Olympian Kate Grace hasn’t slept more than two hours at a time in the month since she gave birth to her son, River. But she’s managing the exhaustion pretty well.
“As an athlete, I’ve basically spent the last 10 years prioritizing my sleep and always getting 9 to 10 hours, plus a nap,” she told Runner’s World. “I was definitely the most nervous if I could handle the sleep thing.”
What has been her life like these last few weeks? “It’s chaos, but it’s really sweet,” she said, pausing to compliment River on a burp after a feeding. “Oh, good burp. Good job.”
Grace, 34, who has a PR of 1:57.20 in the 800 meters and made the Olympic final in 2016, isn’t the only runner up to her elbows in diapers and spit-up. Suddenly newborn photos are cropping up all over elite distance runners’ Instagram accounts.
Grace gave birth to Ivan on March 5. Olympian Elle St. Pierre gave her birth the day before. Kellyn Taylor, Abbey Cooper, Brenda Martinez and Abbey Cooper were also born before Grace. They all had daughters within the past three month.
There are many others over the past two years: Molly Huddle, Betsy Saina, and Aliphine Tuliamuk are just a few new parents in women’s track. Some are also expecting, such as 2021 Olympian Rachel Smith. She recently posted a video where she is 33 weeks pregnant and does 200-meter repeats indoors in 36 seconds.
The international competition calendar this year can in some ways explain the cluster of births—the world championships will take place in Hungary in August. If there was a year to sit out, this is it, rather than last year’s world championships on home soil in Eugene, Oregon, or next year’s Olympic Games in Paris.
But that’s a small reason, these women say. The true reason for the babyboom lies in three women’s actions in 2019.
A social movement
Before 2019, runners were able to postpone having children until the end.
There was a simple explanation: Most of them wouldn’t get paid by their sponsors if they weren’t racing. There were no exceptions for pregnant women.
Huddle, who joined the professional ranks in 2008, was not used to seeing elite track and fields women have kids. “It was always thought that the way you do it, if you do it all, was to wait until you’re almost done, or you are done running, and then you might be able to have one or two kids before you get too old,” she said. “It was very rare to see someone intentionally have a family in the middle.”
Why? “Part of it was it was too hard,” she said. “The other part, of course, is that your body is your business. You have to take a long time off.”
In 2019, Alysia Montaño went public with a video in the New York Times About how many years ago, Nike told her if she had a baby, they’d “pause” her contract and stop paying her. Asics signed her, she got pregnant and continued competing and training. She was 8 months pregnant when she ran the 800m at the U.S. championships in 2014. After having her daughter, Asics threatened to stop paying them.
An article accompanying Montaño’s video included Kara Goucher, who said she had to return to racing three months after her son, Colt, was born in 2010, in order to have Nike resume its payments to her. She took Colt to Arizona for a half-marathon, even though he was in hospital.
Ten days later, Allyson Felix, a sprinter, made similar claims about Nike in a Times video. “The culture around pregnancy in track and field is silence,” she said. “Get pregnant, and you hide it.”
If Felix, who was then a nine-time Olympic medalist, couldn’t get maternity protections, who could? After sharing their stories, there was much outrage. Nike has changed its policies to guarantee athletes pay for 18 months prior and after childbirth.
Many other companies did the same—and put guarantees of continued payment in writing in athletes’ contracts for the first time.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee also reviewed its policies regarding health care. The organization may continue providing health insurance to athletes who become pregnant.
Now, the results of the efforts of those women—Montaño, Felix, and Goucher—are visible.
“We all felt so shamed and siloed in sharing the truth about [wanting families],” Montaño said. “The hard, isolated places that I’ve been in are opening up.”
She founded a nonprofit, &Mother, which is aimed at helping women thrive in careers and motherhood—starting with sports. For example, the organization helped Boston’s major marathons improve their lactation arrangements. It also provides childcare for events such as the U.S. championships.
“I feel so, so grateful to those women for speaking up,” Grace, who is a Nike athlete, said. “I feel incredibly supported now by sponsors, and by the USOPC, and it’s very much directly due to them saying, ‘Hey, we need this.’”
Taylor, who had her first child, Kylyn, at the beginning of her career 12 years ago, doesn’t recall seeing many pros having babies at the time. The current environment is totally different.
“I think that’s in large part due to some of the women who did it in the middle of their careers and were like, ‘We’re not going to put off having our families because our sponsors don’t think we should.’ And I think that sponsors started to realize there is some value in that, because it’s relatable. People in the outside world are having kids and running and working and doing all these things simultaneously.”
At 9 months old, her contract with Hoka, the sponsor of her, expired. The company offered her a new deal. Even five years ago, this was a shocking revelation. wouldn’t have happened, Taylor said.
Betsy Saina had a similar experience with Asics—she signed a new deal with the company, and before she could run a single race in Asics gear, she learned she was pregnant.
