Photo: Action Photography | Quest Glendalough 2016 Adventure Race podium with sleeping 9 month old Cahal
Fitting training around busy family life can be challenging at the best of times, but when you’ve got a national title in your sights it’s another ballgame entirely. Prior to having children, adventure racer and mountain runner, Moire O’Sullivan, was the first person ever to complete the Wicklow Round, a 100km circuit of Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains, within 24-hours. Moire’s adventurer racing game was strong. But would having a baby change that?
To coincide with the launch of her new book, Bump, Bike & Baby, which chronicles her journey from happy, carefree mountain runner to reluctant, stay-at-home mother of two, Moire shares with me an insight into how she made it work.
I was never really interested in having children. I was far too busy mountain running, travelling and working abroad to consider being responsible for another human being. There was only one problem: I had promised my husband that one day we’d start a family.
My commitment to have children was based on the hope that once I saw lots of babies born around me, my biological clock would kick in and I would start wanting one myself. But with that strategy proving somewhat flawed, I started to put my faith in female friends who had declared themselves distinctly un-maternal yet had gone on to give birth. They themselves assured me, ‘it is different when they are your own.’
Then, fate played its hand. In the dead of night, in the middle of a twenty-four hour adventure race across Northern Ireland’s Sperrin Mountains, I had an impromptu toilet stop. It was during that break I discovered that I was highly likely pregnant.
But even when I did receive a positive test result, I somehow convinced myself that I should not let the growing foetus inside me curtail my career or sport.
I travelled to Ethiopia for work when I was only a few weeks gone. My doctor insisted I take prophylactics in case I caught malaria and did the baby irreparable harm. Once there, my first trimester woes properly kicked in. And yet, I still refused to admit that I was impregnated and that I needed to slow down. I blamed my lack of breath on Addis Ababa’s high altitude, not realising the increasing levels of progesterone in my body was the real cause of my breathlessness. I cursed the traditional sour injera flatbread and spicy sauces for my persistent nausea, not realising that morning sickness is actually something that makes you feel permanently food poisoned.
Once I passed my first trimester, I started to feel like my former self again, so much so that I decided to join a local cycling club. Scared they might prevent me from riding, I concealed my pregnancy from them. It was only when my belly started to bulge from beneath my biking jacket that I had to eventually come clean. Fortunately, they allowed me to continue riding with them until I no longer had the physical energy to keep pace with their four-hour spins.
Eventually my body and unborn baby informed me enough was enough. When I was five months gone, I competed in an adventure race that involved biking, mountain running and kayaking across the Inishowen Peninsula, in Ireland’s north-west corner. Running off the summit of Slieve Snacht, half-way through the course, I got the mother of all stitches. I knew, however, there was nothing I could do except descend the mountain and seek emergency medical help. When I reached the mountain’s base, the pain had somehow dissipated, so I ran straight past the medics. Instead, I continued on and completed the course after five hours’ of racing. It was only after crossing the finish line, however, that my baby delivered the mother of all kicks. It was his way of communicating that he had no further interest in racing.
But I was not for quitting exercise entirely. Early on in my pregnancy, I met a track cyclist named Susie Mitchell. She managed to train right through her own pregnancy and, only four months after giving birth, won a World Masters track title. I wanted to be just like her. Determined to put this plan into action, I hired a coach to guide me through the rest of my pregnancy and subsequent post-natal stage. He told me to keep active until the birth through walking and swimming, and that he’d happily coach me properly once the baby was born.
BABY ARRIVES… AND TRAINING BEGINS
No one can fully prepare you for the seismic shift your life takes once you have a baby. It’s not just the fact that you are totally responsible for making sure they are safe, clean, and fed. It’s the fact that someone, somewhere has to look after them all the time, 24/7. Before children, I could do pretty much do as I pleased. If I wanted to go for a day-long run in the mountains, I merely informed my husband I would be back before dark. With a baby around, one that I was breastfeeding exclusively, military precision timing was necessary for me to leave the house for even an hour. And even then, when I returned, chances were that the baby had been bawling with hunger because he refused to drink milk from a bottle… yet again.
