Childbirth is often compared to running a marathon and for good reason. The physical and emotional demands are not dissimilar. A recent study showed that childbirth put an equivalent level of stress and trauma on the body as running a marathon.

So I thought I’d take this comparison a step further and explore the kind of messages that women are frequently subjected to when pregnant and see how those same messages might look if she was putting herself forward for a marathon instead.

This is to highlight the ridiculousness of what pregnant women have to put up with and to show how our culture encourages fear among women when it comes to birth.

Today, I’d like to take a closer look at the damaging label failure to progress and see how it sounds when we apply it to marathon runners.

Failure to progress

Let me me introduce you to Naomi. She’s about to take part in her first marathon.

In preparing for the marathon she’s come up with a time that she’d like to complete the marathon by and she feels pretty confident. But she’s got a niggle because there’s something bothering her; she knows she needs to finish within this time because otherwise she will be labelled as someone experiencing failure to progress by the marathon organisers and then they’ll interfere and do whatever is necessary to get her over the finish line.


slow TW


So who are these marathon organisers instilling this little flicker of doubt and fear into our runner?

Well, these are the guys who are closing the roads down, providing drink stops, all the fancy banners, the big clock over the finish line etc. They’re responsible for creating a controlled environment for runners to use to run. With a little imagination, it’s not too difficult to see the metaphorical link to a hospital that is creating a controlled environment for a birthing woman.

Let’s get back to our runner….

Well, these people organising the marathon have made it pretty clear within their rules that if runners fail to progress within a certain time frame that they’ll step in ‘to help’. So basically, if you don’t get to the finish line by a certain time, that they’ll send a team of medics to you so that they can ensure that you pass over the finish line safely. Maybe they’ll give you some steroids to help you speed up or some pain killers to help you push through the pain you might be experiencing. And if that doesn’t work they’ll  persuade you (through scary langauge!) to lie on your back so they can carry you over the line in a stretcher. They’ll tell you that this is for your safety and the safety of other runners, but some people think it’s more to do with the fact that their insurance runs out after a certain time and so they’re not covered if you trip over or something – and then you might SUE THEM! But that’s a whole different blog post!

So what does all this mean for our runner?

Tick Tock

Well, there’s an invisible clock ticking over her head whether she likes it or not. She might have her own time goal in mind, but she knows that she can’t risk being too slow because she’s worried about how they might intervene. She desperately wants to avoid being given steroids or pain illers because she knows she can do this. So as she prepares to start the marathon, she’s got this niggle in her mind distracting her from focusing on her running and being in the zone. And depending on her general state of mind and her emotional resilience, this might prove to be hugely distracting for her. She might end up pushing herself too much in the early stages which could then affect her ability to stay the course.

“There’s help if I need it”

Knowing that there’s a back-up in place and that they don’t actually need to do what it takes to get over the finish line could play out quite differently for some runners. Some runners, like Naomi, might choose to stay focussed on their running goals because they see it as part of a bigger picture of health and lifestyle. But for others it might change how they prepare. Like Rachel for example, who sees the marathon as a one-off isolated event because she’s only taking part to raise money for charity. Knowing there’s a backup available might give Rachel the excuse she needs to not to prepare and train properly to get her body and mind primed for a marathon. She might not bother with any of the mental preparation required to stay the course of a marathon. Both of these mean that Rachel probably misses out on preparing in a way that will help her to succeed and finish on time. So this might mean that she starts the race without adequate physical and mental preparation, which means she more likely to be considered a failure by the organisers, which in turn means they’re more likely to step in and interfere. How different do you think Rachel’s race will be to Naomi’s? And how will Rachel and Naomi feel about their marathon attempt afterwards?

Let’s say that they were both labelled “failure to progress” and were rescued….

Naomi, who threw herself into her preparation, knows that she did what she could to prepare. She knows she did her best and she feels good about her attempt at her marathon run. Even though things didn’t work out for her this time, she knows what she needs to do next time to improve her chances.

Rachel on the other hand, knows she could have prepared better. She has a niggle in her mind that she could have done more and that maybe it was her fault somehow that she was called a failure to progress. When she was helped over the line, she hated it and felt like she had lost control and FAILED! Now every time she sees a runner she’s reminded of her marathon attempt and she’s not sure she’ll bother to enter a marathon race again. It was all too painful for her, emotionally and physically.

When looked at in a different context, doesn’t it highlight the absurdity of the pressure that women face when giving birth? The important thing to keep an eye on during birth is the state of mum and the state of baby. As long as both are doing fine, they can take as long as they want, surely?

While medical teams might consider that they are doing this with the health of mother and baby in mind, I can’t help but wonder whether they have the LONG TERM health and wellbeing of mother and baby in mind. When a mother experiences medical intervention during her birth it can quite quickly take her birth down a different route. A route which might not leave her feeling that positive about her experience. It’s this impact on her mental and emotional wellbeing that is being sidelined in favour of a box-ticking exercise on the day of birth.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

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If you liked this, you might fancy reading my other posts in the if childbirth was a marathon series;

nature FBIn this post I explore typical responses to women who decide they’d like to birth at home: Home birth; bravery has NOTHING to do with it!


run in heels FBIn this post I take a look at the absurdity of the constant reinforcement we see everywhere that giving birth typically happens on the back: No need to give birth on your back. In fact DON’T!



Alexia Leachman
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