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Dublin: 4 °C Tuesday 19 February, 2019
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'The kind of woman I want to be': Blazing a trail to show fitness and pregnancy can be combined

Moire O’Sullivan kept track of all the little battles she had to take on to return to her sport after pregnancy.

MOIRE O’SULLIVAN HAS eased off the pedal in terms of her adventure racing career. Yet forward progress continues apace.

It’s mid-winter, so traversing mountains at high speed is rarely an option this weather, but this off-season feels different. She is not targeting a timed ascent to a particular summit in 2019 or planning travel dates to Westport or Killarney.

The mountains remain central to her thoughts. Though her racing career is slowing down, she is ready to get a business off the ground, Happy Out, to lead people safely through trail runs and orienteering. Most importantly, she will attempt to encourage women towards the wilderness that has given her so much.

“A lot of women are just frightened,” she says. “They don’t think they can be out on the mountains on their own. I’ve gained so much from that. I wish other women could have that freedom.”

Dingle Adventure Race 2017 Mount Brandon O'Sullivan running off Mount Brandon at Dingle Adventure Race 2017

Giving women a touch of freedom is central to the 42-year-old’s William Hill Sports Book of the Year-nominated ‘Bump, Bike and Baby: Mummy’s gone adventure racing’. It charts her quest to sustain her love of endurance racing while also balancing first-time pregnancy, birth and childcare.

O’Sullivan’s sporting and physical achievements since pregnancy are nothing short of remarkable. She is a superwoman, but then again, most women are.

It is not an instruction manual crammed with pregnancy advice to be laid at the feet of your nearest expecting hero. It’s one woman’s story, a tale of tremendous grit, unyielding determination and effort applied to the task of just continuing to be herself.

If you are in the Irish adventure racing family, then you likely already know that O’Sullivan was an elite mountain runner before she got pregnant.

She then became an elite Irish mountain runner as a mother.

Whether she was cycling, paddling, swimming or running through mud, rain, mist and cold, O’Sullivan has always found herself drawn to the beautiful punishing landscapes as a backdrop for long-distance races from Westport to Wales. In between having her sons Aran and Cahal, she found a way to consistently challenge in multi-discipline races that run at least 55km long with sharp inclines and descents. Not content with challenging, she won three National Series titles in four years.

O’Sullivan’s first book takes in her drive for the 2009 Wicklow Round - a 100km run over 26 remote peaks inside a 24-hour window in the Garden County – and why the open spaces continually call her back for more. This year’s lively, searingly honest effort – ‘Bump, Bike and Baby’ – is a whole different story.

***

O’Sullivan never viewed herself as a cookie-cutter maternal stereotype. Neither the brunching yummy mummy nor apron-clad Brenda Fricker, she didn’t imagine a destiny involving child-rearing, nappies and continuous cycle of feed-scream-sleep and back again. ‘Bump, Bike and Baby’ opens with a scene where she balks at the sight of friends, fellow endurance racers, who have had their lives changed irrevocably by a child.

Their bodies, once hardened and hewn by tough terrain, now appeared soft. Their competitive spirit, she believed, had vanished, steely gazes replacced by doe-eyed coos and ahhs directed towards a car-seat and its occupant.

“I saw motherhood as: ‘Oh God, I’m going to have to sit around and drink tea, eat scones and talk about lactation after I give birth,” O’Sullivan tells The42.

“I was invited along to these things and I just felt totally out of place. I had to find out what was right for me.”

Killarney AR Bike 2014 O'Sullivan cycling at the Killarney Adventure Race 2014. Source: Marek Hajdasz

Pregnant women hold a certain place in society. The are categorised right there on every bus and train you take, depicted alongside the elderly folk leaning on a cane.

The sign is right, you should give up your seat, but ensuring a woman isn’t standing on a moving vehicle needn’t mean that she must abstain from any form of exertion. The traditional sharply-shot guidance to anyone with child attempting to break a sweat basically boiled down to a gasped ‘In your condition?’ 

