I have run up mountains, swum through frozen lakes, cycled across countries and nothing has ever come close to the total physical and mental exhaustion of pregnancy and early parenthood. Creating half your volume of blood again, sustaining another heartbeat, carrying around 4kg of extra weight strapped to your front, battling the nausea, fatigue and anxiety concocted by an unrelenting combination of hormones, sleep deprivation and physiological effort, over months, is no mean feat.
So it was with little surprise that I read the study published this week in the journal Science Advances, comparing the ‘metabolic scope in…. long-duration, energy-intensive activities’ such as the Tour de France, triathlons, arctic trekking and – you guessed it – pregnancy. It was with little astonishment I learned that, while our digestive limit seems to cap the level of energy we can expend, long term and sustainably at 2.5 times the body’s resting metabolic rate, during pregnancy a woman will exist at 2.2 times their resting metabolic rate. Although we might be able to rise above that temporarily, say to run a marathon, we simply cannot eat and digest enough food to sustain anything more tiring, long term. As the Telegraph put it, ‘the maximum sustainable energy expenditure among endurance athletes was only marginally above the metabolic rates of mothers during pregnancy.’ Just regular mums, existing a speck below super-athletes. Put that in your glucose-stuffed bum bag and see how it fizzes.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: men invented war to feel less inferior about birth. Confronted with the blood, courage, suffering, risk of death, physical endeavour, animalistic power, terror, ripped skin, torn flesh and sheer bravery of creating life, they turned to the battlefield to try and do something, anything, that might come close to the level of self-sacrifice, fortitude and heroism women show in their thousands, every day. I will now add to my little theory to say that men invented endurance sports – mountaineering, long distance running, triathlons, competitive cycling – in order to feel just slightly less inferior about pregnancy. You might not be able to sustain an entire life with your own blood, breath and body, you might not be able to move through the world with your bones pushing apart under the force of the child growing inside you, you might not have the fortitude to power through the crippling exhaustion of building an entire person’s worth of new cells, but at least you can do a really, really long bike ride.
What the study also points out is that living this close to the cap of total, maximum human energy use could easily tick over into being unsustainable. Being pregnant brings you quite close to the long term limit of the human body. And yet think of the way we regard those women with three, maybe four children, who necessarily spend a decade, maybe more, growing bodies, breastfeeding, running around after toddlers while also building pints of new blood. Think of the sponsorship money, the trophies, the honours and the glory those women could have earned if what we were really interested in celebrating as a society was sheer metabolic effort, rather than subjective, patriarchal ‘achievement’.
What I’m saying is, I frequently cycled 15 miles across London, while six months pregnant in order to do my job. Adidas, North Face, Garmin, Gatorade, Kendal Mint Cake, Andrex: sponsor that.