Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Muireann Maguire, Cambridge, UK
Every breastfeeding story is a journey… Here are 26.2 miles of mine!
I started running marathons just before turning 30. When I became pregnant two years later I was training for my fifth. I run to challenge myself rather than for charity or for speed, so I tend to choose obscure off-road races rather than high-profile city marathons.
Training went on hold while I was pregnant; I stopped running completely in the fifth month (it just didn’t feel comfortable any more), but I continued exercising gently on a cross-trainer until my 38th week. Hector, my unborn son, seemed to enjoy our workouts; I often felt as if he were cross-training inside me while I pedaled away.
In August 2012, four months shy of my due date, an unexpected email dropped into my inbox. I’d won a ballot place in the 2013 London Marathon on April 21. This meant I only had to pay a risibly small fee to secure my entry to one of the world’s legendary races. Normally, because the marathon is oversubscribed, non-élite runners have to buy expensive places to take part; I was one of the randomly selected lucky few.
The only snag was that my son was due in December.
I immediately Googled “marathon five months after giving birth,” but I found almost no useful information. Paula Radcliffe famously returned to élite running after having two children, but she was far out of my league. Normal female runners like me were lucky if they could run a half-marathon six months after childbirth.
Overtraining could cause serious problems, like prolapsed organs and adhesions. Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist: I paid for my place in the marathon, telling myself I could defer to 2014 if I wasn’t fit to run. It was a crazy idea, after all—wasn’t it?
I vaguely assumed that breastfeeding would happen naturally. (How wrong I was: booby trap number one!) Although I worried that because my breasts stayed the same A-cup they’d always been, breastfeeding might not happen for me.
Hector started arriving a few days before his due date, and the first warning sign was that he stopped cross-training inside me. He’d been an extremely active baby, but after two days of contractions his movements grew feebler. I was kept in hospital overnight; the next day, the doctors decided to induce me. Then they discovered he was positioned wrongly and rushed me off for an emergency Cesarean section.
The birth of one’s child should be a beautiful moment: for my partner Colin and myself, it marked the start of the most emotionally exhausting week of our lives. Hector wasn’t breathing when he entered the world, and the team couldn’t resuscitate him. After almost ten agonizingly silent minutes, a pediatrician managed to clear his airway; we heard our son’s first cry. I touched Hector briefly before he was whisked off to an incubator in the neonatal intensive care unit (the NICU). Hector was under observation in the NICU for six days. It was the start of a bewildering transition to motherhood.
Instead of skin to skin with my newborn, I had a midwife teaching me how to hand-express colostrum with the help of a woolen breast knitted by her mother-in-law! Instead of waking to feed my child, an alarm woke me three times nightly to grapple with absurdly large hospital pumps. When I did put Hector to my breast, he cried instead of latching. As no milk had appeared by the fourth day, the nurses recommended starting Hector on formula. In retrospect, I wish we’d waited a little longer, but we were determined to do everything we could to bring our boy home. On the fifth day my milk came in, and the next day Hector came home. He still couldn’t latch, possibly because of his tongue-tie, but I kept trying, with encouragement and hands-on help.
Meanwhile, Hector thrived on a mixture of expressed milk and formula. Week by week there was progress: he’d latch on with a nipple shield; we learned to feed with the nipple shield in public; he started latching without the shield (and was touchingly enthusiastic about it). When he was six weeks old, I started a feeding diary to plot the quantities of formula he was receiving against the number of breastfeeds per day.
My local LLL Leader was hugely supportive with phone calls and suggestions, and in Hector’s seventh week we made the leap to breastfeeding exclusively. We never looked back. While all this was happening, I never let go of my dream. Ever since I’d learned I had a place in the marathon, I’d imagined hanging my finisher’s medal around the neck of a smiling baby.
Before leaving hospital, I asked the surgeon who’d operated on me when I could run again; she recommended waiting six weeks.
As I only had a short time to train, I started—very cautiously—after four weeks. I ran tiny distances—two miles or less—at an absurdly slow pace: 13-minute miles. Any faster and my stitches creaked. As the months passed, I worked up to regular seven and ten-mile runs, with the odd half-marathon.
Finally, a month before London, I ran 18 miles. I was exhausted, and my breasts were very full afterward, but I now knew I was strong enough for the marathon. I also decided then to use my non-charity place, ironically enough, to raise money for charity—for the NICU in which doctors and nurses had saved Hector’s life.
Because my training runs lasted over two hours, I had to start pumping again so that Colin could feed Hector while I was away. I also built up a stash for race day, when Colin and Hector would be on the loose in London for six hours or more. Incidentally, booby trap number two, it’s not true that lactic acid from exercise will build up in your milk and make it sour!
When the big day came, I almost started late because I peeled off my sports bra to give Hector one last feed. The London crowds are famously enthusiastic, and the other runners added color and verve—although I eventually tired of playing tag with Mary Poppins and Scooby Doo. I started hurting at mile 17, but I hung in there behind a runner dressed as a Pink Lady apple. Those final steps along the mall were painful, but for the last 300 yards I put on a spurt and left my fruity friend behind, finishing in four hours 38 minutes.
I cried as a marshal slipped my medal around my neck. Hector and Colin were waiting among the throngs on Horse Guards’ Parade. My 26.2 mile journey was over. I’d raised over £1000 for Cambridge’s Rosie Hospital, and I’d proved to myself that I could overcome breastfeeding problems AND fulfill my dreams. But one part of my dream never came true. Full up on expressed milk, Hector couldn’t care less when his pink, sweaty mother slipped that hard-won medal over his head; he was fast asleep!
With deep gratitude to everyone who helped and supported me: the Cambridge LLL Group (especially Justine), my health visitor Jan, the Chesterton Breastfeeding Support Group and, most of all, Colin!