PREPARING FOR THE MARATHON OF GIVING LIFE
Above all else, Alysia Montano is an elite runner. The five-time USA national champion in the 800m. She competed at the 2012 Olympics and won bronze at the 2010 world indoor championships. But last month, Alysia did something no-one has ever done before – she competed at the national championships while heavily pregnant – turning the spotlight on herself and the moral debate about whether it should have been done.
Alysia, thanks for taking the time to have a chat. You’ve been in the news so lets cut to the chase. You recently ran the 800m in an elite race – the national championships – at 34 weeks pregnant. I guess the question everyone is going to ask you immediately is: ‘Why did you do it’?
Well, first of all, why not? I am the 5 time defending national champion. The US national champion. I’ve qualified for the race. And with that alone I was like ‘OK- I can run in this’. And second of all, being a women pursuing fitness in her pregnancy, I hadn’t seen until now, it’s my first pregnancy, how intense the scrutiny could be for many misinformed individuals. And it’s surprising. It’s so surprising because me, being an outsider before I was pregnant, didn’t see it as a problem at all. I knew that it was OK and of course, like, I could see someone seeing 2 minutes and 30 seconds as extreme, when it’s actually highly slow for me; nice little jaunt round the track two times.
But you know, but it was about raising awareness. It was about raising awareness about how good fitness in pregnancy is. And second of all, whatever you did before the pregnancy, you can continue to do during pregnancy. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to continue unless you’re having a complicated pregnancy, or an unhealthy pregnancy. And a lot of that tends to be from not pursuing health in your life in general. I’m not saying that it’s always the case, not at all. But a lot of it can come during those sort of conditions.
And I wanted people to recognise that pregnancy is not an ailment, it’s not a sickness and this is what the female body can do. We’re strong, we’re not fragile, we’re not going to fall apart. We were made to do this. So it’s not about, you know, the moment you get pregnant you just sit down, you’re done, you eat three pieces of pie and pizza and you know ‘that’s all she wrote’.
I guess women train right up until the moment they give birth. So you see yoga classes and gyms all around the world with pregnant ladies deep into their pregnancy. But you took it to another level, by going elite. You did an Elite competition. I guess that’s what it’s extraordinary about it and perhaps what drew more scrutiny to the process.
Yeah, I mean, this is what I do. This is what I’ve been conditioned to do. I’ve been a very active individual and competing in sports since I was five years old, not just athletics; soccer, basketball, all across sports – so this is my body’s condition, to you know, run, at a quicker pace than normal individual, especially the normal pregnant individual and that quicker pace again is 35 seconds slower than my PB. That’s significantly slower for just 2 laps and the other thing to recognise is to while I had been doing mile repeats my race that I have just did was significantly less than what I do on a normal basis and in my pregnancy running; you know; I just ran 2 laps and all I had to do was run for 2 minutes and 32 seconds. My heart rate, my heart is conditioned to withstand much longer periods of time at a pretty much decent heart rate that isn’t going to exceed you know, max heart rate, that it might for a normal individual if that makes sense.
Yeah, for sure. So you were 25 seconds out of your PB and I’ve seen the race and I just wondered what level you actually reached in the race? I mean at PB level you’re obviously going at 100%. What level do you think you extended yourself to at 2 minutes 32?
Definitely only at like 50%. It was just a run. I literary went for a run and I just had to go for a run for 2 minutes. It was pretty simple. Especially for an 800, it was 50%. Obviously If I wanted to be going for a longer run my pace would be a little bit slower, but you know how long you’re going and how long you can hold that. You have to know your body and know what it can withstand. You need to be cognizant of your own fitness level; of course I want the people to know that and everyone, every normal person, let alone a pregnant woman is not going to be able to run a 2 minute and 32 second 800 hundred, but you know …
That’s what you’re conditioned to do.
