The Parental Advantage
I’ve been lucky enough to speak with most of the top athletes in the sport, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t envy many of their lifestyles.
As much as I love my wife and kids, sometimes it’s nice to imagine myself in my 20s again, living a life with few responsibilities other than trail running, working in a running store, and watching my diet. Ahh…the simple life.
And even though us parents have less time to spend on the trails because of our kids, we do have an advantage when it comes to other forms of training, and for that I’m very thankful.
Is the sippy cup half full? You bet.
We can start at pregnancy, where the mom experiences an incredible transformation and is forced to carry around an extra thirty pounds. She changes her diet, learns to adapt to getting kicked from the inside on a regular basis, experiences wacky mood swings, and then finds the crescendo when she goes through hours and hours of relentless pain as a baby emerges. Dads aren’t forgotten in this process, as we go through a lot of the sleepless nights with the wife, often alter our diets to appease her, then stay up for a few funky nights in the hospital while she’s giving birth.
But let’s delve into this a bit deeper and really discover why parents of young kids are better adapted to deal with the rigors or running ultramarathons.
First on the list because it’s most obvious. Parents of young kids are forced to wake up at all hours of the night from birth through toddlerhood (and apparently beyond.) Nursing, crying, night terrors, kids falling out of bed, and walking back and forth with a little one all night begging and pleading for him to just settle the hell down and go back to sleep are all completely normal nights for parents.
This is easily adapted to running ultras. Staying up late, getting back on the trails while
exhausted, or having the learned ability to take a 10 minute cat nap, and wake up, ready to go, are essential to MUT success.
Ah, you had what planned? You promised the kids that if they were good, we’d all go to thepark with the castle and the swing slide thingy? And guess what, they were great! I’m going to hype this up, make a big ol deal of it, load everyone into the car, and head to that very specific park! Yay!
Oh hell, what do you mean it’s closed for construction? OK, quick, think on your feet. What’s in the bag? Can we play dress up somehow? Can I distract them with frozen yogurt? Will another park work? “No! You said the park with the slide thing!” Better think fast mom and dad and figure out how to make the situation as painless as possible.
In terms of ultras, adaptability is one of the more important traits. You get to your drop bag and it’s not there? What’ll you do? Your shoelace breaks? What now? You went off course and got eight bonus miles? How’ll you adapt your plan now?
No one is better at multitasking than parents of young kids. Some of the tasks need to be dealt with immediately, while some need to be finished soon or within a few hours. I’ve got a constant checklist running in my head of things to do, where to go, when Van pooped last, do I have diapers with me, is the house clean, are they hungry, and ohmygod, where are the f*#king scissors???
Same goes for running. When was the last time I took a gel? Is that leg cramp something I need to deal with now…or maybe I’ll reassess it in an hour. What do I need to grab at the next drop bag? Keeping track of tasks and issues is a key to trail success.
If there’s one thing endurance runners can’t be too concerned with, it’s hygiene. Blood, dirt, barf, poop, and snot are all things we experience or have had on us at some point on the trails. It’s part of the deal.
Same goes for parenting, but these are substances we deal with on a daily basis. I’ve been peed on, pooped on, barfed on, and picked dried boogers out of my kids’ nose all in the last week.
Watching Your Feet
Non-parents go through day in shoes, in sandals, or barefoot, walking carefree over carpet or hardwood. Get up at night to pee? No problem! Walk blindly to the bathroom, do your business, and go back to bed.
Parents maneuver through a minefield of LEGO, broken toys, sticks, rocks, castle parts, tiaras, and beads on a regular basis. We develop an innate sense of where hazards lie in the dark, and yeah, often times we screw up and step on them. And ouch, they hurt. LEGO especially. Again and again, I’ve stepped on the sharp little plastic pieces and shrieked in agony, but you know what? Each time I step on a toy, it’s making my feet tougher and teaching me another lesson.
