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What I did with my winter vacation…

I have to admit, I wasn’t quite prepared for a new semester to start.  It didn’t help that instructors didn’t have readings available until the day of class so I couldn’t be a week ahead (my comfort zone).  What really had me not prepared was that I actually spent my break doing something for me.  No editing papers for submission, no posters. No credentialing tests to get done.  So I ran a marathon.

I use the term ran rather loosely, I walked about 25 miles of it.  I intended to take walk breaks so it wasn’t a huge disappointment.  I had intended to take a walk break every 8-9 minutes, so it was a little sad.  I had made a classic newbie blunder – I over-trained.  Not that I was trying to be really fast or beat some time.  I just figured I could do a little extra and it would be OK.

My legs are now receiving the rest they so desperately needed, and the experience was not so bad that I won’t go near another marathon. In fact I am planning to run again. So what did I learn from this experience (aside from the importance of not over-training as defined by your running ability?) I learned that the running a marathon metaphor I had been taught to use when explaining why women should prepare for birth is not quite as good as I had always imagined.

The metaphor for those who have never heard it:  A person couldn’t run a marathon without training. Childbirth is like running a marathon, you need to train to do it well. There are lots of variations of phrasing, but it basically boils down to:  you have to get your body in good shape and have lots of endurance to give birth.

Yes, I did have to build endurance. But that didn’t mean I needed to think about running all the time, and it didn’t mean I needed to practice running every day.  And honestly, there was no question about my ability to do a marathon. I had read the statistics on marathon finishers — it turns out that if you actually train you have a pretty low chance of not finishing.  That little piece of information surprised me, and kept me motivated.  Unlike childbirth, there were not things outside my control that could wreak havoc on my ability to finish.  I might fall, or crash into another runner — but really the chances of something happening that could prevent me from finishing was pretty small.

And really, the building endurance was only part of the training.  Seems there are people who are quite athletic, but don’t run long distances regularly, who are not able to finish a marathon when they first try because they assumed it was all about strength and endurance. These people end up vomiting, leaving the race due to blisters or chaffing, or overdo it in the beginning and just can’t make it to the end. I learned how often I needed to eat when running — too infrequent and I would be weak, too frequent and I would be nauseous. I learned which clothing causes chaffing, and which outfits keep my skin intact despite sweating in them for six hours. I learned my best strategy for hydration.  I learned which shoes do the best at protecting my feet on long runs. All these things I needed to be able to finish I could learn because I was really running during the practice. This doesn’t happen when women practice positions and comfort measures for labor.  A teacher might try to simulate pain with pinching or ice cubes, but until you are actually in labor (or running), you cannot be sure what does and does not work. This is probably one of the reasons women say they have an easier time with the second and subsequent labors – they know what to expect and what didn’t work.

I have been challenged to do a triathlon this summer.  While my legs rest from running I’ve been working on the swimming and cycling portions. I’ll let you know if this turns out to be a better metaphor for labor.

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Jennifer Vanderlaan CNM MPH is the author of the BirthingNaturally.net website. She has been working with expectant families since 2000, training doulas, childbirth educators, and midwives. She has worked with midwives in Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa. Her interest in public health grew in 2010, and she is now a PhD student learning to become a producer of knowledge.

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