Going to Extremes

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They climb mountains, ford streams, run hundreds of miles in the dark without sleep. They are Ironmen and women, adventure racers, ultrarunners, überathletes. And they are parents. But should parents of dependent children engage in such risky competitions?

Should they spend so much time training? And why, when such questions are raised, are women criticized more readily than men? We talk with some of the area’s finest competitive athletes about how they balance parenting with their drive to compete. Find out what they’re willing to give up, what they aren’t and what, perhaps, they should.

Lynn Keane
, a Gold River resident, has experienced firsthand the holier-than-thou attitude from other parents of young children. And it’s not about whether her children watch television or drink soda or any of the other run-of-the-mill parental controversies swirling the cosmos these days.

It’s about how often and how rigorously she works out and competes. Keane, a former registered nurse, is an Ironman triathlete.

Ironman triathletes are a rare breed, indeed. They are runners, bikers and swimmers. The Ironman course in Hawaii, for example, consists of a marathon (26.2 miles), an ocean swim of 2 miles and a 110-mile bike ride. Race prep requires months of multidisciplined workouts: cycling, swimming and running sessions all on the same day.

Keane, a 41-year-old mother of two boys who now are 10 and 13, recalls vividly how, one afternoon after arriving at a “moms’ group”—having run the 7-mile distance from home to the park pushing a double stroller, both boys strapped in—one of the mothers remarked, in her earshot, “Here we are sacrificing for our kids every day while Lynn finds time to work out!”

(For these moms, evidently, strapping your children into a running jogger and pushing it for an hour or so does not constitute quality parenting.)

OK, says Keane. They have a point. After all, she says, she’s the first to agree that parents who indulge in mega-workout sessions, hiring sitters for hours at a time or lugging the kid along in a bike seat or a jogger to sit still while they do so, don’t really get the whole parenting thing. But, with the women at the park, there was just something about the tone: “It was so mean and so petty and so judgmental,” Keane remembers.
“The whole message being I’m this selfish mom who values working out over my kids. I’m careful not to be that kind of mom, even though I do see that there are relevant issues when it comes to discussing these kinds of adventure sports and how you balance them with parenting.”

Some people who followed the story of local climber Laurie Bagely’s recent summit of Mount Everest, reading dispatched reports of her attempt in The Sacramento Bee, had a similar reaction when it was reported that Bagely is the single mother of an 8-year-old daughter. In response to questions about the wisdom of such a high-risk endeavor given her single motherhood, Bagely insisted that she would never attempt the climb unless her daughter had “given her blessing” first, and added that her daughter was, in fact, her “inspiration” for taking on such a daunting challenge.

Not just daunting: Everest summit attempts have proved deadly, and this gives even individuals like Keane—who has faced the same kind of judgmental attitude—much pause.

“We’re talking about an 8-year-old,” she explains. “A little girl who may or may not still talk to stuffed animals. I really don’t think that a child of that age is equipped to even realize what something like summiting Everest is about.”

And as far as a child being a parent’s inspiration to climb Everest?

“That’s really not the role of a child,” Keane says. “That report really disturbed me.”

“I can’t really understand why a parent would even want to risk doing something that risky, for the selfish reason of missing your child’s growing up,” says John Hansen, an athletic trainer and exercise physiologist affiliated with the sports medicine department at UC Davis, and a former competitive triathlete.

Bagely did successfully summit Mount Everest, but athletes like Keane and Hansen believe that’s beside the point.

“You would think that people who have kids would think that that’s the greatest thing you’ll ever do,” says Hansen, incredulous upon hearing about Bagely’s summit attempt. “Climbing Everest wouldn’t compare to that.”

Tawni Parr
, 36, is pregnant with her first child, due this month. An adventure racer, she also is a lawyer who always has trained while working full time. For races and competitions, she’ll work out mornings or during her lunch hour, plus four or five hours to all day on weekends. For adventure racing specifically, competitors must train for so many disciplines that it requires trips to the gym (the climbing gym as well) and bike riding whenever possible. “It’s a matter of multitasking and spending just about every free minute training,” says Parr, who has reduced her training to 10 hours a week while pregnant.

Adventure races typically take place over periods of a week or more, during which competitors scale steep mountains, trek across miles of raw wilderness and kayak a Class V rapid, all while sleep-deprived and under pressure to finish as quickly as possible. Teams consist of three men and one woman. (Female adventure racers are rare.) Navigation is part of the competition, as is unpredictable weather.

Adventure racing is far riskier than competing in triathlons, even the Ironman. It’s riskier than ultraruns (races such as this area’s 100-mile Western States, which goes from Squaw Valley to Auburn—if you make it within 24 hours, you earn a belt buckle; some people take much longer than that). The Ironman and the Western States run on controlled courses, whereas adventure races take place in the wilderness.

