How I "climbed" Everest 20 weeks pregnant & the value of still setting challenges
Updated: Sep 3
It’s Everest Week!!! One of my favourite running organisers, Centurion, have put out another challenge for while races are still cancelled. Instead of how far can you run its how high can you climb – perfect for my treadmill hikes. And of course I’ve decided to take on Everest (there were a couple of crazier options but I was never going to get them past my coach).
This post is all about my strategy for taking on the challenge in pregnancy and how it went so hope you enjoy it!
I’m feeling good about my running and fitness at the moment – my treadmill sessions have been pushing me and my outside runs have served to clear my head. But I have been missing the focus of a challenge or race. My last race was almost 6 months ago (unless you count Parkrun where I’ve technically been the Guildford ladies champ for 5 months now due to lockdown!) and I am really longing for something to get excited about!
One of the reasons I love Ultramarathons is the feeling of overcoming a challenge – of pushing my body and mind to their limits. I love the preparation too – the logistics, kit and food planning and race strategy. Obviously in pregnancy I can’t push my body to its limit – but there’s no reason a challenge can’t tick all the other boxes. Everest is perfect for this – 8848m (29030 feet) is a huge amount to climb and I’m going to try and do it within just 3 days. The challenge is technically to do it over a week but we’re off on holiday at the weekend and I think I’ll be so bored of my treadmill if it stretches out too long! And if I can’t quite make it for whatever reason I can still hopefully still climb the equivalent of one of the shorter mountains in the challenge such Mont Blanc (a not so small 4810m).
Pregnancy wise it’s low impact as I’ll be hiking uphill on a cushioned treadmill so I don’t forsee any problems pelvis wise but I’m being very vigilant. Pregnancy is like ultraracing in many ways – you have to listen so closely to your body. There are aches and pains all the time. The key thing is to work out what is normal and you should suck up and keep going (eg quads aching after a long downhill) and what is a warning sign of an injury and needs rest.
I first need to work out how I’m going to climb. My treadmill goes up to 40% incline, but anything steeper than 25% and I don’t feel safe (and of course holding the bars is cheating!!). My tight calves don’t like it either. But I can obviously hike faster at lower inclines – so the first question is what is the optimum pace and incline? Essentially how can I climb the most metres per hour keeping my heart rate around 140.
So last week I spent 30 mins at the end of an incline session (so I was already tired) playing around with a few options. 25% felt a bit much for my calves – fine for a shorter session but not for around 10 hours! I make a mental note to stretch them more during the challenge to make sure they don’t become a problem. The table shows the results – the optimum climbing per heart rate beat was at 20% - as steep as I could comfortably go but I imagine 25% might have been better.
151ppm is too high at 5kph so I’ve decided to go with 4.5 to start with. At 900m per hour, that has me climb Everest in under 9 hours of moving time. Adjusting for evening sessions, when I have less energy, conference calls and tired legs that feels do-able – especially as a few hundred metres will be conquered outside with my 5 year old as he goes for his Kinder Scout medal!
The next question is how to break it down? 3 days means 3 hours per day but that has to be fitted around shortened school days and nursery times! Oh as well as trying to do some work…. I reschedule everything I can to the end of the week where I plan to catch up. There are 2 calls I really can’t shift so I decide to multitask and do them from the treadmill (going a bit slower so that when I stop it to speak I don’t need to take a minute to recover first!). Luckily one is with Women in Sport, a charity I am a trustee of who will completely understand (and support!) the challenge. The other is with a technology company who I’ve worked with for years so already understand that I’m slightly bonkers.
I decide to split into 3 sessions – morning after dropoff, afternoon just before pickup then evening after my 2 year old’s bedtime (my 5 year old is rather happy as this means he can hang out downstairs with Dad watching Lego Star Wars for a few nights). I’m worried about my energy in the evening which has been low ever since I became pregnant so expect this session to be a slightly easier incline and a bit slower.
Food and hydration
Taking this on while pregnant means I have to give a bit more thought to fuelling. I need to make sure I have enough energy for both baby and I, but also I’m finding it harder to recover between workouts at the moment. I need to make sure I fuel properly with a mix of protein and carbs after each workout to be in the best position to tackle the next one. The great thing is I need so many calories that I can add in all my favourite treats on top!
