Sunday, November 29, 2009

Reflections on Having a Baby as a Triathlete

I found inspiration to write this blog from a reader. To paraphrase, she is torn between having a child and continuing to progress and improve in triathlon. This is a dilemma I can deeply sympathize with. It is a tricky area in which to give advice, though, because there are so many factors that only she can truly understand. Instead, I’ll comment based on my experience (that’s the waiver).

Be warned: this isn’t a sappy love-in about how you really can do it all – that you’ll have to find in a ‘parents’ magazine!

What I love about triathlon is that it keeps me in shape, gives me ever-challenging goals, provides inspiration to be the best I can be, delivers a healthy dose of humility on a regular basis and lends structure to every day and every season.

Children are pretty much the opposite of all of that. They wreak havoc on your body (pregnancy), drive you towards mediocrity and compromise, and lend chaos to every day and every season. I suppose they do provide a healthy dose of humility on a regular basis, but deep down, if I’m totally honest, I don’t think I truly love that about triathlon, either.

However, luckily for us, I didn’t fully appreciate all that when I got pregnant. Sure, I thought I knew. But, now I know that I really had no clue as to how much work a baby is. It’s incredible.

I say luckily, and I mean it. The amazing thing about kids is that once you’ve got one, you don’t mind all that stuff. It blows me away. I still don’t really get it on a purely logical basis but it’s true. I actually love taking care of Hannah and spending time with her.

So, yes, children are a disruptive force. The next question is, can you have kids and still do triathlons, stay in shape and not completely lose your identity?

If you are like me, you were in your early thirties before you were in a place where you even considered children. But, at 34, I still hadn’t done an Ironman and I had a really annoying desire to do one that I couldn’t shake. I also realized that if we were going to have kids, I didn’t want to wait much longer. I knew that my 60-year old self would want children, but I joked that my biological clock must have been digital because I had never heard it. So, we left it to fate and decided to try. If it worked, it worked. If not, it didn’t. We were shocked when we found it worked (embarrassing but true). Immediately. So, my incredibly awesome husband agreed to support me in training for Ironman after having the baby. So yes, you can do it.

This brings me around to the question – would you want to do it? In retrospect, doing IM within 14 months of having a baby isn’t something I’d recommend to a first-time Ironman like myself. But again, ignorance was bliss and I forged ahead with dogged determination. The other thing I discovered in retrospect is that I probably could have done better if I was coming off a triathlon season instead of coming off of pregnancy and childbirth when I started training. But, that’s where the compromise starts. And doesn’t every triathlete say “I could have done better if only…” The nice thing about coming off pregnancy is that you won’t find someone rolling their eyes when you say this.

The final question is how to do both. My blog may help answer how to do both for a little while. But, I discovered that training for Ironman and having a baby is not a sustainable proposition. It took a lot of help from family, a lot of understanding from friends, and the ability to not work outside the home for over a year. Now I’m back in the ‘real’ world. Well, sort of. I’m (ahem) working 2 days a week.

Nowadays, I find if I can get in 4 runs, two swims and two core-work/stretching sessions a week, I am doing well. Really well. Most weeks it’s 3 runs, 1 swim and one core work/stretching session. Forget biking for now. Of course, other triathlete moms probably find a different balance and it also depends on the age your children are at. It seems triathlon can still provide ever-challenging goals and structure so long as you don’t mind lowering the bar a bit.

In a nutshell, I would have been happy and fulfilled even if we hadn’t decided to have a baby. It’s true! We would have travelled more, gone out more and trained more. Not a bad life. But at some point, I am afraid this would have gotten old along with me and I’d be left without the wonderful little being that we have. Yes, she is a ton of work. But, like triathlon, the reward is proportional to the effort put in.

And, I know triathlon will still be there when Hannah goes to school in just a few years time.


  1. Great post. My first baby was a "surprise" so I certainly didn't have the time to think about the pros and cons. However, now that I have these two little munchkins in my life, I honestly forget what it was like WITHOUT them. There is the occasional pang of jealousy when I think about all the free time my child-less friends have to train. But, at risk of sounding very "parents magazine", haha, while life is more difficult with kids, it's without a doubt a million times BETTER.

  2. I just found your blog and am inspired! Don't forget to add that when your child watches you complete a triathlon, you're inspiring them and teaching them that they can do anything they put their minds to! I didn't even start doing triathlons until after 2 1/2 year old daughter was born. Now she's my biggest fan, and loves to run too!

  3. good post. i also struggle to fit in the workouts with working full time and though i roll my eyes at myself for that (i could make the time, other people do) it always helps the guilt tremendously to hear other people say it's hard!!

  4. I also just found your blog and though I've never gone longer than a 1/2 marathon or Oly distance, the balance between parenting, training and being a good partner with my husband are similar. Now in the last few weeks of my second pregnancy I am so thankful to have a son and partner that supports and cheers me on at all of my races. One of the best things for me about being a triathlete and mama is inspiring other women -- showing them that it IS possible!

  5. There was never a night or a problem that could defeat sunrise or hope...................................................

  6. Great post. I'd add that one thing I discovered is that your life can be like the seasons. There are times when one thing must take priority, and then another season rolls back around again. The years when my kids were born were very light years for triathlon and racing. But it seemed like I turned around and they were running out the door to their own bikes or out playing and suddenly it was relatively easy to find the time to train again. My season came back around, I just had to have a little bit of patience.

    And although my husband had to talk me into having kids, I can't ever EVER imagine not having taken that leap. My life would be so much poorer, I would be so much less as a person, without our children.

  7. Thanks Robin - a very inspiring post! I'm enjoying my 'light' season and am also realizing that Hannah brings a much deeper joy than anything else I could do. And, it's comforting to know that triathlon will still be there!

