Donahue On Running The U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials While Pregnant

Magdalena Donahue, an elite marathon runner, grad student, and expectant mother, takes time to speak with Runners Feed about her Olympic Trials experience while being 3 months pregnant, prenatal training, and life in general.

Runners Feed: Did you know that you were pregnant when you stepped on the starting line?

Magdalena Donahue: Yes, I had known I was pregnant for about 5 weeks prior to the Trials. I was phenomenally sick with morning sickness (24 hours a day, 7 days a week!), exhaustion, and general body aches.  While the morning sickness was perhaps the “classic” symptom, the result of feeling so nauseated was that I was basically dehydrated and unable to maintain any type of fuelling, much less the fueling and nutrition needed for training, especially at that intensity. My training had basically ceased to exist in the month leading up to the race.  The 11 miles I made it before stepping off the course was the longest I had run in a few weeks, and certainly the fastest.

RF: Were there any signs that you disregarded before testing to see if you were pregnant? 

MD: I will say I missed my period, but I didn’t think too much of it; I’m not that “regular” in my menstrual cycles to start out with, and training hard usually triggers a longer cycle, so that wasn’t weird.  What was weird, in my mind, was how tired I was.  And then my breasts were seriously double their normal size.  At this point, some lightbulbs went off in the depths of my brain and I thought that perhaps a pregnancy test was in order.  Good thing they come in a three-pack, because it took 3 days to convince me and my husband that this really was happening!

RF: Tell us about your husband John’s Facebook announcement, “My wife is the toughest woman around!”

MD: Wow, Yeah, that was really fun.  We had our first ultrasound a week and a half after the Trials, and John was dying to post the ultrasound pictures on the way home from the hospital.  We decided to make a little cartoon picture that we could post online and send to our grandparents, which John then posted up on Facebook. The announcement itself took a lot of people by huge surprise, but the positive thoughts and comments we both got online were really cool to see.  It’s an interesting social experiment, to put a major life announcement out for the public to read about!  We – myself, John, our immediate families and my coach – had been pretty mum on the reason I dropped out, simply attributing it to not being my day for a race, which anyone who has raced competitively can sympathize with, but I won’t deny that it was really nice to put a solid reason for the performance which was so far from that which I had envisioned and hoped for.

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The truth is that John is the toughest husband around!  He put up with over a month of my wallowing in a haze of pregnancy symptoms (and probably self-pity!), and he stayed positive the entire time, which helped cheer me up when I was feeling terrible.  A funny “for instance:” we have this couch, and it’s a nice, squishy couch we inherited from earlier students, nothing out of the ordinary for grad students.  Well, I suddenly could smell the couch.  Smell it – and I couldn’t stand the smell of it. I was leaving the doors to the house wide open to “air out” the house in the middle of January, and sitting there at the kitchen table in my down jacket wrapped in blankets, just to get rid of the smell of the couch.  Had never smelled it before. John couldn’t smell it. He just cracked up every time I started sniffing the living room. I couldn’t stand the smell so much that we ended up getting rid of the couch, and now, sadly, we’re couch-less! Without his constant support, there is no way I could have made it through what was an extremely rough first 12-14 weeks. He is terribly excited, and I can’t imagine a better dad-to-be, or anyone I’m more excited to be having a family with.

RF: I know from our pre-trials interview with you, that you have a lot going on in your life, including putting in 50-70 hour weeks as a full time PHd Grad Student, going on explorations for your research, as well as training full time. What kind of modifications if any will you make to your busy life while pregnant?

MD: Well, I’m very lucky to have a supportive advisor, who has worked with me to have flexible hours when I’m “in the office.”  I am doing a lot of work from home right now, which allows me to take a nap in the afternoons if I’m really tired, or just saves me from the exhaustion of the 2-mi walk to/from the office.  I’ve also drastically cut back on my running.  At first, I was  just so sick (literally) and tired from the days’ activities that any thought of extraneous exercise was not even in my brain.  Now that I’m into my second trimester, I’m feeling more awake and energetic, and have returned to running, swimming and some light strength work.  My “running” routine has been much humbled: I now think 8 minute miles are awesome, and I often don’t run with a watch, just my husband and dog for company.  Right now I’m feeling great at 4 miles/day a few times a week; hopefully next week I’ll bump it up to 5!  I do enjoy swimming, so I swim some afternoons, and I also again started to incorporate light weightlifting, modified for my condition.  I am not supposed to lay on my back, so certain core exercises and bench press are not only dangerous for restricting circulation to the baby, but are also becoming uncomfortable.  I tried to do bicycles last week and couldn’t even do one!  Try having a grapefruit stashed beneath your abdominal muscles and then try moving your legs…..I started cracking up at how silly I looked and felt.       

Read Pre-Race Interviews with over 100 US Olympic Marathon Trials Qualifiers

RF: Do you plan to race again while pregnant?

MD: I won’t race competitively. I will probably participate in some of the local races here in Albuquerque for fun, but it is hard to keep my competitive self in check when I’m racing. I always want to go out hard and get the best out of it!  I think that participation in the local running scene is really important, and it’s a really fun way to get some exercise and be surrounded by people who are just out there to enjoy the race.  I may try to cajole my husband into wearing matching leprechaun outfits for our Shamrock Shuffle.  That would be awesome!  

RF: What modifications do you and your coach, Kay Ulrich, foresee making in your training during your pregnancy?  At what point, if any, will you stop running during your pregnancy?