Breakfast 8am – chocolate protein porridge & a banana
Session 1 9.30am – 60-90 mins
Post session 11am protein shake or couple of eggs on toast
Lunch 12pm – big chicken & avocado sandwich (and a few chocolate biscuits)
Session 2 1.30pm – 60 mins
Post session 2.30pm – large bowl skyr yoghurt with berries, banana and flaxseed mix. Bag (or 2) of salt & vinegar crisps
Dinner 6pm– noodle stir fry or lasagne with salad
Session 3 7.30pm – 45-60 mins
Post session 8.30pm – protein shake and large bowl of my dad’s homemade ice cream!
In terms of calories it works out at around 3500-4000 per day which doesn’t put me into much of a deficit. Usually I’d be happy to eat a bit less as taking in that much food makes training harder but being pregnant puts the brakes on that! I also easily feel faint if I’m underfuelled at the moment which is of course dangerous on a treadmill.
Luckily for me I have a super stomach honed from over a decade in ultrarunning! I reckon its my secret weapon in races as I can eat a large pizza and run a few minutes later… The longer races – 80 miles plus really are eating and drinking races so no wonder its where I do best.
During the sessions I’m planning to have as much haribo as needed on the treadmill to keep me going. I know there are more optimal sources of fast hitting energy for physical performance. But keeping me happy is also important and sour fizzy haribo makes me very happy indeed. In ultras I always have a bag in my pack to give me a boost if I’m going through a low (or to have to offer to other runners who need a boost too).
Hydration is also important. In 2013 I fell into a coma and nearly died with hyponatremia on a race in Cambodia. I drank far too much water for my size, and didn’t have strong enough salt tablets to replace the dilution the drinking had caused. My sodium levels fell to 108 when they should have been 130+ which caused my brain to swell. So I’m pretty careful about salt now!
I had a sweat test soon after Cambodia with a company called Precision Hydration. It turns out I sweat almost 1000mg of salt per litre of water – which is on the high side. Most tabs contain only 250mg which means if I’m sweating a lot, my salt levels will fall – impairing my performance and health. When I race I usually replace half my salt using the strongest PH tablets (750mg per tab), and half using food. It’s quite fun to actively seek out snacks that have a big red flag on the front for their salt content!
It’s the middle of summer and whilst my treadmill has fans, my gym is still pretty hot! So I’m adding a 750mg tab to most of my 750ml bottles to be on the safe side.
Just like an ultrarace, I’m going through all of the things that could cause me to fail and seeing what I can control to give myself the best chance of finishing.
One of the things I’m becoming more aware of in pregnancy is how I move. I was lucky enough to have a session with Shane Benzie last year to assess my form in running. Shane is an expert in running form and he worked out very quickly which hip I always carry the kids on! When I’m not carrying them I slouch with my right hip outwards which is not good for my “elasticity” as he puts it.
I'm thinking of this now as walking uphill can cause my back to round slightly. I’ve been “getting away” with it for shorter sessions, but 9+ hours is a different matter and my back has already been complaining in pregnancy. What I don’t want is that my challenge ends due to an achy back so I stick a note on my treadmill reminding me to stand tall! It’s a small adjustment but I think it could make a big difference in the end.
Here's the breakdown of how it went (I love an excel spreadsheet)
Straight after school and nursery dropoff on Monday I hit the treadmill for the first session (thinking about it I should have included the dropoff route - it’s a good 80m ascent). 90 minutes target.
And immediately I’m bored. My treadmill sessions up until now have always been intervals – with the longest interval the 10 minute warm up or cool down. I spend most of the workout either working hard or recovering and its usually only a few minutes before I have to press another button so music (and the nice view from the window) works just fine. But 90 minutes the same? This will be a mental challenge as well as a physical one!
Luckily we have a tablet attached to the treadmill and I realise it’s a good chance to make use of our Netflix subscription. I start on a series called “Home Game”, which covers niche sports across the world. Towards the end of session 1 I’m learning about Calcio Storico – a crazy game from Florence which is a mix of rugby and bareknuckle boxing. I used to love playing Rugby and trained in Muay Thai for a while before I started running. But this looks particularly brutal – which helpfully makes my treadmill hike seem a lot easier. 90 mins, 1384m climbed feeling great.
Life then starts to get in the way, and my second session is cut to 49 minutes as the BT engineer arrives to fix our internet which is down. At least my Women in Sport call is postponed so I get a good session in all at 20% and stretch my calves out by hanging from the stairs whilst I talk to the engineer. I’ll probably never see him again so don’t care how strange I look!
I have to extend my evening session to stay on track but my legs are feeling the morning session. I reduce the incline to an average of 16% - which sounds a small difference but feels very different. It means 20% less metres per hour at 4.5kph, so I increase the speed to 5.3kph to make up most of the difference. I always knew my accountancy qualification would come in useful at some point in life…
I’m keeping to my food plan fairly closely – I didn’t need any extra fuel for the first sessions but the haribo really helps me power through the long last session. Every 200ft I climb I get an extra sweet. I try to make it last at least 100ft of ascent so I only then have 100ft to wait until the next one!
