As it stands, I am just over six months out from the birth of my first kiddo, Penelope. Experiencing pregnancy, birth and postpartum as an athlete has been a roller coaster – here are some reflections, Nikki La Rochelle
From what I can gather from friends and avid-blog reading, I had a pretty good pregnancy. The first trimester was easily the worst part of my pregnancy experience. I felt incredibly weak and fatigued. I had no appetite and felt nauseous most the time. I couldn’t really manage much exercise – I went from being in the best shape of my life to someone who could barely tolerate a 30-minute run. This was a blow – primarily to my ego. I couldn’t decipher if the complete lack of energy was real, or if I was just being a giant pansy. Looking back, I’m certain the lethargy was in fact quite real. I find that it’s much easier to be graceful with ourselves in retrospect.
My second trimester was good – my energy returned and I was running quite a bit, albeit slow. The pee breaks were as frequent as they were obnoxious. With my reinstated zest for sporting, I decided to sign up for a marathon that I would complete when I was 24 weeks pregnant. Oh, and I thought I should do one with 6,000 feet of climbing and descending with the race topping out at an elevation of 13,200. I felt decently prepared for the effort – I logged a handful of long runs and was out running or cycling almost every day prior, getting the miles and vertical in. Once race day came, I felt great until about mile 20 when my SI joint went to hell – like tears of pain streaming down my face while running a 15-minute-mile downhill, praying to see the finish line. This was terrible. Note to self – do not run a marathon with 6,000 feet of vertical when you’re pregnant. This SI joint pain was one of the most painful injuries I’ve ever experienced. During the weeks following the marathon, I couldn’t take one step without pain. This lasted about 8 weeks until it finally subsided. Back pain is legitimate, people – if you know someone with back pain, buy them a hamburger or give them a greeting card or something.
The rest of my pregnancy was manageable – once I hit about 34 weeks, things in general felt harder. I was slow and big and itchy. But I did what I could exercise-wise, because that’s all I could do, right? Right. I ended up doing a lot of steep uphill hiking. I frequently hiked up Peak 8, a mountain (part of the Breckenridge Ski Area) about five minutes away from my house. I woke up the morning I was going to get induced (one week before my due date – this is a whole other story) and decided to climb up Peak 8 one last time as a sort of homage to my pregnancy. I got to the top and started to descend when I felt a pain on the outside of my left knee. Hmm I thought. That feels like my IT Band. I know this pain well because in 2014 I experienced the same pain in my right knee – IT Band tendonitis. It got bad enough on the right knee I had to have surgery to fix it. The whole way down Peak 8 I felt the pain and was terrified it was the same thing I had in 2014. I got down the mountain and went to the hospital that night to get induced, not thinking much of my knee again.
My birth experience was – well, incredible. Hearing birth stories from others and reading about the process, I couldn’t help but meditate almost solely on the pain aspect. Like, this is going to f*#!ing hurt and I’m really scared. But after a tricky labor process and almost having a c-section, I ended up having a vaginal delivery and a healthy baby. I could go on and on about how birth is. I felt so loved and taken care of by my doctor and the nurses assisting. And a human being comes out of your body! And starts its own life! WHAT!? Is there anything more powerful than that? It still blows my mind. I know not every woman has an encouraging birth experience, but I can only speak for myself and mine was a process and moment in time I will cherish the rest of my life.
A major part of my postpartum experience was reconciling my own experience and my own feelings with what everyone else told me my life would be like. If I’m honest, I don’t think having a very new baby is as hard as people told me it would be. That isn’t to discredit anyone else’s experience – but hey, if you’re pregnant and you’re reading this – just give yourself the space to know that you may actually feel better or happier or less burdened than someone might tell you you’ll feel. I felt pretty happy – sleep deprived (though not as bad as I anticipated) but completely captivated with the new little critter in our home. Penny slept most all the time. And let’s be honest – newborns are just little blobs that need to eat and sleep. Cute blobs, but blobs nonetheless.
From an exercise standpoint, I was eager to get back at it. I wanted to do intervals and get my heart rate up and I planned this glorious return to racing. Five days after giving birth I went on a walk. I walked on our local trail system, happy to be outside listening to cheesy folk music on my iPod. When - three miles in- my left knee hurt. I had completely forgotten about my Peak 8 pain the day I got induced. Long story short, I had severe IT Band tendonitis on my left knee, exactly how I had it on my right knee the year prior. After two months of swimming and rest and cortisone and physical therapy and acupuncture and doctor’s visits and an MRI, I had surgery on my left IT Band on December 2nd, two months after I gave birth.
Now I was recovering from birth and knee surgery. I was very excited to return to ski mountaineering racing, but that was on the backburner. I had to rest, then rehab and then get my ass back into shape. It felt daunting. I felt depressed. Some days I would wake up and think about what I could do – well, I can’t really walk, but I can do pull ups! So I’d do pull ups. Other days I felt like, “what’s the point?” so I wouldn’t do anything. Those days were not good days.
But! Slowly, over time, I recovered. I could double pole on my Nordic skis. Then I could do some cycling. Then I could start skinning and skate skiing. It wasn’t glamorous but I started to get back into shape. I did my PT exercises relentlessly and I iced..well…I was pretty bad about icing but I did it when I thought of it. Once I was able, I jumped right back into racing – I was slow. But what was I expecting? Being in top shape takes work. And I was just behind on putting the work in. Weeks turned into months and I started to feel more like myself again.
The silver lining to this story was participating in the Grand Traverse on March 26th. The Traverse is an iconic 40-mile ski touring race that you do with a partner, departing from Crested Butte, CO at midnight. My partner Eva Hagen and I placed second for women, and eighth overall in a field of 450 racers. If you would have asked me if I could have gotten second in the Grand Traverse the day I got knee surgery, I would have said the likelihood of that happening is zero percent.
Now it’s May and I’m looking forward to the summer – specifically trail running, mountain climbing and mountain biking. I have a few running projects in the works that I’m excited about. But it’s not like everything is back to normal. One thing is that my boobs are giant because I’m nursing. I am not a fan of this – simply from a logistical standpoint, big boobs are not ideal for sporting. Another issue is my body still needs a lot of work – there are a lot of imbalances strength wise that I’m constantly tending to through tedious, horrible PT exercises. Lastly, I have to be smart getting back into running – not to overdo it and to be methodical with increasing mileage and intensity.
In conclusion to everything I just said:
Be gracious with yourself. Negative self talk doesn’t do anyone any good so stop beating yourself up. If you’re pregnant, if you just gave birth, if you’re a dude. Whatever you are. Just be nice, alright?!
Pregnancy and birth is legit. Give yourself time. Give yourself time to get your body back. To get back to sporting. To get back to feeling like yourself. Hormones are real things that will make you cry at the first beat of a Sarah McLachlan song.
A post-birth bod is different than a pre-birth bod. You have to be more gentle with the post-birth bod – at least initially.
Be good to yourself – eat well. Sleep when you can. If not at night than take a nap - napping is a gift from God. Oh and back to eating well – you should probably eat a Kate’s Bar.