The Subaru Primal Quest is one of the world’s most popular adventure races. The 2006 Primal Quest was the largest adventure race ever; it expanded from 70 to 90 teams even though two years before, 38-year-old Australian racer Nigel Aylott, a top adventure racer, was killed while competing. Aylott (the father of two young children) was descending Mount Illabot in Washington as part of the demanding race when a boulder—which another competitor successfully dodged—hit him in the head. As a result of Aylott’s death, the 2005 Primal Quest was canceled.

Parr competed in the 2002 and 2003 Primal Quests, but did not compete in 2004. She says she will not continue adventure racing after her daughter is born this month.

“I can’t imagine training to that degree with a child,” says Parr, whose husband, Bruce, also is a competitive athlete. “I don’t think it’s so much out of guilt but a selfish desire to be with my daughter. We plan to continue to train for shorter triathlons, running races, mountain bike races—stuff that can be done in a matter of a few hours—because we know it’s important to our own mental health to get time outside, independent of each other and the baby.”

Parr and her husband plan to trade off watching their daughter while they each work out, and they hope that her grandparents will take her on occasion so the two can enjoy a mountain bike or a long run together. “I think we will be better parents if we don’t let that part of our lives [or our] relationship go completely,” says Parr.

While female adventure racers are rare, in high demand and very much admired, Parr says that women who compete in high-risk sports face a change in attitude from others once they become mothers. “I think criticism is harsher against women,” she notes. “Participating in extreme sports is still seen as extreme in itself for a woman (let alone a mom), while it is traditionally less extreme for a man to engage in such risky activities. Dads generally get cut more slack than moms do. Comments regarding dads hint of admiration—how does he do it all?—as opposed to those regarding moms—should she do it all?”

Parr points out this isn’t really fair. “In the end, I think whether it’s Mom or Dad competing, they both have the same responsibility to weigh the risk of the activity, its impact on the family and strike a balance.”
“It’s hard,” says Ray Malone, an area ultrarunner and century bike racer. “It’s hard physiologically for the woman to recover. One woman who was going to race with us this year didn’t because she decided to have a second child.”

But men make these decisions, too, says Malone, who has four children and recently had to decide whether to drop out of a race and let his team down or possibly miss the birth of his daughter. “I stayed home,” he is happy to report, but another competitor Malone knows who was faced with the same dilemma did not miss his race—and took a lot of heat because of it.

Still, he insists that racing remains a priority. “Racing is one of my legs on my life tripod,” he says. “There’s work, there’s family life and there’s racing. Without racing, I come home grumpy and fired up, and racing relieves stress. I’m a better parent because I race. When I’m not at work and not training, I’m 100 percent devoted to my family. I’m not distracted when I’m at home, because I have to use every bit of my time that I’m with them. [One skill] that I’ve picked up from adventure racing is this efficiency of time. You need to be focused on exactly what you’re doing at this time.”

Extreme athletic events also are expensive. Racers pay substantial entry fees (which may total several thousand dollars per adventure racing team, for example) and purchase expensive equipment. If a team drops out of a race for any reason, there are no refunds. Only the top teams are sponsored, so most racers pay their own way.

Malone says he and his kids now train together, and it’s quality time. “There is a certain amount of selfishness that I’m not going to apologize for, because in the end my racing makes me a better parent. And because of the skills I put into place through training well, I’ve never felt that I’m in that much danger. I have a team of support who are also well-trained, and we watch out for each other.”

Malone’s 10-year-old daughter, Bridget, was present as part of her father’s support crew when the racer was killed in the 2004 Primal Quest. “It was an opportunity to talk about it and quell any concerns,” he recalls.
Hansen agrees with Malone that men who decide to start a family eventually have to make decisions about their high-risk athletic endeavors. The issue came to a head midway through his wife’s pregnancy with their daughter, Juliane, now 5. Hansen headed out for a three-hour bike ride with some pals and, he reports, “Kim was not happy about it.”

It was something of a turning point for him, Hansen says. “I realized then that, even though I wasn’t the pregnant one, it would be better for our marriage if I cut back.” 

Hansen is skeptical of those who claim that training for endurance activities such as ultrarunning or adventure racing relieves stress. “All the studies I’ve seen support that you get stress relief from moderate activity: daily workouts that are about an hour long and are challenging to complete, but not intense to the point of exhaustion.” You’re not getting stress relief from a four-hour bike ride, Hansen argues.
   
