Athletes Corner: Laura Sanhueza-Miller / Mom, Former pro rower & brandnew IronWoman

When I talked to Laura in July, she had just come off racing a half Ironman distance as preparation for her Ironman debut at Mont Tremblant only 9 months after giving birth to baby girl Mia.

Laura says she didn’t really participate in sports until she entered high-school but she sure kicked things into high gear from there. She competed in triathlons at a high level and then decided to try out for the Canadian rowing team while working full time. A quest she succeeded in.

I remember coming across Laura’s Instagram account while she was in her third trimester with baby Mia. I love Laura’s voice. It’s playful, accountable, engaging, warm and strong. All qualities in women that I admire. I hope that you will enjoy our conversation will inspire you as much as it inspired me.

 

Tell me about your recent half Ironman race:

It wasn’t ideal and I didn’t achieve the goal I had. I wanted to go in with a training mentality to try and have good takeaways from it for my goal race.

What I realized is that I have to eat more – as a breastfeeding mum. I bonked near the end of the bike. In 25km I had over 100 people pass me. You rarely bonk in a half Ironman. I have done them before and could race very fast off of nothing. But the lack of sleep as a new mom and the poor nutrition leading up to the race, having enough pumped milk for my husband those were the thoughts that consumed me.

On the plus side I feel fine today. I was still able to finish the race in a decent time. It is what it is.

How many Half Ironman races had you done before?

Three. But this was the first branded race.

Let’s go further back than 2004. What was the very first sport you were exposed to?

Baseball! I was nine years old. My parents put me on an all boys team. Then I went to an arts school for 10 years, so I didn’t really perform sports until about high school. 

But performing arts included dance, so that’s a sport.

You’re right…

And in High-school you started training for and comepeting in triathlon?

I did. My brother was a triathlete and competed in Kona. He got me into the sport. I didn’t know how to swim. So at 14 I joined 7 year-olds to learn how to swim so I could do triathlons. And I kept doing that until I was 21.

That’s when you switched to rowing

I had just done two half Ironman triathlons and qualified for Worlds but there I truly bonked. I couldn’t finish the race. I didn’t train properly. I had an eating disorder. I was bulimic. Because a lot of coaches said “you’re fat” and “you’ll never be a fast athlete, you have child bearing hips”. When you’re 14 and you hear all that stuff it gets in your head. It was odd because I only had the eating issue during my racing season, which is the worst time because you are trying to compete off of bad nutrition.

So I switched sports and went to rowing and was also taking kinesiology in university, which helped me learn about nutrition, learn about the importance of fueling for performance.

I was mostly in crew boats because I had been focusing more on me, fixing me, and the sports nutrition. But during that phase I also thought why not see if I could get faster each year.

So I would wake up at 4:15 in the morning, commute to a different city and row from 5 until 7.  Drive back, shower and be at work from 8:30 to 4:30, get back out there again to train until 8 or 8:30.

I was working full-time and rowed for six years until I made the national team for rowing in 2012 and I was just married so I didn’t see my husband much for a few years. But he knows who I am and knows how driven I am so he was good about it.

So I was invited to try out for the team and four of us were selected to go in the quad to race in Bulgaria that summer. I was on the national team just for that summer of 2012. It was the Olympic year and there are a lot of politics in rowing but I won’t go into details.

I raced a World Championship in Bulgaria. I feel like all the fringe sports go to Bulgaria :)

Haha, I guess so.

Did you go back to triathlon after that?

Not really. It was the year I started trying out for a baby. First we decided to give my body some time to recover. I was down to race weight. Normally I was about 125-130lbs in weight and I was down to about 118 to 120. I needed to put on some healthy weight. I was also asked to be a lulu ambassador to lead a run club. Which I did weekly and it was good as a distraction from the whole process of trying to have a baby.

What was it like to switch from water back onto land?

Scary, especially if you’ve been at such a high level in a sport. Then you come back to land and you’re not as fast as you used to be. It hits your ego a little bit.