  8. Hi Alison -

    It was really great to read your blog. Funny thing about your clock - I think we may have the same digital clock since I can't hear mine either - and the alarm must be broken because although it has not gone off yet, my mother keeps reminding me about it. I am 34 about to be 35 and also have dreams of an Ironman (Kona). I am deeply dedicated to triathlon and am expected to have a great season....pending potential pregnancy. My husband is extremely excited about starting a family and all I can see are the ways in which it will complicate things. Yes, yes, yes I absolutely want a family but I am waiting for something to click inside me in order to be genuinely excited about it. I suppose that's why I went looking for other thiathletes' perspectives - in order to get inspiration.

    If you could wave your magic wand and tell me that it is all worth it please do. I'm truly searching for something to wipe away my selfish thoughts: becoming out of shape, unable to do team workouts, having to stand on the sideline watching my husband compete, not having something else to do (ok, besides my full time job). We agreed to start trying at the end of March (in order to time it right for next season's training) but I just feel like March is a big boulder bounding towards me and I can't see past it.


    P.D. Don't ask me why I picked my blog name- maybe I was hoping it would rub off on me...

  9. Dear Monica (Tribaby):
    I can deeply sympathize with the internal struggle you are facing. I can only express my own personal experience and everyone is different, but here are some things to consider:

    - try not to think of starting a baby as the 'end' of training. If there is anything I hoped I could convey through my blog, it is that you can still be a mom and a triathlete, and I have had my butt seriously kicked by other triathlete moms with MORE kids!

    - having a baby, bringing a new person into the world, is eminently more deeply satisfying than ANY race I have ever done, which isn't to say that I would have been satisfied if I hadn't done the race. It was just more profound.

    - Consider wrapping your mind around a different set of goals and expectations - maybe it's to compete at Kona at age 40. Can you imagine how proud you would feel to be doing it as a mom!? Believe me, it would be amazing (and beyond my capabilities, that's for sure).

    - Talk to your husband AND family (whoever your support network will be). Explain that you have this other goal and that you are going to need their support to help you realize your dream. They need to understand that you need this to feel satisfied, to be a fully engaged and supportive mother with no regrets. You may be surprised at their eagerness to help you succeed (especially if, for example, your husband understands the reluctance he may have sensed in your decision to start a family).

    - Get started on training for something after you've had a chance to recover from pregnancy. Having a goal and getting out for training was crucial for my post partum happiness. But, be patient and kind with yourself as well.

    - Be present. Enjoy the experience and gift of being pregnant. It is a fascinating journey. Don't worry if you don't 'bond' with the fetus/baby while pregnant. I didn't bond until after our daughter was born.

    - You may need to 'drop' some of the team stuff but this is just my own personal experience. I needed ultimate flexibility in order to fit in my workouts. But, since it was such a treat to 'get out' I didn't need the motivation of others!

    - Don't stand on the sidelines! Again, see if your husband will agree to a year that is dedicated to your training as a priority, and you can give him priority in year two, or whatever. I did find, however, that we needed to 'take turns'.

    - I don't know your financial situation, but I do know that Ironman was expensive! Make sure to plan financially for your goals and if it is at all possible, and if Kona is truly a life-goal, see if there is a way to take time off to care for the baby and train. It may seem extravagant, but if that is what it takes to feel fulfilled, it is worth considering.

  10. Hi Alison, great article. I'm so jealous! I have been training tri for the past 4 years (just amateur) and I just love it. My baby is now 3 months old and I'm looking forward to getting back in shape (especially because I am on maternity leave and in theory have lots of time to train). But, the truth is that my baby wakes up to feed at 4 am, and then again at 7 am. I don't remember when was the last time I slept for 8 hours in a row and I don't know when this will happen again. Some days I don't even feel like going out of my flat, let alone go training. I wonder how you did it in the beginning with all the broken nights, well done. I wish I could, your blog is really inspiring anyway!

  11. Alison,

    I have some news...Yup - I'm pregnant. Oh sorry..."WE" are pregnant. We started trying last month and I seriously thought it would take a few months. It's so ironic, I came home from the bike shop today where my friend there just told me he ordered my new bike (the Quintana Roo CD 0.1 - lime green with matching helmet). When I got home my husband suggested I take a test so I did and behold - the stripe. I was so shocked I started to get dizzy. 30 minutes later we were in the bookstore looking for baby books and all the words were fuzzy. I then started to cry. I honestly am just so shocked. The only thing I can think of is how hard I should push it tomorrow morning at my team speed work session at 5:30am. I'm happy - I guess - but just unsettled. Help!


  12. Hey Alison,

    I just thought I would drop back in and say hi. I am now 2.5 months and all is well. I'm still showing up at all my practices, races, etc... but just taking it a bit slower. I'm still able to keep a solid pace on all three - and I ALWAYS feel great after my workouts. The one change is that I head straight home after work and usually fall asleep. :0) I guess as long as I can get fit it in the morning - I'm good.

    How are you? What are you up to these days? Any tri's in the future? One questions for you - I'm due Dec. 14th and I am thinking to do Ironman Germany in July of 2011. Am I crazy to think that I can just bounce out of pregnancy and back into the training? My husband is fine with me taking 6 months off from work so that is ok. I'm just not sure if I am setting my goals too high (which I typically do anyway..). Thoughts?

  13. Thank you so much for the inspiration and encouragement. As I write this (one-handed), I am holding my beautiful one-month old daughter. She was planned, but I have been through quite the rollercoaster of emotions when it comes to triathlons. I'm still worried I won't find time to train...I'll have to read more of your blog to find tips. Thanks!