Traditions are hard to shake off but they are being peeled away, and as an amateur athlete who needed a harder workout than strolls and stretching, O’Sullivan was intent on speeding up the process.

The turning point for O’Sullivan comes when she is three months pregnant and encounters Susie Mitchell – another woman in her 30s who refused to be sidelined as an athlete simply because she was ready to have a child. Mitchell is a track cyclist, and by maintaining her fitness through full term, she set herself up to win a national bronze medal in the omnium just six weeks after giving birth.

Within four months she claimed a World Masters individual pursuit title.

“She was in the gym up until her due date, cycled on her due date, was back on the bike within a couple of weeks,” O’Sullivan says glowingly of Mitchell’s exploits.

I thought: ‘Yeah, that sounds like the kind of woman I want to be!’”

Mitchell’s influence on the Derrywoman and her book is total. O’Sullivan had already sought advice on what exercise she could be cleared to safely undertake, but found herself lightly warded off the scent with a quip.

Serious suggestions were difficult to find. Mitchell’s advice was balanced between two totems: one nebulous, yet sound, and one hard and fast rule:

Listen to your body.

Don’t take up kick-boxing.

For the already uber-fit, there is a lot of room to manoeuvre in the space in between.

Having Mitchell blaze that kind of trail gave O’Sullivan a permission of sorts. Permission to trust herself, trust her body and physical expertise, and the permission to ignore what any uninformed onlooker might think about her quest to keep fit.

“It’s a strange situation to be in society to need permission, but it’s what we need at this moment in time. Hopefully some time it will be just the norm.

MOSullivan_QuestGlendalough01 O'Sullivan running through Wicklow on Quest Glendalough. Source: CLEARSKIESAHEAD.COM

“All the advice I see is that the longer you keep active as a pregnant lady, the better it is for you. When you have then gone through childbirth, getting active again, getting rid of the fat you put on – because you have put on weight and your body does have to get back in shape because it has gone through a rigmarole for nine months.

“Having said that, as I say in the book, you do have certain advantages. The extra blood you have pumping round the system, it’s like living at high-altitude for nine months. I kind of miss that now that it’s all gone.

It’s important that women don’t get wrapped in cotton wool before a baby’s born and after it.”

 This is not to downplay the seismic impact that a baby can have on anybody’s life. It’s a gamechanger in the most real sense.

From pelvic floors to mastitis, the book pulls no punches in painting child-rearing, pregnancy and childbirth as a challenge for the brave. Running across mountains comes as a release and relief for O’Sullivan.

“I think you just need that level of honesty, because you go on Facebook and you see all these smiling happy babies. I’m like, ‘Yeah, they’re probably puking, probably wrecking your head!’

I wish people would be a bit more honest that it is a hard graft. They can get attached to you, they stick to you and your whole world gets turned upside down.”

“People did tell us babies need 24/7 care,” says the endurance runner from her  Rostrevor base. “I don’t think I really realised it until I had the baby. In a way I wanted to write the book so people would realise the amount of work it entails. It is amazing having kids, but it’s an awful lot of work and people need to think long and hard whether it’s for them.

“There is also pressure that once you get married, you have to have kids. And I’ve met women who decided to be child-free and a lot of people criticised them for that. I think that’s quite unfortunate, because they decided they wanted to live their life differently and a child wouldn’t have allowed them to do that. I think there will have to be acceptance of that too.”

‘Bump, Bike and Baby’ is full of little instances and occasions when O’Sullivan can’t help but remark upon the comparisons drawn between women. In its healthiest form it comes mid-race, when she is reeling in an opponent and assessing their form and whether they might be flagging.

But it occurs too when O’Sullivan plunges herself into the world of motherhood, with its activities foisted upon women as almost mandatory classes to ‘bond with baby’ and a general culture that shows one soft cuddly approach that all should aspire to.