How was your journey of getting pregnant?

Athletically I decided to just have fun. I did a half Ironman in 2013 just for fun. I didn’t train for it. I told myself let’s just do it because I can and to focus on something else than baby, baby, baby. I didn’t do any workouts that compare to what I’m doing now. Speed work, testing myself…

Unfortunately throughout that journey I had two miscarriages. Between 2013 and 2015. The second one being in January of 2015 but I conceived Mia immediately in February of 2015 and I gave birth to her in November.

2 years of trying to conceive is a long time. Do you want to talk about what this was like?

It’s HARD. You need a distraction. Do something that you’ve never done before. It could be exercise but it could also be learning how to draw or play the piano. Just something that keeps you focused and away from stress. When you’re body is stressed it shuts down so it’s not optimal for conceiving. Nutrition is really important. I found out that I had to feed my body. Especially after all the pressure I had put my body through during my career. I needed to get my system clean, I ate really healthy and took my supplements and I drank a lot of water.

Then you got pregnant. Were you worried about another miscarriage?

Absolutely. Our miscarriage was very hard for both of us. My husband and I. I am very open about it because I believe people should talk about it because unfortunately it happens a lot. When we got pregnant with Mia we were cautiously optimistic. We didn’t want to be too excited cause we had just had a loss. We wanted to wait until that 3 month point to get more excited or celebrate but afterwards every check in with the doctor got more exciting. We got to see her heartbeat and see her grow. We had her pictures on our wall and in our wallets. It turned real and very exciting.

Did you get back to exercising while you were pregnant?

Yes. Some people had suggested that I miscarried with my first pregnancy because of working out. But that was plain wrong. I’m used to it. I’m not doing anything new for my body. That’s when I started capturing my journey on Instagram. I don’t have a coach and IG helped me be accountable. My husband would never say “Laura you have to work out” he was more like “come chill out with me”. But IG was a nice community to be a part of and to meet other likeminded moms. I wanted to focus on something I enjoy, among peers without the pressure of a goal.

Now it keeps me sane on days when I haven’t slept much and I’m tired and it’s all baby all day. Mentally I have found that exercising is so helpful to have a bit of a break for yourself.

Did you have to make any changes nutrition wise?

Yes, I didn’t have much of a choice. When I got pregnant I hated everything that was healthy. I ate bagels with cream cheese and I had croissants every day. I couldn’t touch salad. I hated chicken and salmon which is usually my favourite. So yeah, my diet changed to the complete opposite and I couldn’t control it. It lasted my whole pregnancy.

Do you want to tell us how much weight you gained on that diet?

People may not like me very much but I only gained 17 lbs. I know for some that’s impossible. Women retain more water or have other side effects.

How was your postpartum recovery?

It was fortunately very quick. Weight wise I went under my weight within the first 5 days . I tore so I had three stitches. That took 3- 4 weeks to heal so I couldn’t get on the bike. I didn’t run for about 3 months because I didn’t want that pressure on the hips after just having had a baby. And I bled for about 2 weeks, which seems pretty standard.

I was definitely on a high from having a baby for a few days but then my husband had to have surgery and was on bedrest and then I got sick. So that was rough but we survived.

When did you decide to do a full IM?

I decided to do Mont Tremblant while I was pregnant. I always wanted to do a full Ironman distance and especially after seeing my brother do Kona. It’s been a goal since I was 19 so for over 10 years. Now is the time to do it. I’m on maternity leave and have amazing support from family and friends. They help watch Mia when I train. I also train when she naps and at night. But I couldn’t do it if I was working full time while also taking care of an infant.

What length is the maternity leave in Canada? It’s about 10 weeks postpartum here.

That’s awful. You should move back to Germany when you have a baby. Two friends of mine in the US are new moms and we just talked about this. How unfriendly the system is towards women in the US. It’s not fair. In Canada it’s a year…

What advice do you have for women coming back from pregnancy.

