Sophie Power made global headlines when she was snapped breastfeeding her baby during the 105-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and it started her on a crusade to get women the opportunities they deserve.
“To be honest, I thought it was normal: I had a goal and a baby and if I could manage both of them why wouldn’t I do that? So when I was asked for permission to use the photo, I had no idea it would go viral! But I thought, if that picture makes the [Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc] organisers change their race rules so pregnant women can defer their entry, and won’t have to go through what I did, that would be a great outcome.”
Sophie is talking about the photo taken of her by Alexis Berg for Strava part way through 2018’s UTMB, breastfeeding her three-month-old baby. A photo which spread round the world like wildfire. “But I then realised it was about far more than that. It wasn’t about me at all. It was about all women getting back to being themselves after having babies and still feeling able to have goals. It gave permission for women to run a 10K after having a baby and to give themselves the time for that.”
UTMB had been Sophie’s dream for years but it’s a race so in demand you need to earn qualifying points by doing other tough ultras. “I’d had a place in 2014 and I got pregnant so I lost the place – they defer you if you have an injury, but not if you are pregnant.”
She again got the qualifying points she needed and a place a few years later. But again timing was not on her side. “I ended up having a three-month-old baby at the time. I didn’t think I’d ever actually do the race when I took up the place, but I thought if I had it in the diary, I’d stay strong during the pregnancy and get back to myself more quickly. As it happened, my recovery and training went well ,so I decided to give it a try – against the advice of my friends and coach!”
Her UTMB race plan was very different to Sophie’s previous ultras: “I was asking myself how slowly I could go and I needed to eat huge amounts. You can only process 250 calories per hour, but my milk supply would go down if I didn’t eat and I didn’t want to risk my ability to breastfeed. I also couldn’t run downhill because my pelvis was too fragile, so I lost my normal speed.” Feed stations
The UTMB starts at 6pm so Sophie breastfed Cormac on the start line and knew it was going to be 16 hours before she’d see him again. “I didn’t carry a pump so I ended up expressing behind trees and down toilets; at every station I was trying to squeeze out as much milk as possible because my breasts were like watermelons and so painful.”
The next morning she met up with her husband and baby to do a feed – when the much shared photo was taken – and then met again three more times with a pump before crossing the finish line. “It was a great race actually,” Sophie smiles. “It was nice to look at the views, chat to people at the stations, and I was able to run over the finish line with my three year old. You can’t explain DNF to a three year old so I knew had no choice but to finish!”
”That photo was about all women getting back to being themselves after having babies and still feeling able to have goals “
”Being a mother isn’t the end of your sporting journey. In fact, you need that time to yourself more than ever.”
The photo made Sophie stop and think further. What positive impact could she have on others? “the hundreds of messages I had from women who’d seen that photo was amazing. I see what running and sport does for me and my friends, and I began to think that if I could play a small part in helping other women, that would be amazing.
“We all hear a lot about elite athletes coming back to sport after having a baby. I’m a bit weird, maybe, but I’m an amateur. I don’t run 100 miles a week, I have kids and a dog and many other parts of my life, and I guess the photo showed that normal mums can get back to it too. Being a mother isn’t the end of your sporting journey. In fact, you need that time to yourself more than ever.”
Women In Sport
Sophie was announced as a trustee for Women in Sport in April. It’s a charity close to our hearts, which looks for ways to help more women into sport. She’s excited about the appointment and how she’ll use her experience on the board of a tech business as well as her passion for sport. “I wanted to combine my business mind and my sporting knowledge. there are so many grassroots organisations out there that are very hands on, but they can only touch so many women. Women In Sport sits above that and wants to use insight, research and advocacy to change the sporting landscape for women.
Sophie thinks striving for equality is simplistic: “It’s not about equality of opportunities – it’s about considering that men and women are very different. Men don’t have menstrual cycles, for instance, or give birth, or go through menopause. I’ll do everything I can do to help women get more support and representation so we all have opportunity to be active whether it’s running, team sports or solo endeavours.
“We need to see more role models in elite sport and have more sporting coverage so young girls grow up aiming to be pro athletes. We need more role models of older women doing sport, people of ethnic minorities being active, people with disabilities enjoying a sporting life.
Sophie also sees the other ways in which sport is important. Lots of skillsets at work and in the boardroom can be learnt on the sports field as a youngster and at the moment women are missing out on that – leadership, team work and so on – because opportunities for girls to play sport really dwindle in the teenage years. “We need to change how we think about sport at the top level or we won’t put funding in the right place and we won’t give women the opportunities they deserve.”
Not a runner?
Sophie’s mindset had been set from an early age that she was not a runner. She says that girls tend to give themselves labels through their youth, and those labels can change their mental and physical health for the rest of their lives. “It’s only really since I became a mother that I think my body is amazing.
