When she brought her newborn triplets home from the hospital in July 2007, four-time marathoner Becca Farrell was sure her distance running days were finished. After enduring a highly complicated pregnancy, 20 weeks of bed rest and delivering "18 pounds of baby," she was so weak she could barely walk to the mailbox.
"I'd had patients who were in better shape than I was," says Farrell, 35, a physical therapist with the Loyola University Health System who lives in Glen Ellyn. "I remember thinking, 'I will never run again. I don't know how I'm going to work again. I don't even know how I'm going to take care of these three kids.'"
But that all changed when Farrell starting walking-then running-pushing her trio of infants in a triple-wide jogging stroller. "I would take them out and they would just love it," she says. "It was a win-win for everybody."
As the triplets grew, so did Farrell's strength and confidence. Soon she was running races with her babies, delighting spectators as she powered the oversized stroller past the competition. And within two years, she smashed through her final barrier-the finish line of the Chicago Marathon.
Today, Farrell continues to race to show that parenting a little one (or three) doesn't mean an end to fitness or even to competitive athletics. Her advice for new moms: "Keep it simple. You don't need a lofty goal like a marathon or triathlon. Just find something you enjoy."
During Farrell's pregnancy, pre-eclampsia and HELLP syndrome took a serious toll on her health and caused severe blood loss at delivery. Six weeks after birth, doctors gave her the green light to lace up her running shoes. But her first outing was nearly her last.
"I came home-I think I had run maybe a block-and I was miserable," she says. "I was so out of shape, and I was nursing, so I was so uncomfortable. And I thought, 'This is why people hate running.'"
But Farrell kept at it, grabbing 20 minute runs during the babies' nap time. Her short but regular workouts slowly paid off.
"I began to feel like my old self again. I would feel very empowered and strong," she says.
When the triplets were 10 weeks old, she slogged through three miles to finish her first post-baby race. "I didn't care about the time or anything. I was just excited I didn't walk."
By sheer luck, friends of the Farrells had a triple-wide jogging stroller gathering dust in their garage. In the spring of 2008, Farrell began pushing triplets Maeve, Owen and Jack in the hand-me-down stroller on her training runs. The added resistance ramped up her fitness level, improving her stamina and toning her entire body.
The outings were such a hit with both mom and babies, soon they were racing short distances together.
"People would be cheering for their friends, and they'd be like, 'Hey! The lady with the triplets is beating you!'" says Farrell, who maintained a brisk nine minute (per mile) pace behind the stroller. "People were so encouraging, shouting 'Way to go, Mom!'
"When the kids were about 10 months old, I did a 10-mile race, and I remember my husband looking at me and saying, 'You're totally gonna do the marathon next year, aren't you?'"
Farrell admitted that if her body held up in training, she would indeed.
Training for a marathon while mothering three toddlers was a serious eye-opener for Farrell. "Before I had the kids, I would do my program and my long run. And then I'd come home and take a nap, and maybe I would take an ice bath." With 2-year-old triplets, "you go for your long run. You come home. Maybe you'll get a shower, but probably not. You change your clothes, and you're taking care of the kids right away. There's no rest, no down time."
The "Leave Your Mark" ad campaign for the 2009 Bank of Chicago Marathon featured athletes and spectators who touched Chicago through inspiring acts or charity work. Farrell's likeness appeared on promotional posters with the tagline: "Rebecca Farrell is running to show that mothers of triplets can do anything."
Her story resonated with other moms struggling to balance fitness with the rigors of parenting.
"I had a number of people from my triplet group email me and say, 'I cut out that ad and I gave it to my kids,' or 'I cut out that ad and I put it over my treadmill,'" she says. "That was such an awesome feeling. For my job, I usually try to inspire people to get themselves more independent and active, but this was in a totally different way."
Though bolstered by the outpouring of public support, Farrell struggled with the training.
On Oct. 11, 2009, however, she was one of 33,000 runners to cross the finish line of the 32nd Chicago Marathon.
Today, Farrell is staging another comeback after a knee injury sidelined her in 2010. She's set her sights on this year's Chicago Marathon (half distance) and several longer triathlons.
These days, instead of pushing the triplets, Farrell's chasing them. "That's half my fitness regimen," she says. "I had a student ask me once, 'What do you do for your arms?' And I said, 'Come take care of my kids for six weeks and I'll guarantee you, you'll have good arms. Trust me!"
Sarah Maurer is a full-time freelance writer focusing on the outdoors, sports and health.