“I had a one-on-one phone call with [the director of sports marketing for Asics], and he was like, ‘Betsy, I want you to enjoy your maternity leave, no rush, enjoy the time. It’s a change in your life and we are not going to rush to see you back, but we would love to have you,’” Saina said. “The support I got was really amazing, and thank goodness for Allyson Felix and Alysia Montaño. They have. [created] the biggest change for us.”
Take their time
Pro-running attitudes have rapidly changed. Not only are they financially supported during pregnancy and after childbirth but they also feel that they can take their own time getting back to the same level of training as before they got pregnant.
Saina was only 13 months old when her son was born to race a marathon. She set a lifetime record of 2:21.40 at the Tokyo Marathon last month. She’s now eighth on the list of fastest American marathoners.
Taylor isn’t rushing to get back to the beginning line. She ran through most of her pregnancy, including running 17:14 for 5K at 32 weeks pregnant, and she’s back up to 70 miles per week already. However, races are still far away.
“You have to respect what your body went through and know that, yeah, you probably shouldn’t be racing three months after,” she said. “There also isn’t really a need to do that right now. So I’m just going to slowly work my way back into it, and when it happens it happens.” (Life is busy in the Taylor household. Her husband and she have adopted two children, ages 4 & 1, along with their 12-year-old daughter and their 3-month girl.
She also knows what can happen when you try to compress the return-to-competition timeline. Aliphine Tuliamuk (her teammate from Hoka Northern Arizona Elite) decided to have a child immediately after learning that the Olympics had been delayed. Tuliamuk was already guaranteed a spot on Olympic Team by winning the Olympic Trials Marathon, February 2020. Her daughter Zoe was born in January 2021. This gave her six months to prepare for the Games.
There was just not enough time. Tuliamuk injured her hip in one of her final workouts before she left for Japan. Tuliamuk dropped out of the Olympic Marathon after 12 miles. “If I didn’t have the Olympics, I would have taken more time off and come back slower,” she wrote in an email to Runner’s World. “I could have probably avoided my hip injury.”
She didn’t race another marathon until New York in 2022, when she finished seventh and was the top American in a PR of 2:26:18.
Tuliamuk’s sponsor, Hoka, not only renewed her contract when she was pregnant but increased its support. Two new sponsors were also added to her list, CEP compression socks and Gatorade. Hawi Keflezighi was her agent and helped to steer the conversation with sponsors. “Progress,” he calls it, when looking at what is available for women now.
Athletes say that not all agents are so helpful. Some of the male agents—and in running, they’re nearly all male—don’t like to rock the boat with companies and be seen as demanding too much. Others view pregnancy clauses only as a nice thing to have, but they are not essential. They fail to realize that their clients may see them differently.
The next frontier
Huddle began asking for protections against pregnancy in her contract back in 2012, when her longtime sponsor, Saucony was her shoe company. At that time it was a “hard no,” she said.
Her most recent agreement with the company, which was inked in 2019, to see her through 2024, had favorable terms that allowed her to continue getting paid throughout pregnancy and for many months afterwards.
Huddle became pregnant in 2021. She gave birth to Josephine in April 2022. She chose to slow down her return. A physical therapist who specialized was helping athletes mothers after childbirth recommended her. She intentionally kept her mileage low. She did hours upon hours of supplemental exercises in order to strengthen her core, hips, and core.
She ran low-key 10Ks in September/October, as well as half marathons in January, February, and March. She intended to put off a marathon until after she finished breastfeeding.
And still she suffered an injury—a stress fracture in her hip.
“It kind of sucks to be telling [everyone] you can do it and trying to come back and then as soon as you get fit, you have to sit out for three months again,” she said. “That’s devastating. It makes it look like you can’t do it.”
Research is scant, Huddle said, on what high-level athletes can manage in terms of training postpartum and when they’re breastfeeding. Small numbers of athletes are able to run 100-mile weeks or train for the Olympic Games.
Taylor concurred. Taylor agreed. She is currently breastfeeding and felt dizzy and nauseated while running 12 miles. “That’s probably because I didn’t get enough fluids or nutrition going into my body before the run,” she said. “Maybe I need a gel now for a 12-mile run when I didn’t need that before. There really isn’t much information out there.”
Asked if she had any advice for elite runner new moms, she said no—but she’d take advice.
Tuliamuk can help her. “Pregnancy and birthing is really hard on your body and early motherhood can be very challenging,” she wrote. “Listen to yourself. Running will come back when you’re ready, but first, take care of yourself. This will help you avoid any setbacks. Remember your journey is different from another mom’s. Don’t compare yourself with others.”
Taylor Dutch contributed reporting.
Sarah Lorge Butler, a writer and editor, lives in Eugene, Oregon. Her stories about the sport, its trends and fascinating people have been published in Runner’s World Since 2005. Two of her most popular books on fitness are hers. Run Your Butt Off! Walk Your Butt Off!
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