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The 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials women’s race started with a palpable rush of excitement and adrenaline. It was the largest field in history, with 511 qualifiers and 444 women starting the race–double the number who competed in the 2016 Trials and shattering the 1984 record of 238 starters.
But it was the final two runners—steadily holding their position at the back of the pack—who quickly caught the attention of spectators. Rachel Hyland, 33, and Lauren Philbrook, 32, were hard to miss, because they were pregnant.
Stomachs slightly protruding over their spandex shorts, Hyland at 27 weeks (with a boy) and Philbrook at 33 weeks (with a girl) started the race with no intention of finishing—they merely wanted to share in the huge moment in women’s running history.
“Just being able to be a part of the Trials weekend, celebrating what all of these women in my running circle have accomplished together by inspiring each other, and with so many women qualifying, was just really amazing,” said Hyland, who placed fourth at the 2018 Boston Marathon.
Philbrook, who has now lined up for three marathon Trials, felt the same. “I really wanted to be at this Trials because there was something so special about how large the women’s field was with women of so many diverse backgrounds,” she said. “It was so cool to see it and experience it.”
Babies on board! pic.twitter.com/m16aqOm5lY
— Jonathan Levitt (@JWLevitt) February 29, 2020
Hyland and Philbrook’s friendship began more than 10 years ago, as track and cross country teammates at Williams College—where Philbrook also met her now husband, Steve. The ladies have remained close ever since, routinely racing together to stay connected.
In 2016, the duo competed in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles, sticking side-by-side through the first 20 miles. When they both qualified again for the 2020 Trials, then subsequently discovered they were both pregnant, they knew they wanted to participate—despite their approaching due dates.
“I cannot imagine going through this without her,” Hyland said. “It wasn’t just supporting each other on the day, it’s been since day one of the pregnancy.”
Their doctors were supportive, too, encouraging them to run but not over-do it. The ladies committed to a pace that allowed them to talk, which proved to be more difficult than they imagined, but not because they were out of breath.
“Everyone was so loud, we couldn’t even hear each other talk,” Hyland said. “Knowing that they were cheering just for Lauren and me as we ran by was so powerful.”
Philbrook said they were stunned and overwhelmed with the positive response. “At the beginning, we both cried. We were so surprised and shocked that people were so supportive of us. People were cheering, Good luck to all four of you!,” Philbrook said.
Both were smart about their approach the historic race day, listening to their bodies and only running for as long as they felt comfortable. Hyland completed half of the Trials course in 1:47:07 and Philbrook completed eight miles in 1:06:20.
The Atlanta Track Club, which organized the race, was also supportive of their decision to compete. “They knew I wasn’t going to finish but they were still very willing to have me and Rachel in the race,” Philbrook said. “For us to be able to make that choice for ourselves is the main point. I think you should do what is best for you and what makes you happy.”
A Shift in Perspective
Once considered the end of a female’s professional running career, fellow 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials competitors such as Stephanie Bruce and Sally Kipyego have proven that performing at a high level, even after pregnancy, is possible.
Middle distance runner Alysia Montaño, who recently gave birth to her third child, has openly trained and competed while pregnant. She has consistently empowered others, including Philbrook and Hyland, to do the same.
“Seeing Alysia run that 800 meters–very pregnant–made me feel like it was totally fine for me to then go and run at the back of the pack at these Trials,” Philbrook said.
Hyland agreed: “I just knew that where we are in this sport right now, and this whole model of Alysia Montaño and Tina Muir, who were sponsored [by running brand Altra] as pregnant female runners, that this was going to be considered more of a celebration or inspiration versus something that people were out there criticizing.”
Ladies, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. You can do anything. These women ran the Olympic marathon trials while pregnant. Another ran after giving birth a month ago. Women are amazing, brave, and strong. These women are tough as nails, and you are too! https://t.co/TQ33yJr3Kb
— Mrs. Kinggard (@OES_Spotlight) March 1, 2020
Hyland, who wore a yellow Boston Athletic Association crop top during the Olympic Marathon Trials, initially considered donning a long sleeve shirt, like Philbrook. She didn’t realize the impact that displaying her pregnant stomach would have.
“I didn’t think about it beforehand. Am I comfortable with my body being out there?, but I think seeing how overwhelmingly positive the impact was and the reactions, makes me proud that I did that,” Hyland said.
Though they are honored to serve as inspiration that running during pregnancy is possible, more importantly they want women to do what is right for their bodies.
“It really felt like a privilege to line up,” Hyland said. “Motherhood often means sacrificing careers, passions, and hobbies, but it was just a show of strength and perseverance that even though you are sacrificing certain things, you don’t have to stand on the sidelines.”
They also understand that pregnancy can be an emotional topic for women. “It’s important to acknowledge that it might be hard for other women to see [us], because you never know what is going on with them,” Hyland said.
After experiencing some complications early on in her pregnancy, being able to run in the Trials, toward the end of pregnancy, was even more special for Philbrook. Running has already served as a bonding experience for the mother-to-be and her daughter. Logging many of her miles solo, she dedicates her runs to her daughter, thinking about who she will be–hopefully a runner.
“I love the idea of being able to bring her back to the Trials in 2024,” Philbrook said. “To be like ‘You were in this race four years ago’ and have her be a part of it again, in the kids’ race.”
Hyland hopes to join her former teammate in 2024. Though she’ll be 37 at the next Trials, she doesn’t view her age or motherhood as a barrier.
“When you see all of the examples of women who are coming back after having kids and all the different things that they are balancing, it’s pretty hard not to imagine yourself back four years from now,” she said.