Training for a Marathon Brought Me Back to My Body—and Myself—After Having a Baby

Photo: Getty Images/Cavan Images
Looking down at my black toenail felt like finding an old friend I thought I’d never see again. I’m back, I thought to myself. I’m still me.

Although I’d run over a dozen marathons and ultramarathons in the past, I never thought I’d be training for one so soon after giving birth. Yet there I was, with black toenails and chafed boobs, prepping to run the 26.2 miles of the 2022 TCS New York City Marathon as part of the New Balance media team.

Between COVID cancellations and pregnancies, it had been three years since I’d last been able to run a marathon. (Though I’d spontaneously signed up for one after having a miscarriage last fall, I ended up finding out I was pregnant again a week later and had to drop out.) So when New Balance offered me a bib, I calculated it out: With 18 weeks between my due date and race day, I’d have just enough time to recover then train—if all went well.

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Luckily, my daughter Ada arrived without any major complications. I was able to start doing gentle core and pelvic floor exercises shortly after we got home from the hospital, and began taking daily “hot mom” walks a couple weeks later.

But I was far from my normal self. Chronically sleep-deprived, I constantly smelled like sweat and spit-up, my glutes burned just from pushing the stroller up minor inclines, and whenever I caught my reflection in the mirror, the body I saw didn’t match my mental image of “me.” My nipples were so sore it hurt to put on a bra, and yet for the first time in my life, my boobs were so big it was uncomfortable to walk around without one. My body had become a tool to keep this tiny, demanding person alive and comforted, and—as amazing as that ability was—I no longer felt like it belonged to me.

I’d wistfully watch runners fly by during our walks. They seemed like part of a former life that was no longer my reality.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, I got a green light from my OB to run again. On that first run back, fueled by adrenaline and the joy of really moving again, I blew past the limit I’d set for myself to only run one mile. A new pair of New Balance FuelCell SuperComp Trainers had exactly the bounce I love, and my legs just wanted to keep going. I was constantly asking myself, How does this feel? Have I peed myself? Is there too much pressure on my pelvic floor? Why are my boobs bouncing so much? But I didn’t want to stop.

What I hadn’t anticipated was how much of an emotional release it was to take time to myself, doing something purely for me, away from the baby. I hadn’t realized just how much of a mental toll it had taken to constantly be “on call.” Getting out of the house alone for just 20 minutes fed my introvert heart in a way I hadn’t known I needed.

Even after I was done running, the feeling stayed with me. My legs again had that post-run ache that I loved, that made me feel like I’d done something worthwhile with them that day.

As I put together a plan for the 12 weeks I had to train, I consulted with Ives Hot, a run coach and trainer at Barry’s who's also a mom. “First, figure out how many days a week you can run with your new responsibilities, and also what your goal is,” she told me. She suggested fitting in at least one speed work day, one long run, and some strength-training. Since my goal was just to finish the race, and four runs per week felt doable, I decided to schedule two easy runs during Ada’s morning naps before work, one evening interval workout where my husband and I would take turns running and baby watching/resting, and a long run each weekend, plus short strength sessions at home whenever I could fit them in.

“The best approach is meeting your body where it’s at,” Hot said. “You may have been a big runner before, but your body's changed. You can’t look back and think, ‘I used to be able to do this.’ You're starting fresh.”

As someone who’s always been a solidly mediocre runner, I didn’t think I’d have a problem with my ego. Yet I still found myself frustrated by how slow I was. While pregnant, I was taking care of someone else inside of me, so I’d given myself permission to pull back. I’d thought that once I delivered, though, all I’d need to do was build back up my stamina. But after that first giddy run, fatigue set in, and things grew harder. Running began to feel like a foreign movement. My lower abs no longer held my core in place; my pelvis sat tilted so far forward my glutes wouldn’t fire the way they were supposed to. I’d also lost the power and oomph behind my push off. Most maddening of all, my knees had become rusty springs that had no give—every single step was awkward and clunky, and some of them were painful.

I learned that, not only was I deconditioned, but the hormone relaxin, which loosens the ligaments for labor, can stay in the body for months afterwards, especially if you’re breastfeeding.

I first heard about this when I got a chance to hop on a call with professional runner Aliphine Tuliamuk, who gave birth to her daughter Zoe just seven months before running the 2021 Olympic marathon in Tokyo. She ended up dropping out of that race around the 20 kilometer mark due to a hip injury. Although she told me it’s hard to say whether giving birth was a factor, she couldn’t ignore the role relaxin likely played in messing with her joints.

When we spoke, she was gearing up to run the New York City Marathon herself (with, obviously, much higher stakes). She told me her left psoas still gives her pain, “and still, when I’m running, it’s leaky,” she said with a laugh. "Before, I could never pee myself. Now, oh, it's so easy."

But she told me that running had taken on new meaning for her. “I’m running with a purpose now,” she said. “I want to be a strong athlete to teach my daughter how to be a strong woman. You’ll realize soon that they don't do what you tell them, but they do exactly what you do.”

After talking with Tuliamuk, I decided I had to be much more intentional with my runs, modest as they were: I started to concentrate on my form the entire time. I made a point to include hills at least once a week to get my glutes firing. I added more lower abs, glute, and hamstring exercises to my strength routine, and plyometrics.