That’s what I’ve been conditioned to do, yeah. And it’s very much to be listening to your body, it’s very, very simple. It was very easy for me to do that. It was actually, you know, having such a great time, it was having, you know, it was joyous. I was kind of laughing and smiling entire time, just happy to be out there. Like I said in previous interviews, you know, part of it to me, you know, I had this desire, this fire to compete as well, and I’ve been told by my doctors that there’s no reason why I couldn’t. Obviously, I know my limitations and I know where I need to sit and I was well in last place with 200 metres behind everybody else but that where I was, as a 34 week pregnant woman and it wasn’t about the time, it wasn’t necessarily about competing with rest of women but being there, being in the competition, recognising where I wanted to be and where I saw myself now and being happy, celebrating this moment but also looking forward to the future.
Sure. I get that. You obviously a five-time national champion and you’d earned your start in that race. But I’ll just throw something at you and please don’t take offence at this. Did the credibility of competition lose anything with you being in that race?
I actually thought about that and I don’t think so at all and I’m not offended at all. I definitely think that’s a very valid question. And I thought about all of those before and there was no reason that should have; it was the first round out of three rounds. And of that, 32 women are allowed to compete in that race, only 31 had signed up and then to top it off, of those 31 women; and I don’t know how many exactly, oh, there was five women that didn’t have qualifying standard that would have been there. So, there was 5 women that were outside the B standard which normally on Olympic year or world championships year wouldn’t have made it into the race.
But because it’s an off year a lot of people if they had injuries or wanted to just focus on the European season; don’t come to nationals or this is the time for them to take off or something like that. Especially, you know, for me the time for me to get pregnant. And so in that regard it is important for people to recognise; I didn’t take anyone’s spot. There were 5 places that were allowed in; that wouldn’t normally got in, just to fill the field; so I was actually the filler.
And not only that; again I didn’t take any attention away from any of the women, ok well maybe, from the woman won the race itself because I ran in the first round. My race was on Thursday, then they still had to make it to Friday and then the final day was on Sunday. So maybe there was all the ‘buzz and hoopla’ but I don’t think that’s for any judgment of my own. I’m doing my own thing and I had my own reasons why I did them and I felt like it was important. I’m not going to sit back and allow for somebody’s worries about their own attention to dictate what happens in my regard, you know? This is sport, this is my job and this is what I do. I’m showing up to work like anybody else, like anybody else does. And if me showing me to work being a personality and an advocate for health and a public figure takes away from your job then you maybe you’ve got to step it up.
You’ve inadvertently become a human science project. So what have we learnt? What have we learnt about the female body and the ability to compete at Elite level, deep into pregnancy?
Yeah, we learned first of all – you are going to have natural modifications in your quote, unquote – “training” in your pregnancy. You’re not going be able to train, like I haven’t been able to train for 800 hundred metres. I’m just continuing my fitness. I’m keeping my aerobic level up, and that’s the biggest, biggest thing I have been able to do. Keeping my body agile, ready to perform this amazing, amazing athletic event which is labor. I mean, that in itself is much harder than 800 metres. And, you know, it’s recommended by doctors across the world that you do remain fit in your pregnancy so that you can help deliver your child with more ease. Obviously, it’s still, you know, a difficult process but one that we can do, one that is natural to us and again talking about training in pregnancy and how deep you can go, as long as you listen to your body it’s 100% possible and there are things that you are, or at least individually, like for me, if I’m not able to do the same or I’m not doing – like bounding or you know, jumping exercises and those sorts of things just because my joints are more susceptible to injury and as my pregnancy progresses you just want to be careful with that and I obviously want to come back healthy.
But, you know, as far as we know, it needed to be talked about. I talked to many pregnant women who ran in their pregnancy, did temple runs, higher threshold, mileage runs and nobody knew their story so it’s still this shadow living in the background that nobody knows about; knows that I’m not the first person to do it; I’m just the first person to bring awareness to it at this level.
At what point did you decide you would go ahead with the race?
