Ordinary Women Being Extraordinary
Mum to Aran four, and Cahal two, Moire O’Sullivan, 42 is author of Bump, Bike & Baby. She lives in Rostrevor, Northern Ireland and is married to Pete Power, 48. Fiona Bugler met her to talk about being an endurance woman, an author and mum of two.
Tell us about youR life pre kids?
‘I’ve always been an advendurer. Before having children, I worked in the charity sector, and lived and worked full-time in Kenya for seven years before picking up employment in Vietnam, Nepal, and Cambodia. Even when I was technically living at home in Ireland, I ended up travelling on assignment to places as far flung as Afghanistan, Rwanda, Bangladesh, and East Timor.
‘I took up mountain running at the age of 30. As well as winning Ireland’s Mountain Running Championship in 2007 and 2008, in 2009 I became the first person to complete the Wicklow Round (after a failed attempt in 2008), a 100K circuit of Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains covering twenty-six summits to be completed within 24 hours. I subsequently wrote about my Wicklow Round battles in the book, ‘Mud, Sweat and Tears – An Irish Woman’s Journey of Self-Discovery.’
And then you had kids… how does the story progress?
‘When Pete, my husband, and I suggested to others that we wanted to start a family, everyone was sceptical that we could pull it off. We had such busy lives already that no one could figure out how we would find the time to fit in kids also.
‘Having children changed life. In three small words – an awful lot. Though initially I thought I would go back to work, I didn’t in the end. My husband and I did the sums, we discussed how we ultimately wanted to raise our two children, and in the end we decided that I would stay at home to mind our two boys. I never thought I would be a stay-at-home mum, but I must admit it’s worked out well in the end.
‘Because I have a lot less free time on my hands now with two boys to take care of, I am much more focused when it comes to training and racing. Before I might hear about a Saturday event during the week and decide spontaneously to do it. Now I plan all my races at the beginning of the year for the coming 12 months.
‘Straight after my first child, Aran, was born, I also started working with a coach, Eamonn Tilley, to help me get back in shape. Having a coach means that all my training now has a specific purpose and is designed to reach my racing goals. Gone are the days when I go for a run or a bike just for a bit of fun and a wander.’
How did you manage sport through pregnancy?
‘During my first pregnancy, I forced myself to keep going as long as I could. I bought a new road bike when I was 12 weeks pregnant and joined a new cycling club. I competed in a five-hour adventure race when I was nearly five months gone. I kept running until my third trimester when I got a horrible stitch and gave myself a scare. I even went orienteering when I had only a month left. I was effectively in denial, desperate to do as much as I could before the baby came along.
‘Second time around I was much more sensible. I listened to my coach Eamonn and did the gentler sessions he suggested. The most racing I did this time around was a 5k at 25 weeks. I was also far too tired to be doing any crazy training or racing. I was too busy running after Aran, who was by then an active toddler. Having a toddler in the house while pregnant can sometimes feel like competing in an arduous endurance race!’
You clearly love the great outdoors – what is it you most enjoy?
‘I love the solitude that I only seem to find in the mountains, the fact that I can have the whole place to myself within a few minutes of leaving the nearest car park. I love the challenge of being in the wilderness, of finding my way using just a map and compass so that I end up in places few frequent. I also enjoy the chance to learn humility when the great outdoors decide that they don’t want me around, chasing me away with bad weather or inclement terrain.’
What are your sporting-career highlights?
‘I am really proud of winning Ireland’s National Adventure Race Series three times. My two children, Aran and Cahal, were born in 2013 and 2015, and I won the series in the intervening years, in 2014 and 2016, while I was still breastfeeding both of them. Curious to see how fast I could go when not breastfeeding, I lined up again in 2017 and managed to retain the title, winning four races out of four in the process.’
What’s been your biggest challenge in sport?
‘Self-belief was an issue for years. When I saw how long a race was, or the type of elite athletes who had registered, I often told myself that I wasn’t good enough to participate. I was very lucky, however, in that I had friends who, at critical junctures, told me to stop being ridiculous and encouraged me to at least have a go. Of course, there were times I crashed and burned, but I learned a lot from turning up and giving it my best.
‘I’ve been mountain running now for over a decade, so self-belief is less of an issue. Now it’s more a case of battling with the fact that I know how much a race is going to hurt. I realize that, back when I started mountain running, ignorance was actually bliss.’
Tell us about writing and your inspiration?