Both for women who aren’t that fit. And those that are.

Walking is amazing. Walk to do your groceries, carry your baby. You could walk with the stroller and choose a farther route. Drink lots of water and keep your milk supply up. Walk carrying the baby to get some extra strength training J

Don’t rush into anything just let your body readjust. Do breathing exercises and work on your pelvic floor. Breath correctly when lifting. Core work is very important. After Mia’s birth I remember checking my stomach and there was nothing there.  

For a bigger goal, set realistic milestones and don’t expect to be where you were before you got pregnant. Set mini goals along the way. I set a goal to race a 8km race and then a 12 km race before doing another half IM before my big goal of a full Ironman. Milestones are important. Remember that it’s ok to miss a training day. You are already doing a lot more than you probably would otherwise. It’s a pretty big accomplishment to have a baby and to be balancing it all is awesome. You can replace a run with a walk and that’s fine. Don’t get caught up in all the little stressors of it.

Have you had injuries?

Yes and really dumb ones too. I hurt my Achilles and got that fixed. It was because my calf was very tight. When you have a baby you forget to stretch among other things because when you’re done working out, you have to breastfeed or spend time with the baby. There’s always something that takes priority over you and you are already feeling guilty over taking the time for yourself to train. Foam roll!

Did you have diastasis recti?

Yes, about 2 fingers wide, but I was diligent about my exercise and was able to close it.

Fast round:

Who’s your athlete crush? I have two. Crissy Wellington and Natascha Badmann.

Trail or road?  Road

Pool or open water? Pool

Garmin or carefree? Garmin

Solo or with company? With company?

If you could choose a different talent than rowing and triathlon what would you be?

I’d be an Olympic soccer player. My daughter’s name was inspired by Mia Hamm. So being a high level soccer player would be a dream.

The Berlin Diaries: Week 3

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Third week of my Berlin Diaries. Enjoy! June 8th (W3/D1): New week and a harder progression run awaits on Thursday. I still get nervous before harder workouts when I'm not sure that I will be able to hit the goal paces. Wish me luck! #theberlindiaries #berlinmarathon

June 9th (W3/D2): Oof, I thought waiting until almost 6pm would give me cooler temperatures. But it was still 84 F and my stomach didn't cooperate. Shoutout to the nice ladies at Soulcycle Willliamsburg for letting me use their bathroom!! Nicest staff ever :) #theberlindiaries #berlinmarathon

June 10th (W3/D3): Rest Day :) #theberlindiaries #berlinmarathon

June 11th (W3/D4): First progression run of the segment. And it didn't go as planned whatsoever. First 3 miles of 6 I stayed close to the pace I was looking for and then sloooowly died... I was so disappointed but managed to shake it off after a few hours. It's all a progress. #theberlindiaries #berlinmarathon

June 12th (W3/D5): Easy recovery run with Zola despite the bloody humidity. #theberlindiaries #berlinmarathon

June 13th (W3/D6): Another six mile run with Zola. I've come to really enjoy our time early in the morning. She gets me excited with her happiness for running. #theberlindiaries #berlinmarathon

June 14th (W3/D7): First 12 miler run of the segment, woohoo. Took some adjusting to the heat, still but had a few miles in the low 7 paces in there. Whoop, so good to run with a friend. #theberlindiaries #berlinmarathon

The Berlin Diaries: Week 2

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Second week of my Berlin Diaries. Enjoy! June 1st (W2/D1): New week, LOTS of rain! And that made me super happy! Had a lot of pain in my groin from my shifted SI joint but got that fixed with my chiropractor. Got scolded for not coming in sooner. Made a note in my mind that apart from stretching before and after runs, foam rolling, wearing my insoles and my trusted Birkenstocks I should ALSO go to the chiropractor more often. SIGH, I want my 22 year old body back... That body recovered in minutes. #theberlindiaries #berlinmarathon

