Multisport moms 'tri' to find balance

Karen Smyers  Credit: A. Haselfeld/
Tara Clark knew breast-feeding in the front seat of her car wasnt exactly an ideal warm-up for a triathlon, but some things just cant be helped.

Her month-old daughter, Danielle, was announcing her hunger, and she was in no mood to wait. But the first-time mother (who was quickly learning the motherhood/triathlete combination presents its own peculiar challenges), managed to effectively change gears.

Not only did she feed Danielle and then finish the triathlon (a mere four weeks after giving birth), but she was the overall female winner.

I had people telling me it was too soon (to race) and I should think of the baby, but I also had people telling me it was great, says Clark, a top Midwest amateur who qualified for the 1999 Ironman Triathlon World Championship at the race.

"People said, 'Your life will change when you have a baby and you wont be doing triathlons. I just thought, 'Wrong.'"

While the 32-year-old never doubted she would return to the sport she loves, other women who grapple with the issues of pregnancy, training and competing arent so sure.

In a sport that rewards intense workouts, sleep and selfish amounts of training time, balancing motherhood, triathlon and the rest of life can be a struggle.

It's a very hard moral dilemma, says longtime pro triathlete Julie Nievergelt, who has two children and conceived her first child, Hailey, the night before the 1992 Ironman World Championship, where she finished tenth.

Triathlon is a very time-consuming, self-absorbed sport, the 39-year-old said. Its difficult to give your children your undivided attention. Being a pro triathlete and having kids is nearly impossible.

Getting a jump start
The encouraging news for new triathlete mothers, amateurs and pros alike, is that women are plunging back into exercise routines faster than ever, generally with the support of their doctors.

Lying flat for 14 days after giving birth, as one midwifery textbook from the early 1900s instructs, is truly incomprehensible for most people these days, especially training zealots like triathletes.

As a result, babies are getting toted to races and pushed in running strollers at early ages.

When people leave the hospital now, they ask how quickly they can return to exercise, rather than when they can have sex, says Dr. Lauren Streicher, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Chicagos Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

But its also important for people to have permission not to exercise. If you were fit before, youll be fit after. It doesnt matter if you wait two weeks or two months. Motherhood is a perfect excuse to give your body and mind a break from a demanding sport, all the while making women expert time managers.

It invariably eliminates junk miles. Mothers report being more focused, balanced, organized and mentally tough. In fact, some women are just as strong, if not stronger, competitors after having kids.

In 1993, two-time Ironman champion Erin Baker started training for Ironman Hawaii about six weeks after giving birth, and finished second in 9:08:04 behind Paula Newby-Fraser.

And 1995 Ironman Hawaii champ Karen Smyers says she thinks the demands of an Ironman pale in comparison to what she went through in the earliest stages of motherhood: 48 hours of contractions that ended in a Cesarean section.

You cant just have another gel and feel better, Smyers says. This pain is a lot more out of your control than Ironman pain.

Smyers wasnt kidding. After a two-year Ironman hiatus dictated by pregnancy and injury, she returned to Hawaii at age 38 this year and delivered a second-place finish.

Still, many women panic at the thought of losing their shape and cutting back on regular workouts, however temporarily.

Nievergelt said she grew concerned when, in the hospital, an elderly couple wished her luck on her impending delivery after she had already given birth.

That was the only time I ever panicked about my body, she says. The first week after you deliver, your stomach still looks huge. But six weeks later I ran my first little road race and felt like I had things under control.

Some women try to schedule the baby during the off-season or during an injury, though most say scheduling is futile.

Smyers and her husband Michael King decided maternity leave might be in order when she was sidelined for six months with a severed hamstring.

Smyers said one of her role models was Nievergelt, who was racing better than ever after she had children.

Its not easy, and I have certainly heard Julie complain enough times about how hard it is to balance, but you can pretty much make anything work if you want, Smyers says.

Im lucky because my husband is home and can take care of our daughter (Jenna) while Im training," she says. "If you dont have that, you have to think of the financial ramifications. I know a lot of age groupers are up at 4:30 a.m. trying to get it all in.

Next: Finding the time to train

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