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The sun had barely risen when the unthinkable happened: Foul waste began gurgling up through the shower drain in the bathroom. (Four runners with pre-race jitters, one toilet at an Airbnb with subpar plumbing: You do the math.)
Three of us screamed, clamped our hands over our mouths and noses, and hurled ourselves out the front door. One of us—the mom—just shrugged.
“I have four kids,” she said. “I’ve seen it all.”
She strode into that hall of horror, bucket and plunger in hand. I knew then that I’d met a real-life superhero; it was my first encounter with the “mom superpowers” that runners allegedly develop after producing progeny.
I’d been told they manifest in a variety of other ways on the trail. After all, many women’s labor experiences make most ultras seem mercifully short. And all that cool, calm, collected problem-solving that new parents do in everyday life? That pragmatism comes in handy in races—eat this, drink that, change your socks, slap a Band-Aid on an owie, quit asking, “Are we there yet?” When the going gets tough, declare cheerfully, “Suck it up, buttercup!” Packing bags of supplies for a baby translates seamlessly, too; drop bags are basically glorified diaper bags, filled with bottles, snacks, butt cream and a change of clothes.
So when I became a mother myself and set my sights on my next 100-miler, I dreamt about the performance-enhancing benefits my new status might bequeath.
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As race day approached, I grew dubious. First of all, breastfeeding meant I hadn’t ever been away from my baby for more than three or four hours at a time, which was not enough for the long trail runs typical in preparation for a mountainous ultra.
Second: When I’d had the choice between ticking off a training run and spending time with my baby, I’d often chosen the latter. I’d had the privilege of running around in circles in the woods for over a decade, but being able to take my little person backpacking, or watch her figure out how to eat broccoli? I relished these new experiences—even if it meant my long runs were replaced by long hikes with a tiny human on my back delightedly yanking fistfuls of my hair left and right like reins.
Third, my total sleep in the past year was a fraction of what it had been the last time I tried to run this far. I’d skipped countless workouts this year because I was just … too … damn … tired.
People assured me that this slumber shortfall just meant I’d become a pro at staying up all night, which is, of course, a useful skill when running 100 miles. I’m pretty sure the people who said this have never had a baby, though; chronic sleep deprivation makes you better at sleeping more, not less.
But come race morning, the joy of seeing old friends overshadowed my anxieties. I hadn’t anticipated how sweet it would feel to share my baby after raising her in the isolation of the pandemic.
As we runners set off into the mountains, I marveled at the notion that for one whole day, I’d have no responsibility other than to keep putting one foot in front of the other. What freedom! It turned out that hiking all summer with a 20-pound baby on my back had given me glutes of steel, and a few caffeinated gels worked like gangbusters to keep me awake—more so since I’d largely eschewed caffeine for nearly two years while pregnant and then nursing. And the thought of sinking into a chair with my baby in my arms at the finish line? Never had the smell of the barn catapulted me down a mountain so fast.
I squeaked in just under 24 hours—several hours slower than last time I’d run this race, but still good enough for the win.
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My baby was unimpressed. She seemed pleased to see me, but no more so than any other morning—and she was mainly interested in gnawing on my belt buckle and stealing my quesadilla. She didn’t even want to nurse. (Smart child; nobody wants to drink from a salty faucet.)
I felt proud of my finish, but I also realized that 100-milers were no longer the coolest thing my body had ever done. And maybe the real superpower of motherhood is this—the reminder that running is a thing, but it isn’t the thing.
Yitka Winn lives, moms, and runs in the Pacific Northwest. This story originally appeared in our Winter 2021 issue.