June 2nd (W2/D2): 8 miles solo and angry. Thus: faster. I had a great talk with my coach about goals and preparation and we will tackle our first hard workout next week. The splits scare me quite honestly but today was good to see that I've recovered well and am ready for them. #theberlindiaries #berlinmarathon

June 3rd (W2/D3): Everybody's National Running Day and my rest day. Instead of going running, I was extra good about stretching, foam rolling, prehab and even meditation. #theberlindiaries #berlinmarathon

June 4th (W2/D4): This running thing is getting easier. 6 easy miles with an exuberant puppy. Her joy for running is so intoxicating and reminds me that the first reason why I run is for joy and not for marathons. #theberlindiaries #berlinmarathon

June 5th (W2/D5): Another easy 6 miles. I've been playing with my heart rate monitor and while I really enjoy seeing my data I wish sometimes I wasn't such a heavy breather even at easy paces. Oh well. Looking forward to running double digits tomorrow with a friend! It's always better with a friend! #theberlindiaries #berlinmarathon

June 6th (W2/D6): Met a friend for a lovely 10 miles in Central Park. Running there is soooo motivating, always some really speedy runners around and never nobody running. #theberlindiaries #berlinmarathon

June 7th (W2/D7): It's weird that this is the end of the second week and so far I haven't done a fast workout yet. My legs feel like they will get a shock once that happens. How is it that just a few weeks ago I felt so fit? #theberlindiaries #berlinmarathon

 

The Berlin Diaries: Week 1

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As mentioned in my newsletter (you should subscribe if you haven't yet) I will be chronicling my 18 week preparation for the Berlin Marathon here on the blog in a new section called 'The Berlin Diaries'. I hope you enjoy it. May 25th: W1/D1 (Week 1/ Day 1): Memorial Day, perfect weather. After not running for a week I get winded quicker than before. Maybe it's allergies. Focusing a lot on using the left leg and doing the pelvis exercises I was given by my great physical therapist Jason at Finish Line PT. When the breathing gets tougher I sometimes ask myself how I ran so much faster only a week ago. #theberlindiaries #berlinmarathon

May 26th (W1/D2): The end of my period (sorry guys), things should be looking up. Spent the day running from client to client from 7:45 am through 4:45 pm. How I hate leaving runs until the evening. So the only logical thing to do is grab Zola who acts like she is chronically under-exercised and head out the door at 5:30 pm. Unfortunately she is not having the humidity, trails behind me, tugs on the leash so we make our way home as quickly as possible. My plantar fasciitis is rearing its ugly head again. Who said that rest will improve this fickle sh*t of an injury? Never happens for me. I contemplate getting insoles... #theberlindiaries #berlinmarathon

May 27th (W1/D3): Woke up with a sore foot and even stepping straight into my trusted Birkenstocks didn't make it much better. I've been good about stretching the calf and foam rolling. Today is a rest day and I could squeeze in a yoga class. I could also just opt for YogaGlo. But first I will pay Jack Rabbit Sports a visit to discuss my gait and check out insole options. The eternal optimist in me is convinced that this will be the solution to all my foot related problems. #theberlindiaries #berlinmarathon

May 28th (W1/D4): 86% humidity. What?! Feeling extra tired when my alarm went off and breathing like a freight train at 8 min pace... NYC weather is sure as hell humbling. I got a good little routine down this morning: get out of bed, eat a banana and PB, go through my pre run exercises by which time I have to use the bathroom (it's all important on race morning, trust me) and then head out the door fueled up without worrying about pit stops. New Superfeet insoles felt tip top! #theberlindiaries #berlinmarathon

May 29th (W1/D5): Didn't sleep well after booking 4 appointments between 8am and 3pm. May not sound like much but including travel time, that's almost non-stop. So opted for an early run at 6:30 am. Ugh... BUT, once I got to Prospect Park it was calm and quiet and not too humid. Ran 2 of the miles in under 8 min pace and felt strong coming back. Did 2 strides and laughed because there is NO pep in my step, ZERO, ZILCH. But it will come. Looking forward to some company on my longer runs tomorrow and Sunday. #theberlindiaries #berlinmarathon

