In September, Sarah Brown, a top American 1500-meter runner, made the surprise announcement that she and her husband, Darren Brown, a sub-4:00 miler and University of Texas All-American, are expecting a child, due March 21, 2016.
It’s not uncommon for female professional runners to take breaks from their athletic careers to have children. But it is uncommon to do so in an Olympic year, with the due date less than 15 weeks before the Olympic Trials begin. Brown blogged that the pregnancy was not planned—she had been using an intrauterine device (IUD) for birth control—but she still intends to take a shot at making the Olympic team.
“If the odds can be so stacked against me getting pregnant and yet I still manage to find a way, then who’s to say that I can’t beat the odds again?” Brown wrote on her blog. “I already have the Olympic standard and am qualified for the Trials in 2016. This alone is enough motivation to get to the line ready to compete for a spot on the toughest team in the world to make. Only this time, I will have one more fan cheering me on.”
In May, it looked like Brown, who will turn 29 next month, was on track to have the best track season of her career. She set personal bests in the 1500 and 800, running 4:03.20 at the Prefontaine Classic on May 30 and 2:01.56 Victoria International Track Classic on June 10. But in the 1500 final at the USATF Championships on June 28, Brown finished ninth in a tactical race in 4:17.01.
She headed to Europe in search of good performances, but came back disappointed and wondering why she wasn’t racing well. She and Darren, who coaches her, decided to have blood work done to find an explanation.
A couple weeks earlier, at what would turn out to be the four-week mark of her pregnancy, Brown had taken a home pregnancy test to rule out all of the possibilities. Brown had had a copper IUD—which is more than 99 percent effective—for roughly three years. While she seriously doubted she was pregnant, she wanted to be sure.
“Now, jokingly, I’m like, ‘There’s got to be some intuition inside of you that you must know,’ but I was like, ‘I just feel off in running, so I just want to rule out all of the possibilities,’” Brown told Runner’s World.
But when the test came back negative, that erased all thoughts of pregnancy from Brown’s mind.
That’s why, when her family doctor called two weeks later to tell her she was pregnant, the news came as a shock. The shock quickly turned to concern for both the baby and herself, because IUDs can lead to ectopic pregnancies, miscarriages, and pre-term births.
Brown said her initial reaction combined excitement and terror. She and Darren had planned to have children, but probably would have put it off until 2018 (a year without an Olympics or world outdoor championships) or later.
“I almost had no emotion because I was so inside myself on all these questions,” she said. “It was one of those things where I wasn’t ready to have a kid, but also, as soon as I found out I was pregnant, I wasn’t ready for the thought of losing that kid. As terrifying as it was to become a mom, I knew that that was what I wanted.”
After determining that Sarah’s pregnancy was not ectopic, the Browns decided Sarah would have her IUD removed.
When an IUD is removed during pregnancy, it can trigger a miscarriage. The removal of Brown’s went smoothly, which provided relief and allowed the couple to get excited about the pregnancy.
Once Brown found out she was pregnant, she and Darren opted to have her take her normal end-of-season break. She took a couple weeks off, followed by a couple weeks of cross-training, before easing back into running.
During Sarah’s break, the Browns met with Sarah’s OB/GYN about what Sarah could and couldn’t do during her pregnancy.
“They were pretty clear that, given the setting in which we got pregnant and the baby was able to begin developing in the first few weeks, that Sarah’s body is ready to host a baby and that her typical stress levels are obviously not too much,” Darren said. “Obviously they are protective against extreme exertion and they don’t want her doing anything where she can’t give a response when she’s working out.”
Brown hit the 14-week mark of her pregnancy on Monday, and has had no morning sickness thus far. She is running most days and has begun doing light speedwork. Having struggled with injuries throughout her professional career, Brown has incorporated cross-training into her program for years. She usually swims during the off-season and uses an ElliptiGO throughout the year. (Darren is ElliptiGO’s marketing manager.)
The Browns expect Sarah will incorporate more cross-training during her pregnancy. She now uses the ElliptiGO on a stationary trainer, instead of taking it out on the roads, as a matter of caution.
Brown says that, while she will have a training plan, she’s going to let her body dictate what she does, and how intensely she does it throughout her pregnancy, and that they will always err on the side of caution.
“That’s the great thing about having your husband as a coach,” Sarah started. “There’s nobody as protective of this baby,” Darren said, finishing her sentence.
MOTHERHOOD AND MILEAGE
Brown’s strength coach, Greg Adamson, has rewritten her strength training plan to preventatively strengthen certain parts of her body, and to take her pregnancy into account. Darren has spent the past six to seven weeks reaching out to close friends and getting advice and says now that they’ve gone public with their news, they will continue to reach out to others for additional advice. Darren specifically cites “women that I think we’re a little bit in awe of,” such as Alysia Montano, Kara Goucher, and Sara Slattery, all of whom have raced well since giving birth.
“I think there are a lot of strong women I can look to, but at the same time, I also realize that everybody’s journey is going to be a little bit different,” Sarah said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’re not afraid to try. I think that’s kind of our attitude for this year. We don’t have control all the time, but I’m definitely not afraid to try and not afraid to tell people I am trying.”
“We’re by no means saying, ‘Look out world, Sarah’s going to be on the 2016 Olympic team,’” Darren said. “But I think every coach out there will understand—there’s a reason we make athletes vocalize their goals. There’s no better way of creating an internal drive and passion and focus than having an athlete vocalize their goals.”
Darren believes that, if anyone can pull off a comeback of this nature, it's Sarah. He looks at her 2012 and 2014 seasons as examples of this. Heading into the 2012 Olympic Trials, Brown had missed out on two years of competition due to Achilles problems. She was able to return to racing only five or six weeks before the Trials, yet she finished sixth in the final and was in contention to make the team with less than one lap to go.
In 2014, heading into the outdoor season, she stepped in a hole on the beach and broke a metatarsal. She spent six weeks on the ElliptiGO and, within six weeks of returning to running, finished fourth at the U.S. championships. Later that summer, she ran a world-leading 4:26 mile.
“I’ve seen her do a lot more with a lot less time,” Darren said. “I know that if we just keep her healthy and we’re safe and cautious with this process, she’s going to come out the other end ready to fight, like she always has, and she’ll do something special.
“I’ve already told Sarah that I’m going to be a hard-nosed pain in the butt about this, but I am on night duty. If she is planning on getting back into competing when this baby is born, she’s going to need sleep,” Darren said.
Though Brown would not need to race before the 2016 Olympic Trials, because she already has the Trials and Olympic qualifying standards, Darren says the Trials will not be her first race back.
“I understand there’s a level that I need to get myself to, and once I’ve gotten myself to that level, anything can happen,” Brown said, adding that she doesn’t expect she’ll be in sub-4:00 1500 shape. “But there is a level of fitness that you can get yourself to, and I’ve been really successful once I’ve hit that level. [The hope is to] get myself to that point and then see what happens.”
In several weeks, the Browns will have the opportunity to find out whether they are having a boy or a girl. They agreed that they want to find out the baby’s sex.
“We decided that we’ve been surprised enough for one pregnancy, so we’ll be prepared for at least one thing,” Sarah said.