I also prioritized warming up before every run with at least a few minutes of drills. I made sure to recover, icing my knees when they ached, and using a red light therapy band from DNA Vibe to help them heal. And after getting a wicked headache one night after not rehydrating well enough, I started to drink a lot more water so that running wouldn’t disrupt my milk supply.

My secret weapon for knee recovery

It worked: Gradually, the knee pain went away. My gait got smoother again, even if the miles took longer than they used to.

I realized I could still do something as intense and selfish as a marathon; it just required a little more logistical creativity. Like figuring out how I was going to make it through a long race day without my breasts getting engorged. On that front, I lucked out: The race launched a new partnership this year with the non-profit &mother to provide lactation tents, complete with pumps to use.

As I got to the peak of my training, though, a funny thing happened. I’d physically prepped my body to handle the miles, and found a way to fit them into a packed schedule. But those long runs were no longer the highlight of my week the way they used to be. Rather than spending half a day on a meandering adventure, followed by a big meal, long bath, and a nap, I now plotted out a route with the least amount of stops so I could get back as quickly as possible. Weekends were my time to hang out with Ada, and, while an hour to myself was refreshing, three or four hours away just made me feel like I was missing out on what could be cuddles and playtime.

Tuliamuk had warned me about this. “If Zoe sees me putting on my shoes, she brings her shoes and she's like, ‘No, you're not leaving me behind,’” she told me. “And so it's like, it's so fun, but then it's like, I wanna go do stuff with her.”

I ended up feeling torn this way even during the race itself. We’d arrived in New York the day before, and Ada was absolutely enchanted by the city—she never cried once when we were out on the streets because she was too mesmerized by everything going on. I wanted to show her all the things I loved about the place I’d called home for 16 years. Instead I was out there running to the point of exhaustion.

I’d known that my fitness, my training, and my sleep were all going to be less than ideal. I’d been telling anyone who asked that I was just doing this for fun, not to “race” it, but I still assumed I'd be able to run the whole way at my easy pace. Yet, not only did Ada take the phrase “city that never sleeps” a bit too literally the night before, marathon day turned out to have record high heat and humidity.

When the heat exhaustion symptoms—nausea, dizziness, cramps—began a few miles in, and then my vision started to get shaky, all I could think about was getting to see Ada on the side of the course where my friends and husband had planned to meet me around mile 16. How was she doing? Were the crowds too loud for her? Would she smile when she saw me?

It turned out she was just dandy. I’d never before stopped to chat during a marathon, but I took a few minutes for kisses and selfies, and warned my husband I was going to be late for our dinner reservations since I planned to switch to a run-walk the rest of the way in order to avoid the medical tent.

A mile later, I hopped into a bodega to grab a can of Ginger Ale. Before I could pay, a stranger bought it for me so I could “get back out there.” I downed it as fast as I could while power walking. Thankfully, it eased up the nausea just enough so I could push through, running as much as my body let me, and slowing down to a walk whenever I started feeling shaky.

I thought about what Hot had told me when we first spoke about goals for the race: “Celebrate what your body has achieved. Celebrate what you’ve done.”

Just before mile 21 in the Bronx, I saw two spectators’ signs that hit me hard. One said, “Remember Your Why” and the other said, “Do Epic Shit.” What was my “why”? To feel like myself again, yes. But I was also doing this because I want Ada to be brave enough to “do epic shit” with her life—and one of the best ways I can encourage that is to do it myself. As selfish as it may be to spend so much time doing something I love just for me, I want her to be selfish enough to do what she loves, too.

I ended up making it to the finish line the way I always like to: so tired I can barely walk. It was the same finish line Tuliamuk had crossed hours earlier as the first American woman in the race, setting a personal record for herself in the process. It was the same finish line that 47,837 other runners reached that day, all with their own challenges and stories. This had been a marathon like no other for me, but it was only the first of many epic journeys I want Ada to see me take, so that we can one day take them together.

What I wore on race day

New Balance custom singlet

As part of the media team, I got to wear a custom singlet from New Balance (similar to this style) with my name on it, which got me so many helpful cheers from the crowd. The light, fast-drying fabric was ideal for the unseasonably high temps—it didn’t stick to my skin even after I dunked multiple cups of water on my head.

Brooks Dare Scoopback Run Bra 2.0 — $70.00

I hadn’t anticipated how difficult it would be to find the right sports bra. I’ve never had a large chest before, and can’t handle the feeling of my boobs bouncing around. I tried nearly 10 different models that promised support for larger boobs during high-impact activities before settling on this one, which actually keeps the girls in check (though it did leave me with a bright red line of chafing on marathon day).

Tracksmith Allston Long Shorts — $82.00

These shorts kept everything solidly in place without pinching all throughout my training, even as my body gradually transformed back to something more closely resembling its pre-pregnancy shape. On race day, the back pocket was big enough to fit my cell phone and four gels, without any bouncing around.

Stance Performance Tab Socks — $7.80

I love wearing these super-thin socks for marathons because they leave plenty of room in my shoes for my feet to swell up over the course of 26.2 miles.

TCS New York City Marathon® FuelCell SC Elite V3 — $250.00

Made specifically for marathons, the carbon fiber plate in these shoes definitely helped push me through the distance. (I’m addicted to the bounciness.) This special edition was made for the NYC Marathon, but there will be more styles available in the new year.

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