An image of ultra-marathon runner Sophie Power breastfeeding her baby at an aid station of the 106-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) went viral last year. Now the 37-year-old is using her platform to promote the benefits of exercise in pregnancy and the problems post-partum that need to be discussed. Here is her story.
There is no real modesty in ultra marathons. People pee to the side of the road so I wasn’t worried about getting my boobs out. The UTMB is an ultra-marathon but it’s a lot of walking and you’re climbing every 10,000m. During the race, I was pulling my T-shirt and sports bra up and expressing behind trees, down toilets in the aid station – just basically anywhere that I could because my breasts were so painful.
The first time I could breastfeed was 16 hours in and I was in agony because I couldn’t hand express enough during the race. My husband wasn’t able to get my three-month old son Cormac to me sooner as you are not allowed to meet your crew during the race. There are only about six or seven points where you can meet your support. If you meet them outside of that, you are disqualified. Although I was pregnant when I got my UTMB place, I couldn’t defer it because the rules say you can only defer for injury, not pregnancy. I didn’t want to risk getting disqualified for breastfeeding.
No one cared that I was breastfeeding, but a photographer asked my husband if he could take a picture. I was pumping and feeding at an aid station, and trying to juggle everything when Alexis Berg, a photographer for the Strava social fitness network, spoke to my husband about taking the photograph. If you could have expanded the shot you would have seen that my friend Matt is changing the batteries in my head torch and repacking my bag with more food and my husband is trying to feed me an avocado sandwich. I thought that it might get the organisers to change the policies of the race if they saw the picture and they would do referrals for pregnant women.
My sister-in-law called me up a week after the race and said: “Why are your boobs on my instagram feed?” I hadn’t thought anything more about the picture. I got a call asking if I had seen the photo. They said it was one of the most beautiful things they had seen. I thought: “It’s not the most flattering, my boobs are all squished.” But it’s kind of how it was. I thought Strava might run a story about it, but my phone didn’t stop ringing for weeks and weeks. It was all bizarre.
One thing that upset me was a poll tweeted out by the American magazine Runners World which said: “What do you think of breastfeeding during a run? Gross, a little selfish, or it’s none of my business?” There was no positive option. It was disgusting, yet there are guys that pee at the start of races in full sight but you’re putting a poll up about breastfeeding and you are attaching the word ‘gross’ to it. I thought that was really sad because for some women that would put them back in their breastfeeding journey.
By agreeing to the photo to be shared, we saw what an amazingly positive impact it could have on women around the world. It’s about promoting the health side of pregnancy and post-partum too. I have had problems with my pelvic floor, diastasis recti and back problems. The support out there in the UK is terrible. The six-week check from the NHS after birth isn’t really to do with your body, there are so few trained women physiotherapists and there need to be many, many more.
There are women decades later who are still leaking and they don’t feel like they can get back into exercise because of it.Women In Sport is a fantastic charity doing research into getting more women exercising and looking into pregnancy and post-partum but there is so much that is not talked about that needs to be talked about. We need much more support for mums during pregnancy showing how it is safe to exercise, and that it can be good for you.
I know I can get through one night of an ultra-marathon without needing sleep, but the second night of the UTMB, the demons kicked in and my hallucinations were horrendous. I was seeing duvets attached to trees. The great thing about being a new mum is you’re used to not sleeping. The start (for UTMB) is 6pm in the evening, which is an awful time to start a race. Most people would have had their feet up during the morning, but I had two small children so we had been up to the glacier and been hiking around there during the day. On the second day of the race I was climbing up a really steep path to Champex-lac, which is where my husband was with a pump. I took a 20-minute power nap and felt like a different person.
The story is not about me, it is not about breastfeeding during a race, it is about how incredible the female body is. It is about how incredibly strong women can be after childbirth and how, actually we should be able to get back to fitness. We just need support. I have raced more than 40 ultra-marathons now, most of them were before I had my first son (Donnacha) in 2014. I love stage racing because you go to a country you’ve never been to before and you immerse yourself in the environment.
A lot of the races around the world have now put pregnancy-deferring policies in place. They have never had them before and they just weren’t thinking about it because in the longer races, often only 10 per cent of the field are women and a small amount of those are childbearing age so they’ve now got these policies which is amazing to see – but the UTMB does not. I hope they rethink.
Sophie Power was speaking to Vicki Hodges