Edwina Sutton is a coach and ultra-runner whose achievements include taking silver medal at the British 100km Championships, competing at the Ironman World Championship in Kona and winning the South Downs Way 50 mile ultra. She is also mother to three children aged 3, 6 and 8, and lives with her husband and family in Morzine, in the French Alps.
Here, Eddie shares some brutally honest chat about the demands and joys of being a mum and ultra-runner, and just how crazy the juggling act is.
You have three kids – how, when and where do you fit your ultra-running training in?
I train first thing in the morning – either as soon as I’ve dropped them at school or, if it’s the weekend, as soon as we wake up! If I don’t get out the door straight away, I struggle to fit the training in. I find at the weekends the kids are really happy colouring, playing for a few hours so don’t miss me!
What does a typical day look like for you?
It depends on the day, but during the week it’s much the same routine – I love a routine! My husband works away a lot so I have the three kids to get to school or their activities. The seasons play a huge role in our life here in the mountains, so a winter school run is very different to a summer school run. School starts early here at 8.30am and if we have to dig out the car etc, it can be a bit manic, but the kids are quite used to it and can all put on their snow suits and shovel snow if needed!
I drop them at school then train for anything between 1-3 hours. Depending on the day/season, this is either on skis or trainers. Then I come home to work, shower, tidy, do laundry, cook – normally all at once! I’m both a running coach and work for a local ski school, so I split my two roles, normally answering emails and organising ski lessons in the morning then I work with my coaching clients in the afternoon or evening. Mid-afternoon I either do another run or strength session, or in the winter if I’ve run in the morning, I ski for a couple of hours then fetch the kids. Then it’s their time until they go to bed, so I don’t do anything but focus on them, playing, cooking, talking, and then I work again when they go to bed.
How has your running and racing changed since you became a mum?
Before I had children I was an ironman triathlete. I worked a full-time job, six days a week but still managed 20 hours of training most weeks. Once I had my first child, I thought I’d get back into triathlon, but soon realised how limited your time, energy and financial resources are once children arrive! I didn’t mind that though, I sold my bike and embraced just running. I did my first ultra six months after my first child, stopping to feed him at 20 miles and still came 2nd! I am, and always will be, very competitive – that hasn’t changed since having children, but I think my competitive focus has changed. I want to do well for them. I want to do my best for them.
Your youngest is 3 – how did you approach starting training again after her birth?
Well I did something crazy eight months after my third… I represented England over 100km. In hindsight, it wasn’t my wisest move, but I think it has shaped my running journey, and also my coaching ability so I won’t say I regret it, only I learnt wisely from it! I pushed myself really, really hard to get fit again and I remember weeping in the hotel room the night before as I hadn’t left her before and felt so guilty. But the picture I have of my young family at the finish and me in an England vest is something I will treasure forever and gives me a real boost every day of, ‘Hey girl, if you can do this you can do anything!’
Have you been a buggy runner with your children?
With babies 1 and 3 I trained every day during the week with the buggy. Anything from 3-10 miles. I had my first and second children really close together so there wasn’t the chance to do much buggy running then! With my third baby, I trained 80 percent of my mileage for my international race with the buggy. I have always loved running with a buggy. It feels so great to get some fresh air and be doing what you absolutely love whilst the baby sleeps, and it’s such a great use of time. I’m sure one of the reasons my kids all love running is because they’ve joined me on so many adventures from such a young age.
Has being a mum changed your approach to your training?
I think the hardest but the best thing I have learnt as a mum is to be both flexible in your training but rigid in your dreams. You cannot do a hard session if you’ve had zero sleep, or you know you are going to have zero sleep! I still want to achieve, I want to train hard, and consistently, but this looks very different to what it did before kids. I don’t have time to run miles and miles, but I do have time to make sure I have 2-3 quality sessions a week and there is always time to do planks! The emphasis is still on performance for me, so the focus is on both quality in the running, but also quality in recovery which I think is often so neglected by parents. I believe the recovery is just as important as the running and I have many hacks for doing that alongside parenting!
Would you say having children has changed your perspective on running/training?
Running is my absolute lifesaver; it’s more than training, it’s more than racing – after giving up my career to raise my kids, it’s something I still do just for me. It’s air, it’s space, it can be as noisy or quiet as you want. It can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Every run is different, it’s a love-hate relationship, but it’s always there for me and it without doubt makes me 100 percent a better mum/wife/coach/friend.
Do you follow a training plan or aim for certain mileage or elevation each week?
As I live in the mountains, miles are really irrelevant; I focus on time mainly and elevation. The end goal of each training programme is set in stone, but the process varies greatly!
What does a typical week of training look like for you?
In the summer, I do one tempo run, a hill session, one medium run and a long run and then the rest all really easy running. In the winter, I do a lot of ski touring, but continue to run because I love it and have a mad dog who needs a run every day! But this is totally weather dependent so it can be fast, slow, hill reps, or on the treadmill. A successful winter in the mountains means you have to be super-flexible.
Do you think becoming a mother has helped improve your mental strength?
There is nothing as tough as a mum’s strength. That fierce protectiveness you feel towards your children I feel I can channel into my running and racing. When the going gets tough, or I’m exhausted, want to stop, or want to skip a session, I think about them. I think about the ideals I want to instil in them. I also definitely think the exhaustion of just being a mum helps. That sleep deprivation, having someone depend on you every day; it is brutal and frankly running an ultra is sometimes easier!