Ummmmm. Well. It was really … our deadline to enter was June 11 and it was like the first of June; so like 3 weeks, 4 weeks before the actual event. I knew that, in the back of my mind, months beforehand; you know what I was thinking? I said to my husband: ‘I could run at Nationals, there’s no reason I couldn’t run on Nationals’ and I’m like ‘there’s no rule that says a pregnant woman can’t run at Nationals’ or anything like that. I have the qualifying time.
So we talked about it then but kind of just let it be something that we were talking about and didn’t like training for the Nationals or anything like that. I just wanted to see how I felt and if I felt good then we would look at it further as a possibility and as it got closer I was like ‘Hey, I’m still thinking about Nationals, I feel good. It’s only few weeks away and I think that we should enter.’ And that’s basically its inception in my head. I called two of my really good friends over and they were the only friends that knew about it because I just mentioned it to them and they said ‘I think it’s a great idea’, because we were talking about how it’s gets annoying sometimes – you’re going for a run and you know. Luckily I’m living in a community that’s very fit and I’m not the only pregnant woman out there running but there are some people like ‘should you be running?’; my delivery guy was like so stunned and worried; every time he sees me lace up my sneakers and I was like ‘I need to put this out there’ and I’m going do to that at Nationals so yeah, that’s basically how the inception of running at Nationals came about.
You said there were no rules that stopped you from running but there are some sports that have rules in place about pregnant women competing. Do you expect that this will come up for discussion now, that perhaps it may be reviewed? Because I guess the extreme turn of events is that you fell, you fell while you were running and something bad could have happened to your baby. That could be the discussion that perhaps puts a debate out there. Should you be allowed to run?
Yeah, I mean I guess I can see a few different reasons why someone would put a limitation on a pregnant woman competing in their respective sport. Obviously, my sport is not necessarily a contact sport, especially if you saw the race from the gun, I was nowhere in sight. My race begins in a fashion where everybody has their own individual lane and then you cut in and by the time everybody cut in, I was by myself. Haha.
So, I really don’t see how that can be an issue. I understand people thinking, ‘oh you might fall’ and I always say this, I said ‘You know, you could fall getting out of bed, you can fall taking the stairs, you could fall, walking’ – you know what I mean. You could literary fall walking. And then in this point you can get in a car accident while driving; people get in their car every single day. There are so many things to fear. It doesn’t make or enhance your life by being fearful of every single small detail.
So, I don’t know about the other sports and the limitations in competing in them. I do recognise the contact sports, how that would be one. I personally wouldn’t want to compete in those while pregnant just because of fear that something could happen, something like basketball or soccer; that’s a little bit, well, it would cause trauma towards your abdomen and running won’t to that. I think that if you’re just to go shoot around and play basketball by yourself that would be great or you know what I mean and that would cause a problem. But I could understand that a contact sport or something that could have caused a traumatic event to your abdomen could be an issue.
Absolutely. You sound like a woman that is trying to keep herself fit for another Olympic campaign. Is Rio in your sights?
Yes, absolutely. That’s it. Like I said – I’m not sick, I’m like every other professional woman in her career track that’s pregnant; doesn’t mean my life’s over; doesn’t mean my career is over. It’s just an amazing event that is happening during my career. So there are, I feel like, you know, an injury is put on a worse level than a pregnancy. Like, I’m still able to continue my fitness as opposed to my injury, you know? To the foot or the leg or something like that; the injury has you stop, that sort of regiment. And I’ve been able to run so there’s nothing, again, like health-wise that pregnancy is doing to me besides making an amazing thing to happen which is creating another life. And, you know, on top of that I got 40% more blood volume so that’s a plus! Haha.
Let me take you back 2 years at 500 meters. You led the Olympic final. What’s that feeling like? You’re in front. You’re leading an Olympic final and on track for a gold medal. What’s that feeling like?