‘My first book, Mud, Sweat and Tearswas written in 2009, the same year that I did the Wicklow Round. Completing the Round taught so much about myself that I wanted others to know how amazing mountain running is and how much you can grow personally through the sport. As I said in the book, ‘I’m proud that I’m not someone who says, “I can’t do that.” I’m someone who says, “I won’t know until I try”… I hope that more women learn to believe in themselves, because when we dig deep, it’s amazing what lies inside.’ I looked for publishers for two years before finally deciding to self-publish in 2011.’
‘Six years on, when I decided to write Bump, Bike and Baby, I sent a submission to the Scottish publisher, Sandstone Press. By then, I had only written the first two chapters. On the basis of these six-thousand words, they gave me a contract and I finished the book within three months. Bump, Bike and Baby is the book I’d have liked to have read before becoming pregnant. It is a warts and all account of pregnancy and becoming a mum. In it, I admit that, though indeed becoming a parent is an incredible experience, the whole process can really test you to the core. For example, there is a reason why sleep deprivation is used as a torture technique. Neither of my kids slept through the night until they were eighteen months old. Women athletes also need to know that they may suffer from various childbirth-related side effects such as stress incontinence and mastitis, both of which hit me hard while racing post-childbirth.’
Do you always have a goaL?
‘I’ve always got something I’m aiming for, whether it is to race or write a book or raise a family. Training-wise, I’m preparing to do the Denis Rankin Round this summer. This is a mountain running challenge like the Bob Graham Round or Wicklow Round but is set in the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland. It is a ninety-kilometer course with 6,500 metres of ascent covering 39 peaks that must be completed within 24 hours.
‘I’ve also written another book entitled the Asian Adventures of Tom the Dog that I’m currently submitting to publishers. It’s about our dog, Tom, who we rescued from certain death in Hanoi, Vietnam while my husband and I were working there. Tom then joined us on a whirlwind tour of Asia, where he dodged rabid street-dogs in Cambodia, blood sucking leeches in Nepal, and corrupt customs officials at various borders before finally returning home with us to Ireland in 2012.’
When do you find time to write/train – what’s a typical day like for Moire?
‘I get up when my youngest Cahal decides to get up, which can be anything from a 4am to a lie-in at 7am. Household duties fill my time until I drop Aran to playgroup and Cahal to a wonderful local childminder at 9am. I then have the rest of the morning to do my training, whether that is a bike ride, run, or time on the rowing machine. I collect the kids around noon and bring them home for lunch. By 2pm, we’re out again, this time to the beautiful nearby Kilbroney Park, which was the inspiration for C.S. Lewis’s Narnia in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. There we walk Tom our dog while the boys ride their bikes. If there is time, we’ll pop into the playground for a while.
‘When we get home, Cahal might have dropped off to sleep, which gives me an hour or two to do some writing or marketing for my current book. Before I know it, it’s time to cook dinner and do the usual bath, book, and bed routine before we’re all in bed by 9 pm.’
Do you focus on nutrition/health in general – if so what do you do?
‘It’s really important for me to eat properly if I want to train and race competitively. Occasionally my coach gets me to keep a full week’s food diary to make sure I’m getting enough calories, consuming the right kinds of food, and that I’m eating frequently (at least every three hours) throughout the day. I also make sure that I cook everything from scratch so I know exactly what I’m eating.
‘My other agenda is to create good healthy eating habits in the house so that my two boys eat well too. I don’t think there is a parent who isn’t worried about the current obesity crisis. I know, however, that if I want the boys to enjoy broccoli, sweet potatoes, and chicken, then they have to see me eating them as well. Of course, there is room for the occasional ice-cream, but that is definitely only an occasional treat!
Do you use any mental tricks for endurance?
‘For challenges like the 24 hour Rounds, it would wreck your head if you thought about the enormity of the course. Such a thought would probably prevent me from even attempting! It therefore becomes a case of breaking it down to each mountain top and getting into a rhythm of: one, go uphill; two, eat something while ascending; three, check the map and compass before the summit; four, hit the summit; five, run down other side in the right direction, and doing this over and over again until you’re finished.
‘If things get tough I just think that, if I keep going, at least I’ll be closer to the finish and one step closer to home. The idea of going home, having a cup of tea and hanging out with the family is enough to keep me going.
What does a typical training week look like?
‘My coach thankfully takes all the thinking out of my training. He develops plans based on my suggested races and then uploads them to a shared spreadsheet that I fill in on a daily basis. I typically train two hours in the morning with fifteen to thirty minutes of strength and conditioning in the evening. I rest on Saturdays, and on Sundays I’ll do a maximum of three hours. I very rarely skip training unless I have an injury or no one to mind the kids. Having a coach who’s checking up on my Garmin data means I daren’t skip a session!’