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An Olympian and cofounder of the nonprofit &Mother, Alysia Montaño is known as an 800-meter runner. But she has branched out into road and trail races, and on February 27, she ran her first marathon: the Kilimanjaro Marathon in Tanzania.
Montaño ran alongside Christy Turlington Burns, as part of a team with Every Mother Counts, a nonprofit that Turlington Burns founded. Team Every Mother Counts runs races to raise awareness and funds to improve access to maternal care in several countries around the world.
“Christy had reached out to me after my New York Times op-ed, where I shared about lack of maternity protection for athletes,” Montaño told Women’s Running. “It became very quickly apparent that there was so much synergy around maternal health being at the forefront of what we’re asking for in terms of maternal protections…. We can’t protect women’s livelihoods if we can’t protect their lives.”
So Montaño decided to run with the team in Tanzania. Women in sub-Saharan Africa often have to walk long distances to get to maternal care. “The distance of a marathon is the average distance that a woman has to travel in order to access equitable, respectable, and safe maternal care,” Montaño says. Running this marathon was “allowing myself to be in those mothers’ shoes and recognizing how important the work that we’re doing is.”
The group raised more than $100,000, which is being used to buy an ambulance for a clinic connected to a school for girls. “The clinic itself serves a lot of traditional Maasai women, but they don’t have the ability to transport women in emergency kind of situations, so that’s what we’ve committed for this particular race that we’re going to do,” Turlington Burns told Women’s Running.
In 2017, there were an estimated 295,000 maternal deaths around the world. Sub-Saharan Africa has especially high maternal death rates, with a lifetime risk of maternal death of 1 in 37, according to UNICEF data. In comparison, this risk in Australia and New Zealand is 1 in 7,800.
Maternal deaths are also a problem in the U.S., which has a high maternal mortality rate compared with other developed countries. It worsened between 2019 and 2020, and the maternal mortality rate for Black women was 2.9 times the rate of white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Marathon Day in the Foothills of Kilimanjaro
The Kilimanjaro Marathon is not an easy, flat marathon. It was hot, and much of the last half is uphill and on challenging terrain. “It was so representative of the path that not only women but mothers take,” Montaño says. “You might have a little road that seems like you’re going to make it, and then someone adds some component to make it harder for you to succeed. Like, ‘No, just kidding, you’re going 10 miles uphill.’… I was totally living this poetic 26.2-mile journey into this experience of why I’m even here in the first place.”
Finishing this marathon was important to Montaño for personal reasons as well. “Knowing that I had spent last year recovering from surgery and from postpartum depression…. I just felt triumphant that this was my first real challenge where I felt completely myself,” Montaño says.
Her diastasis recti has been corrected, and she felt strong, she says. “I just had a lot behind me that allowed me to feel my very best.”
Montaño and Turlington Burns ran together, along with two other team members, for much of the marathon. Fourteen others ran the half marathon. “If Christy didn’t run with me. I don’t know how I would have made it even to the halfway point. Because it’s a real challenge,” Montaño says.
But it was also fun. Along the way, Montaño stopped to dance with cheerleaders. Little kids came up and ran alongside them.
And Montaño felt prepared, as marathoner Magdalena Lewy Boulet has been coaching her. “She has been my doula in this training process,” Montaño says. “She’s a mom herself, and she is an ultra athlete. She understands the need for switching it up but also feeding your passions. I’m always going to love running…. I don’t have to try to make an Olympic team for it to be important to me and to put my talent to good use.”
In her training, Montaño says, “I think the most difficult part was running the long runs by myself.” One thing that helped was repeating Turlington Burns’s mantra of “every mother, every mile,” she says.
This was Turlington Burns’s 10th and final marathon. But, she said, “Even when I don’t run any more marathons, I don’t think I’ll not run again in my life. If I can’t run, I can’t be my whole self anymore.” Especially during the last two years of the pandemic, she says, “just to be outside and to be breathing and to be taking in oxygen—I just feel so lucky to be able to do this.”
The analogy between marathon running and childbirth is used often, but Turlington Burns didn’t understand it until she ran her first marathon. “This is what my midwife was trying to get across: What’s your threshold? What’s your tolerance?” she says. “There’s pain. You have to train, you have to be prepared, you need to hydrate, you need to nourish yourself, you need people supporting you along the way.”