I mean that was my first Olympics so I think, for me, it was really very much about staying in the moment and knowing, you know, it is a race and there are so many different things that could happen and you know, I ran equivalent to my PB in that race and there’s nothing to regret; that’s how I do things. I do think, you know, I talked to my coach about that race, I had a quick moment of ‘OK, I should conserve a little bit’ and after that moment that I thought that, you know, a bunch of people came up and then I had to come back on strong so I’m prepared and I’m hungry for another shot of it.
Do you think you can win the next Olympic 800m final?
Of course! I mean, why would I be doing this otherwise. I mean, really, why would I enter a race, you know – as a non-pregnant woman without the possibility of me winning, especially at the Olympic Games. I’m not there to play around, I’m not pursuing this lifestyle to you know, appease the audiences just to watch me run. I have a desire, I have a dream to be great and that includes coming out on top. So, I feel like I need to continue to pursue that. You know it’s making me stronger and it’s just going to make me a very, hopefully, influential individual about just perseverance and going after a dream. And that’s half of the battle, just going for it, whether it’s realised or not.
So, next time there won’t be a moment where you think ‘I need to conserve’?
Yeah, knowing that I had that burst of sprint in the last 70 metres of the 800 metres final I’m capable of just doing what I need to do and not having that quick lapse of thought so you know; there’s not a lot of time to think. It’s just 2 laps, and it’s a minute and 57 seconds, you know, that I went around and there’s just not enough time to think. I just got to get out there and be confident in my body and training and you know, just go out there and press ‘play’. It’s all been recorded at practice.
Whenever you run you wear a flower in your hair. What’s the purpose of the flower in the hair?
The flower in the hair is my symbol of strength and femininity. It’s exactly what I hope that me going out there and running and competing while pregnant shows. I hope it shows that we as women, we’re not fragile. We’re not going to fall apart and that we are strong because we are women; like, we have the ability to hold a human life; like your human life was held by a woman and you were brought in this world by a woman in this amazing, athletic event, this athletic marathon that is the beginning of life. And I just want for that to be recognised, how tremendous that is.
Unfortunately it’s been very common in American society that because you’re a woman you’re not as strong as a man or it’s not even a comparative. You shouldn’t even be compared, we should just be strong in our own right and that’s just something I have had instilled in me from the time I was a young girl. It’s just been – like, it doesn’t matter, your gender or anything like that. You’re strong as however you want to be, whatever you want to pursue, that it hasn’t nothing to do with your gender. You go out there and you take all the steps necessary to be the best at it and you can be, so that’ basically what my flower presents. It’s just recognising and remembering my femininity and my strength as a female.
Have you got a flower put aside for the labor ward?
I haven’t yet. I’m working on my labor outfit now, so you’re actually going to put me to work on that now.
So with everything we’ve talked about. With all the publicity. With all the questions asked of you. With everything your body has been through. Would you do it all again?
Absolutely, absolutely. I had anticipated about how amazing it would be and how many letters and messages I would get from other runner Mums. So many who have been like ‘I’m so thankful that you did this’, I mean – it’s put it to rest. Different friends and family that have thought that I shouldn’t be running in my pregnancy, it’s put that to rest and I just feel so grateful that I had to be the voice for all of those women.
There are so many women, you have no idea. There are so many women that are just so amazing in their own right and they all run and you know, they’re pursuing fitness in their pregnancy and they pursuing it intensely in whatever fashion that they’re doing it and there’s nothing that you’re doing that you can’t handle. You know, your body is equipped for this and if you think about pregnancy, in you know, the primitive days – women were moving, they were working, there was no; I mean we happen to be living in a society now where it’s easy to sit down and have everything brought to you.
And just because we are in a technological era I feel like, all of a sudden, it become this, basically, I want to be completely honest ‘lazy aura’ that has been surrounding pregnant woman; like it’s just been ‘now it’s time to sit down’ and it’s not the case at all. And again, you want to promote healthy blood flood to the placenta and the best way to do that is to remain active.
How have your sponsors reacted to you running at the nationals and indeed your pregnancy? Unfairly, it is obviously something that makes women very nervous and hesitant when they decide to put their sporting career on hold to start a family.
