Once upon a time, parents weren’t parents. They were 20-something-year-olds with heads full of dreams, time and energy in spades. They did more than change diapers and watch Sponge Bob. For these five Blue Ridge families in particular, life before kids was measured in athletic benchmarks—podiums won, miles traveled, adventures undertaken.
Yet even now, these parents aren’t just parents. They’re entrepreneurs and business professionals and mentors, yes, but they’re still athletes. They’re still training and racing and exploring, which begs the question—can you be an accomplished athlete and a first-rate parent too?
Sophie Carpenter Speidel of Charlottesville, Va., wasn’t always a runner. In college, running was a means to an end, a way to stay in shape for her lacrosse career, which eventually landed her on the US Women’s National Lacrosse Team from 1982 until 1984. So in 2005, when Speidel was toeing the line at the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile, her first 100-miler, just three years after her first ultra ever, no one was more surprised than she.
“I had run the 10K at the Blue Ridge Burn for a few years and I loved it,” she says of her early trail running experiences. “I was set free, it seemed like.”
But an ultra, let alone a 100-miler, is a far cry from a 10K, as Speidel quickly found out. Especially when it comes to training while trying to raise three kids under the age of 10. Knowing little about proper training tactics for a 100-miler, Speidel was in the woods all day, every day, every weekend. When she wasn’t running, she was reading about running. Running consumed her, exhausted her, but it also exhilarated her.“Ultra running can be very seductive, like any endurance sport, in terms of time and community,” she says. “It’s a great escape, especially in this day and age, to just be in the mountains all day. You can lose track of the reality of your life a little bit. Some people realize that and right the ship,” but often, as was the case with Speidel, there needs to be a catalyst first, a looming threat of capsizing, to change the trajectory.
For Speidel, that moment came at the Bull Run 50 Mile in Clifton, Va. It was a beautiful, crisp morning. Speidel was making quick work of the course, moving with ease through rolling woods and across spring fed creeks. Speidel was in the zone, lost in her breath and the sounds of birds in the trees and leaves crunching underfoot. But almost halfway through the race, the course spit her out from the forest and back into the bustle of Clifton. And that’s when she saw it—a soccer field.
“It was a typical Saturday morning in northern Virginia,” she says. “The course literally runs through this soccer field and as I’m running through, I’m looking around and seeing all of these families with kids. That race gave me huge mommy guilt. It’s unlike when you go out in the mountains and you’re away from it all.”
Though her husband Rusty had mostly supported Speidel’s newfound obsession with running, it was starting to wear on their marriage. Even when Speidel was home, she was distracted, preoccupied with race reports and training methods. But after the Bull Run 50 Mile, Speidel came to grips with reality and made a change.
“Your kids are only young once. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work and there will be plenty of time to do your thing later,” she says. “You gotta figure out what works for your family. Balance is a matter of trial and error.”
Eventually, the couple fell into a rhythm of taking turns. Speidel ran on Saturdays and Rusty biked on Sundays. She continued running ultras, averaging about seven per year, all the while supporting Rusty and his goals, like finishing the Shenandoah Mountain 100. And when the kids were old enough to compete in organized sports of their own, Speidel prioritized that first, even if it meant missing out on her favorite races.
“Throughout the parenting continuum, I’ve ebbed and flowed. I went from being gung-ho in the beginning, got a reality check, and now I have perspective. I missed out on years of races, but I didn’t mind. If you do mind, then something’s wrong.”