Races Are Supporting Breastfeeding Runners – Runner’s World

Races Are Supporting Breastfeeding Runners  Runner’s World

After giving birth to her son 10 months ago, New York City-based actor and teacher Dana Shulman felt like she was in no shape to run a marathon. But she’d already deferred her 2021 New York City Marathon race entry on account of being pregnant and didn’t want to miss out once again, so she decided to go ahead and tackle 26.2 miles through the five boroughs. “I thought, I’m not going to PR so I’ll just go for a long walk,” says the eight-time marathoner, guessing it would take her about eight hours to complete. Because she’s still breastfeeding her son, it became clear she’d also have to figure out a way to pump on race day.

“I didn’t even think about reaching out to anyone to ask about pumping; it didn’t occur to me that the event would offer it. I knew I could probably check my pump and get it at the end,” she tells Runner’s World. “So I had a plan that one of my friends was going to meet me, and we were going to walk and pump together for a little bit.”

But on race day, Shulman didn’t end up bringing her pump. She didn’t need to. The New York City Marathon, through a new collaboration between New York Road Runners (NYRR) and &Mother, the nonprofit organization cofounded by Alysia Montaño in the wake of her game-changing New York Times op-ed, had her covered.

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For the past 10 years, the New York City Marathon has, like other major marathons, including Boston, allowed participants to check their own pumps as medical devices at the start, and transported them to the finish. But this year’s marathon saw the rollout of a more expansive offering. For the first time, NYCM offered personal pumps that could be used by lactating runners at the start and finish of the event. There were also lactation stations along the route, at miles 8, 16, and 21.

This change could inspire other races around the world to follow suit. The will is there. Deferral policies are changing to include pregnant and postpartum runners, and after runner and &Mother program manager, Julia Sachdev’s viral post about women bonding in the pumping tent, the Boston Marathon has committed to drawing greater attention to its lactation facilities. But there’s still work to do.

How Support for Breastfeeding Came to the New York City Marathon

Through the breastfeeding service Babyation, &Mother provided with single-use phalanges and hand pumps on race day. This year, NYRR emailed out a press release, sharing the information ahead of time. There was also a dedicated &Mother booth at the expo for any questions lactating runners may have had.

“What we want is for this to be standardized,” Montaño tells Runner’s World. The Olympian and mom of three, who has become known for her fierce advocacy of maternal rights, wants to take down barriers that new mothers face when it comes to taking part in races.

“We want for runners to know, when I show up on race day, like anything else, I know what the course is, I know where the medical tent is, I know where the porta-potties are, I know where our postrace snacks are going to be, I know what wave I’m in—and I know where lactation [can happen],” she says. “It’s not a last-minute afterthought of what do I need to make sure I’m successful on race day as a lactating person.”

For runners like Kseniya Gadh, a health coach who lives in Manhattan with her husband and two children, having one less thing to think about on marathon Sunday made it easier. “It was a huge relief not to think about checking [my pump] in and then retrieving it at the end,” she says. “It was my first marathon so taking that anxiety off was helpful.”

Originally from Ukraine and having moved here 15 years ago, Gadh raised money for her homeland while training, and admitted it was hard to fit in training while breastfeeding, but running for a cause kept her on track. She and her husband took a train to the Staten Island ferry with her 11-month-old where she was able to feed him right before getting on the boat. At the finish line, she headed straight for a lactation station. “[At that stage] my boobs were leaking and screaming. My son was at home, so feeding him right there was not an option,” she says.

This is exactly why &Mother worked to provide areas for lactating runners to privately express milk, both on the course and off it. “Everyone’s breasts are different,” says Montaño. “By mile 8, you could need to relieve yourself, or maybe it’s at mile 4 or mile 20. But if your breasts start filling up and you’re suddenly engorged, we have an opportunity for you to relieve yourself… You have a space to be able to do that, and we have equipment for you to be able to do that.”

