Running through pregnancy, straight into life

Laura Vanderkam ’01 is the author of Grindhopping: Build a Rewarding Career Without Paying Your Dues, which was published by McGraw-Hill in January.

Growing up, I never was athletic. When my parents forced me to play basketball in a youth league as a sixth-grader, I ended the humiliating season without scoring a single point. After getting married in 2004, though, I decided to try running. It was something my new husband and I could do together, and it promised to ward off marital weight gain. At first, I couldn’t even run a mile. But I kept going. I learned to like the rhythm and the labored breathing until, on our first anniversary, my husband and I ran a slow 12-minute-mile half-marathon in Virginia Beach. I was excited about my progress. I thumbed through Runner’s World looking for tips on how to bump up my speed.

But my husband developed a heel injury, so I lost my running partner for a while. Then I lost my toenails due to a too-tight pair of boots that made a late-summer 2006 hiking trip through Yellowstone an absolute agony. I soon discovered I had left Yellowstone with a souvenir. As the gruff nurse announced on my answering machine, “Ms. Vanderkam, the pregnancy test is definitely positive.”

I spent the next few weeks stuck between excitement and dread. I was a 27-year-old New Yorker; my friends were more into happy hours than babies. I finally felt like I was getting somewhere with my job, but all the mommy-war books claimed it was impossible to build a career and a family simultaneously. Usually, I’d jog myself out of a funk, but physically, early pregnancy left me nauseous and exhausted. I wanted to build on my two years of fitness gains, and instead, I couldn’t run more than a few minutes at a time.

To make matters worse, the first obstetrician I saw said that running during pregnancy was a bad idea, and family members thought I should switch to swimming and biking. The maternity fitness programs I found stressed yoga and stretching, not high-impact aerobics, and so-called maternity fitness apparel looked best suited to lounging on the couch. Maybe trying to run during pregnancy was foolish, I thought. But soon the nausea passed. Around week 15, while on vacation, I tried a few quick miles on the hotel treadmill. They felt good. Very good. With that realization — and a discovery that recent research proved my doctor’s warning wrong — I decided to just keep going. I would take it one run at a time until at least March 10, two months before my due date. That way my baby wouldn’t slow my progress so much.

So I tracked my 400-mile pregnancy in a logbook. The entries tell of a glorious five miles on the beach in La Jolla in January and of cold runs by the East River near my apartment. I ran most weekday afternoons on my gym’s treadmill, trying to do speed days, hills, and endurance runs. Running kept my weight gain in check, which in turn helped me feel in control of my life. One of the worst aspects of pregnancy is that everyone feels compelled to say what you can’t do. Running reminded me that I could still make choices. And so I made choices that felt right for me — drinking moderately, going on safari in Africa, and continuing to run as my March 10 goal came and went.

It got harder, of course. By spring, my shins ached on occasion. I bought better shoes. My balance wavered. In late March, I tripped and went sprawling near the midtown heliport. I was fine, but my knees still bear the scars. In April, I started getting Braxton Hicks contractions that made my belly seize up. I walked during those. Then the TV sets in my gym broke. I ran while watching the walls. Soon, the whole gym closed for renovations, driving me outside where my round body garnered stares. I still ran. But I started slowing down. On May 1, I ran three miles in 38 minutes. May 10, my due date, passed. I ran a few minutes the next day, but finally, 40 weeks pregnant, I could measure my progress only in quarter-mile shuffles.

All things eventually end. I welcomed little Jasper in the wee hours of May 16. He was a sturdy 7 pounds, 8 ounces, and so healthy that we left the hospital early. I strapped him into the car seat the hospital said we’d need for discharge. Then, though the books said I’d want to take it easy, I stuck the car seat on the stroller and walked my baby home.

My energy — and the fact that I had zipped up my pre-maternity jeans — belied the misconceptions about what pregnancy would do to my body. I first tried running just a few blocks a week after giving birth; I felt so strangely buoyant I had to keep myself from sprinting. When I started running in earnest a week after that, my pre-pregnancy treadmill pace felt maddeningly slow. So I bumped up the speed. And bumped it up again. I looked at my logbook in amazement. Before I got pregnant, 11- to 12-minute miles felt comfortable. Ten-minute miles felt fast. On June 16, a month after my son’s birthday, I ran a mile in 8 1/2 minutes. Ten-minute miles were now my easy pace.

Slowly, I realized what had happened. I had worried my baby would set me back as a runner. He’d interrupt my training. But he hadn’t slowed me down. Instead, he’d sped me up. Having his little body tucked into mine for nine months was the equivalent of a cyclist training at altitude. Now, freed from my burdens, I flew.

Since Jasper’s birth, I’ve discovered that many of my other worries were misconceptions, too. My baby hasn’t made working impossible, as I had feared. Instead, he has given me new things to write about. Thanks to a cadre of excellent babysitters — who actually put pajamas on the kid (mom lets him sleep in his clothes) — my days of happy hours and nice dinners are hardly over. Just because you’ve always thought something was right or wrong, or just because everyone says something is crazy, doesn’t mean that it’s so. It’s a lesson I hope to teach my son one day — maybe while we’re running.