I've often pondered how marathon running was brilliant preparation for childbirth. The similarities have always struck me as uncanny.
Let's look at the first stage of running a marathon: the training. The training plan I usually turn to is a 16-week process which includes four or five runs a week. This is intense from the get-go and requires significant amounts of motivation to stick to it. It reaps rewards - the body tones up, the endorphins are flowing, the confidence grows, the focus settles in - but it can be gruelling at times and sacrifices have to be made.
It's the same with pregnancy. Regardless of whether you are one of the lucky ones to escape first trimester sickness or whether your new best friend is your toilet bowl, little luxuries have to be forgone. No booze, cheese, sushi, cured meats, uncooked eggs, the list goes on; giving up a sport that you enjoyed, the body you once knew. Many mums-to-be find themselves waving goodbye to their social lives too due to the sheer exhaustion of the early (and later) stages of pregnancy. Sometimes you're just too damn tired to put one foot in front of the other at the end of a working day (I remember some time towards the end of the first trimester walking home from work one day, struggling so badly to keep my eyelids open then just giving up and walking home during the first stages of sleep, instinct getting me through my front door, crawling up the stairs, getting half way up and stopping for a couple of minutes of shut eye before dragging myself into bed and falling straight to sleep for the night. I have never known tiredness like it. Not even the accumulated sleep deprivation from a newborn quite compares to it).
As the pregnancy progresses, so do the sacrifices - third trimester pregnancy often brings with it a newfound difficulty getting to sleep because of the growing bump and other physical limitations that may previously have been taken for granted - shaving legs/painting toenails are some trivial examples! Like marathon training, though, the effort ultimately reaps the rewards but it can be a long slog, which often requires gritted teeth and a quiet determination to push through.
And then there is the race/birth itself. The long wait to race day/due date. The nervous anticipation. The self-doubt creeps in and you question whether you've done enough to prepare yourself. You go through your mental checklist of what you've remembered to pack for the big day. You know you're sorted but you can't help but question your readiness. You give yourself a pep-talk. You've got this.
When the big day arrives, you start off easy, finding your stride as you get to grips with the pace. A few hours in, the twinges start to hurt and you might lean on the support of others to give you some words of encouragement. Fuel is important. Hydration is important. These are things that people told you to prepare for and now you are in the moment, you are glad that you listened to them. It's exhausting work. You're sweating, your body is under pressure. The time passes and you're still working hard. It's not getting any easier. In fact, it's getting more intense. You start to question whether you can reach the finish line. You want to give up. You might get cross and release some of the anger by shouting at your loved ones for being part of the process that got you in this situation in the first place. You might hit the wall and take whatever you're given to make it easier.
Or you might find it within yourself to change your mental perspective. Change the focus, clear your head and find the zone. Tune into your body and listen to it. Bring it back to basics. Grit your teeth, know that your body was made to do this, get your head down and get through it. Visualise the finish line with your medal round your neck/baby in your arms. You've got this. Zone everything else out. You are making noises you didn't know could come from a human being. You are doing what you need to do to get through this process. One foot in front of the other/one deep breath after another. You're getting closer to the end. You can feel it. Your body can feel it. You feel a new resolve that you're going to do it. The finish line is in sight. One last push and... you've done it! The medal around your neck/the baby in your arms - it was worth every single second of what you've just been through. Your body is tired. It has worked hard. It has a lot of repair work to do and it needs to rest and recover.
In the aftermath, you tell people that you never want to go through that again. That's the last one and this time you mean it! Then days/weeks/months afterwards, you think back to your achievement and the memory of the toughest parts start to fade replaced by the much stronger, rose tinted memories of the best bits. You start to think the dangerous but exciting thoughts: 'it wasn't so difficult really. Next time, I might do it like this/that/the other'. Before you know it, you've signed up to another one...
Having been through this process with marathon running and baby making and if it's any consolation for first timers, I can vouch for the fact that both are much easier the second time around!