I force my protein shake down me after the last session and fall into bed at 9.30. I already need more sleep than usual but spending over 3.5 hours on the treadmill today leaves me extra exhausted!
Ooooooh legs….. I wake up and my legs feel like yesterday was a particularly hard long run. Luckily I have the school run to ease them into walking. First session is a quick one – just 39 mins as I need to prepare for a call I’m going to do during session 2. I’m really enjoying the Home Game series – this session I watch one on Roller Derby where these amazing fierce women race on rollerskates. Also much more brutal than walking on a treadmill so it all feels much easier! I know they say comparison is the thief of joy. And it usually is. But this is one time it’s bringing me joy.
Session 2 and 93 minutes of conference call. I’m mostly listening to a sales update and presentation so luckily its not a call I need to speak a lot on. At the start of the call, I’m stopping the treadmill to speak so they can hear me (and I can breathe properly) but by the end I just slow it down to keep the metres racking up! What I realise is I’m being more thoughtful about my contributions – I have to really want to say something as I have to stop my workout to do so. I’m wondering if I should do this in more meetings as I’m feeling more effective!
Part way through I can feel a soreness under my left glute so I take a good 20 minutes of stretching after this session (whilst multitasking on emails). It’s the site of an old injury – where my hamstring joins my glute so I want to make sure it doesn’t get any worse and rest it as much as possible.
My hubby joins me in the gym for the evening session to keep me company. Well, as much company as him on his wattbike racing on Zwift is. Having loosened everything up earlier I’m feeling pretty good and manage another hour and a half (fuelled by haribo). My back starts to ache a little part way through so I start wearing my support belt which fixes the problem. I forget that tomorrow is my eldest’s last day of school (which for some reason always means they finish early). It’ll be hard to do split sessions before pickup so I wanted to get extra done today. I stay up until 10 to finish some work…. And a pot of my dad’s amazing chocolate icecream!
There’s something that changes inside me when I can sniff the finish line. The original plan was to do 90 mins in the morning then 50ish to finish in the evening but when hubby offers to do the drop-offs, helping me start earlier I know I’m not getting off that treadmill until its all over!!
2hrs 20 mins straight. Several messages to hubby downstairs to come and refill my bottles and bring more haribo. And a few episodes of the Netflix documentary on Babies. Which make me quite emotional at times knowing there’s a growing one inside me. The early days of both my sons seem so long ago and my memories so hazy I’m looking forward to doing it all again. Well all except labour. And the sleepless nights. Wait, why am I doing this again?
And suddenly its all over. The session ticks up to 2148m, I check my calculations and that’s it. Just over 50 hours from start to finish. Almost 10 hours on a treadmill at 19.4% average incline covering more than a marathon. And a complete change from the usual finish line! Just hubby who took a picture of me looking rather relieved.
Luckily all I have to do after the monster session is sit on a picnic blanket for 3 hours whilst Donnacha runs around with his friends to celebrate the end of school. Because anything else would be too much! Whilst the sessions weren’t physically too taxing, I’m definitely a lot more tired than I would usually be (probably something about growing a baby at the same time).
I’m feeling a mix of emotions – from pride to relief and everything in between. But also a sense of completeness. Its been 4 months since I found out I was pregnant. 4 months with so much on pause – in all areas of life. And to compound it all we found out we were pregnant just as the country started locking down for Covid. Just as schools and nurseries closed and I found myself juggling work, full time childcare – and a house move on top! It would have been hard enough without being pregnant!
Now life is as normal as it might get for a while outside pregnancy. But pregnancy makes everything harder – from the physical changes, to the restrictions, to losing time at either end of the day to needing more sleep! I often find myself feeling inadequate as I’m not getting enough done each day, or performing my best. Luckily I have my husband to remind me I’m pregnant and that’s normal!
But having this challenge has really helped clear my head and give me confidence again in how strong my body and mind are – just what I need to prepare for labour and motherhood. Often the pressure is to give everything up in pregnancy – to submit to 9 months of our baby taking over our body. Which neglects the very important point that a healthy and happy mum grows a healthy and happy baby. We can still set challenges and achieve our goals, we can still grow through pregnancy. We just have to be a little bit creative to adapt where we need to : )
I’m halfway through this pregnancy now and the countdown clock can now start to the real challenge. A 20 week training program to prepare for the biggest event there is.