Running a marathon v giving birth, which is harder?

I love the London marathon. I’ve been to watch it several times and it always makes me cry, even when I’m watching it on the TV. I’d always dreamed of taking part. In 2010 I was lucky enough to secure a charity place to run the London marathon for UNICEF. I wanted to see if I really could take on the challenge of running 26 miles. As an added bonus I thought it would be a good way to get in shape after having my daughter at the end of 2008. It is 6 years ago today since I completed the London Marathon (although it feels like a lifetime ago). I read an interesting post from Occupation (m)other yesterday about whether running a marathon might be like giving birth and it really got me thinking about how the two experiences compared.

I’m trying to decide what was harder, running a marathon or labour. It’s not an easy comparison. They are by far the two hardest things I’ve ever done, physically and mentally. Here’s my breakdown of how the two compare:

Marathon – I was able to do a lot of preparation for the marathon. I had a training schedule that I stuck to fairly well doing several mid-length runs during the week and doing a long run each Sunday. I could gradually increase the distances over time and could feel my stamina improving.

Birth – I did a bit of antenatal yoga before having my daughter and kept fairly active during my pregnancy, which definitely helped me feel as prepared as I could be for my birth.

Which is harder – birth

Marathon – the joy of doing so much running is that it does give you an excuse to eat a lot. I could justify most indulgences by knowing that I was burning so many calories by running most days. I ate my body weight in jelly babies on race day.

Birth – I had a very relaxed approach to gaining pregnancy weight. One aspect of pregnancy I really enjoyed was eating for two (and then some). In this way it was a bit similar to my pre marathon diet. Jelly babies also featured heavily during labour.

Which is harder – a tie

How you feel before you start
Marathon – the great thing about the days prior to the marathon is that you get to rest up. You switch from running to carb loading which is as amazing as it sounds. On the morning of the marathon I was very nervous but also fully of energy and ready to get going.

Birth – I was pretty tired after 9 months of growing a person. There was also the nerve wracking business of knowing when things are going to start. The early stages of labour went on over two days. I was in pain, I was struggling to eat or sleep properly, I’d been sick several times. I had to have a drip put in because I was a bit dehydrated. By the time I got to active labour I was already really exhausted.

Which is harder – birth

Scariness factor
Marathon – when you start the marathon you know what you are in for. The longest run I’d done in my training was about 13 miles. It gave me quite a realistic idea of what the physical demands of race day we’re going to be like even though on the day I would be running further than I had ever done before. The race is a predictable length and I had a rough idea of how long it would take me. I could track my progress easily and knew when the end was in sight. In this way the race is hard but it is predictable.

Birth – I obviously knew what birth involved, I’d been to antenatal classes and read various pregnancy books. Even so I was quite freaked out by how unpredictable my birth experience was. I had no idea my early stages of labour were going to be so drawn out and at times it was overwhelming. I remember asking the midwife how much longer she thought it was going to take I just wanted to get to the pushing and get my baby out.

Which is harder – birth

Physical effort and pain
Marathon – The secret of finishing the marathon is knowing what pace you can run and sticking to it religiously and doggedly for the 26 miles. Unfortunately I made the typical rookie runner mistake and started way too fast. I got caught up in the excitement of it all. The crowds were cheering I was really happy to finally be running. I was highfiving children I was speeding up when I heard the bands that line the course playing. Boy did I pay for this! By half way I was starting to struggle as I’d used up too much energy at the beginning. The physical effort became about plodding on determinedly, putting one foot in front of the other when your body is telling you to stop and digging deep to find some energy when all my energy was gone. In terms of actual injuries my feet took a battering. I was a bit scared to take off my trainers to see the extent of the damage. I lost two toe nails and had horrendous blisters. The muscles in my legs were screaming by the end and I was ridiculously sore and stiff afterwards. I pretty much hobbled home. Walking up stairs was particularly tricky which made getting the tube after the race a bit of a challenge!

Birth – part of the effort for me was about handling the pain of contractions. It’s wired that I struggle to clearly recall what contractions felt like and can’t really accurately describe the type of pain. Maybe this is natures mind trick so you are not put off having more children. It was a test of endurance that lasted over several days. Then there is the physical effort involved in active labour, pushing with every once of strength you have in you. It was so intense and physical but very focused.

Which is harder – birth

Mental challenge
Marathon – I think at least 50% of running the marathon if not more is about how you handle the mental challenge. I don’t think I appreciated this until race day. Unfortunately my confidence faltered just after the half way point, maybe because I’d underestimated how mentally demanding the marathon was going to be. I actually made the race much, much harder by letting doubt creep in. I started to think that I couldn’t do it so I was almost having to over come my negative thoughts and the distance. I regret not holding it together better psychologically, this is the one little cloud over my marathon experience. I actually would like to run another marathon to feel what it is like to do it with a positive mindset. By about 24 miles I was crying, it was very emotional.

Birth – birth was also about really keeping my thoughts together and not letting myself let doubt in. The difference was that I was expecting it to be psychologically demanding. I think I did quite a good job at believing in myself although I had a couple of moments when I really did not feel like I could carry on (cue I can’t do this anymore sobbing!) However when it came to pushing I was in the zone. Something in me, maybe animal instinct, kicked in. I was 100% focused and I knew that I was going to get through it.

Which is harder – marathon

Marathon – the crowd for the London marathon are AMAZING you are cheered all the way and people call out your name in encouragement which did give me a massive boost especially towards the end. Apart from that it’s pretty much water, energy gel and sweets.

Birth – Rolando, my husband, was with me every step of the way, telling me I was going to be okay (even though I’m sure he was just as overwhelmed as I was at times). You also get lovely gas and air to suck on which made me feel quite light headed. I also had a tens machine which really helped to manage the contractions.

Which is harder – marathon (due to the lack of drugs available!)

Marathon – I sweated, I cried, I had a wee at the side of the road. When I crossed the finish line I was caked in salt crystals from the sweat. I absolutely stank. However everyone else looked similar so i wouldn’t say it was that undignified.

Birth – I won’t go into detail but there was more bodily substances that I care to mention. I remember looking at the room afterwards and feeling glad I wasn’t cleaning up. I defiantly left m dignity at the door of the labour ward.

Which is harder – birth

So having broken it down my conclusion is that giving birth is harder than running the marathon (admittedly this is not very scientific).

The one thing that running the marathon and giving birth have in common is that they gave me a new level of appreciation of my body and what it was capable of. I did feel somewhat of a superwoman after both events. I’m proud to have done both plus they mean I’m the proud owner of a lovely shiny medal and a beautiful daughter.

6 thoughts on “Running a marathon v giving birth, which is harder?

  1. I love this post! I’ve never run a marathon but I have a husband that runs a lot, but what an amazing achievement. I personally think that birth was the hardest thing I have ever done. But you’re right there are good drugs!
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