Since I gave birth, it’s doesn’t matter what my body looks like, and it’s similar with running. I can run 100 miles and I’d far rather be able to do that than be skinny or have a certain look. I’d far rather be strong.”
Sophie’s journey to running seems, like for many of us, a sort of accident. She was not a sporty kid. She can remember coming second to last in a one-mile run at school and because she wasn’t fit or good enough to join school sports teams, she accepted that sport wasn’t for her.
Ather dallying with rugby and rowing at university, her long hours as an investment banker set her life in a sedentary pattern. Until, that is, she met a friend in a fish and chip shop for lunch and accidentally signed up for a 250K ultramarathon in the Sahara Desert.
“My friend had just done the Marathon des Sables (MdS) and he said I should do it, because I was a fast hiker. I othen wonder whether, if we’d never had that lunch, I’d ever have found ultrarunning. Ultra is such a big part of my life now and I’d gone along assuming I couldn’t run because of that run when I was 14.”
Sophie had just been made redundant and spent a few weeks travelling, kick boxing and weight training in Thailand. She was physically very fit, but had never run. “I didn’t know what it involved, but sometimes I think the right thing is to just sign up for things. I signed up, they gave me a place and nine months later I was running across the desert.”
No weighting around
With her weight-training background ensuring strength and warding off injuries, Sophie set out to run. Her first run was a slow 10K. But very quickly she attempted her first ultra, the threeday 84-miler, the Druid’s Challenge.
When she did MdS she realised she was faster than other people. “I could run more than them and I could hike faster, so I quickly got more confident. A lot of ultra running is about being able to manage yourself and that’s why women excel at it. We are good at looking after ourselves and our feet, nutrition and hydration. We’re brilliant at putting egos aside.”
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She realised after that first ultra that she hadn’t pushed herself to her limits: “I found it quite comfortable. I love that everyone is stripped back to who they really are and out in nature with a proper amount of time to think.”
So over the past decade, Sophie has continued doing ultras, including the 250K Fire and Ice Ultra in Iceland, and the 250K RacingthePlanet Nepal. She also tried an Ironman but she didn’t love that. “I hated the culture. I found it very time pressured, and selfish. Ultra running is very much about people looking out for each other and being with each other. It’s a safety thing – in many races, you get disqualithed if you don’t help others. the Ironman was about the kit and the times, it was all so complicated, and people were always in a rush.”
Her toughest race? That’s an easy one. “I put myself in a coma during the [220K] Ancient Khmer Path in Cambodia. I was airlithed from the jungle, given a 50 per cent chance of living, and a high risk of brain damage if I did survive.”
Er, what?! “Basically, I’d drunk too much water and not balanced my salts out. I had blood salts of 108 and it’s supposed to be 130. But my high level of fitness helped me survive. I’m very careful with salts now – I have a detailed salt plan and Precision Hydration plan. I sweat 100mg per litre, which is a bit above average, but I don’t use sports drinks and I use real food so I’m not ingesting enough salt during very long races. That’s why I have a salt plan.
“A 50-mile race would be fine, but it’s very different when you’re in hot conditions over a long period of time as your reserves can dwindle quickly. Because of what happened in Cambodia, I’m careful not to drink too much. I’m really small so I don’t need to drink as much as larger people. Cambodia changed my mindset about how I race and what I choose and, now that I have a family, I wouldn’t do any races that put me in danger.”
“I put myself in a coma. I was airlithed from the jungle, given a 50 per cent chance of living and a high risk of brain damage “
And which of her many races is she most proud of? “the Spartathlon, I think,” she replies. “It’s the iconic ultramarathon. You have to do 153 miles in 36 hours, the time cut-off is tight and it’s hot and hilly.”
Sophie was only the 9th (or possibly 10th) British woman to ever finish that race when she did it. She was the only female out of 25 Brits who qualithed and it was the first time she had a coach, training plan and race plan. It was also the first time she felt scared by a challenge she’d taken on.
“I didn’t think I could do it. But I followed the race plan and I was very proud of myself. I had an edema in my quad and I had to limp the last 13 miles, which was excruciatingly painful and meant I went at two miles an hour.”
Sophie still loves running, but her new passion is her advocacy and lobbying role for Women In Sport. “I want to learn as much as I can, so I can be as impactful as possible.”
And her current hot topic is one most of us will get on board with. “I get really angry about pelvic floor and how little it’s talked about and researched. The truth is that at least one in three women have a problem with it and it stops women doing exercise, which has a massive impact on their mental and physical health.”
And yet what do we hear, she muses? “We hear jokes about how women can’t do Joe Wicks star jumps. It makes me angry. It changes lives so dramatically and yet the funding isn’t there to educate women after pregnancy – then women aren’t the ones in charge, so it slips off the agenda.” Not for long, we reckon. She’s certainly made her mark on the trails and we can’t wait for Sophie Power to make her mark off them, too.