At the point where the Kilimanjaro Marathon started to climb in elevation, Turlington Burns recalls Montaño invoking the most painful part of labor, which both women had experienced: “‘Here we go—transition time!’”
On the Ground in Tanzania
In Tanzania, Every Mother Counts supports training for health workers and provides lifesaving resources. A documentary film that Turlington Burns made, set in Tanzania, led to starting the organization. “When I set out to make that film, I was studying public health at Columbia University, and I’d had a postpartum complication with my first child,” she says. “I had this horrible experience, and I was so lucky, because I was in a birth center in a hospital with access to a great team who worked together to make sure that I was safe and my daughter was safe. So my immediate question was: What about all the millions of girls and women around the world that don’t have access to that care that I had?”
Every Mother Counts has two longstanding partners in Tanzania: a hospital and a girls’ secondary school. The hospital serves marginalized Maasai people and has been key in the region for COVID-19 safety and care, Turlington Burns says. “They created sort of an outpatient entrance for the maternity ward, and they had a special part of the hospital that was for COVID positive mothers,” she explains. “We try to partner in ways that we don’t bring the expertise as much as we bring resources and support systems that can allow them to do what they need to do.”
“We’ve been advocating for equitable access to maternal health care, which seems so simplistic in a way,” Turlington Burns says. But the deeper you go, she explains, you realize that “it’s one thing to be able to access health care when you need it, when you’re bringing life into the world. But it’s a whole other thing to create an environment and a safe space for women to feel that they are supported, that they are protected, that they are going to get through this part of their life.”
The other partner is the Mwedo secondary school for Maasai girls, which Montaño visited with Turlington Burns. Keeping girls in school longer reduces their pregnancies and child marriage, and the school teaches them different vocations, Turlington Burns says.
Montaño says she appreciated seeing the work that Every Mother Counts does to protect women, by “giving them opportunities to thrive and pursue their own independence, and livelihood, and passions, and career goals.” At the school, she says, “You’re seeing the wheels turning in these girls’ heads about all of the options that they have before them.”
Turlington Burns recalls when Montaño asked the students what their dreams were. They had different answers, and when Montaño asked if anyone wanted to play professional sports there were three or four girls that raised their hands immediately. “But they don’t have a path to pursue it,” Turlington Burns says.
Montaño took the girls on a short run around an area by the school. “It was actually a pretty good space. It’s under-resourced and not the priority of this particular school,” Turlington Burns says.
But then they started thinking, why not? “Couldn’t we get a group of these girls to come and participate in the 5K next year? Maybe it would open up the possibility for them to be able to compete one day,” she says.
Even if these girls don’t pursue professional sports, it could be something “that allows people to flourish in a different way,” Montaño says. “It allows them to be a really good team player, allows them to have confidence, allows for them to work through adversity, allows them to recognize sometimes it takes some defeat before you can grow, and maybe level up.”
“Sports really does help enhance other areas of people’s lives, and young girls aren’t often afforded that opportunity to even try. So it was really interesting just to give them that as an eye-opening ‘maybe’ and see them get excited about it,” Montaño says.
Opening up possibilities in this way also ties to &Mother’s mission. Montaño wants women to be able to thrive in their career and in their motherhood.
“For me, this is how I’m able to feed my family and how I’m able to provide, and suddenly that support is ripped from underneath me. And it does layer on to maternal health issues,” including postpartum depression, she says. And it can be difficult for mothers to head back into their career path, she says. “Someone has said, ‘Oh, now, Alysia, you’re a professional athlete—you must not care enough about your work because you chose motherhood, so you just do that now.’ And it’s like, whoa, you never even allowed me an opportunity to try.”
As in a marathon, “every mile is another mile where there might be a different challenge,” Montaño says. “Along the way, we need to be nourished and be given opportunities to flourish and to thrive.”
Will we see Montaño running more marathons?
“I will definitely run more marathons with Every Mother Counts,” she says. The organization has a few core partner races in the U.S., including the New York City marathon.
Turlington Burns has an anthology titled Arrival Stories coming out in April, which she curated with Amy Schumer, and which includes essays by Montaño and other women about their experiences becoming mothers. &Mother is hosting the Mom Forward Virtual 5K in May.
“I want to say thank you so very much to everyone that supported Every Mother Counts,” Montaño says. So far, she has raised more than half of her goal, and her fundraising page is here.