You do some form of strength work every day. What kind of exercises do you do?
Yeah, I do a lot of strength work. I had three hard pregnancies and deliveries, so I’ve really had to rebuild my body from scratch. I find little and often works for me and is less daunting that hours in the gym. I do mainly bodyweight and kettlebell exercises. Absolutely nothing fancy, just your good old combination of planks, side planks, press-ups, upper body work and squats/lunges. I have my mat and equipment all at home so can fit it in whilst the kids are busy or playing.
When you’re exhausted from lack of sleep, family life and just life, how do you stay motivated to get out and run?
Having a goal is a cliché but it’s so true. The ‘run’ part of the puzzle is so important to me; it’s not just a run, it’s the way to my goal, but it’s also my friend – I don’t find I often have to motivate myself out the door. If I do, I trick myself into putting my trainers on, let them hit the trail and if after 5 minutes I feel crap, I’ll come home. Works like a charm every time – I never come home! And I know, like all runners out there, you always feel so much better after a run than before.
Do you think being a parent has helped you as an ultra-runner and vice versa?
Ultra-running has helped me in both my running and parenting. The ‘this too shall pass’ has never felt so apt in all areas of my life, from dealing with toddler tantrums to feeling your stomach turn on a trail when you still have 40 miles to run. The ability to take a breath, to see the bigger picture, to know that nothing lasts forever and know that deep down you are doing what you love more than anything in the world. To me, that’s either on the trails or looking after mychildren. So it’s not a chore to get out running; yes the running makes me tired, but it gives me more strength than I could ever imagine, the ability to deal with the daily demands from having young children and vice versa. Those little faces, chubby fingers, those eyes which light up when I come back from a run; that makes my heart soar and gives me the courage to continue chasing my dreams and not drown in laundry and pasta!
Does running give you headspace from parenting?
If I didn’t run and didn’t keep getting out every day, I feel that motherhood would suffocate me. Children are all-consuming. From my experience, their routine has to take precedence in family life – meals, naps, activities, homework; it is a daily and repetitive grind. Some days it seems totally endless, totally too much to handle and some days it’s a joy, a breeze and you are nailing motherhood.
As a mum of two myself I can imagine it’s difficult to juggle kids and training…
I would never want to paint a picture that the juggle is easy. At the finish line your race hasn’t finished. You can’t sit down and reflect in your glory. There’s the kids, they want mum, they’re hungry and tired, they want to go home, to the park. I find this really hard; I’ve been battering myself on the trail for hours and the slam back down to earth is quite often crippling. Mothers not only have to get themselves fit for these races, but also face the recovery after; when you are totally broken and can hardly lift your legs let alone your child, it is totally brutal. The reality is it’s really, really, really hard and no mum should feel pressured to get back into racing or training until they feel ready, whatever Instagram or Twitter is telling you. You have to have the support structure around you to make it work. But you know what? I totally love it all.
Where are your favourite running trails in Morzine?
That would be telling! I am so lucky with where we live, literally out my door and I am on the trail, and I still haven’t run every trail! We’re much quieter here than Chamonix and I rarely see other runners high in the mountains, which I love. The local farmers all know me and often people stop me in town and ask if I’m the crazy runner they see with their dog miles away from anywhere!
What do your children think of your running?
Totally nonplussed! It’s just something I have always done. We do use it as an analogy if they are finding something hard or need to practice, and I say, ‘Think about how hard Mum has to work, how often she goes running or does her exercises?’ They love coming to the end of races, but not the hanging around, they love the medals but not me being away, they love telling their friends their mum can run further than their dads normally cycle, but really I’m just Mum and I wouldn’t have it any other way!
Do you think people treat ultra-running mums differently to ultra-running dads?
The comment that drives me and my husband mad is when people comment that my husband must be a saint; that he is so long suffering, that he must be so supportive to let me train and race. Even men I chat to during races have made comments that my husband must be really good with the kids or I owe him big time for being away for the weekend. Whoa! My husband and I are a team. There isn’t a ‘him’ or an ‘I’, we are a ‘we’. We both have children, we share the load, if one of us wants to do an adventure or race, or even take a nap, the other supports wholeheartedly.
There is no bad feeling, there is never a comment that either of us are taking more load. He understands what drives me and his only request is that if I take time out to run and train as much as I do, that I enjoy it. That whilst on the trail suffering, when I want to stop, that I think of the kids, of him, the schedule organisation we have to do to make it work, and I smile and get on with it!
Being an ultra-runner and mum of three yourself must help when it comes to designing training plans around the needs and family demands of other ultra-runners with kids?
Totally, I know lots of people, mums and dads, come to me because I understand the struggle is real! For mums, I understand the post-natal body and then the effort of dealing with training and a baby. For dads, they know I get family life, and that I can create schedules that give you just enough bang for your buck, but I also get the need for recovery and family time.
What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
In the winter I wouldn’t go or get out the door without my LA Sportiva Primaloft gilet. It is so warm but also light, has an insulated pocket for my phone and is close-fitting so keeps heat in, but still allows you to exercise freely. A real game-changer. In all seasons, the Julbo Aerolite Zebra sunglasses are just the best. They change according to the light, so you can go from dark to shade easily, are super-light and unbelievably comfortable.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
La Sportiva, Petzyl, Julbo and Lyon Outdoor.
What’s on the horizon for you in 2019?
South Downs Way 100 and hopefully CCC (Courmayeur Champex Chamonix).