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A journal of a pregnant runner: virtual races during COVID times

By Eszter Csillag

This is the third part of a series of articles focusing on issues related to female runners who are mothers, or pregnant but still keep running on trails.

Since March 2020, most of the races have been cancelled therefore, we have all had to find new ways to challenge ourselves. While summer passed by, with various kinds of virtual challenges, then autumn started with a range of new virtual races where the local running communities found their strength. These races were not only tailor-made for ‘COVID times’, but were also suitable for runners during pregnancy.

These international virtual races mean that participants only need to complete the distance and elevation regardless of where they live, this new way of racing usually gives you a one-month window to complete an exact route and upload the results on the given platform. In these races, routes are often planned and often organizers surprise us with trail fun routes. On public holidays or the first weekend of the month, organizing staff might even place guiding photographers along the trail and race directors might wait for the participants at the finishing line. If you wish to compete with your yourself and achieve a better time, you might re-do the race as many times as you wish during the given period of time and upload the best result.

This form of race has been in my favor since September when I was already aware of my pregnancy. I did not have the pressure to follow the crowd at the starting line when they kick off quickly. Since I did not have to wake up early and show up at a given time, I was able to start running later or just do it on another day if I had a bad day. Longer virtual races such as HK100flex even allowed participants to complete the distance in stages and it was just perfect for me.

I just have to make sure to play safe, to have enough fuel and good company to keep me going. And I really had all I need. I must admit that I had a few great months.

When I was still in the first trimester, I went back to “Round the Lion” and challenged myself to obtain a better time than my first attempt. I did not challenge myself on running longer distances in my first pregnancy; however, this time, with more experience and the close supervision of the OB and my coach, I have been pushing my boundary from 42km (the maximum record in last pregnancy) to finishing HK50, then the Lantau70.

You might think that I am some kind of superwoman, but actually I am not. I have learnt that despite my ambition, there is limitation on my body. It took me almost one-week to fully recover after a long run like HK50 or Lantau 70. Also, I have learnt to accept that sometimes not pushing myself is the right thing to do. This happened when I was in the first stage of HK100flex. I thought I was able to finish the race in two stages, but I experienced cramps at the lower part of my belly so I stopped after 28km. While the mind is very important in trail running, that day I realized that learning the body’s signs are equally important.

I was scared and worried that day. After returning home, I took a long rest. I was not sure how things might be afterwards. The next day, I went back on trails with the idea that “I will stop if I feel bad”, even if it means I have to stop right at the beginning. Yet, slowly and carefully, I managed to perform okay. The experience has taught me to accept what is normal, that when I have bad days, I should not stress about them, instead, I should take them as signs for me to have some good rest.

Another running virtual challenge was organized by Asia Trail Girls which was also suitable for me as the Alpine version required the team members to run only every second day. In this way I was able to take a rest or do a recovery run in the days between which was necessary as I was already at the end of my seventh month of pregnancy.

Since the beginning of the pregnancy I have been searching for articles about pregnant women on trails and I have begun to receive information from various sources. From an online source, I read about a belt which can support the belly just as a bra does to the breasts. The next day, I went to the physiotherapy center and bought one. It makes me feel safer and more comfortable while running, I wish I could have known about the belt earlier. It is not necessary for me in short training sessions, but for virtual races or longer running sessions, I feel much better with it.

About energy consumption, recently, I have started to drink soya milk even during runs as it smooths my stomach. I also try to avoid gels or candies with caffeine. Before starting any long run, I make sure to have a good breakfast (usually with two bananas and some dried fruits) so that I have sufficient energy from the start. Of course, I don’t forget about the growing life inside me, I have bought amino acid, L-carnitine, and protein powder suitable for pregnancy and breastfeeding women. This way, I can guarantee that my body can undergo proper recovery without risking the health of my baby.

Many of you might wonder why I need to “create problems to solve”? Why can’t I just stop doing the virtual races or running at all so that I don’t even need extra supplements and products? This reminds me of a scenario I encountered a few months ago. When asking for supplements suitable for pregnant women in an organic shop, a saleslady responded to me with a doubtful surprise, “why would you need this kind of extra supplements in your pregnancy?”

Fortunately, people are not always so hostile against pregnant runners. A more open-minded shop owner shared his view with me that instead of doubting the customers, he believes as a shop owner of a health store, he should always offer possible alternatives for his customers. Indeed, there are products suitable and available for my situation and others.

So far on my journey as a pregnant runner, I cannot lie about the resistance I face in this exploration. I really hope that more people will share the view with the open-minded shop owner I met, who believes in alternatives. While most cultures believe pregnant women should be kept inactive, it might be time for us to revisit this belief and explore alternatives for pregnant women and deepen the research on this regard based on a large database. Using myself as an example, I have been complying with the safety and staying active under close observations by the OB and my coach, there is no reason to retain myself from being a part of the running community when running has so far only made my pregnancy happier and more meaningful.

I hope in the future, more scientific data will prove that pregnant women do have alternatives; until then, let’s be the alternative.

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