How &Mother Supports New Moms in Other Races

Tangibly supporting new mothers has been a key aim of &Mother since it was founded in 2020. At the USATF Championships in June this year, for the first time ever, on-site childcare was provided, through a partnership with &Mother and Allyson Felix’s sponsor, Athleta. But in more recent months, the organization has been helping everyday runners access that support, too.

In September this year, the inaugural Salomon WMN’s Trail Half Marathon ensured child-care and lactation stations for participants. Elysha Omoomy, pictured above, a marathoner who lives in San Francisco, says this was part of why she signed up. “Knowing there were these types of resources on race day gave me peace of mind that I would be supported mentally and physically,” she tells Runner’s World. “I used the lactation tent immediately after crossing the finish line to pump, which was a relief knowing I was in a safe, private and sanitary space, and not in a germ-filled porta-potty trying to pump milk for my child to drink.”

The weekend after NYC, &Mother also helped provide lactation amenities at the Monterey Half Marathon. It also plans to offer services at the California International Marathon in December. And &Mother has more rollouts planned for lactation and caregiving services in the months to come.

The Need for More Changes on Race Day

The Salomon trail race had about 250 participants; the New York City Marathon, with just under 50,000, was a whole different level, and brought its own challenges. Runner and dietician Melanie Sulaver, who’s 13 months postpartum, says she was going to use the lactation station at the start, but couldn’t because her shuttle was late and only got to her corral with minutes to spare. She also didn’t see clear signage for the lactation tent at mile 16. “Coming off of the Queensboro, which is already an aggressive mental area,” she says, “I was focused on getting to the next mile so wasn’t going to stop and explore.”

Running the course herself gave Montaño first-hand insight into what needs to be improved for next year. “This was the pilot program,” she says. “If we never had an opportunity to see what we needed to do, we would just be living in the same set-up of no support at all.” &Mother is focused on addressing the issues that came up on race day, together with NYRR, who Montaño adds, has shown a firm commitment to working on this cause.

While NYRR is still compiling data about how many runners used the facilities, NYRR’s senior vice president of culture, diversity, equity, and social responsibility, Erica Edwards-O’Neal, says they’ve received positive feedback anecdotally. “Nursing mothers running the TCS New York City Marathon were extremely grateful for the enhanced services New York Road Runners provided them on race day and being inclusive of their needs,” she tells Runner’s World. Both NYRR and &Mother, which has a survey on its website about what kind of support new mothers need, welcome the feedback about how to improve races for new caregivers.

One major request among the lactating runners Runner’s World spoke to was about what happens with the milk once it’s pumped. At the New York City Marathon, it was tossed. “Some people are unable to provide this free luxury of breastfeeding, and in a time of formula shortage, it’s even more important to have milk banks as we do blood banks,” says Gadh. “I think what NYRR could do is to offer to donate pumped breast milk to others in need.” Other mothers would like to be able to see that milk they’ve pumped, along with their medal, at the end of the finish line.

Montaño agrees wholeheartedly, and says preserving the integrity of breastmilk requires testing and other logistical issues that they weren’t able to pull off in the limited time they had before gaining approval to be part of the marathon structure.

Supporting Parents Goes Beyond Races

As Montaño has maintained in the past, this is not just a sports issue, it’s societal, and has economic repercussions. “Sports is a microcosm of the world, and the marathon, in particular, shows the barriers that people face in parenthood in getting to the finish line,” she says. This is not just about ensuring new parents get to run, but about “how we allow full participation for mothers, in their lives, in anything that they do.”

And uplifting families starts with uplifting the primary caregivers, which is often mothers. “For me, I already lived through being pushed out of my career in so many senses of the word—dismissed, erased from being an athlete—because I’m a mother as well,” says Montaño. “It’s like the last thought [we have] is, how do we support a mother to fully show up as a whole self to pursue her goals and thrive?”

For many mother runners, thriving means taking care of their mental health, and participating in a race can go beyond the physical achievement and into the mental side. “You’re entering this new world, with this new body—my hair is falling out, my priorities have shifted—it’s nice to be able to say, maybe this identity that I had as runner or as an endurance sports athlete, I can still connect to that in some way,” Shulman says.

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