In July, 28-year old Sarah Brown was coming down the stretch of the 1,500 meters Diamond League race in Monaco, and she knew something was wrong.
"I was battling for last place," Brown said. "I remember thinking, 'I don't care what place I get. I just want to cross the finish line and stop. I love racing and the fact that my mind got to that place, the pain, it just felt like my legs were made of sand and that there was no oxygen running in my body."
Her typically strong finishing kick was nowhere to be found, and she finished in last place, 4:09.17.
Brown had recently hit personal records in both the 800 meters and the 1500 meters. Her 2015 season was supposed to be a smooth ascent toward a bid for an Olympic berth to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio. But a month before Monaco, at the U.S.A. Track & Field Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Oregon, Brown had a series of headaches, which she had dismissed as a head cold, perhaps due to anxiety. There, she had finished 6th, running 4:14.52.
Darren Brown, Sarah's husband of three years as well as her coach, said that he, too, was baffled when his wife was struggling in practices this summer.
"She opened fast and big at the start of the season," Darren said. "For her to take giant steps backward at that point didn't make any sense."
Unsure what could have being going wrong, he scaled back some of her practices and tried to be supportive, but the mystery continued. Was it low iron? Should she get blood work done? Or was it a mental game, anxiety over her performances?
After returning from Europe, Sarah saw a general practitioner where she had, among other things, a urine test. On July 27, the doctor called her: she was, in fact, six weeks pregnant.
"I remember being both terrified and excited in one moment," Sarah said. "A lot of my mind was thinking, 'I have an IUD. How is this possible?'"
Sarah Brown running (and winning) a 1500 meter race earlier this year. Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Sarah said that she always had pictured herself having children, but not until after retiring from competitive track and field. She was using a copper IUD, which is one of the most effective forms of reversible birth control—less than one in 100 women will get pregnant with one. That Sarah could have been one of the less than 1 percent barely crossed the couple's minds. (On a whim, Sarah says, she did take a drugstore pregnancy test earlier that summer, but it was negative: "I had never taken a pregnancy test before," she said. "Now that I look back on it, there must have been some intuition that could have been it, but it had never really entered my mind as a possibility.")
"When I look back at some of those workouts that went so terribly wrong," Darren said, "I thought she was just being stressed out and mental. I'm telling you, it's the worst feeling as a husband and a training partner."
"I don't blame him," Sarah said. "I thought I needed to woman up. I didn't have morning sickness, but I was fatigued. Now I know that during that first trimester, so much of my strength was going to the baby."
Once Sarah's pregnancy was confirmed, her doctors were concerned about removing the IUD safely to ensure a sound delivery. Sarah stopped running completely until the procedure. "She was like a piece of glass," Darren said.
Now Sarah has resumed training, with her sights still set on qualifying for Rio next year.
It won't be easy: Sarah's due date, on March 21, falls about 12 weeks before the Olympic trials in Eugene. Many women will resume light exercise after giving birth, but generally avoid intense workouts until their six week postpartum checkup. Not long after that, Sarah hopes to make an Olympic team.
Notice the distance between Sarah Brown and everyone else in this race. — Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Many of the top women in track and field have successfully juggled pregnancies and motherhood with their competitive seasons: Olympic marathoner Kara Goucher gave birth to a baby boy two years before competing at the 2012 London Games; Paula Radcliffe won the 2007 New York City Marathon nine months after having a child; Kenyan Edna Kiplagat had two children, then won two world championship marathon titles. Yet it is extremely rare for elite female athletes to train for Olympic qualifiers through their pregnancy in the way Sarah is hoping to do.
"For female athletes, it's a tough balance," she said. "As an athlete, you can be selfish, and having a family can be one of the most selfless things you can do. I have no idea what to expect."
"We both have family and friends who have trained and tried to have kids and had miscarriages," Darren said. "It's hard to see that. And we knew we wanted to have kids, but because of how hard and intense Sarah trained, there was a question of when or whether we'd have that."
In general, doctors said that running and exercising during pregnancy can be positive, even helpful to women before giving birth. And as long as Sarah and Darren monitor how she's feeling during the exercise, and adjust accordingly, she may be able to maintain a reasonable level of elite fitness.
"The most important thing is the women's baseline condition," said Dr. Joanne Stone, the director of Maternal Fetal Medicine at Mount Sinai Health System. "If they're used to running, they can run. And of course you want to make sure a woman is hydrated, eating enough and it's an uncomplicated pregnancy. It can have a lot of benefits."
The Browns say they are taking her workouts "day by day" and are trying to maintain a high level of fitness, but not one that is strenuous. Many of the adjustments to Sarah's training are similar to what she did while recovering from an Achilles injury in 2010: much of her running has been substituted with lower-impact elliptical work, and her afternoon runs have been reduced. Swimming will play a greater role going forward, as well, in addition to a variety of other cross training.
"We're doing all of her sessions based on feel, not time," Darren said.
Since the Browns publicly announced that they were having a baby, they said they've been overwhelmed by the warm response, phone calls, emails, and tweets from friends and family in and out of the running world. Sarah was particularly nervous about telling New Balance, her longtime sponsor, but says that their reaction to the news was also positive.
Among the comments on her blog post was one from Goucher. "Congratulations! While it will be challenging, your running will take on a whole new meaning. You'll be great!"
Sarah said she's proceeding with her training cautiously, and is the first to admit she's blazing a new path to the Olympic trials—one that she had never foreseen. "Some things aren't on a schedule," she said. "And some of the best things in life aren't planned."