I am convinced my baby would have been thrown out with the bathwater if it had not been for the wondrous powers of the hormone oxytocin coursing through my veins. Thanks to its plentiful supply, I couldn’t help but bond with my newborn son, Aran. It wasn’t that I felt all loved-up and gooey at the sight of him. Instead, I felt fiercely protective of this child, knowing that I would do everything in my power to make sure Aran felt protected, safe, and, dare I say it, loved. Hormones are indeed a marvellous invention by Mother Nature.
The fact that I could not leave my breastfed, bottle-phobic baby for long meant that any spare moment had to be used efficiently. Every training session had a specific focus; whether it was strength and conditioning, or power sessions on the bike, or time spent rowing in the gym. I eventually found childcare that would take my baby for an hour or two three times a week just so I could train. I would literally arrive at the door, bike in hand or running shoes laced up, milk-laden boobs encased in a sports bra two sizes too small. I would breastfeed Aran until he fell into a comatose sleep, before handing me over to the carer and immediately starting my Garmin watch.
The fact that I was abandoning my baby to go and train continually plagued me with guilt. How could I be so selfish, taking time out for myself? But returning from these training sessions, I knew without hesitation it was the right thing to do. Not only was I getting my body back into shape after its nine-month hiatus, but training was also reminding me who I was as a person, before I took on this additional role as a mother.
In addition to these training sessions, my coach informed me that, for optimal recovery, I should sleep eight hours a night. When he suggested I needed more rest, I laughed in his face. ‘Good luck with that,’ was all I could think. My child was waking me up every two or three hours at the time and forcefully demanding to be fed. In fact, it took Aran eighteen months before he consistently slept through the night. For someone not used to sleep deprivation, this was akin to torture, as opposed to just ‘inadequate recovery’.
Before I knew it Aran was four months old. Following Susie’s example, I vowed to compete again. I entered the Sea2Summit adventure race that involved running and biking around a remote mountainous area in the west of Ireland. Before I could compete, I had to cart my husband and baby down to Westport, with a car full of baby gear. Standing on the starting line, I tucked my baby under my racing shirt for one last drink, before promising my partner that I’d be back in four hours’ time. My performance was below par to say the least, but I kept going and somehow managed to finish the race in third place.
The result encouraged me to set my sights on Ireland’s National Adventure Race Series the following year. I also needed a goal to give me a break from my domestic craziness, as Aran had started to crawl and had begun to wreck the place. I was also learning how to wean him on to solid foods. The resultant mess on the kitchen floor and in his nappy was soul-destroying.
Despite all these inconveniences, I was amazed that I was happy enough to forgo paid employment and look after my growing child. If anyone had suggested that I would become a stay-at-home housewife before Aran’s birth, I would have burst into tears. But now that I had the option, I was content with this plan. And as my kid started to develop a personality, I actually kinda liked hanging out with him.
The National Adventure Race Series required me to complete four races out of a possible nine. I had to miss the first race of the Series when I caught a horrible cold from my child. I was eventually well enough to compete in the second event, Dingle Adventure Race, only for my stressed-out pelvic floor to collapse just before the finish line. Post-natal issues continued to rear their heads throughout most of the race series. However, I was so determined to achieve my goal that I competed in them regardless, and somehow got enough points to claim the overall title.
As of 2018, I have won the National Adventure Race Series three times in total; in 2014, after the birth of my first son, in 2016 after the birth of my second, and in 2017 for good measure. I am now the mum of two young boys, both of whom I am immensely proud of. And I have just written a book about my experiences, named Bump, Bike and Baby – Mummy’s Gone Adventure Racing. My hope is that the book will encourage other women to keep fit before, during, and after kids.
I think that training and competing in these races has also made me a better, more-rounded mother, preserving my sanity when so much has changed in my domestic life. And though my main passions are mountain running and biking, somehow my children prefer to swim and orienteer. Go figure! I think though that the fact that they see their mum so active encourages them to get involved too. And as I get older, and a little slower, I’m looking forward to supporting them too in their own sporting goals.
About the book
Bump, Bike and Baby – Mummy’s Gone Adventure Racing. Sandstone Press. Format: Paperback. ISBN: 9781912240067. Publication Date: 15/03/2018. RRP: £8.99. Available from Amazon, Foyles, Easons, and Waterstones. Paperbacks can be purchased here: https://goo.gl/8XDUZe and e-books can be purchased here: https://goo.gl/Q3p1fm
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