Ultrarunner Fiona English worked for years to qualify for the prestigious Boston Marathon. At the end of last year, she finally earned her place, but there was a slight hitch: she is pregnant and is due to give birth two days before the race scheduled for April 17th. When the 34-year-old was told she couldn’t defer her entry or get her money back, she openly questioned the policy put in place by the race organizers in an Instagram post that went viral and enacted change.
English tells Yahoo Life that she started running as an adult in 2011, noting that she was previously “not very fit.” But she trained regularly, she started running marathons and slowly cut back on her races, eventually setting a goal for herself: to run in the Boston Marathon. “There’s something extremely special about that,” she says. “It’s such a mecca for runners.”
English, who lives in the UK, says he “worked very hard” to achieve a London Marathon qualifying time of three hours 45 minutes in 2021 and, in April 2022, ran a marathon in three hours and 27 minutes, qualifying her to enter the lottery to run the Boston Marathon.
“I always consider myself a really normal person and not a particularly fast girl,” says English, who works as a running coach. “Not only was it amazing to hit that time, but I thought, ‘I’m really fast!’ – but it was exciting for me to show others that it’s possible.” The Englishman entered the marathon draw for one spot and made the cut.
Somewhere along the line, English discovered she was pregnant with her first child. “It’s my first pregnancy and it’s taken me a long time to get to this point,” she says. “I wish I could go out my calendar and plan when I was going to get pregnant but sadly, that wasn’t my experience.”
English had to wait until December to make sure her pregnancy was viable. At that point, he filed an insurance claim with the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), which organizes the Boston Marathon, asking if he could defer his job for another year. “The request was denied within three hours in an extremely cold closing email,” he says, noting that he had to check a box that said he had an “illness” to try to get a referral. English was also told that she would not be able to get her entry fee back. “Boston is a very expensive marathon—it’s $235,” says English. “By comparison, running the London Marathon cost me $62.”
So, the English decided to speak. She wrote an “open letter” to the Boston Marathon on her Instagram account detailing her experience. In her Jan. 20 post, English wrote that it would be “physically dangerous” for her to compete so close to her due date.
The guidance on exercise immediately after giving birth is a bit vague.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) states in a committee opinion that “women with uncomplicated pregnancies should be encouraged to engage in strength-conditioning and aerobic exercise before, during, and after pregnancy.” The ACOG doesn’t provide a timeline on when women can start exercising again after giving birth, but experts are a little cautious about encouraging women to run a marathon a few days after having a baby.
“Although most women have uncomplicated vaginal births, birth-related complications may occur,” Dr. Kirstin Leitner, chief of the Division of General Obstetrics and Gynecology at Penn Medicine and a professor at the Perelman School of Medicine University of Pennsylvania, he tells Yahoo Life. “Fifty percent of maternal mortality occurs in the week following delivery.” She lists heavy bleeding and high blood pressure in the immediate postpartum period as particular concerns. “From a general health standpoint, this isn’t the safest time to put extra stress on the body like running a marathon,” says Leitner.
In general, women can exercise up until delivery and when they feel like it after delivery “as long as it’s not a contact sport, is at their normal level of exercise, and stays well hydrated,” Dr. Christine Greves, a board-certified gynecologist at Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies in Orlando, Florida, she tells Yahoo Life. But she, she says, a marathon is much more intense than taking a long walk or even a run after giving birth. Women’s health expert Dr. Jennifer Wider agrees. “Intense exercise like running a marathon right after giving birth can pose some health risks to a recovering body,” she says.
English increased online support and made the change happen
Many people in the comments section of English’s Instagram post showed their support. “I think the Boston Marathon can fix that,” wrote one person. “All mother runners should be allowed to defer. I understand there is no deferral, but pregnant female athletes should be the exception. If we have a woman and a man who have both qualified and become pregnant, men can still run but no woman can not so close to birth or so close after birth.”
Another commenter chimed in with this: “Sounds ridiculous in 2023! Thanks for standing up and saying something!”
When reached for comment, Chris Lotsbom, director of race communications and media at the BAA, told Yahoo Life that he offers a registration insurance policy (purchased from English) that “covers a variety of scenarios, including pregnancy.This registration insurance provides a full refund of the registration fees.
“We understand that a recent application for Registration Insurance was erroneously denied. Since being advised of this scenario, the BAA has been in contact with the affected athlete to ensure they receive a full refund of their registration fees and that process is in progress. course,” Lotsbom says. “The BAA sincerely apologizes for the error and is working to ensure that such a situation does not occur in the future.”
Lotsbom went on to share on Tuesday that the BAA has made the pregnancy deferment accommodations official. “Any athlete who is a registered participant in a BAA event and becomes or becomes pregnant prior to race day and chooses not to participate due to those circumstances will be eligible to receive a postponed entry to one of the next two future competitions thereafter,” a reads the BAA’s press release. “The new pregnancy and postpartum deferral policy is effective immediately and includes athletes entered into the Boston Marathon via qualifying time or invitational entry.”
English says she’s “grateful” the BAA contacted her, noting that her viral post “probably didn’t hurt.”
English says the BAA has personally told her she can use her qualifying time for the next two years, and she intends to. “The idea of standing on a trail line, knowing my husband and son will be standing on the trail makes me feel so excited,” she says. “But the change feels more important than any marathon or time I’ll clock in the future.”
English says his experience shows that “change is possible,” adding, “it looks like Boston has an opportunity to change the playing field.”
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