Kirstin Bull, Mizuno Ambassador, Running Coach and Ultra Runner
Starting a family can be a life goal for many people. I learnt that it can be easy for some, much more challenging for others. Similar to running and racing really. It is here that I will share with you my experience of racing, mindset, getting pregnant and staying fit whilst pregnant.
Firstly, I’ll start by giving you a little background about myself. In 2016, in Los Alcazares, a beachside town on the east coast of Spain, I represented Australia at the World 100km Road Championships. It was there that I ran the race of a lifetime, winning gold and being crowned the World 100km Champion. I was ecstatic to break my previous Australian Record in a new time of 7:34:25 (averaging 4:33km per km). I was on top of the world for so long after that event. Not just because I had won, but because I had proven to myself that anything is possible if you really put your mind to it.
My dedication and passion for running, the desire to challenge myself and the amazing support from my coach, partner, family and friends all led me to succeed. I had raced the 100km distance twice in the previous two years, but I knew I still had more in me. How much faster could I really run I wondered? This question led me to spend even more time working on my mental strength. Whether I was out training or having quiet time at home, I would think about my goal. I repeatedly told myself I could run 4:30min/km pace for 100km. At the time I didn't even realise how powerful this mental training was. I was what is often referred to as an unconscious competent. Unknowingly, I was training my subconscious mind. I'd taught myself to believe I could run a certain pace, putting aside all doubt. Come race day I drew on this mental training and came within seconds (per km) of achieving this. I learnt a very valuable lesson that year. Training my mind to believe was just as important as training my body.
I have since used this tactic in other areas of my life. But before I elaborate further, I want to take you to the 80km mark of the race. There I was, in the lead, with 20km to go. A fierce competitor (Crotian, Nikolina Sustic) was closing the gap. My legs had been screaming at me in pain for some time. The little voice in my head that was telling me to stop was getting louder. The mental techniques I had been using throughout the race were starting to dwindle. I could have believed that I was done. Instead I made a conscious choice to stay in control and not panic. This was easier said than done. As the pain became even more intense I found myself negotiating a deal. It was simple, I decided I would never have to run another step again if I didn’t want to. I continued to repeat this statement over and over in my head. This gave me some relief. I forged on. I was determined not to stop as I was on track for a personal best and my biggest achievement to date, winning a world championship. The last ten kilometres seemed like an eternity. Finally, I rounded the last bend of the course, so happy to see all my Australian teammates cheering loudly for me. It was in that moment that I smiled and felt a huge sense of relief and elation. I crossed the finish line in first place with a new personal best and new Australian record. I was so excited to embrace my coach Tim Crosbie, best friend Ben and close friends (Bron, Simon and Carlotta) who had all provided so much support for me on course. Not to mention, the rest of the Australian team, support crew and of course my partner, family, friends and training buddies back home in Melbourne. Many of them later told me they’d stayed awake half the night following the race online.
Three and a half years later as I write this, I still smile and laugh at the irrational thoughts and the deal I made during that race. How could I never run again? Running is such a big part of my life, as it may be yours. It makes me so happy. Yet as a runner, I believe I share qualities that many of you may resonate with. Where passion and dedication take hold of us in ways we may not even realise at the time.
Going a few days without a run could be very challenging for many, I know it was for me. Little did I know back in 2016, that in the years to follow I would have to put running on the shelf to achieve my new goal of starting a family. Three years of doctor visits, IVF rounds and failed cycles tested my courage and resilience. It was harder than I had imagined. Not to mention, the stopping and starting of quality sessions, long runs and strength sessions. I felt torn as I could see my fitness dwindling away. By the third year of fertility treatment I came to the realisation that some things in my life had to change. Despite being repeatedly told that I could run whilst trying to get pregnant (as long as I didn't over exert myself), I chose to stop running altogether. In its place, I took up walking, riding my bike and body weight gym sessions. This kept me sane and feeling good. I also changed a number of other things in my life.
A few months later I found out I was pregnant with twins. This news brought me joy and trepidation. I was scared as I didn't want to lose another pregnancy. This fear created mixed feelings about exercise. I wanted to wrap myself up in cotton wool. Yet, I knew that exercise was essential for my mental health, reducing the anxiety and fear and ensuring the release of much loved endorphins.
Overcoming this fear taught me to do what felt right on the day, rather than what I’ve always done. I continued to walk in the first few months of the pregnancy. It became my new friend. Daily pregnancy nausea ensured it was all low key. On days when I felt ok, I would go to my local gym. Light hand weights and low impact cardiovascular machines meant I could maintain a level of fitness. I enrolled in pilates and yoga classes to work on my core strength, pelvic floor and flexibility.
By the second trimester I felt a need to run again. The fear of running had mostly subsided and the pregnancy was going well. I made a conscious choice to shuffle along for no more than 5km at a time, a few times a week. I felt like I was a new runner again. It was great just to be back out there with my friends. However, not long after, I experienced pelvic and groin pain on walking. I was advised by my physio not to run anymore as the risks outweigh the benefit. I went back to gentle low impact exercise. Not long after, all exercise facilities closed due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. It could have been easy to ‘throw in the towel’ then and there as my pregnant belly was getting bigger and exercising was getting harder. Yet, I saw exercise as an essential part of a healthy pregnancy. So I dusted the cobwebs off my hand weights in the shed and cleared a space in our backyard. With the music pumped up loud, my partner and I did our workouts together. This was a great way to stay motivated. I continued these sessions up until the last month of my pregnancy.
A month later, at 34 weeks, my partner and I welcomed our twins into our lives. Words cannot describe the array of feelings I experienced that day. Not dissimilar to winning the world championship, weeks later I still find myself waking and thinking, wow did that really happen? Happily, the answer is yes and I am living the dream I created in my head. It may have been another type of endurance race where I was required to make sacrifices to reap reward. Yet, it was all worth it. I have learnt that living day to day without running is ok as there are other means to stay fit. Running will always be there waiting for me and I can chase that fitness carrot when the time is right.