The Comeback Process
of a Mother-Runner
Words by Mary Johnson
Photography by Kristyn Miller
The voices of others were relentless. The opinions I never asked for ran through my mind while I expected my first baby.
Truthfully, I didn’t know if I really wanted one: a baby. A pooping, crying, screaming machine. I thought I did, but not totally. When I didn’t get pregnant on the first or second try, I felt disenchanted. It seems like we try our whole lives not to get pregnant; but when we actually try, it’s impossible? I told myself, “You’re not the mothering type anyway, Mary,” so I wouldn’t feel bad.
I knew my running goals would be put on hold if I got pregnant and had a baby. I worried that my running goals would be put on hold forever. That was really scary and sad to think about. Would having a baby mean losing a piece of myself? It seemed embarrassing to even admit that; I’m not a professional runner. Running is a hobby of mine, I’m mediocre at best. Who am I to time my procreation around my goal to break 3:00 in the marathon?
I was terrified of the unknown. Running is an outlet that brings me peace and gratitude. I didn’t want to let that go, so I ironically latched onto that with all my might.
But I ran until my body broke down. I ran away from two pink positive lines for months. I ran three marathons in a year. Each one was my “this is the last chance at sub 3!” attempt. I ran 3:06 then 3:09 then 3:22. I kept getting slower. My body and hormones were a wreck. With bilateral hamstring tendinopathy, a sacral stress reaction, a bulging disc and uncontrollable IBS from overtraining syndrome, I was forced to take a step back and maybe, try and get pregnant.
Eventually, after two unsuccessful, soul-emptying years of trying, I was approved for fertility treatments. It turns out that my time off was not just good for the soul but also my reproductive system, because that positive pregnancy test finally came just days after scheduling my first fertility appointment. I had gotten pregnant naturally. It was a miracle. In the summer of 2019, my husband and I were blessed with the most perfect baby boy.
Despite calling myself the “non-mothering-type,” I love my baby to the moon and back and recognize how important athletic goals are to me too.
When something is ingrained in you, like the love of training and sport, it doesn’t go away after having a baby. I argue that your passion for running can only intensify, because you are more focused with the time you have. It’s scary to rediscover yourself through the massive life change of becoming a mother, mostly because it’s new and has never-before been navigated.
Postpartum is the scariest of all. On social media, you see mothers flaunting their exercise feats just a few weeks after that little six to nine pound pooping machine comes out. The truth is postpartum looks differently for everyone. But everyones’ tissues must heal no matter how that baby came out.
I didn’t even think about exercise until I was a month postpartum. I didn’t walk much; it all just felt horrible. It was exhausting and everything hurt. I had night sweats and intense crashes of hormones that happened just a few days after giving birth. At 10 days postpartum, I faced some complications that sent me to the hospital overnight. Motherhood began as a wild ride.
Six weeks postpartum
This is when the doctor declared that I was, “good to go,” but my nether regions still felt like they were going to fall out if I walked too hard. I was nowhere ready for running or good to go. Pregnancy flared up my pesky back injury from the year before. Foolishly, I hoped for the best, that time would heal my pain, and I cross trained. My competitive spirit for running wasn’t gone but I was not in any rush to get back to the pavement.
I tried to stay optimistic about the pain. I would lie to myself and say, “My body’s just readjusting!” and “It’s not so bad today.” Some days were better than others; sleep seemed to help. On the worst days, the pain would wrap around my entire glute and into my adductors. My entire pelvis felt completely unstable, like there was sand crunching in my hip socket.
Three months postpartum
I started to feel defeated. I never imagined recovery would be this long. All of my running attempts felt horrible. Why wasn’t I like the people I saw who started their running back quickly after birth? What was I doing wrong? Am I just getting old? Why did my body seem so broken and damaged? Why does everything still hurt?
Five months postpartum
I wrote this to my coach: “The further I get from delivery, the more difficulty I’m having embracing the process. I think I put unrealistic expectations on myself, and thought I’d be able to run and feel okay now. So I’m feeling super frustrated that I still feel like shit. And not like the normal out of shape sluggishness. I’m talking like why can’t I even go for a 20 minute run without my SI joint freaking out?? Last week, I ran for 20 minutes, then couldn’t put on pants without pain for the next 3 days.”
As I continued in my postpartum journey, I had the stark realization that pregnancy recovery and rehabilitation is literally just that: a period to recover and rehab from the intense stress and trauma of creating and birthing a human. There was nothing wrong with me.
There is no “typical” postpartum journey: I needed to embrace my own journey. Everybody heals differently. Everybody had a different birth experience. Every person has a different support team to help them rehab. It’s important that each woman gives herself ample time to recover and heal without judgement.
Postpartum recovery is the in-your-face reminder: what you see on social media is everyone’s personal highlight reel. It’s a forced smile on the Peloton because that looks so much happier than admitting how shitty you feel and how you only got four hours of sleep last night. It’s the finish line photo that looks victorious, but doesn’t unveil how much work it actually took to get there.
Six months postpartum
After I wrote that email to my coach, I began to stop hating my body for still being in pain. I committed to stop comparing myself to other women. I decided to love my body for everything it gives me. I realized that time wasn’t going to heal my postpartum body; I needed to be proactive about recovering. I tossed all running goals to the side and directed my focus entirely on strength training. I started a rehab-oriented program to help sort out imbalances. I sought out a Pelvic Floor PT to ensure things were properly healing down below and hired a nutritionist to help make sure I was fueling my body with what it needed. There were no recovery timelines because I didn’t know if my efforts were going to work. I literally had no other hope.
Running was the last piece of the puzzle. At 6 months postpartum, I embarked on 10 and 15 minute runs and while they didn’t feel “normal,” they didn’t feel terrible anymore. I accepted that sub three might not ever happen. But soon enough, 10 minute runs turned into 20 minute runs and 30 and 40 and eventually 60 minute runs. Then I did some hill workouts. And some flat-land workouts. I ditched the GPS watch in favor of effort-based running and learned to push when it felt good and hold back when it didn’t. At nine and 10 months postpartum, the belief I had in myself slowly creeped back.
One year postpartum
When I hit the one year postpartum mark, I looked in the mirror. I was so proud of the person looking back at me. She was the strongest, fittest, and most confident version of herself ever. She was on her way to running breakthrough PR times that she never dreamed about. Her habits were sustainable and her mindset was healthier than ever. It took 12 long, hard months to get there. They were so worth it.
Having a baby is terrifying. The process is long. It’s daunting. You lose fitness. You gain weight. You lose strength. You accept that so much of your future self will soon be dedicated to a baby and hopefully, learn to embrace it. I also learned to really understand what it means to love yourself and your body for how powerful it is. I learned to respect the process. I met my tiny human and learned what it’s like to live with your heart outside your body. You learn patience, flexibility, adaption, and along the way while creating the most beautiful, resilient version of yourself.