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Elite races accommodate pregnant runners

More female athletes can defer their competition dates if needed

Alysia Montano after running in the Women's 800 Meter of the USATF Outdoor Championships in June, 2014 Getty Images/Photo by Andy Lyons

Elite races accommodate pregnant runners

Night approached as runner Sophie Power reached an aid station in the 2018 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc race. Regarded as one of the most challenging foot races in the world, the course climbs over 32,800 feet of elevation over 106 miles through France, Italy, and Switzerland. Runners have a maximum of 46.5 hours to complete the race.

Unlike the majority of her competitors, Power didn’t stop at the aid station just to recover with fluids and carbohydrates for the next set of miles. Her husband, crewing along the route, brought her their three-month-old son, Cormac. Tired and sore, Power sat down holding her baby and a breast pump and began to feed her son.

Power ran three months after giving birth because the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc did not allow her to defer her entry due to pregnancy.

A photographer approached Power and asked permission to take a photo. “I’m breastfeeding. What are you thinking?” Power thought at first. But then she decided to allow the photo, hoping other female runners would be able to defer their entries instead of having to re-qualify. “If the race organizers see this photo, they may change the policy,” she said.

The photograph of Power went viral, pushing the discussion of pregnancy deferral policies to the forefront of elite racing. Such policies allow pregnant or recently postpartum women to defer their race entry to a later year. Four years after Power’s race, Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc confirmed it would allow deferrals for pregnant and postpartum women to enter a race up to two years after their initial qualification.

In January, the Boston Marathon announced a new pregnancy deferral policy ahead of the race’s 127th running in April. Participants can submit a request as close as 14 days before the race to defer their entry for up to two years. Each runner is allowed two consecutive two-year deferral periods.

Only 10 percent of marathoners can meet the time standard required to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Fiona English, age 34, is one of them. She applied for the 2023 race and a deferral when she was seven weeks pregnant even though race rules explicitly stated that deferrals were not allowed for injuries, illnesses, or pregnancies. With the due date of her first child two days before the race, she wrote an open letter to race organizers and posted it on Instagram, requesting a deferral and refund for her $235 international entry.

Some commenters on English’s post questioned why deferrals should be allowed for pregnancy instead of injuries and illness. “I got injured … last year a month out, and I couldn’t run,” one commenter said. “I was sad but I knew going in I couldn’t defer. If they let her, should they let everyone?”

Power and English said the sport should distinguish pregnancy from injury. Unlike injury, pregnancy only applies to women. “There seems to be this common belief that you click your fingers and you’re pregnant,” English said. “Pregnancy is really hard, and it’s really difficult, and it certainly, for me, wasn’t ‘I click my fingers and it happened.’”

Even as more mothers compete in the most elite fields of female runners, other critics of pregnancy deferrals still worry they will compromise the integrity of competition in races. A runner who defers entry from a previous year might not be as fit when she races as when she originally qualified. But without pregnancy deferrals, women could be pressured into trying to run dangerously late in their pregnancy, or too soon after giving birth, in order to compete or requalify.

Some female athletes report feeling pressured to have abortions to remain competitive. In 2021, a group of 500 athletes, including some Olympians, asked the Supreme Court to keep Roe v. Wade in place, saying abortion was crucial to their athletic success.

In 2021, 31-year-old Jess Welborn couldn’t defer her London Marathon Championship qualification to the next year for pregnancy. “Championship places are not deferrable under any circumstances,” event organizer Hugh Brasher told The Telegraph. “This is the same principle as a runner going for an Olympic Qualification or World Championship Qualification. The runner must have run the qualification time in the qualification window.”

Welborn’s options were either to requalify for the next year’s race in the same year she gave birth or run the 2021 marathon eight weeks postpartum. One year later, the London Marathon changed its policy to allow a three-year deferral period for championship entries.

Power hopes more race organizers will follow Boston’s example, encouraging more women to have families and to race. “I could say it’s frustrating it’s taken so long,” she said of the policy’s timing. “But instead, I think it’s a positive sign because it’s a hugely prestigious race. Where Boston leads, other races follow.”

Lillian Hamman

Lillian is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and Berry College. She is a producer for WORLD Radio.

I so appreciate the fly-over picture, and the reminder of God’s faithful sovereignty. —Celina

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