And, he adds, when you train like that—and he says he knows this from experience—your energy level is depleted to the point that you want to get home and hit the pillow. Between managing a full-time job and working out such long hours, he says, you’re too tired to stay up after the kids are asleep and talk to your spouse, or even spend quality time with your kids when they’re awake.

He also acknowledges that becoming a parent curtailed his risk-taking. Hansen recalls how, cycling in one triathlon before Juliane was born, he faced a steep hill with a wide sharp turn at the bottom. “I said to myself, in that split second, if I arrow down, I may crash, but I could shave off some serious time.” As a racer passed him, Hansen decided to throw caution to the wind.

“I would never do that now,” Hansen reports. “Every time I’m riding and there’s a risk involved that may improve my time even just a little—five seconds, say—I just say to myself, ‘What’s the point? It’s not worth the risk.’”

Hansen and his wife limit their road racing on streets with any traffic and have taken out life insurance policies “as a direct result of having Juliane,” he says.

“You hear people say, ‘I could die driving my car to work.’ But when you’re driving to work, you’re making money and supporting your family. I don’t really see how getting seriously injured in a race or on a dangerous climb is going to help your children any. The analogy just doesn’t work.”

Truth be told, most adventure races, statistically, are relatively safe. Of 60 athletes who completed a 2001 adventure race in Ontario, Canada, 29 suffered an “incident” (15 while trekking, 10 while biking, four while canoeing). The most common “adverse incident” was musculoskeletal injury; there were no deaths, and only one incident required hospital care, according to a report about adventure racing released by the Academy of Emergency Medicine. The majority of injuries reported by adventure racers are overuse injuries (pulled muscles, for example).

Dina Geiss, 40, is expecting her first child in October. She has excelled in many ultraperformance sports, including ultrarunning, adventure racing and triathlons. When she is training for a big event, she does spin classes in the morning and track workouts at night two or three times a week; the other days she will swim or bike. On Saturdays, she completes a six-hour bike ride and on Sundays, a three-hour run. (On those days, she may go mountain biking in the afternoon “for fun.”) Once she has the baby, says Geiss, she is hoping that she’ll be able to trade child-care duties with her husband and enlist her mother’s help in watching the baby in order to keep training.

Like most women who have competed in expedition racing, Geiss insists her adventure-racing career is definitely over. “It takes a lot of time training, a lot of time actually racing, whole weekends and even weeks, your whole vacation and a lot of money,” says Geiss. But most important, there is too great a risk for injury: “Racers are sleep-deprived and yet pushing to go faster all the time,” she explains. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

But Geiss believes that she will still be able to compete in triathlons and ultraruns as a new mom. “It seems reasonable [to think] that you can fit this lifestyle in with kids,” she says.

Geiss admits there is an addictive element to extreme sports because “people who do this love being outdoors and in shape.”

Kim Cusimano, a psychologist who works with athletes at UC Davis, says it’s not quite that simple. “Lots of things go into why people choose to do these high-risk activities. It’s very much a personality thing. These people are high-risk-takers, a lot like the people who drive down the highway 100 miles per hour on a motorcycle without a helmet. They get a huge boost from doing this. There are significant biochemical shifts and cognitive changes in the body when they take these risks.”

That’s why men and women who participate in high-risk activities can allow it to become problematic. “When they don’t have the capacity to see how it’s affecting their lives, when they’re not giving their choice to do this conscious thought, it’s a problem,” she says. “Absolutely, people should get help if they don’t have the capacity to say no, if participating in the activity is affecting your kids or someone in your family, or your marriage.”

Cliff Diamond, a Davis triathlete, gave up races when he and his wife decided to start a family 10 years ago and insists he could never train the way he did before he became a father. After three kids were born, he decided he had to get back in the game, and he and his wife decided three kids were enough.

“I had to get back into shape; I missed it too much,” he explains. “And while I think being involved in athletics can be healthy for a family—I’m doing a Tri-For-Fun with my teenage daughter this month—people who go to extremes risk their personal relationships.”

Diamond also believes that, with daughters, parents need to be careful not to send the wrong message about athletic competition. “You need to show, by example, a balanced attitude,” Diamond says. “You don’t want to put your daughter at risk [for exercise addiction or eating disorders].”

Cusimano, who believes she herself was at one point addicted to running, says often the adventure athlete’s behavior is compensatory. “They are compensating for something that’s lacking in their lives, and they need to figure out what that is. You ask people—as I was once asked—who would you be without this activity and, if they can’t answer that question, [they] need to find a way to let go of this activity as definitive of who [they] are. That takes a great deal of work.”

One of the reasons it takes so much work, says Cusimano, is because risk-takers are “definitely” operating under a level of denial. “They have that adolescent sense of invincibility on a subconscious level. They don’t look at the risk of it, and to some extent they have to be able to do that to compete in these activities.”
 
