Did you know competitive stroller running was a thing? Runner and dad Chris Ingham talks to marathoner Mike Wardian about how to make running with a baby better for both of you.
I used to be a bit of a runner back in the day: I even came second in my school’s cross country in 6th form, and 129th at the world junior orienteering championships whilst I was at university (the 13 people who finished behind me must’ve felt real stink). As a junior doctor, I ran a couple of marathons, and at Rotorua beat half a dozen of my hospital’s consultants. But as I got older, I realised I was never going to have the raw speed for shorter races, so turned to running as far as I could.
Then kids came: first one, and I managed to keep up the pretense of being a subpar ultra marathoner for a while. I bought my son a Daddy’s Biggest Fan t shirt. Then disaster: shortly after entering the Tarawera Ultramarathon for the fourth time, my wife announced she was pregnant, and she was due on race day.
I had to face reality, but it was hard to accept. Eventually, after far too much deliberation, I pulled out.
My daughter arrived (two weeks after the big day, could’ve run after all), and it soon became apparent that juggling fatherhood, a full time job, and running several times weekly wasn’t really working so well. My training consistency went down, my waist measurement and my half marathon times went up. In an effort to stay in touch with the trail running scene, I started volunteering at Tarawera as part of the medical team, getting to watch some of the top runners in the world thrown into the bargain.
Finally, 2017 dawned, and I snapped. I decided I was overweight, and I wanted to run a trail marathon again. The only way I was going to do it was by getting my family involved. Race day was going to be the easy bit: the four year old was excited at being Daddy’s race crew, handing me drinks and shirts unsaturated by sweat. But I still needed to train. And no matter what I did, the kids still weren’t going to sleep early enough to allow me to go for regular crepuscular runs.
So I chucked the two year old in the car, headed down to the local park and river pathway, and took to stroller running. And shit, I had underestimated how much hard work it was going to be.
I thought I had chosen a pretty good route, a few dirt tracks and crushed lime trails. And I thought the old three wheeled Mountain Buggy would prove frictionless enough to build sufficient momentum with, whilst giving easy manoeuvrability and a comfortable ride to the young one. But I still hadn’t really anticipated how much of an awfully painful upper body workout it would turn out to be.
And it turned out it wasn’t just me who was suffering. The two year old had barely been 100m before the demands began. ‘DADDY I WANT TO WALK!!!!!’
Quick negotiation, and a promise of a fluffy if she stayed seated for the duration of the run just about did the trick. Until five minutes later, ‘DADDY, I WANT TO GO ON THAT PLAYGROUND!!!!!’ To be fair, we pushed on, and there were some upsides. I was being provided with some live musical entertainment, though it was restricted to the Alphabet Song and We’re Going on a Moa Hunt. Soon I was being told off for my slow pace on narrow, twisting paths. ‘DADDY, RUN FASTER, RUN FASTER!!!!’ I was pained. It was horrible.
If I was going to keep this up, I needed help. So I turned to the internet, and to one of those elite runners I’d seen running past me at the Tarawera Ultramarathon. I’d first encountered Mike Wardian back in 2014, when I was recovering from a back injury by running 60km. He was one of the featured elite international runners, which meant he was being followed by a television crew from Eurosports. See if you can spot us both in the international broadcast!
I knew Mike was a dab hand with the running stroller. In fact, he once held the world record for running a marathon with a pram, completing the Frederick Marathon in 2007 in 2 hours 42 minutes. Mike has also previously held the Guinness World Record for running a marathon on a treadmill, and currently has the fastest known time for the distance whilst wearing an Elvis costume. Via a professional Twitter DM interview, he confirmed my suspicions: ‘I think the stroller record was one of the toughest, as there are a lot of variables.’
So stroller running is hard, even one of the fastest men in the world to push a pram was confirming it. If so hard, why do it? “I thought it would be a great way to incorporate being a father with what I love to do, running and endurance sports,” Mike told me. As simple as that? Not quite. “I wanted to set a Guinness World Record for the fastest marathon whilst pushing a pram. I saw it while I was running the Toronto marathon a long time ago, and I said to my wife Jennifer, someday I want to do that with our kid. Jennifer being cool said sure. I also thought it would be cool for our kid to have a world record, and it is. Pierce (Mike’s son) talks about it all the time!”
The motivation of a world record. Maybe I should’ve known better than to ask for training advice from a man I’d seen complete a 100km trail race then drop down to do 20 press ups on the finish line. But maybe that was all part of Mike’s upper body training? After all, one of the first things I’d noted was how much of a full body workout stroller running was, using muscle groups I’d never known existed. Is there a knack to training efficiently for stroller running?
Not really, it seemed. “Running with a stroller is a great workout for the whole body, and I think like all things, if you start out with some short runs that is best. I also think it is best to put in as much time as possible with the stroller. I don’t put extra time into strength, but I could see how that might help.” Mike told me the most important part of running, however, was to ensure a good strong, comfortable grip. “Make sure you feel secure. I was always worried about losing our kids. That never happened, but it stressed me out.” As for whether there’s anything I can do about the old three-wheeler? “I like light strollers, the lighter the better,” Mike said. Though when coming to competitive stroller racing, there is surprisingly little in the way of regulation equipment, “so long as it’s commercially available. They do state the baby does need to be alive, too.”
It seemed I was doing OK equipment wise then. And the only way the fitness was going to improve was to keep on pushing through the initial pain. So what could I do to make my stroller running experience more tolerable? Was I running in the right places? Apparently not: the ideal course for running pushing a pram ought to be flat, straight, and not too windy. And on roads or sealed surfaces too, apparently. Trails? “I usually stick to roads, as running with a stroller is hard enough as it is.” And that shows you exactly how nice a man Mike Wardian is, not to come out and call me the idiot I deserved to be labelled for trying to race around narrow single track.
There was one last variable that I was struggling to control in this equation, and I felt that was going to be the hardest. Sure, I could strip the Mountain Buggy to a frame, choose the flattest blandest course possible, and train until my feet resembled a rare T-bone steak, but if I couldn’t stop a small child from getting bored and throwing a tantrum, all would be for nothing. Surely, a man who’s run multiple marathons must have some tricks up his sleeve before resorting to flat bribery? Not really. On being asked directly about my daughter, Mike advised me to “try to bribe her, with a doll, a toy, and iPad. It is easier when they’re little, and don’t get bored so easily. I just hope the child falls asleep.” Which, to be fair, she does after a while, so all is not quite lost.
So armed with my tips from Mike Wardian, I’ve once again hit the trails, knowing that although they’re likely to be harder running, at least the twists and turns are more likely to keep the youngster amused. After all, the harder I work, the more the training will pay off. As for an end point to target? I feel I’m unlikely to come anywhere near close to within an hour of the current marathon record (2.31.22, set last year by Callum Neff of Canada). Maybe a future Olympic sport? Mike suspects it would be a tough ask – “though awesome if it did happen”.
This content is entirely funded by Flick, New Zealand’s fairest power deal. In the past year, their customers saved $417 on average, which would buy enough nappies for months… and months. Please support us by switching to them right now.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.