I’m glad to have started a de­bate, says athlete who breast­fed on ul­tra-marathon

So­phie Power was stunned to be a so­cial me­dia hit. But, she tells Jamie Doward, she is pleased ma­ter­nal guilt is be­ing dis­cussed

The Observer - - News -

It was the im­age that trig­gered a global de­bate about moth­er­hood. A lit­tle un­der half­way through one of the world’s most gru­elling races, the 105-mile Ul­tra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), So­phie Power, 36, was pho­tographed at an aid sta­tion near the Ital­ian ski re­sort of Cour­mayeur breast­feed­ing her three-month-old son, Cor­mac.

Within days, the im­age had gone vi­ral and was picked up by news­pa­pers from In­dia to In­di­anapo­lis.

Now back at home in Is­ling­ton, north Lon­don, Power said she had been ill-pre­pared for the at­ten­tion she was to re­ceive on so­cial me­dia, but was pleased about the con­ver­sa­tion she had started.

“It has high­lighted some­thing that women feel re­ally un­able to talk about. There is this huge mother’s guilt that all the time you need to be 100% fo­cused on your baby, and I’m say­ing that by not fo­cus­ing on your own phys­i­cal and men­tal health you can’t be the best mother. For me, per­son­ally, I need to be phys­i­cally fit and have those men­tal breaks. Women re­ally strug­gle to be open about say­ing that.”

She said she had thought lit­tle of the pho­to­graph when it was taken. “In the pic­ture, I’m just fo­cused on feed­ing Cor­mac, pump­ing the milk. Prob­a­bly a me­tre out of shot is my hus­band, John, try­ing to con­vince me to eat an av­o­cado sand­wich and go­ing through my pack, chang­ing over my head torch bat­ter­ies, putting the food in there. Alexis [Berg, a pho­tog­ra­pher with the on­line run­ning com­mu­nity Strava] asked if he could take the photo and we thought noth­ing of it. We thought it might make a small Strava story about women do­ing some­thing a bit dif­fer­ent dur­ing the race.”

Con­sid­er­ing she has run al­most 50 miles, Power, co-founder of a com­pany that tack­les in­ner-city air pol­lu­tion, seems rel­a­tively com­posed in the pic­ture – es­pe­cially com­pared with the ex­hausted male run­ner ly­ing flat out on his back next to her.

“I’d gone through the first night with no sleep, as a lot of run­ners had. But as a mother I was re­ally pre­pared for that. In terms of sleep de­pri­va­tion, I was prob­a­bly the best trained per­son on the start line. I’d had 20 min­utes’ sleep over two nights. But I was tak­ing the race re­ally gen­tly. Some peo­ple rac­ing UTMB were push­ing them­selves to the limit. I had to do the op­po­site. I was try­ing to keep a lot of food down for my milk sup­ply. I was al­most re­freshed when I got there com­pared to a nor­mal race.”

Be­fore the UTMB, which she fin­ished in just un­der 44 hours, Power had run sev­eral of the world’s most fa­mous ul­tra races in­clud­ing the Marathon des Sables across the Sa­hara and the 153-mile, non-stop Spar­tathlon in Greece.

“I started run­ning in 2009 pretty much from scratch. I’d never run more than a mile in my life when I signed up for the Marathon des Sables not re­ally know­ing what it was. I signed up to an iron­man barely able to swim a length of a pool.”

To en­ter the UTMB, she needed to earn points by run­ning other ul­tras. Power had a place in the 2015 UTMB but had to give it up be­cause she was six months’ preg­nant with her first son, Don­nacha, now three.

In con­trast with in­jured ath­letes, the UTMB does not al­low women to de­fer their places if they be­come preg­nant. In 2018, hav­ing bagged an­other place, Power faced a dilemma: run or spend years amass­ing more points.

“This would mean miss­ing out. I never set out say­ing I had to fin­ish the course. I just wanted to be in na­ture, to see how it goes.”

It was the thought of run­ning the fi­nal me­tres through Cha­monix with Don­nacha that had kept her go­ing through the race’s tough­est stages. “I had to tell him to slow down, he was too fast, my legs were too tired. I picked up Cor­mac about 50 me­tres from the fin­ish and crossed the line with both of them.”

While the pho­to­graph has been well re­ceived on so­cial me­dia, there has been a back­lash. A Twit­ter poll by a run­ner’s mag­a­zine ask­ing if read­ers thought Power’s ac­tions were “gross, a lit­tle self­ish” or “it’s her busi­ness” was taken down af­ter read­ers com­plained.

Over­all, though, Power feels her 15 min­utes of fame have sent out a strong and un­am­bigu­ous mes­sage.

“This pic­ture has al­lowed women to say: ‘When we be­come moth­ers our self-iden­tity doesn’t change.’ We shouldn’t have to lose who we were be­fore we were moth­ers. Men cer­tainly don’t. You see all these pic­tures of dads cross­ing fin­ish­ing lines with their ba­bies. Why do we as a so­ci­ety see that as dif­fer­ent for the mother?”

‘I’m say­ing that by not fo­cus­ing on your own phys­i­cal and men­tal health you can’t be the best mother’ So­phie Power

Pho­to­graph by Alexis Berg/AFP

So­phie Power breast­feeds her son Cor­mac at a rest stop dur­ing the 105-mile Ul­tra-Trail du Mont Blanc race.

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