A few weeks ago, a few thousand people eagerly paid money to run roughly 105 miles through the Alps in France, Italy, and Switzerland, as fast as they could. This ritual, known as the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, is considered one of the toughest among ultramarathons, the term for any race over the marathon’s 26.2 miles.
One runner, Sophie Power, ran UTMB a mere three months after giving birth. Power was photographed at an aid station—periodic stops along the course where runners restock on food and water—breastfeeding her son, Cormac. Power sits in a chair while pumping with one hand and breastfeeding with the other. A male racer lies next to her, feet up on the wall. They’re about 48 miles into the race, not even halfway done, and they both look exhausted. In an online write-up of Power’s feat, Runner’s World magazine noted that Power pumped by hand during the first 16 hours of the race and that that aid station was the first chance she’d had to breastfeed.
But because nothing these days can happen without controversy, Runner’s World tweeted a link to the story on Wednesday with a poll about what readers thought of breastfeeding while running, with two options: “gross, a little selfish” and “It’s her business”—responses drawn from comments on its article. The poll, which has since been deleted, was for a story published the next day, but readers were not pleased. It was dumb of Runner’s World to hold a referendum—on Twitter, a platform celebrated for its civility and reason—on breastfeeding, but the “gross” framing only serves to hint that women have reason to doubt their welcome into the running community.
Power is a badass, and what she did is far more impressive than winning the race. Training for a 100-mile race requires months of preparation and hours upon hours of cardio and strength training each week. Power tweeted that she trained throughout her pregnancy. (She notes to People magazine that women often falsely assume—or are told—that exercising during pregnancy isn’t a good idea and says we need to talk more about staying active during those 40 weeks.) The fact that she got to the start line and finished—31 percent of this year’s field did not—three months after having a child, is an accomplishment as grand as the mountains she traversed.
Even though women make up the majority of road-race finishers in the U.S., ultrarunning remains heavily male (it may be the only place where women’s bathroom lines are shorter than men’s). I’ve spent the past several years running, crewing, and volunteering at ultras, and at finish lines, I see plenty of moms and children meeting their runner-dads but few dads and kids meeting runner-moms. This makes sense: Training for ultras is time-consuming, and women’s free time is already stretched pretty thin. Subtle policies, such as an unequal number of finisher awards for men and women, remind women that running’s still a men’s game. UTMB has a notoriously difficult entry process, and the race has been criticized for allowing people who get injured to defer their entry to the next year but not women who get pregnant. Power told Fox News that she had won a spot in UTMB in 2014 but couldn’t run because she was pregnant. This, especially when paired with the photo of Power crossing the finish line with her kids—makes her finish even more inspirational.
But what bothers me most about the Runner’s World poll is that most ultrarunners probably wouldn’t care about breastfeeding during a race. Runners can be pretty funky, but ultrarunners are a special breed. When you ask your body to climb up and down mountains for dozens of miles without sleep for a day or more, it’s going to do some bizarre things, and you develop a camaraderie around this with other runners. Anyone who’s hung out in an aid station will tell you the line between ultrarunner and toddler is very thin: body fluids, tantrums over food, tantrums over clothes, tantrums over nothing, falling down, stripping naked, food remnants and wrappers everywhere, crying, you name it. There’s very little that will send most ultrarunners to their fainting couches. I suspect most runners and crew, focused on getting what they needed and getting back on the trail, barely noticed Power and her son.
Earlier this week, Power posted on Instagram that the photo isn’t about her—“It’s a story about the daily struggle of being a new Mum. A story about the need to nurture our babies the best we can. And the importance to prioritise our physical and mental health - to be ourselves as well as be a mother.” Runner’s World was wrong to amplify the words of anonymous internet commenters who suggested Power’s action was “gross,” but I’m heartened by both the existence of women like Power and the pushback the poll received. In ultrarunning and in the push for gender parity, all we can do is keep marching toward the finish.