It might only be October, but we’re ready to declare this our best photo of 2018. Because women are still fighting for what they deserve, even on the roads and trails of the sports we love so much. Every comment, like and repost of this photo reinforces what every female athlete already knows: we’re not there yet. In a sport that celebrates simplicity and freedom, sadly it remains complicated for female runners to toe the start line. From the heartache of not being able to defer a dream race due to pregnancy, to the stigma around public breastfeeding, to unequal pay and promotion, running is failing to make it easy. It’s failing to give female athletes the opportunity to stand on the startline equally prepared, equally welcome and equally celebrated. That matters.
Sophie Power didn’t race UTMB, a 105-mile trail race around Mont Blanc, just three months after giving birth to her son Cormac because she wanted to make a point to the world. She raced UTMB because she wasn’t prepared to give up on a dream she’d been chasing for four years. “Yes, if I could have deferred that place I absolutely would have done so,” says Sophie. “I had my place in 2014 and I lost that because I was pregnant and I couldn’t defer it. I tried to get in to race CCC [a 63-mile race that is part of the UTMB running festival] in 2015, and then in 2016 and 2017 I tried for UTMB. I missed out two years in a row, which means you get your automatic place in 2018,” explains Sophie. “I knew that it would be a long time before I got another place.”
In 2018, it’s almost unbelievable that athletes can get race deferral for an injury but not pregnancy. Almost, but not quite, because it happens all the time. In a world where we talk about female CEOs and equal parenting, a pulled calf is still considered a more valid excuse to defer a race than carrying a child. Female athletes lose out on races they’ve busted a gut to qualify for, they relinquish dreams they’ve chased for years because, for some reason, it is too hard, too complicated or too inconvenient to allow them to defer their place.
Sophie didn’t want to relinquish the place on the UTMB startline she’d worked so hard to secure. She wanted to run. “Having UTMB, even though I never really thought I’d be on the start line, was just a date in the diary to say, ‘Okay every week I’m going to go to the gym and when I’m in my first trimester and I’m absolutely knackered, I’m still going to try and keep fit,’” says Sophie. “It was more about, ‘Let’s make sure I am making the time for myself,’ rather than, ‘Let’s make sure I am a certain fitness or I’m going to be on the start line.’”
While the story of Sophie’s UTMB has ironically become defined by this photo, UTMB became about the exact opposite for her – it helped her find a definition of herself outside of being a mum. “There are some amazing runners where being a mum is the identity they assume and they throw out everything else. And they just want to be mums and that’s amazing,” says Sophie. “But I say there’s another massive group of women out there that don’t want to lose themselves. That have a need for an escape. They’ve never been 100% anything before. All of us have so many parts of our lives, and to give up something that feels very important for you is difficult.”
Being an athlete and a mum isn’t contradictory, as we’re often led to believe. They’re complementary. “When you return to your baby [after exercising] you have all this energy to spend with them. I’m a better mother when I am not spending 24 hours a day with Cormac. A much better mother. I can see that in his face. Every time I come back from exercise I have more energy and he is really excited to see me,” says Sophie.
When our photographer Alexis Berg spotted Sophie breastfeeding at the Courmayeur aid station, he knew he was witnessing something worth celebrating. Something that was the definition of grit, determination and the raw beauty of sport. And, until he approached Sophie, nobody else had noticed. “That’s the hilarious thing about a lot of the coverage with people saying ‘she should have covered up,’” says Sophie. “If anyone has seen an aid station at an ultramarathon, it is half-naked people, passed out people, people tending to their feet. Nobody has any interest in what anyone else is doing. The only people who noticed apart from Alexis the photographer, who wasn’t looking at his own feet and feeding himself, were the medics at the stations I pumped at.”
The aid stations of an ultra race are some of the rawest, most unfiltered environments in the sporting world. Which is why we love them. They’re where dreams come unstuck and are patched back together. They’re disgusting and beautiful and everything in between. But somehow, while we’re all used to seeing men vaseline any and every crevice you can imagine, or take a piss basically wherever they please, a woman breastfeeding still provokes disbelief, or even outrage. It’s about time the world got used to it.