Ultra-marathon mum: pursue your passions, find freedom from perfect parenting

Mandy Bowler manages a smile in the later stages of the ultra-marathon.
Mandy Bowler manages a smile in the later stages of the ultra-marathon. Photo: Dennis Tan

I've never really been a sporty or competitive person, but I always loved running.

Memories of flying along the beach barefoot next to the water's edge and the freedom and exhilaration that comes with that. Back before adult responsibilities and the glorification of busy. Before exercising to be thin, to stay in shape, to look a certain way, to project a certain image. Back when moving your body was just a fun thing to do, especially if it involved your mates.

Ultra marathon running has brought that fun of movement back for me.

Carefully descending The Escalator, a steep rutted hill late in the race.
Carefully descending The Escalator, a steep rutted hill late in the race. Photo: Dennis Tan

After a pretty devastating heartbreak a number of years ago, I stepped up from basic fun runs and threw myself in the deep end, signing up for an ultra. I was all in for the masochistic pain. I was angry and hurt and running was my saviour. It cleared my head and gave me space to just focus on movement and be in the present moment, got me outside on our beautiful trails here in WA and helped relieve the stress so I could be a better parent and person in general.

What I wasn't expecting was the community I was about to become involved with. Kind, generous, funny and supportive individuals who healed my heart as much as the running itself.

This year I had to find a new 'why' for running as the grieving period was over. A DNF (Did Not Finish) at a very tough 106km trail event - I completed 71km - made me question why I put myself through this over and over.

After much consideration I decided to get a coach on board. Not because I have dreams of ever becoming an elite runner, but because I needed that kick in the pants, someone to be accountable to. Trust me when I say I am slowly making my way up from a back-of-the-packer!

As the training ramped up, I could feel the benefits, mentally and physically, of the increased activity and specific exercises. I did initially struggle with the work/life balance and certainly felt that I wasn't being a good enough parent. There is a lot of pressure on mothers, especially since the rise of social media where sometimes it can feel like a comparison game of who can be the most perfect.

Women are burning the candle at both ends, taking on the mental load of parenting and 'home-making' and are 'supposed' to put our offspring first.

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I've never really believed that, and as a single parent, I think I would have gone mad if my entire world revolved around the boys. Of course my children are a major priority, especially when it comes to meeting their needs. But they don't require me to be around 24/7 and as they grow older, I have pushed more and more to have my own time and space to pursue my passions, as well as allowing them the space to become more independent and self sufficient.

Running is my escape and freedom. It's a time to just focus on me and my needs. That isn't being selfish or being a bad parent and I'd dearly love to encourage other women to step up and start setting their own personal goals.

After nearly three months of training, I went into my last event for the year, the 6 inch 47km trail marathon, held as a point to point from North Dandalup to Dwellingup, primarily on the Munda Biddi trail, weaving through the forest.

This was my third year in a row entering the race, and last year was just abysmal, failing miserably in the last 10km. But this year, with a solid chunk of training behind me, a race strategy and motivational mantras via coach Scotty Hawker (who ended up winning the race and setting a new course record I might add), I finished 40 minutes faster than last year and more importantly to me, finished the last 15km strong and confident. What a huge psychological boost for future endeavours.

That aside, a massive part of the event for me is taking on the challenge with the rest of the running community, many of whom have become like family. We're a tribe and we understand each other and why we do what we do. As I crossed the finish line with a massive grin on my face, having scraped through under six and a half hours, the 'why' revealed it to myself once again. There is nothing quite like challenging yourself and pulling it off; seeing what your body (and more so, your mind) is capable of.

Moving your body is fantastic for mental, emotional and physical health and if you're healthy and happy, the greater chance your family will be too.

We don't put men down and call them bad parents for exercising or having separate goals to family - it's almost considered necessary for them. I agree with that, but it's also necessary for women, for mothers.

I'm setting a good example for my boys: hard work pays off, persistence is key, being part of a community increases happiness, life is short - be passionate about your pursuits…but most importantly, that women have an equal right to men to achieve all that they can in their lives. There is nothing better than coming back from an early morning run to greet my excited and proud nine year old son, "how many kilometres did you run this morning, Mum?"