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  • Writer's pictureEmily

Ultra Mama: Nikki Parnell

I first met Nikki shortly after my family moved to Bend, OR. We met at a running group for moms through the local running store, and Nikki would run a couple miles from her house to the group run because her double stroller didn't fit in her car. She would then run ~4miles with the group and run home again after, all with her baby girl and little boy in tow. It didn't take long for me to realize what a great mom she is, and that I wanted to be her friend!

It was a while before I learned Nikki was an ultra runner, but I couldn't say I was surprised. She's a natural athlete and from Bend, OR, which means trail running is in her blood. Shortly after her daughter's first birthday she did a 50k...just for fun...and had a blast!! Then I learned she was training for a 50miler and I had so many questions for her! Nikki was kind enough to agree to share her experience about being an ultra runner and mom of two. It's really hard to go from identifying as a runner, then to a mother, then trying to combine the two to create a balance, especially when you need the time to train for an ultra while taking care of your family.

It takes a lot of guts to even show up at the starting line of an ultra marathon, and I am so excited and honored to share Nikki's story!

Momming and Running Ultras

If we’re being real, most things in life get (A) more challenging and (B) more rewarding after having children. Running is no exception.

Once you become a mother, running changes. There will be different seasons you go through. Some times you’ll have to adjust your expectations in seasons of healing. Because running is very physical and your physical body just birthed a human – there’s going to be repercussions. It’s a time to be kind to yourself and to have the courage to say no when you’re not ready.

But you’ll get it back.

You’ll hit seasons where running feels good again and you get that tingle of excitement when you first contemplate going after a big goal. That moment when you let yourself believe your idea is possible and that you are capable. Then you’ll know you’re ready to find out what you’re made of – you never know what you can do until you try.

It’s not going to be an easy undertaking though, because being a runner and a mother is not easy. Training for races is not easy. There is so much work that goes on behind the scenes of a mother making it to the start line of a race. Sick kids and nap times and scheduling babysitting. Diapers and breast-feeding and toddler emotions. Stroller miles and squeezing runs in whenever you can. Long runs immediately followed by running after the kids – NOT a shower, food, and lounge time. Packing for your race as well as every other thing that might possibly be needed for the kids while you’re running (snacks, clothes, sunscreen, pacifiers, toys, oh and snacks (because anything goes on race day)). BUT even after this chaos and mayhem of training while parenting, showing up and making it to the start line is such a beautiful thing and so so worth it.

Training for ultras while mothering little kids can be exhausting – it feels overwhelming at times when your kids need so much of you while you’re in a depleted, sore, and tired state. Typically, I find that I’m a calmer and more patient parent after I’ve done a long run or race. Maybe because I don’t have the energy to get worked up about the little things that don’t matter much anyway. Or maybe because the run filled me up and reminded myself of who I am, who I want to be, and that I am stronger than I think. And coming home to my kids with those reminders in my head is a helpful thing. I would never say that I come home as supermom, but I FEEL like that sometimes, lifted up and empowered, and I like that my kids get to see that.

If nothing else, they see the showing up and the saying “yes” to the challenge. It’s not always pretty and not every run or race goes according to plan (because, life) but it’s bigger than just the performance. My mantra as of late has been “the beauty is in the showing up”. Sometimes that’s all you can do.

Recently, I found myself at the start of the Siskiyou Outback (SOB) 50 miler in Ashland, Oregon. My second 50 mile race. I have two kids – a 3 and ½ year old boy and a 15 month old girl. I ran my first 50 miler a day after my son turned one. I somehow survived that and decided to sign up for another one after our second child.

I guess there’s something inside of me that longs to break out and do something wild after having each child. Maybe to prove to myself that I’m still here, I’m still me, and I can still do the things that have always made me feel alive and invigorated, even now, in the throws of motherhood.

The training to get to this race was haphazard. I got in the runs I needed to to survive the race but I’m not typically one who waits to do a race until she’s entirely and completely ready to be competitive. Which means I’m usually ready-ish and just excited to have a long day out on the trails. I did a 50k six weeks before the 50 miler and then a couple 20 mile long runs in between (one of the runs having 7,000ft of climbing and gave me 5 hours of time on my feet). But in the life of a parent runner, things come up sometimes and it’s tough to fit in long runs. I was supposed to do a 20 mile run on mother’s day this year and I chose to go out for coffee and treats with my family instead. Didn’t regret that choice for a second. My point being, you do the best you can.

So alas, race day arrived after a grueling week of the kids being sick. Isn’t timing a funny thing? But, I was able to start the race healthy for the most part (slight sore throat and a headache at mile 2, but both went away fairly quickly). The course was gorgeous and enjoyable and I was feeling great for the first 30 miles. It was a treat to be out in the mountains running on trails in peace and quiet. It’s something a mother just can’t take for granted. No stroller, no 1.9 million adorable but tricky toddler questions, no baby getting impatient. Just silence and time in your own head. The unfortunate part of this race was that there was no crew access, so I missed seeing my little family crewing and cheering me on at aid stations along the course (our 3 year old has a great talent with the cowbell and hollering encouragement to all runners). I was also thankful that this race came at a time when my youngest wouldn’t need me during the day – I’m still nursing but only a little bit and less often so I could remain comfortable and my little girl was fine hanging with our crew for the day (my husband and my in-laws).

As I continued along in the race, the fatigue trickled in and I hit some dirt road stretches that felt like they were going to last forever. It’s amazing how your pace can be so slow and yet with many miles on your feet already, even that sluggish pace feels uncomfortable. It became hard to get food down at the aid stations - I was mostly drinking Coca-Cola and eating potato chips and Cheez-Its . I carried a cup of said Cheez-Its and gummy bears in my hydration pack pouch to munch on as I journeyed along the way. I kept reminding myself that if I just put one foot in front of the other, I would get to the finish. Eventually. At mile 44 I reached the final brutal climb, 3,000+ feet up Mt. Ashland. I tried to enjoy the hiking miles and the views but it was daunting and slightly depressing to look and see the trail still winding up, up, up when all I wanted at that point was to be done. I might have shed some tears here and there. My husband (also an ultra runner) was waiting for me at the top of the mountain with all the positivity and support that I needed so badly. The first thing I said to him was “I should have done the 50k! Why did you let me do this to myself?!” But he immediately smiled the all-knowing smile of another runner who understands what it’s like to suffer in a long race. He shook his head, told me that accomplishing this would feel so good and that I was running this race better than I thought. He ran the last 1,000 foot descent to the finish line with me (a tender footed endeavor because my feet were sliding around in my shoes and opening up my blisters). When all was said and done, my time was 11 hours and 51 minutes. A 29 minute PR from my first 50 mile race! I was 2nd in my age group and 11th female overall. And boy did it feel good to be DONE. To see my crew, squeeze my kids, and SIT in a chair.

As I’ve reflected on this past race experience, I’ve thought about how I’ve been doing ultras for about 6 years now, since before having kids. I can see how the training and racing is more chaotic and messily thrown together but there’s also something really powerful about continuing to go after what you love even after having children.

I think mamas carry everything with them – the challenges of motherhood that make them stronger and the extra lives they’ve created that make them fuller. And when you carry all of it into your passions and pursuits you can’t help but feel a deep contentedness and gratefulness that makes all the effort worth it.

Plus, if you’re like me and always looking for ways to be a more peaceful and laid back parent, there really isn’t anything so blissful as that recovery week after an ultra. It’s the best reset button and the best time of resting, enjoying life with the kids, and only indulging in fun activities and all the good food.

It’s simply the Best. Feeling. Ever.

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