MD: Well,  we’ve basically decided to go on a “touchy-feely” routine, where, if I feel like it, I’ll do it, but if I wake up and drag myself through the day, I don’t feel pressured to reach a certain exercise quota. We’re pretty free-form.  I am trying to keep in some measure of “fast leg” work, such as strides, drills, and fast footwork, just to get me out of the jogging along routine.  I’m also continuing to do a light, mostly body-weight strength-training routine, which I try to do 2-3xweek.  This is especially interesting, as the baby has grown, certain exercises on my back or that require twisting have become impossible.  I also rock climb, which I’ve continued to do at a local gym with extra caution, although my belly is soon to outgrow my harness, so I’m looking for a body harness that won’t apply pressure on my belly, and I’m keeping myself to climbs I’m confident on. Climbing is great for overall strength and importantly for me, flexibility.

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How long will I run?  Well, probably until I’m too uncomfortable to keep running. I figure that once I’m to the point that running becomes a chore, it is time to  take a break.  If that day doesn’t come, then I imagine I’ll lumber on all through the summer until the baby comes!  I’m not opposed to trading running for a few months of swimming, walking, etc. to care for my body, baby, and mental health.  I’m planning on returning to racing post-baby, so I’m considering this an extended “post-season refreshment” for my body and mind.

RF: From your perspective, do you believe that it is safe to run a marathon while being nine months pregnant like Amber Miller who ran the 2011 Chicago Marathon?

MD: I do believe that if a woman is truly cognizant and fully aware of the risks and consequences of her activity, and is crystal-clear and honest with herself about her physical condition that something like what Ms. Miller did is within the realm of relative safety.  From reading her interviews, it seems that she walk-ran the race with a clear plan that she had discussed with her health care provider, following years of running and a healthy, running-filled, active pregnancy.  She made logical decisions along the way, and had a “bail-out” plan in mind. Not to mention, she was surrounded by thousands of people and ample medical support.  While I personally don’t think I’ll be signing up for a marathon at 9 months, I think that women are able to be much more than just wallflowers while pregnant.

I would say, very truthfully, that the difference between an active, healthy young woman and someone who is perhaps overweight, diabetic or suffering from cardiovascular disease is huge, and the decisions need to be made on a individual, woman-to-woman basis for each pregnancy.  I do think that women do need to be encouraged to be honest with themselves, their partners and their medical support in order to plan out an activity schedule that is appropriate for them at that time (not the person we might wish we were!) as well as fun, healthy and fulfilling.

RF: Do you plan to encourage your little one to get into the sport of running as your dad did with you?

MD: My parents had a very free-form approach towards running with me and my siblings.  I was basically in every other sport – swimming, gymnastics, baseball, soccer – other than running until I tried out for track in middle school.  I joined to do the high jump and discus, and was recruited onto the high school distance squad after my lack of coordination outed me as a runner.   John and I hope to have the same philosophy with our kids; while I’m into running, I also still swim regularly, we rock climb, backpack, cross country ski and hike regularly and John downhill skis and does tae kwon do.  So, we definitely plan to have our children in swimming lessons (a life skill for everyone!), but we plan to encourage them to experiment broadly with finding the physical activity that they get the most reward from.  For me, running has allowed me to be a part of an awesome community, and many of my best friends are former teammates or competitors; I hope that my children will find a community of active people they belong in, which will make for a lifelong commitment to being healthy and active.

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RF: How did your parents react to the exciting news?

MD: We told our parents by giving them a photo of John and I wearing aprons next to our oven with a ‘bun’ in it. Our dog is also in the photo, nonplussed, and lunging for the bun.  We put the photo in a frame and gave it to my mother in law for Christmas…it took her a while to get it, and about 4 hours before it really sunk in, but then she was through the roof excited! For my family, we had a similar photo, but in my family there are 10 of us, so we draw names and give just the one big gift to a single person.  John drew my younger brother, who has been teasing us about wanting a niece/nephew since we got married.  So, he got the photo, and a card saying we thanked him for all the babaysitting he was going to be doing.  Although he got the reference immediately, I don’t think he believed us, so he just said “a bun in the oven? what?”  Then my family exploded in “whaaaat?”  I don’t think anyone in my family believed that we were really pregnant for about 10 minutes!  We told our families a bit early (at 7-8 weeks), just to caution them that the Trials might not turn out as they were expecting.

RF: What sort of food have you been craving since learning you were pregnant?

MD: Wow – this is a loaded question!  At first, all I could stomach and all I wanted to eat was sourdough toast with butter.  Then I switched to cottage cheese with canned (yes, canned) peaches or pineapple, then onto citrus fruits.  Now, the thought of cottage cheese makes me shudder, but I’m downing string cheese, grapefruit and lemons (with salt!) like it’s the last food on earth.  I don’t usually drink juices, but they have been a lifesaver for me!  I wake up in the middle of the night feeling slightly queasy, and a glass of juice calms down my stomach and lets me go back to sleep.  The cravings are bizarre, but even more weird to me are the food aversions: I usually eat chocolate every day, but since I have been pregnant, there is nothing appealing about chocolate in any form.  Also, meat and fish are off the table for me. We went fishing in Alaska this summer and have a freezer full of hand-caught, baby-healthy, delicious Copper River Reds, and I can’t stand the scent, thought, or even the look of them!  So getting enough protein has been a concern for me, and I’ve been going mostly to legumes and dairy products for protein.

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RF: What sponsors have supported you through your training and this new experience?

MD: The Brooks ID project and Powerbar have provided continual support and I am so grateful to both of them for all that they do for me.

Check out Magdalena Donahue’s new blog, Bun on the Run, where she discusses thoughts on pregnancy, running and being an active person while carrying a baby.


About the Author: Jordan Haddad is a writer for Runners Feed. She has recently revisited the running scene searching for that illusive runner’s high. When she isn’t writing or running, Jordan loves to dance, swim, and bike. She was also well-known in her neighborhood for riding a bike with a large orange flag attached to the back because she never had the patience to do anything slowly.

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