Despite exercising less and weighing more, motherhood made me a stronger, more focused runner.

By By Karla Bruning
March 26, 2018
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Photo: Karla Bruning

"Come on, Karla," my husband said as we ran the Disney Princess Half Marathon side by side at Walt Disney World in Florida. "You gave birth! You got this!"

I was dressed as The Little Mermaid's Ariel; he was Prince Eric. And it was my first half marathon after having a baby exactly one year before. Not just my first half marathon, but also my longest run, and my big one-year postpartum goal.

I shut my eyes, grit my teeth, and let out a moan as I willed my body to keep pushing. It was not unlike childbirth. "Just keep pushing" was both my running mantra and delivery chant. But just about everything else was different.

For starters, I have a daughter who had celebrated her first birthday days before. She had started sleeping through the night less than two months prior, and she was still breastfeeding. Plus, I'm older, weigh more, run less, and am chronically sleep deprived.

Still, I'm stronger, more focused, and even faster. When adjusted for the hot and humid conditions (thanks, Florida), my Disney Princess Half Marathon time was likely my second best 13.1-miler ever. And that included a bathroom break and a few quick photo stops in front of Cinderella Castle. What gives? (Related: The 10 Best Costume Races In the U.S.)

It turns out that motherhood has changed me as a runner, shattering my postpartum expectations and reshaping how I approach the sport.

I'm more realistic.

In my pregnant fantasy world, I thought I'd be marathon-ready nine months postpartum. Heck, I ran the Disneyland Paris Half Marathon while five months pregnant. I figured it took nine months to make a baby; maybe it would take nine months to un-make it, so to speak.

Yeah, that was totally delusional. My breastfed daughter refused-refused-to take a bottle for nearly six months. I tried everything. With her feeding and sleeping schedule on a two-hour cycle and her cat-napping habits, I couldn't sneak away for more than an hour.

Long runs? Forget it. I topped out at 4 or 5 miles if I wanted to shower too. Add in the exhaustion that comes with getting up one to, oh, seven times a night. Nap or run? That was my daily dilemma. I was lucky to have the energy to run at all. Never mind the babysitter factor. Lots of stars had to align for me to get in a simple 30-minute jog.

It didn't take long for reality to hit. I decided 5K would be my distance until circumstances improved-whenever that might be. I raced four of them in those nine months and quickly rebuilt my speed. Giving in to realism instead of chasing that unrealistic marathon goal put me in great shape once I was able to run longer. Plus, lowering my expectations made me feel so much better about what I was able to accomplish, instead of wringing my hands over what I wasn't. I enjoyed running short and fast, and it paid off in the long run.

Photo: Carla Bruning

I'm more patient.

Once my daughter was eating solids and sleeping better, I was ready to run longer and target a goal race. But it took those nine months to even get ready to train for a half marathon, let alone run one.

Patience really is a virtue, it seems, even in running. During that time, I built a solid base, worked on speed, and slowly rebuilt my mileage. And when setting that big one-year postpartum goal, I decided that running a half marathon, not a marathon, was wise.

Then there was the question: which race? The old me would have picked a cold-weather half marathon where I had a shot at running a personal best. But mom me wanted a great experience to celebrate my comeback. Sure, I wanted to run as hard as I could. But I cared less about time than about including my daughter.

The Disney Princess Half Marathon was it. The day before my run, my daughter finished her first race-the runDisney Kids Races Diaper Dash for little crawlers. A budding walker, she held my hands and tiptoed toward Minnie Mouse waiting at the finish line. Having that experience with her was more important to me than having a 40-degree, dry day. A faster time in cool weather will come when I have more mileage under my legs. Now, I have the patience to wait. (BTW, here's what I learned running 20 Disney races.)

I'm more committed.

Running has been a sanity saver for mommy me. I don't have any semblance of personal time. I'm either working or momming.

So my runs are sacred. I've missed fewer workouts than ever before because they are the one thing I do for myself. Even if I don't have as much time as I want, or can't run as long as my training plan prescribes, I run. In my pre-baby life, aka "when I had all the time in the world," it was easy to put off or skip workouts. But as a mom, it's now or never. And that's really helped me stay committed to my training.

Sure, I run less-fewer days per week, shorter distances, and lower mileage all around. But because I'm so committed to it, my training has been so much better. I'm more focused, nailing my training paces, and I take recovery and nutrition more seriously, too.

Thanks to the toll of pregnancy and childbirth, I've had aches and pains in places I didn't even know I could get aches and pains. So I've been rolling and stretching after every run. The result? My legs feel fresher during each workout, and I'm able to get more from them.

And because I'm still breastfeeding two to three times a day, I eat a lot-like, a LOT-and healthier food, too, since it's my daughter's nutrition source. I've come to realize that I was probably under-fueling before. Now, I eat more before runs, don't get hungry during long runs, and chow down right away afterward. I'm finally giving my body the energy it needs to run hard.

Photo: Carla Bruning

I'm more grateful.

Perspective. That's all it takes to move from the "I need to run" to the "I get to run" mentality. Motherhood did that for me-especially in the early postpartum days when I was convinced the entire contents of my pelvis would fall out and that I was sucking all the air out of the atmosphere. I was just excited to be running and not tethered to my baby. I focused on the "who," "what, "when," "where," and "why": me, run, now, here, because I can. And I forgot about the "how"-how fast, how far, how hard, how hot.

With that change in perspective, my workouts have been so much more enjoyable and, in turn, more focused. I've loved running hard, sweating, and feeling like it hurts so good. I've savored the accomplishment of checking off every workout each week.

With that gratitude, I've found a new kindness too. I'm easier on myself when I'm tired or slower or just not feeling it. I go with the flow more than ever before. And that leads me to the biggest change of all…

I'm stronger.

No, I'm not talking about strength training-I wish I had time for that. But hey, I pushed out a baby!

Compared to giving birth, running a half marathon or marathon is easy. Yeah, I said it. Thanks to that experience, I'm able to dig deeper than I ever have before. When I'm flagging and need a boost, I just think about delivery.

Becoming a mom-not just delivering a baby, but surviving the first year of motherhood-has made me realize that I'm stronger than I think. I've survived sleep torture, mastitis, colic, and so much more in the last year. I am mom. Hear me roar.

With just 100 meters to go of the Disney Princess Half Marathon, I started to dry heave, again and again. Pre-baby Karla might have walked it out, as I did at my last PR-attempt when I felt like hurling. Mom Karla? Forget it. Full steam ahead, retching as I ran, right up to the finish line. My husband couldn't believe it. But that's mommydom. That's the new me.

I handed Mickey Mouse a high five, knowing I gave it my all. It wasn't just my longest run post-baby, or my first half marathon post-baby, but probably the race I'm most proud of-pre-baby, post-baby, anytime-baby.

I walked around the Magic Kingdom in the hours after the race with my medal and my daughter in hand. We queued up to meet an array of Disney Princesses-Cinderella, Ariel, and Belle. It took one baby, one year of training, and one Disney race to finally help me realize: I'm a beauty and a beast.