I’ve completed three marathons and the third was the hardest, not easiest. The first was the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach. I was an idiot and ran it when I was completely under the weather, just because I was [am] stubborn and don’t like to give up on my goals, even when it’s wise to. The second was the Walt Disney World Marathon. That was a fun one. Lots of high fives with costumed Disney characters and pauses in front of iconic Disney backdrops (think Magic Castle) for mid-race photos. Ah, to feel young and innocent again whilst putting your body through a gauntlet. The third marathon…the hardest marathon…was not your typical road race. It was a 17-month long commitment to breastfeeding. Yup, it was a marathon in every sense of the word; equal parts difficult and fulfilling, challenging yet beneficial for one’s health, and mentally grueling while simultaneously inspiring. Here’s how the lessons I learned from my road-race marathons applied to my commitment to something else. Gotta love exercise-life parallels. I’m all about ’em.
Good Things Don’t Come Easy
Nursing was not something I was passionate about at the beginning of my journey with it, whereas I have always been very passionate about running. But my experiences running road races (shorter ones like half marathons, 10-milers and 10Ks, too) have taught me that tough commitments can have unexpected rewards. Thus, I stuck out the breastfeeding thing, using my stubborn, marathon mentality to get me through its challenges (of which there were many, including the fact that it was extremely difficult for me to produce enough milk through pumping…in order words, I had to be present around the clock to provide).
Somewhere about a year after my son’s birth I experienced a dramatic shift in perspective; instead of knowing I should appreciate the ability to provide for him in his infancy into toddlerhood, I finally truly appreciated it. It hit me one day out of the blue. I saw how much intimacy we shared, how quick the years ahead would pass us by, how much like a little boy instead of a baby he already was, and I knew. My heart finally understood that it was the hardest and best decision I had made for us both thus far.
Physical Discomfort Makes Us Mentally Tough
I never knew that bloody heels and almost passing out during my first marathon would be things I would become grateful for. The painful experiences taught me not only to wear more protective socks and to avoid physical competitions when sick, but also that I was capable of enduring pain and moving forward a little bit tougher. This made shorter distances mentally easier in the future, and left me with the reassurance that, for better or worse, my body is capable of anything I might ask of it.
When my motherhood marathon began, I also endured pain…but it was much worse. TMI ahead, folks. In the first few months of nursing I had cracked nipples because of my son’s small mouth and his tongue tie (he was born a month early and we had to wait over a month for an ENT appointment). My hormones were crazy and at the start of every nursing session I experienced unthinkable letdown pain. I would literally cry out in pain or attempt to take deep breaths through tears. Getting through those upfront challenges built up my resolve that no matter what normal challenges lay ahead (nursing strikes, mastitis, maintaining supply) that I could handle it. Mommy’s battle gear was ready!!
The Second Time Around Will Be Easier
If there’s one thing I know it’s that being a novice is tough. Most first-time road runners don’t know how to fuel properly and typically don’t learn proper negative-split and cross-training techniques. But over time and with some effort, runners refine and evolve. They implement strategies to help them run faster while enduring fewer injuries.
Similarly, first-time moms encounter many challenges that force them to be more strategic and build up their tolerance for future issues. For example, my nursing experience was initially tough, but I have no doubt that it paved the way for an easier experience next time. Aren’t most things easier for mom after the first child? Please tell me yes!
No one said nursing a toddler was free of complications! Lol.
You Can’t Marathon Straight Through Life
In a study published by the NIH, the Mayo Clinic found that there may be an “upper-dose limit” for endurance exercise. In other words, marathon after marathon and sustained competition at an elite level can have detrimental effects on an athlete’s heart. Think of it kind of like overdosing on a medication…it goes from helpful to hurtful very quickly. Cardiac tissue can have multiple negative adaptations to intensive training, including large-artery wall stiffening, coronary artery calcification, myocardial fibrosis, ventricular arrhythmia and more. These devastating effects of exercising TOO much strip away all the benefits and longevity that come with exercise in moderation (which can increase life expectancy by 7 years!). At some point, we have to intuit when we’ve gone too far, when it’s time to move on from the marathon…for our health’s sake.
Similarly, what I consider the “marathon of motherhood” (i.e. nursing) isn’t intended to be something the mother and child practice forever. At a certain point, life’s demands, the child’s distraction or disinterest, or the mother’s need to focus wholeheartedly on her own health again, come into play. In fact, the volume of milk that a toddler needs goes drastically down after the 12-15-month mark, and too much milk or dairy can stand in the way of getting enough of other key nutrients. To continue “marathoning” the nursing in the same frequency as when the child was in infancy isn’t ideal for the child’s health (that’s not to say that some nursing isn’t still healthy, nutritious and emotionally satisfying for the child). Anywhere between 18-months and 3 years old is when experts say children naturally wean, meaning they lead the process based on their physical and emotional needs.
That said, my son was just under the 17-month mark and I knew it was time to stop pushing us both through our once-a-day nursing that remained; the morning nursing. I had been pushing him to continue for weeks, even though he was showing disinterest. We might get a few minutes of nursing in and that was that. I knew he was gearing up to quit – he loved his sippy cup with whole milk way more than me (well…my boobs) at that point and had recently found new ways to share cuddles and affection with me on/off throughout the day, filling the emotional gap that I was worried would be created by stopping nursing. I could also feel my own hormones and emotions crashing over the whole ordeal. It didn’t feel the same anymore. I felt like after nearly 1.5 years I really needed a few mornings to pass the torch to my husband so I could sleep in and get the rest my body was begging of me.
One morning a couple weeks ago, my son just flat-out refused to nurse. I tried everything I could to get him to and he just wouldn’t. I set him down to play instead and off he went on his merry little way. I knew. That was it. My marathon had ended. And it was actually a good thing for us both, I found.
Was it easy to nurse 17 months? Heck no. But it got easier over time. Was it worth it? Yes. 100% worth it. All marathons are.
What’s your marathon? What have you been tasked with that requires every fiber of your being to persevere through? Most importantly, even when it’s hard, can you see the potential for the long road ahead to mold you for the better? Hang in.
“The miracle isn’t that I finished. It’s that I had the courage to start.”
-John Bingham, American Marathon Runner and Author
Yours in health and wellness,