Ultrarunner Sophie Power made headlines in 2018 when a photo of her breastfeeding her then 3-month-old son during the 106-mile Ultra-Trail Du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) went viral. Undoubtedly, you’ll have seen the iconic image (below), but you may not know that Sophie had previously lost a place at the 2014 UTMB when pregnant with her first child due to UTMB’s policy on race referral.
Not wanting to lose another opportunity to run UTMB, Sophie (whose race finishes include the Marathon des Sables and the 153-mile Spartathlon) toed the line at the 2018 race – three months after giving birth to baby Cormac and whilst breastfeeding. Since then, she has campaigned for races to allow women to defer their places until they have recovered from pregnancy and childbirth.
Now a mum of three, Sophie continues to share honest accounts of her own experiences of postnatal life, including the challenges that women often face when returning to running after childbirth. Many of these are included in the short film Pregnancy to Performance, made with HOKA, which documents her postpartum return to running following the birth of her daughter, Saoirse, last November.
In this Q&A, we chat about the story behind that UTMB photo, how Sophie fits training into a busy life alongside work, campaigning and three kids, and her mental strategies for approaching tough times in races.
The much-shared photo of you breastfeeding at UTMB in 2018 was inspiring for a lot of people. What was your UTMB experience like, and what additional challenges did running it so soon after giving birth present?
I was only three months postpartum, and I was breastfeeding, so my entire race plan was based around being as gentle as possible on my body and ensuring my milk supply didn’t fall. For my body, that meant running gently on the flats and using poles to support myself down the hills, as I knew I couldn’t handle much impact on my pelvis. It was very frustrating as I love to run a good downhill, but I might have been the only runner not to trash their quads.
The milk was more complicated – nutrition-wise, I needed to ensure I was eating enough for both of us when it’s hard enough to eat for one in such a long race. I took much longer at checkpoints taking in calories, with a mental check if I’d had enough every hour. Getting the milk out was the real nightmare – the first time I could get to Cormac was at halfway in Courmayeur, which was 16 hours in for me. He usually fed every few hours, so I was trying to hand-express through the night on the course and was in so much pain with full breasts by the time I got to him. After that, my husband met me with pumps several times and got the milk back to him.
Ever since then, I’ve never been phased by a logistics plan in a race as nothing will ever come close to UTMB!
In 2018, most ultras didn’t offer pregnancy and postpartum race deferrals. You’ve since campaigned for policy changes, most recently for the London Marathon. How has this been received so far?
I’ve had an incredible response from women sharing their stories with me and supporting me in my campaign. I didn’t want to be on that UTMB start line 3 months postpartum; I wanted to be on it a year later, fully recovered, but with having lost my place four years prior with my first pregnancy, I didn’t want to lose another.
Now I want to make sure other women don’t have to go through the same thing. The London Marathon finally agreed to allow pregnant and postpartum women with Good for Age or Championship places to defer entry, which means so many women will have the opportunity they have fought for. Now it’s time to ensure this policy is standard for all races – giving equal opportunity to men and women to be on the start line.
In July, you finished the Lakeland 100 (105-mile, 7000m vert) seven months after the birth of your third child. How different was your build back to racing this time around and after your minor prolapse?
Third time around, I did things the right way! I didn’t really know what I was doing with my first two pregnancies or recoveries. I’d had pelvic floor issues, but they had resolved in time. But this time, I worked with an amazing physio, Emma Brockwell, throughout my pregnancy and after, so she was able to identify my prolapse – which is something most mothers of 2+ babies have but don’t know about. She is part of the team that wrote the return to running postpartum guidelines, so she very much treated me as an athlete and got me fitted for a pessary for support while I healed.
Mountain races are a great choice postpartum as the vert means there’s lots of hiking, and the ground is usually much softer than hard trail. During training, I limited impact by doing most workouts on a treadmill, running or hiking at an incline. My school run is also pretty hilly, so just carrying Saoirse on it was a good workout! During the race, I had to be careful again on impact. I also found I was a bit less stable than usual, so I hiked a lot of the more technical terrain I would usually run.
Watching the film you made with HOKA about returning to running after Saoirse’s birth, it seemed like you had to be very patient and exercise restraint despite feeling good – not easy for an ultrarunner?!
It was so hard! All I wanted to do was grab a pack and take off running in the hills for a few hours. So I kept a diary (on my website) detailing how I felt each week – what I could and couldn’t do – which helped me see how much I was progressing. I then focused on what I could do and found low-impact alternatives. My spin class is pretty hardcore, and my coach Edwina Sutton set brutal treadmill incline hiking workouts, so I felt I was regaining fitness. And for the headspace and nature I craved, I took Saoirse for long hikes in the forest by our house during her naptime.
