We were two hours into NBC’s coverage of the Olympics when my 9 year old observed, “They spend more time trying to get your emotions up than they do showing sports!” Word. And normally, this over-the-top repackaging of sport as story annoys me to no end. But when they highlighted how mother and recent silver medalist Noel Pikus-Pace toggled between late night skeleton training and early morning toddler duty, I turned into a total sap. Ate. It. Up.
I particularly liked the exchange between Noel and her oldest, six year old Lacee, in the hours before her final two runs.
“You’ll remember this the rest of your life,” said the Olympian to her daughter, referring to the momentous event her little girl would witness that day.
“What’s for lunch?” replied the first grader.
In spite of having just two hours per day to train — complete with interruptions from poopy diapers and needy toddlers –Pikus-Pace went on to win a silver medal that day. What Lacee had for lunch remains undisclosed.
Their conversation struck a familiar chord, one you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to understand. In short — no matter how grand and exciting our goals and achievements might be, our children are mostly just wondering about chicken nuggets. Noel’s inspiring story got me thinking about the challenges we face as women in pursuing our personal goals in the midst of raising young kids and/or maintaining a career. Finding time to train and balancing it all with the needs of family in mind is so much easier said than done.
“I do think women can have it all,” Madeline Albright said, “but not all at the same time. Our life comes in segments, and we have to understand that we can have it all if we’re not trying to do it all at once.” Albright wasn’t the first to say it. My former boss and mentor shared similar words with me a decade earlier when I was up to my ears at work and expecting my first child. (And I’m pretty sure Oprah said it too. Yeah, come to think of it, that’s probably where Madeline heard it. )
I’d always thought about Albright’s statement in terms of juggling career and family, but I’m starting to realize it extends into many facets of our lives as women, including the pursuit of athletics and fitness. When your career demands 70+ hours a week, chances are low you’ll be simultaneously training for your first ultra. If you’ve chosen to “stay home” with a baby, toddler and preschooler, the odds of making it to the evening track workout every week (awake and without any spit-up on your tech tee) aren’t exactly in your favor. And if the “working mom” badge is the one you wear, it’s best we didn’t know how early you had to get up to log a double digit mid-week run. We’d be exhausted just hearing about it.
Athletic pursuits, particularly at the elite levels, require a level of focus that borders on self-centeredness. In order to be successful, the athlete has to ruthlessly protect her workouts, her rest, her diet, her body. On the other end of the spectrum, motherhood requires a significant amount of self-sacrifice, a setting aside of personal desires, goals and needs in order to meet those of the children. So how does the mother-athlete manage it all? What if her toddler gets sick two days before the Olympic trials? What if her child routinely wakes up at night, refusing anyone but mom, and all quality workouts are sabotaged by sleep deprivation? Or, as might be the case for us average Jo’s, the far-from-elite, what if we have to put off reaching our athletic potential in order to serve our families and/or hold down jobs? What if, as employees or business owners, as moms of toddlers or teenagers, as sub-3:00 or 5:00-plus marathoners, we can’t have it all … at once?
Two Septembers ago, my son and I signed up to run a Labor Day race. He was set to race a one-miler, hoping to take the gold in his last year in the 7-and-under category; and I was gunning for sub-22:00 5k and to place in my age group. When race day came, I neglected to warm up for the 5k because I was so preoccupied with watching him race. By the time he finished running and I finished squealing, doting and high-fiving, I barely had time to squeeze in a few strides before my own race began. While I wouldn’t have missed seeing him finish for all the PRs in Portland, I vowed never to book a back-to-back mother-son PR attempt again. It was just too tough to toggle between roles as crazy cheering mom and focused rock-solid runner. (For the record, he PRed, and I didn’t come close. But we did both place first in our age group!)
The fact is, pursuing PRs and training “seriously” (however we define it) takes a significant amount of time and commitment. It might mean saying no to more responsibility at work, no to staying out late with friends, no to a clean house (though I’d argue that’s an easy one to turn down), no to our significant others, even no to our kids. For example, my kids desperately wanted to come with me to the Carlsbad Marathon. They were clever enough to act as if they just wanted to come to cheer for me, but it was fairly obvious the possibility of Legoland registered a much stronger pull than the idea of holding a cheeky sign at the finish line. But I said no. I knew that if they came with me, I’d be distracted by what they needed, whether they were having fun, whether they had enough to eat. And in order to be successful, the hours leading up to the race had to be about what I needed.
But we don’t often have the luxury of saying no to other things in life (work, friends, family) in order to say yes to training. Five years ago when I had rambunctious toddlers, a consulting job, and an absentee husband (not a jerk–just a medical resident), there was no way I could have trained for a half marathon, much less a marathon. And to go away for an entire weekend all by myself? FORGET IT! If by some miraculous stroke of fortune, I did have that kind of time, you can bet I’d be sleeping for 24 hours straight, not chasing a BQ!
As Albright said, life comes in segments. And as I approach the end of my fourth decade, I’m thankful to have finally landed in a segment of life that allows time to pursue my crazy running hobby. I realize this is a privilege many don’t have, at least not now or not yet.
There are many of us still in the throes of building a career or a family or both, many who can barely string together three minutes to eat breakfast let alone three hours for a long run. And if that’s the case for you, I’ll just put my point in bold so you can read it really quick and get out of here. Your day will come. Sure, you might join the masters category before it comes, but it will come. Those “maybe someday” races you daydream about while listening on a conference call or pushing your daughter in the swing? They aren’t as far away they appear.
I believe we can have it all, though it’s unlikely we’ll have it all at the same time unless we take up sleep-running (quality REM cycle during a 7 mile tempo? Yes pleaase!). It can be discouraging when you feel stuck on the sidelines, impeded from fully pursuing your running goals because of life circumstances. And it may take much longer than we’d like to get to a point where we can devote ourselves more fully to our personal goals. But given a whole string of life segments to work with, I promise you, there will be no stopping us.
What life “segment” do you find yourself in? Do you struggle to find time to train like you want to? What do you think of women “having it all”?
Note: Anytime I write about our struggle as women to manage work and family, self care and personal goals, I’m reminded what a privilege it is to even be able to wrestle with these questions. Struggling to find time to train at the levels we want to train is obviously a first-world problem.