Frances Marcellin took up ultra-running after her third baby was born, to help combat the effects of a chronic illness. She shares her inspirational journey, including the birth of her fourth baby and postpartum recovery
On New Year’s Eve 2020, my husband and I sat with our beautiful, one-day-old baby boy in the empty foyer of the hospital and celebrated by clinking plastic cups from the coffee machine, lowering our masks for every sip of expresso. The Covid lockdown and 8pm curfew in France – where I’ve lived since leaving London – meant that the café was closed, and he couldn’t even pop out to get a takeaway for dinner.
It was an unexpected end to an unbelievable year and the start of a new one that would bring even more mental and physical challenges.
Falling pregnant with baby number four in March 2020, during a pandemic and at the geriatric (in pregnancy terms) age of 45, had been a curveball. Experts say that the chances of conceiving spontaneously at this age are almost zero.
I was already mum to three young children (4, 6 and 8) and had been battling a chronic illness, Chronic Idiopathic Urticaria, since July 2018. I’d spent six months suffering from burning skin, claw-like hives and head-wrecking cocktails of medication, but in January 2019 I tried new meds that reduced the symptoms.
With decent sleep and a change of diet to improve gut health – removing dairy and eating a wide variety of plant-based food – my health improved, so I started running.
The only time I could guarantee I wouldn’t break out in hives was when I was trail running through the countryside. The experience of trail running – feeling like you’re part of nature and the freedom of the trails – had become an essential part of my wellness toolbox.
I harboured a dream of being fit enough to run in the mountains, and, eventually, do an ultra-marathon (a race that is longer than 26.2 miles). I’d never trained for any physical feat, always believing this type of goal was for other, fitter, people – not me. I couldn’t suppress the desire though, something whispered that I was on the right track.
I found a coach, Keith Anderson, at Full Potential Coaching, who understood my life change after discovering running as a chef in his 30s – and then becoming the UK’s national fell running champion, representing Great Britain in the marathon at the 1998 Commonwealth Games.
I learned that mindset is everything. Nine months after starting to run, I completed my first marathon in September 2019.
I realised that we can do anything we set our minds to, the only limitations are those we place on ourselves.
Although I still had the chronic illness, I was the strongest and fittest I’d ever been, so I felt brave enough to sign up for an ultra-marathon in the Alps in August 2020.
But 2020 had other ideas. A new baby – our surprising little miracle – and a global pandemic arrived instead.
I kept as close to the training plan as I could during pregnancy and the lockdowns, and I invested in an elliptical machine, so even if there was a distance limit (at one point this was 1km from the house) or a curfew I could cross train and keep up my cardio. I did strength workouts at home instead of the gym.
Running high points included a 27km virtual race at 18 weeks pregnant and a half-marathon at 28 weeks. I had bought FittaMamma’s maternity exercise top and capri leggings, and they truly helped me to keep on training with a big bump.
After the baby was born, the combination of sleep deprivation, my other three children and breastfeeding 24/7 made fitting in postnatal training complicated, and my post-baby body felt totally different.
I started gently, with breathing exercises, as our diaphragms move during pregnancy, and then started to work on my core and posture.
In France you are offered a pelvic floor rehabilitation course with a specialist for free after giving birth, so I was also going to these sessions weekly and then working on the pelvic floor exercises at home.
My postpartum strategy also included associating different exercises with places around the house, such as calf raises on the stairs, glute squeezes while waiting for coffee, pelvic floor exercises while breastfeeding, and so on. Multi-tasking was the name of the game: long brisk walks while the baby slept, elliptical training while watching a webinar for work, for example, was how I got through those first few months.
I had my first run at six weeks postpartum, it was 4k on the treadmill and it felt amazing. A few days later and I had the official green light to run. At five months postpartum I ran my first half marathon in the mountains with 100m/330ft elevation. I was elated, but my speed needed work.
Often, the only time I can train is at night, once all the kids are asleep. That means I’m usually on the treadmill or elliptical from 10.30pm. There are many times I’ve wanted to collapse in to bed (and I have sometimes, of course), but mostly I have been able to keep up my training. Showing up for myself keeps me on track mentally as well as physically.
At the beginning of July 2021, I completed a trail race in the Pyrenees, which was 20k and 1,300m/4,265ft elevation.
It is important to keep pushing and to never give up, to think about future you and where you want to be in a few years’ time. I try to think of all the difficulties like training – to be successful in endurance you must endure, which – as every mama will likely confirm – you do a lot of during the post-partum period.
I am getting closer to where my fitness levels were pre-pregnancy – as they say, it’s nine months before and nine months after – and I hope that I will be able to achieve my dream of running my first ultra marathon in October.
You can follow Fran’s wellness and running journey on Instagram at @fran_in_france