Of course! My main sponsor is ASICS and they have been phenomenal. They have been phenomenal. I have to say, of everything, I had no fear of running in my pregnancy, no fear of training during pregnancy. I definitely thought ‘oh man, OK’. We planned this pregnancy, but I have to tell my sponsor before I tell anybody else. And they’re 100% supportive and it made me confident – recognising where I was at. And they were like “Alysia, we don’t think this is the end of the world at all, we don’t think it’s the end of the world either.” And having that behind me and recognising, ‘ok, I don’t even have to give the whole spiel about it’s not the end of the world, this is a great thing, I’m 28 years old, I want to start a family, I don’t want to be the athlete, that you know, wished that she started her family and ran until it was, you know, a little bit later for them and wished they had started earlier.’
I don’t want to look back. To me, the life is about, you know, making memories and amazing moments and just pursuing whatever you want. And part of my pursuing my dreams is pursuing a family and I want a couple of kids. And calling ASICS, you know, they said ‘that’s great; alright; let’s talk about how we can use you and your time in pregnancy and of course, we’ll talk about how, you know whatever ideas you have and how we can incorporate that’. And not a single thought, about, you know, cutting or anything like that.
I mean, ASICS were 100% supportive and they had recognised from the get-go without me saying anything. You’re just a women in career that’s pregnant, so what? And, I went to the LA marathon as a public figure for them. I went to Ohio and did a motivational speech while pregnant. And I went to the national championship and they’ve sent me a uniform. I told them I want to run and they recognised I wanted to keep in quiet until that day and send me a uniform with an extra shirt size;
Like I said – even with everything going so amazing with just the awareness I’ve been bringing to just this topic, you know, they’re behind me and wanting to help propel that forward and I think that that’s what sponsorship is about; it’s a partnership; it’s two-sided, it’s not about what the brands just seeing how they can be out there. They’re seeing how, also, help push your brand. Like I said, they have been absolutely phenomenal. I’ve had so many people step forward and donate; different companies, like Britax, has donated a stroller, a jogging stroller, the bob stroller and the car seat. And I’ve had companies, like Babyganics send boxes of different baby gear, so it’s just been, just a force of support and absolutely amazing and I just – it’s exactly everything that I wanted, exactly what I wanted to say : ‘I’m just a woman that is pregnant in her career and this is what my career looks like’. This is what it looks like to be pregnant in my career track and there’s been no lack of support in any of my sponsorship areas.
That’s great news. Well you have my utmost respect indeed.
Oh thank you. There is one more thing I wanted to say. I just want to say – recognising just like chemically the hormones that are in place, when you’re exercising and how amazing those hormones are and you know, those endorphins and just these amazing thing that are happening. You’re passing that on to the foetus. So I want people to recognise that. When they go out there and get their heart rate going it’s all of that with your baby.
And then if you’re an Elite athlete, or you don’t have to even be Elite. Someone that does exercise regularly – my chemical level in my blood and not just in my body, but in general are completely different from person B. It’s completely different so for me to go from an Elite training level and then pursue, not necessarily saying I can’t run same times, but not pursue that same sort of same level of fitness, obviously knowing that it’s going to be different, I’m actually putting myself in a deficit which is a huge swing of hormonal and chemical changes which actually can make the Mum sick. And I actually experienced that the first hand, you know at the first trimester, not feeling well. And even now, in third trimester, when I’m tired and I don’t feel so good and then I go and move, I’m like ‘this is what I’m supposed to be doing, this is what my body’s used to be doing’. If I don’t give this to my body, I’m making myself sick.
I sense an element of excitement about the potential for your running career beyond pregnancy Alysia?
I am, I’m very excited about it, I’m very happy that now, in my 36 week, that I have been able to maintain, you know, a good level of fitness and stay injury free by being smart about my rest days and you know my choices running exercises.
That’s fantastic! Iook forward to watching the next phase of your career and best of luck to you and your family for your impending arrival!