May 30th (W1/D6): There are runners who like humidity and then there is me... I acclimatize eventually but these first few runs are tough. Today was a first longer run. 8.5 miles and we finally snuck in some sub 7:30 pace miles. Ok, I can work with that. Overall, I can feel that my body is adjusting to the added workload of training others and running all over town and running again. When I tell my new mom clients, they have a good chuckle :) I finished reading Paula Radcliffe's autobiography and it's so motivating because it is candid and open and honest. We all deal with setbacks and physical ailments. Even the women at the top. Good reminder. #theberlindiaries #berlinmarathon

May 31st (W1/D7): Finally some faster turnover but also really thick air. Ran with a friend and let her push me a bit harder. I like to run by myself so sometimes I shy away from staying with people when they pick up the pace. Especially on designated easy days. Got home and realized that I had a stuck SI joint. Good reminder to head to my chiropractor, Dr. Keller because as much as I asked Chris to move my legs around to loosen the pelvis and hips, nothing gave. #theberlindiaries #berlinmarathon

Healing - A lifelong process

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In my first blog post on this site I talked about the benefits of physical activity to overcome grief. But overcoming grief for me hasn't necessarily been the same as healing myself. The more I listen to people and read about this topic, the more I see how grief is an incredibly individual thing whereas there are broader approaches to healing that can benefit more than one person. For example meditation or any of the other four ways that can help lead a balanced lifestyle (exercise, eat everything in moderation, keep good company and switch off your tech!) can be good for healing too. In general calming the senses and tuning back inside is important to realize that something is off. That can be just temporary and our body's cry for rest, or issues that have gone on for a long time where we need to change our habits to turn the ship around.

But what does healing actually mean and what do we need healing from? Healing literally means to make whole, to restore the health of an unbalanced, unhealthy body. I believe that as babies we come into this world whole. Then life chips away at us and usually our immune system (both physical and emotional) can cope pretty well but there are life events or patterns that hurt us on a deeper level and have the ability to derail us and make us sick.

For a long time I didn't really notice that I needed healing. My life was always busy - with my sport at first - then with moving and living in New York. Relationships seemed fine while they lasted and hurt for the appropriate amount of time when they broke up. Until several years ago when a particularly long relationship ended and the change of moving from a home that I had co-created back to a share with strangers, threw me off. It coincided with a difficult workplace situation and all the talking with my friends still left me clueless as to how to turn around my situation and go back to being fearless and carefree. However, once I realized I needed healing all the things that had caused my 'imbalance' became painfully apparent. I had finally unlocked this area.

What followed were many discussion and a lot of reading and a lot of trying to remedy what was going on. But as I quickly discovered most of my approaches were merely band-aids. As I had done it before, I went running. Running for me had always been 'moving meditation', my way of disconnecting from the outside world and connecting to my body and mind. This time running didn't help. It was an escape - I was running away from changing habits and staring my fears and unresolved issues in the eye.

Thus began my journey. I sat down and started writing down things that I wanted to do in my life and how I wanted to be treated. Call it manifesting or becoming clear. I cultivated (more) patience and gave myself permission to not achieve things so quickly. I went easy on myself mentally and most important physically. I went into my most painful experiences and looked at them from my place now rather than as a younger version of myself who was in the midst of things and overwhelmed. I practiced gratitude for where I was in my life at any given day. I let myself cry for each time I had held it back to be strong.

Some of the effects I could see and feel relatively soon. Restoring balance in my body led to less aches and pains and restoring balance in my mind made me happier, overall.

I dare you to try it. Heal yourself and accept that it is an ongoing process. It's a good goal to have to ultimately be free of things that we have accumulated over the years, that weigh us down. Forgive yourself for new issues that arise along the way. Take them in stride and cherish them as life experiences. We were not made to be perfect. We were born to be real.