Sense of Humor
Many good endurance runners are able to step away from the situation at hand and look at it from the outside. Who in their right mind thinks it’s a good idea to run 50 or 100 miles through the mountains for essentially no reason? In a bad patch of a race, they can find a semblance of humor in the situation and it will help move past the chaos that’s overtaking their physical bodies.
Same goes for parenting. When your kid reaches up on the counter and pulls an entire bag of muffin mix onto themselves, it’s easy to get mad and scream and yell. But it’s also easy to laugh at your kid, now covered in white flour and screaming that they won’t get muffins.
This one actually goes both ways. I’ve learned some first aid on the trails than I’ve applied to my injury prone kids (Sunny had 3 sets of stitches and a busted tibia by the time she was 3 1/2), and conversely, I’ve fixed myself up on the trail using methods I learned from taking care of the kiddos. Either way, I’ve had a lot of practice with on-the-fly First Aid and could probably play a doctor on TV.
Speaking as an active parent, I need to be “on” and positive all the time. And if you’re a parent, you know that that is an absolute impossibility. So I do my best. Stay positive, stay happy, and keep moving, because if I sit down in this comfy looking chair, my energy level is zapped and all hell breaks loose.
Not only is this important to parenting and racing, but many of us have spent time as pacers, and the number one most important thing to do as a pacer it to stay positive for your runner.
Chasing Kids Around
This really does count as cross training. Though mine are 2.5 years apart, they each weight about 33 pounds. Picking them up and putting them down. Kneeling down to help with shoes, and lifting them up high to reach the monkey bars. Sprinting across the yard as Van gets too close to eating a snail. Running up and down the street teaching Sunny to ride a two wheeler. This stuff counts.
You may do yoga or ride your $5k bike around town, but this is what I’ve got time for.
90% of my runs are with my kids. I push them in a double Chariot stroller which, all together, weights about 100 pounds. I push it on groomed trails, up hills, down hills (the scariest by far), and on long runs in the heat.
Running races without the stroller gives me a huge advantage and makes me strong on the hills.
Oh boy, this is a big one, and it’s so pertinent to endurance running. Just as you can’t freak out too bad on the trail, parents have to remain calm in adverse situations too. I’ve been at the store when Van has a blowout and is covered in poop and I’ve controlled my emotions when Sunny asked a perfectly nice woman if she were pregnant. (She wasn’t.) Parents deal with screaming kids at stores, at restaurants, and in the car, and we have to stay calm, lest they see us sweat. If they know we’re scared or on the verge of losing it, they win.
Staying calm in a race is paramount. Getting excited at the pace, losing control during a bonk, or letting things get out of hand during an injury can all be detrimental to your success.
Not Freaking Out
This is an aspect I didn’t immediately recognize, but one that Charlotte Clews pointed out to me during an email discussion. She and her husband are both endurance athletes and she notices that she performs better in races when a lot is going on with the kids. Charlotte feels she doesn’t stress herself out overthinking the event, and is able to keep her mind busy with thoughts that really matter.
I definitely understand this and recognize how strong distractions help during a race. Good point, Charlotte.
When I make a full day trip to the park, sometimes I’ll forget completely to pack food for myself. I’ve got juice and water for the kids, fruit, Goldfish (ahhh, the ubiquitous Goldfish), edamame, and snack bars, and for me, nothing. I’ll have to barter with my kids to get some food and eat whatever is available.
Same goes for the trail. We hope the aid stations have what we want, but when we get there, we shove food into our mouths, but dangit, that’s what’s there and we need to eat.
Finally, a huge one for me. There’s nothing that keeps me going on the trails more than seeing my kids at the end and knowing that they’ll see me complete something I set out to do. Nothing comes close. Sunny knows that I work hard to train for races, she sees me in pain during runs, and she’s seen first hand that despite that, I hit the finish line and complete my goal. Take away everything else, and that right there makes it all worth it.
So before you feel sorry for us parents who have to forsake valuable trail time to schlep the kids to the park, change dirty diapers, or stress out over schedules, don’t forget that what we’re doing is actually important cross training.
Now go out and run.
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