Ultrarunner Fiona English worked for years to qualify for the prestigious Boston Marathon. Late last year, she finally earned a spot, but there was a slight hiccup — she's pregnant and due to give birth two days before the race is scheduled to take place on April 17. 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 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 previously wasn't "very fit." But she trained regularly, started running marathons and slowly shaved time off her races, eventually setting a goal for herself: run in the Boston Marathon. "There's something hugely special about it," she says. "It's such a mecca for runners."
English, who lives in the U.K, says she "worked super hard" to get a qualifying time for the London Marathon of three hours and 45 minutes in 2021 and, in April 2022, she ran a marathon in three hours and 27 minutes, qualifying her to enter into the lottery to run the Boston Marathon.
"I always view myself as being a really normal person and not a particularly fast girl," English, who works as a running coach, says. "Not only was achieving that time incredible — I thought, 'I'm actually fast!' — but it was exciting for me to show others that it's possible." English entered the marathon's draw for a spot — and made the cut.
Somewhere along the line, English discovered that she was pregnant with her first child. "It's my first pregnancy and it's taken me a really long time to get to this point," she says. "I wish I could have gotten my calendar out and planned when I would get pregnant but, sadly, that was not my experience."
English had to wait until December to make sure that her pregnancy was viable. At that point, she submitted an insurance claim to the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), which organizes the Boston Marathon, to ask if she could defer her spot for another year. "The request was rejected within three hours in an extremely cold, shut-down email," she says, noting that she had to check a box that said she had an "illness" to try to get a deferral. English was also told that she would be unable to get her entry fee back. "Boston is a really expensive marathon — it's $235," English says. "By comparison, it cost me $62 to run the London Marathon."
So, English decided to speak out. 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.
Guidance on exercise immediately after giving birth is a little vague.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) says in a committee opinion that "women with uncomplicated pregnancies should be encouraged to engage in aerobic and strength-conditioning exercises before, during and after pregnancy." ACOG doesn't give a timeline on when women can start exercising again after they give birth, but experts are a little wary of encouraging women to run a marathon just days after having a baby.
"Although most women will have an uncomplicated vaginal birth, there could be birth-related complications that can happen," Dr. Kirstin Leitner, assistant professor of Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Perelman School of Medicine – University of Pennsylvania, tells Yahoo Life. "Fifty percent of maternal mortality occurs in the week post-delivery." She lists off heavy bleeding and high blood pressure in the immediate postpartum period as particular concerns. "From a general health perspective, this is not the safest time to undergo additional stress to the body like running a marathon," Leitner says.
In general, women can exercise up until they deliver and when they feel like it after giving birth "as long as it's not a contact sport, it's at their normal level of exercise and they stay well hydrated," Dr. Christine Greves, a board-certified ob-gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies in Orlando, Fla., tells Yahoo Life. But, she says, a marathon is much more intensive than going for a long walk or even a jog 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 on a healing body," she says.
English drummed up support online — and made change happen
Many people in the comments section of English's Instagram post showed their support. "I believe the Boston Marathon can make this right," one person wrote. "All mother runners should be allowed to defer. I understand there's no deferment but pregnant athletes should be an exception. If we have a woman and a men who both qualified and they ended up pregnant, the men can still run but not the woman can't so close to birth or so close after birth."
Another commenter chimed in with this: "This seems ludicrous in 2023! Thank you for standing up & saying something!"
When reached for comment, Chris Lotsbom, director for race communications and media at the BAA told Yahoo Life that it offers a registration insurance policy (which English purchased) that "covers a variety of scenarios, including pregnancy. This registration insurance provides a full refund of entry fees."
"We do understand that a recent registration insurance request was mistakenly denied. Upon being made aware of this scenario, the BAA has been in contact with the impacted athlete to ensure that they receive a full refund of entry fees, and that process is underway," Lotsbom says. "The BAA sincerely apologizes for the mistake, and is working to ensure such a situation does not arise in the future."
Lotsbom followed up on Tuesday to share that the BAA has made official pregnancy deferral accommodations. "Any athlete who is a registered entrant in a BAA event and is or becomes pregnant prior to race day and chooses not to participate due to such circumstances will be eligible to receive a deferred entry into one of the next two subsequent future races," a press release from the BAA reads. "The new pregnancy and postpartum deferment policy is effective immediately, and includes athletes who are entered in the Boston Marathon by way of qualifying time or invitational entry."
English says she's "grateful" that the BAA reached out to her, noting that her viral post "probably didn't hurt."
English says the BAA personally told her that she can use her qualifying time for the next two years, and she plans to do just that. "The idea of standing on a race track line, knowing my husband and child will be standing on the course makes me feel so emotional," she says. "But change feels more important than any marathon or time that I will clock in the future."
English says her experience proves that "change is possible," adding, "it feels like Boston has the opportunity to change the playing field."
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