A lot of your races are non-stop ultras. Clearly, you’re well versed in sleep deprivation, but is it true that you actually enjoy the hallucinations that come with it during longer races?
Haha! Yes, I usually do – except the ones where I think I see the aid station and then it disappears. I’m not a very creative person usually, but when I hallucinate, I see these beautiful patterns on the trail, with different shapes becoming animals. It can be a little frightening, though, like during Spartathon (which is a road race with traffic) when I saw lorries that weren’t there!
You’ve finished some of the most challenging races on the planet. Mentally, how do you approach them?
I always remind myself why I’m there and how I’ve pulled through before so I can do it again. In UTMB, my then 3-year-old had been watching the other races finish with kids running with their parents over the line. He said to me before the race, “Mum, that’s going to be us!” He was so excited; I just couldn’t let him down, and it kept me driving towards the finish line. In Lakeland 100, I found myself thinking of my daughter and how I want to be a role model for her. And if all else fails, I put on my emergency playlist of cheesy motivational music and eat some fizzy Haribo.
I don’t race other people – it’s fun to do well, but it doesn’t drive me (unless there’s a guy in front that clearly doesn’t want to get chicked). I think this takes a lot of the pressure off – it’s hard enough thinking about yourself in long races; worrying about what others are doing is wasted effort. I can make the best decisions this way – like opting to have a 20-minute powernap on the trail at Lakeland, as I wasn’t feeling mentally fresh enough.
Training-wise, you’re not a big volume runner, clocking around 40 miles a week, is that right?
Forty miles is actually a pretty big week for me historically, though I’ve been hitting that in this marathon block. I’ll do 4-5 runs with a long one, then a mix of Parkrun (5km trail race), hills, intervals, and easy runs (often with the buggy). When I ran Spartathlon, I only averaged 37 miles a week for the six months prior – I was juggling motherhood with being CEO of a tech company! I used to do a couple of heavy weights sessions a week around my running, which I think gave me the strength to tackle the longer distances.
What does a typical week of training look like for you now? And how do you fit it all in with two young children and a baby?
I’m pretty creative! I’m on my feet a lot of the day, and as a family, we walk everywhere unless it’s more than an hour (my 3-year-old is pretty fit). I think that helps with the endurance side of ultras. I fit in bits and pieces of strength/rehab work where I can, like in the playground, while Saoirse is napping or after they’re all in bed. The boys like to join in with planks and being a weight on my back for squats and lunges.
Running-wise, I don’t want to take time away from the family, so midweek, I’ll run straight after I drop them off before I start work (my youngest does three days at nursery now), and I do an evening spin session one night once she’s in bed. My eldest has a 3-hour sports class on a Saturday morning, so that’s the long run slot – no matter what the weather. My husband has signed up for an Ironman next year, so we’ll have to be even more creative when his training ramps up. Hopefully, Saoirse starts sleeping through, and I have the energy for an early morning session some mornings.
I try hard not to compare myself against others who don’t have young kids. I don’t have time to run more miles, and whilst I know it would probably make me a stronger athlete, spending that time with my family is more important to me. Running isn’t my job, it’s what I do for me, so it can’t become something stressful.
My goal, for now, is to remain fit and healthy so when the kids are older, I can still take on some really epic challenges.
Have you got any race plans for the remainder of this year and next?
I finished my first ever road marathon yesterday (London) and was just thinking about this, this morning. It’s the first time in years I feel able to plan properly – I’m definitely not having another baby, so I don’t feel the need to rush to get in an epic adventure before I try to get pregnant again.
I jumped straight into ultras 11 years ago, having never run more than a mile (Sophie signed up for the Marathon des Sables without any running experience!). I’ve never run shorter, faster events and built up that base speed, so I think that’s the plan for the next year and see how it works for some shorter ultras – especially whilst Saoirse is so young and leaving my hubby with all three takes some convincing! I also want to focus on being as strong as I can, as I’m still healing postpartum – so I might need to actually do the Pilates sessions my coach has set.
Longer-term, I have unfinished business with 24-hour track races (I had to pull out after 100 miles last time with an ankle injury), so I’ll probably work towards one of those in a year. I don’t think I’ll do something epic next year like Tor des Geants which will likely put me out for months, as the Summer Spine did, but I’m really tempted by Lavaredo, which is so incredibly beautiful.
What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training, and who are you sponsored by?
I love my EVB sport shorts which support the pelvic floor and really helped me get back into running after all of my pregnancies. I’m supported for outdoor kit by Arc’Teryx – I’m always at risk of hypothermia and their waterproofs are incredible. Hoka sponsored the film that I made, which you can find on their YouTube channel (watch it below).
I am also a Trustee of Women in Sport and ambassador for the Active Pregnancy Foundation and Trees not Tees.