Nine years ago I was introduced to the funny, unique world of professional running. The sport that most people don’t even know exists. “You can make a living doing that?” is the standard response. And I’ll be honest, at first I thought runners were a little strange. Mainly, I thought Nick was a little strange—but a fascinating, tell-me-more, sort of strange. Professional runners are driven, disciplined people. To an outsider, their lives seem quirky, full of idiosyncrasies. Sleep is paramount. Colds are to be avoided at all costs. Recovery is sacred, and anything that is physically taxing is mercilessly cut from a runner’s life. Every single bit of energy is reserved for training. And there is NO fury like a runner injured.
But the longer I’ve lived in this bubble, the more I’ve become quirky too. I get it now. I know exactly what it takes for Nick to run well. I insist on his mid-day nap. Before a friend’s visit, I question them about their recent health. Hey, an ill-timed cold can mean the loss of three months income for us. I won’t share your drink bottle for fear of passing along a sickness—or, heaven forbid, exposing us to the mother of all ruined running careers—Mono.
People may think we’re a bit weird. And we don’t deny it. We really are.
But do you know what disrupts every single one of the quirky idiosyncrasies that govern a runner’s life? Kids.
Even for parents whose careers don’t depend on a body functioning at 100%, a child rocks your world, and deprives you of all those basic human needs you hold so dear.
We were told I’d need to do the nighttime parenting alone—that Nick would need to sleep in a separate room so his sleep recovery time wasn’t impeded. We were told a child would prevent me from traveling frequently and working as a part of Nick’s coaching and management team. We were even told that having a child would lower Nick’s natural testosterone production and ultimately, make him slower.
It was settled. I would have to become some sort of supermom if we wanted Nick to still have a running career.
But that just never sat right with us. It wasn’t a conscious decision to do otherwise, it was simply a gut reaction to the challenges of parenting. I am no super mom and Lachlan was no super baby. On average, he woke twelve times a night in his first year. Maybe it was colic, maybe it was bad parenting. Maybe he was just a baby. But I couldn’t and didn’t handle it alone.
So, imagine our surprise when Nick started improving after Lachlan entered our lives. When he ran a 3:49 mile after a restless, bright, wakeful night in Oslo with Lachlan. When he started running personal bests in every distance from 1500, to mile, to 3k, to 5k.
Something wasn’t adding up. Why was our experience defying the science and popular opinion so pervasive in the athletic world? It seemed that by chance, we had stumbled upon a way to make this whole parent/athlete thing work.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t argue with the science of testosterone production, or the importance of sleep recovery. I just dispute that there is only one right way to do it. Sure, both Nick and I’s sleeping routines have been altered since Lachlan’s arrival. But babies need a lot more sleep than adults, and there are still ways for Nick to get rest. His sleep schedule may not look like the ideal formula for optimal running performance, and yet personal experience has taught us it’s conducive to a 1500m in 3:29. Twice.
And don’t even try to tell me that means he could’ve run 3:28 sans baby. The fact is that in 9 years of professional running, he didn’t. We can’t be ignorant when the evidence of our personal experience is right in front of us.
And in light of that evidence, I’m calling BS on all of it.
BS on the bubble-athlete, absent-parent, inflexible lifestyle we were duped into thinking was necessary to succeed. BS on the coaching systems and methods that make no room for anyone else in an athlete’s life-—least of all, his or her kids.
Nick hasn’t had success despite Lachie, he’s had success because of him.
There is no way to measure the mental, emotional, and spiritual impact that a child has on your life. Yes, of course they are a challenge. But they also make you better in a million ways you can’t even begin to fathom.
We’ve been fortunate to be surrounded people who have welcomed Lachlan as a part of Nick’s career—and coach Ron most of all. I’ll be honest, most days Lachie is more excited to see “his Ronnie” at the track than he is to watch daddy run.
But though we’ve had a positive experience parenting in the running world, I know that we are the exception, and not the rule. In fact, the sad reality is that this thinking about children is pervasive in more places than just the athletic world. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard or read people who claim that children will be your professional demise. Naively, Nick and I both probably believed a bit of that rhetoric. That is, until parenthood happened to us.
Lachlan is the best thing that’s ever happened to Team Willis. He’s made me a better coach; he’s made Nick a better athlete. He meets him at the door everyday asking, “nice run, Daddy?” He cheers Nick on at every workout.
He’s all the performance enhancement we need.