Denial may be one reason that, when asked about competing in adventure races, altitude climbs, ultraruns and other superathletics that require so much time, effort and money, most extreme sport athletes who are parents tend to respond with an almost infuriating stubborn indifference. “Everyone has an opinion,” one replied. Another quipped, “I think people should mind their own business.” (When asked if they put their “affairs in order” before competing in risky events, one woman said she puts on clean underwear; another simply stated, “My family supports me in what I do.”)

“I think it’s legitimate to question any activity that puts a person’s life at risk, whether it’s adventure racing or drinking and driving,” says Parr, “and especially if a person is a parent of dependent children.”
Parr admits that, as a single female, she never gave a thought to getting her affairs in order before competing. “But now I find myself keenly aware, though, of ‘what if?’ scenarios. As a primary financial contributor to the household and part of the partnership responsible for my child, I would want to have the areas of finances, will and guardianship covered regardless of racing.”

“It’s fine to question why these people do these things,” says Cusimano. “[But] they need to be questioning it themselves, whether or not it’s right for them, what’s this about, is it necessary and why?”
Another issue extreme athletes have to contend with, Cusimano explains, is the inherent need in every athlete to “go one better,” consistently improving one’s performance. Katie Shelton, age 29, mother of 10-month-old Kylie, is a local Ironman triathlete. When training for a big race, she works out twice a day every day, swimming in the morning, running and biking at night. She also lifts weights. Her workout hours total 16 a week.

Shelton, who is employed full time, says she feels much worse about leaving the baby to go to work than she does to work out.

In one race, Shelton competed in the Coeur d’Alene Ironman with her 54-year-old mother, who, at the race’s end, collapsed. “Her eyes rolled back in her head. My stepfather thought she was dying,” Shelton recalls. Rushed to the emergency room, her mother recovered. The experience, while jarring, wasn’t traumatizing enough to stop Shelton from competing. “I am not a quitter,” she says. Nowadays she’s doing “Tri-For-Funs”—embarrassed, she admits, because she is “so slow.”

“I have to get over that,” says Shelton.

Extreme athletes often couple with other extreme athletes, and this can cloud the perception of what another less-obsessed parent might see as an obvious problem. Interviewed for a story on adventure racing, one female competitor in Lodi told her local newspaper that her children “beg” her not to go on workouts and the weeklong races, dreading the time she’d be away and worrying about what might happen to her while competing. The woman’s ex-husband used the interview in his custody battle against her. When he spoke with the reporter of the story, the athlete’s former husband was outraged. “That a mother could glibly recount this to a reporter for a newspaper story about her weird outdoor hobby is just disgusting,” he fumed. “She’s supposed to be a mother first.”

Another Sacramento adventure racer, who asked not to be named, says he watched, flabbergasted, as one of his teammates chose divorce when, after the Primal Quest death in 2004, the man’s wife presented him with an ultimatum: Primal Quest or me.

“That’s just craziness,” says the racer, adding that the man’s wife—a triathlete and ultrarunner herself—wasn’t even banning him from all adventure races, just this one. “It was too much training, too much money, too much stress for her,” he explains. “But this guy refused to stop. I guess a shrink would argue there were other issues in the marriage, but not according to either one of them. It was all about Primal Quest. And this guy chose Primal Quest over his marriage.”

On the other hand, Carrie Hyatt, 33, a Gold River mother of 2-year-old Annie, says marrying another competitive athlete can actually help two people balance their lives as athletes and parents. Before she had Annie, Hyatt was an Ironman triathlete and an ultrarunner. Since having her daughter, she has continued to run marathons. Up until a month ago, she ran four times a week, pushing a 50-pound baby jogger anywhere from five to 12 miles. (Like many ultra-athletes, Hyatt has chosen a career in a sports/fitness-related field: She works part time at Rocklin Running and Racing.)

Now, her husband, Jon, watches their daughter while she works out, which has allowed her to add a run to her weekly schedule, which begins daily at 5 a.m. She boasts that her husband “never” complains about helping with child care while she completes her rigorous workouts. Before having Annie, the two usually trained and competed together, but now, Hyatt admits, they are rarely able to train together, as they are trading off training and child care duties.

Hyatt insists she doesn’t get a lot of attitude from other parents because of her devotion to her workouts, or her husband’s to his. “My experience is that most people admire the fact that we can both be great parents and accomplished athletes. They want to know how we do it. The answer is that we both know how much our training means to us and we know what it means to each other. The reality is that we’re most happy when we’re getting our workouts in, setting and meeting goals. Neither of us abuses or jeopardizes that. Individual sports are very selfish endeavors. Balance is key.”