovely, young, strong, healthy, well-fed, happy labouring clients get the hairy eyeball from the staff when all they were doing was, basically, the marathon of the day. No smiles, no happy people handing you cute cups of water, no cute cups of energy drinks, no gels, no bananas, no funny signs, no high fives.

The epidural rate for first time mothers in Montreal hospitals is over 90% (don't look at the published statistics, they include second-timers who know better, and pull that statistic down to around 60%). Why? Because we focus on the fear aspect (YOU COULD DIE!!), instead of the fun aspect (YOU GO GIRL!!).

Fun Stuff

Yes, the truth is that running a marathon is just plain more fun, and more pleasurable, and better appreciated, than bringing another human into the world. Weird.

So, I guess that's why I don't really think about the birthy stuff too much anymore. It just kind of tickled me when I imagined runners being treated like birthing mamas - and how different it is from the reality:

"hey, I know you're planning on running the Barkely, but it looks really dangerous. I think you should run it attached to an IV pole."

Or, "hey, I know you're 60 and you're planning on competing in the World Marathon Challenge. This is super dangerous, why don't you just get really stoned and we will drive you around - you deserve it!"

Or, "you know you could die doing that? Running a marathon/birth/solo travel/sailing/(fill in the blank) is just too dangerous."

Yes, I know I'm gonna die one day, and I'll let you in on a secret - so are you. And so is everybody. But I really wanna have fun while I'm doing this crazy little thing called life. Spread the Love!