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It’s no secret the U.S. women are getting faster at the marathon, but in the process, they’re also reshaping the paradigm of the American female distance runner. Of the top 17 qualifiers for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, which will be held on February 29 in Atlanta, five of them are also mothers.
Some are full-time pro athletes and others pursue careers outside the sport. The more than 450 trailblazing female marathoners who are heading to the trials are diverse and multidimensional—on top of being fast.
With eight children between them, elite runners Sara Hall, Carrie Dimoff, and Stephanie Bruce have discovered plenty of strategies to help juggle the grind of training, while setting an example for their kids as they chase their Olympic-sized dreams.
Get the work in when you can.
Their schedules may not resemble those of the typical pro runner, but Dimoff, Bruce, and Hall make it work by maximizing pockets of free time. Dimoff, 36, whose marathon best is 2:30:53, is based in Portland, Oregon, and has two sons, Malcolm (9) and Oliver (7)—and a full-time job at Nike. She typically meets her Bowerman Track Club teammates in the morning and gets in her easy runs at lunchtime.
As much as possible, Hall, 36, trains while her four girls, Hana (18), Mia (15), Jasmine (11), and Lily (8), are at school or still sleeping on weekends. She’s the 2017 U.S. marathon champion who has a 2:22:16 personal best (making her a definite contender at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta), but her priority, she says, is to frame her schedule “so that I can be present both physically and emotionally when they are.”
The Hall family relocated to Flagstaff, Arizona, which is at 7,000 feet above sea level, in part to spend less time at training camps.
“I don’t get to always do things at the time I want to,” Hall says, “but they always get done.”
Bruce, 36, who also calls Flagstaff home, drops her boys, Riley (4) and Hudson (3), at daycare, then switches from mom mode to athlete mode, so she can go “all in at practice” with her Northern Arizona Elite teammates. She’s had her best performances since giving birth, too—setting a marathon best of 2:29:21, while also claiming national road titles in the 10K and half marathon.
After that morning session with the team, Bruce focuses on recovering, eating, napping, cleaning, strength training, and more running until she picks the boys up at 4:30 p.m.
Remembering what training was like straight out of college, without children, is unhelpful—and envying the younger elite runners who lead that lifestyle now is also not constructive.
“There will be moments the training makes you tired and you just want to collapse in bed with Netflix, but you can’t,” Hall says. “That can be hard.”
Rather than dwelling on what her competitors may be doing in those moments, she reminds herself that she has improved every year since adopting her four daughters from Ethiopia in 2015, and that “nothing you do in running is worth sacrificing your relationship with your kids over.”
Lean on your support system.
All three women share their full loads with significant others who have also run at a high level— having a partner who is also a distance runner is not a prerequisite for success, but it definitely doesn’t hurt.
Dimoff’s husband, John, a three-time Olympic Trials qualifier, “supports my competitive efforts and totally understands,” she says. He and Dimoff’s mom regularly watch the boys while she trains and races, freeing up the mental energy it takes to perform.
Bruce and husband, Ben, who helps coach their training group on top of still competing, often trade off shifts of parenting duties to accommodate their goals and schedules. And Hall’s husband, Ryan, a two-time Olympian whose marathon is 2:04:58, fills a trifecta of roles as spouse, fan, and coach—a delicate balance not recommended for all couples.
Include your kids.
Unlike many other sports, running has the benefit of being family friendly. Inviting (and sometimes nudging) everyone to get involved creates time together and a better appreciation for what happens out on the roads and track.
The Bruces often take their sons along when they travel to competitions and say the kids already have an acute understanding of the running community and what the races are all about.
The Dimoffs have turned races into road trips and celebrated birthdays at Hayward Field, the famed track at the University of Oregon. Names like marathon world-record holder Eliud Kipchoge “are part of the family vocabulary.” But there’s no parental pressure to race.
“Kids are just kids—they like running if it’s a game of tag or goofing off at school, but they don’t do it competitively,” Dimoff says.
The Hall girls, meanwhile, are starting to feel the itch. Hana, the oldest, trains seriously—she’s the defending Arizona state cross-country champion and runner-up state champion in the 1600 meters and 3200 meters. The younger sisters hop in the occasional race, as well as a noncompetitive local youth running program—and love watching their mom compete.
“They talk all the time about wanting to see me make the Olympics and how much they believe in me,” Hall says.
Adjust as you go.
Just like training plans, the perfect manual for parents who are also chasing big running goals does not exist.
“I feel like we are figuring it out as we go,” Hall says. “There isn’t really a roadmap… so a lot of it is checking in with them and how they are doing and adjusting as we go.”
As her boys get older, Dimoff sees a difference in how the family dynamics play out and she advises new running parents to try to muster patience.
“Don’t look out too far into the future and try to project a certain success, because it will seem like an impossible gulf separates your current state from that result, and you’ll be unnecessarily discouraged,” she says. “Just take it slow and focus on getting better, whatever your baseline is.”
Embrace your status as a role model.
From self confidence to perseverance, running offers a wealth of personal benefits. Kids born into running families have a unique perspective.
“I know my kids are always watching and learning from me,” Bruce says. “With running, if I can compete at my best and tell the boys I’m proud of my effort no matter the result, then hopefully they can learn to win and lose in life but know they are giving it their everything.”
While it’s hard to know how much they’re absorbing, Dimoff hopes her boys see the correlation between the time she spends training and her race results.
“At the very least, I model a healthy lifestyle,” she says. “And we all eat lots of salad.”
And one of the greatest gifts mothers can give their children is to show them that they can pursue big goals with courage and tenacity. “For them to see you doing something you love and are passionate about, to see you come alive and have an impact in the world around you,” is something Hall says she hopes her daughters are observing.
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I hope my boys remember mom was leaving so often for a reason. That I wasn’t just going on vacations but living out my dreams, racing. I hope they know every minute I’m gone I miss them so much. I wish I could take them everywhere I go. Above all I hope they know this time in my life was important, and shaped who I am as a human and a woman. I don’t have to choose between being a mom and running professionally. I have the luxury of doing both. I can only wish they find a passion and job like mine when they grow up. And turn into men like their dad @bbjamin15. #momguilt #workingmom
Hire a coach.
Moms already have a lot of decisions to make each day, so figuring out how to train is a good place to outsource. Putting running into somebody else’s capable hands is key for these athletes.
For individuals who have performance goals, Dimoff emphasized the importance of finding a coach either locally or online to steer the ship.
“Do not trust yourself to this role,” she says. “You need someone who can be objective and tell you when to rest, when to push.”
Focus on the positives.
It’s easy to list what makes motherhood difficult, especially when combined with the pursuit of bold running objectives. But Dimoff, Bruce, and Hall opt to capitalize on the positive aspects of the parent-athlete combo.
Dimoff says since having children, she’s become “a calmer, more mature athlete,” who’s also less injury-prone.
“I’m too busy to be in danger of overtraining,” she says.
Knowing how invested her girls are in her career, Hall finds that her running is more meaningful than ever. It’s also helped clarify what’s important when confronting the inherent selfishness in athletic pursuits.
“It takes a very real setting aside what I would like to be doing and choosing love,” she says.