Through exercise, O’Sullivan teaches that there is no one identikit solution for women and mothers to abide by. ‘Stay-at-home’ and ‘working’ are no longer the binary code adjectives for women who have children. You can be a relentlessly driven athlete, or whatever pursuit brings you happiness, as well as a mother of two.

“I would have liked to have read the book I wrote before I was pregnant to know that, yes it is possible to train while you’re pregnant and, yes, it is possible to have kids and still go out and train. But then my sister-in-law, who has no intention of having children, read it and said: ‘That’s great, that’s brilliant, that confirms that I don’t want to have kids.’

“Equally, I had women read the book and say, ‘I’m giving it to my husband because I want him to read it and understand all I’ve gone through so that I can have kids.’ 

I’ll go to adventure races and I’ll meet guys who are new fathers, but they’re all still able be on the line as soon as the baby’s born. They’ll talk about sleep deprivation and that, and I go: ‘At least you have a pelvic floor intact!’

“The book is trying to concrete that understanding of what women go through when they have babies and often there are people who will say, ‘Yep, not for me’, or ‘Now I understand what my other half has gone through.’”

***

“If I’m to survive, I need like-minded women I can talk to,” writes O’Sullivan as she comes to the realisation that the routine requirements of her favoured pastimes are extremely difficult to sync up with a life with children.

She is loathe to offer advice to others — pregnant women get inundated with counsel from all sides whether it is sought out or not — but she was massively helped by learning how a like-minded woman powered through pregnancy, and her tale, recounted brilliantly in ‘Bump, Bike and Baby’, will influence many more. If there is advice to be given, it relates to the structure she built by employing the coaching expertise of Eamon Tilley.

“I find it really useful to  have somebody outside of the household, who you can say: ‘I’m feeling a bit tired,’ or ‘I’m feeling good today, what can I do?’

“To have someone, a professional, really helped. Even if it’s a coach in a running club or something, so you’re not kinda guessing whether you’re doing the right thing or not. I think that takes some of the pressure off you. 

“Having conversations with Pete [her husband] before the baby was born, saying this is how important it was to keep busy. I think sometimes women can have babies, then they go: ‘I want to go out for a run’, or ‘I want to exercise’ and you’re like, ‘Well, who’s going to look after the baby?’

“The conversation only happens once the baby is there and you’re dealing with nappies and feeding and all those things. It’s important to have the conversation about how you’re going to get fit and active post-baby, talk to family and friends, people who could potentially look after the baby for that half-hour, hour when you’re out. Preparing for that I found was really useful. 

Get your support team in place before the baby comes [rather than] just hoping somebody will come to look after the baby.”

“People look at the race results I got, but I couldn’t have done it without Pete standing there holding the baby at the start and at the finish. Or equally at the weekend for me to disappear on the bike for a couple of hours. ”

O’Sullivan’s impressive work to juggle life and children didn’t end when she sat down to put her experience on a page. She tells The42 how a combination of afternoon naps for then 18-month-old Cahal and the magic of Paw Patrol to distract Aran gave her an invaluable daily window to grab a keyboard and commit her journey to print.

With all the dedication and discipline that helped her claim three National Adventure Racing series titles in four years, she set her mind to a thousand words a day for 80 days in between raising her boys. And, it turned out, the very act of writing her remarkable story helped her chart her sons’ lives and notice how they were developing along the way.

“I found the writing really cathartic. It means I can let go. It meant I was able to move from them being babies, they’ve moved on to being children. They have their own interests… so even if nobody necessarily wants to publish a book, just writing the experience down helps and writing it warts-and-all helped me to process it and move on.

“The reason I decided to write it down was that Eamon asked me to speak to one his athletes who had gotten pregnant — I didn’t say you should do this, and do that. That often happens pregnant women, they get lots and lots of advice and it’s overwhelming.

“I just told her what happened me.”

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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