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Bump, Bike & Baby, by Moire O’Sullivan

Moire O’Sullivan on the Killarney leg of the 2017 National Adventure Race Series
Moire O’Sullivan on the Killarney leg of the 2017 National Adventure Race Series
Quest Ireland

Title: Bump, Bike & Baby – Mummy’s Gone Adventure Racing
Author: Moire O’Sullivan
Publisher: Sandstone Press
Year: 2018
Pages: 294
Order: Sandstone
What it is: A funny tale about combining motherhood and sport
Strengths: O’Sullivan never takes herself too seriously, making for a story that is as amusing as it is inspiring
Weaknesses: Babies, several of them

Moire O’Sullivan had it all. A happy family: herself, her husband Pete and their dog Tom. A career that involved frequent overseas travel in places as far flung as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Nepal. A passion for mountain running and adventure sports and the time and ability to indulge it (at the start of Bump, Bike & Baby O’Sullivan is only recently returned from running the Camino de Santiago across the north of Spain – normally a five-week hike – in seventeen days). She’s also got a wee bit of a problem:

I am a thirty-six-year-old female. All around me, my friends are breeding. Society dictates this is what I should also do, what I should explicitly want. My biological clock should be ticking. But when I see babies like Niamh’s, I feel zero maternal pulse.

I have another problem: I am married. And my husband Pete wants to start a family.

Then O’Sullivan catches the baby virus and falls pregnant. Unhappily pregnant: not only is she wholly lacking any interest in babies and fears she won’t be a good mother, having a baby is going to bugger up her athletic endeavours. So she goes through the normal stages of shock: drink, denial, buying an expensive bike. The bike comes about as a way to keep fit during her pregnancy but then opens the door to adventure racing. And pregnancy, it turns out, may be one of those grey-area doping things that all the cool kids are dabbling with these days. Here’s O’Sullivan talking to Susie Mitchell, who – less than two months after sprogging – bagged an Irish National track cycling medal:

’I think I benefited from a bit of a post-partum boost!’ Susie says, shining with pride. I bask in her glow for a moment. ‘There are a number of physiological changes that happen during pregnancy,’ Susie starts to explain. ‘Your ribcage expands to help with breathing. And your heart’s chamber capacity increases, so it can hold much more blood. This means your muscles can be supplied with oxygen much more efficiently.’

’So you are effectively blood doping,’ I say, before quickly clarifying, ‘but in a legal way?’

The gains, Mitchell reckoned, probably last for about a year after the end of the pregnancy. This probably explains what’s going on in British Cycling currently, with Laura Kenny just back from sprogging and Lizzie Deignan set to drop one of her own in a few months. (If men can have sympathetic pregnancies, matching their partner’s morning sickness and the like, I only hope there can be some psychosomatic transfer of the gains and my plan to bet the house on Dan Martin winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège next year pays off.) Maybe this means that that British Cycling sexism story was actually a complete misunderstanding: when Shane Sutton told Jess Varnish to go off an have a baby, he was really just trying to encourage her to explore that grey-area of performance enhancement?

Of course, it’s not all fun and games. Here’s O’Sullivan, after having sprogged, during a race in the Wicklow mountains, running alongside a friend who’s also recently sprogged, the aforementioned Niamh:

All of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye, I see Niamh flinch.

’Oh, no!’ she exclaims. But even with something obviously wrong with her, Niamh refuses to slow.

’What’s up?’ I say, between my laboured breaths.

’My pelvic floor’s just gone.’

Before having Aran, I would have stayed silent, too embarrassed to enquire about her sudden incontinence. But, having gone through childbirth myself, I totally understand what she means.

’Oh God, I thought that was just me,’ I say, forgetting all about the race. ‘I have to be careful not to wet myself, especially when I sneeze.’

’You should talk to Maeve,’ Niamh says, barely breaking from her stride. ‘She can’t run downhill any more without her bladder giving out.’

With that last piece of highly personal information, Niamh edges past me.

There’s a lot more to this than a lot of highly personal information. Bump, Bike & Baby is quite a funny book: in one sense O’Sullivan is writing in that fine tradition of the amateur abroad – fans of Tim Moore take note – there not being much by way of a manual for coping with the whole baby thing while also being a weekend warrior on the adventure racing circuit. And at every step of the way, she’s able to laugh at the silliness of most of her problems (which means she’s got that Irish post-Catholic guilt thing going on – how, for instance, can she possibly be bothered by the idea of having a baby when there’s all those couples out there trying and failing to have kids?). Here she is midway through the first pregnancy, hiking up Helm Crag while on holiday in the Lake District with Pete, after telling him she’s worried she might not be a good mother:

Pete says nothing. I turn to see if his silence is due to what I’ve said, or because of the steep slope we’re scaling

’I’m scared too, you know,’ Pete says, after a moment’s thought. ‘But then again, I never thought I could love another pet after my childhood dog, Reggie, died. Now look at how close Tom and I are.’

As daft as it sounds, if Peter loves the baby as much as he loves Tom, things will work out just fine.

Or maybe not so fine for they soon begin to remember just how shite they’ve been at looking after their dog:

’Look, it will be grand,’ Pete says, as he carefully picks his way through the boulders, showing me the way. ‘We always seem to work things out in the end. Like when we wanted to bring Tom back to the UK from Cambodia, and the civil servant responsible for his documents wouldn’t sign them without a bribe.’

I remember it well. We came within hours of missing our flight and having to leave Tom in Cambodia for ever. It was a stressful day.

’Or what about when Tom got attacked by six street dogs and I had to pull him out of the fight with my bare hands,’ says Pete. ‘Tom and I both had to get rabies shots because of all the bites we got.’

A litany of doggy traumas comes flooding back to be now.

’What about the time I brought you and Tom for a forest run in Nepal, in the middle of rainy season?’ I add. ‘I didn’t know that the forest was full of leeches, and Tom got one up his arse.’

’The blood pouring from poor Tom’s bum was something else!’ Pete says, before we both can’t help ourselves and burst into nervous laughter.

’God, if our parenting skills are anywhere like our canine ones, this baby is doomed!’ I say, looking down at poor Tom. Tom, however, is unaware of our guilt, as he happily dashes off along the ridge.

For the most part, you could say Bump, Bike & Baby is a book about setting goals and working out how to negotiate all the setbacks and roadblocks that crop up along the way to achieving them. O’Sullivan’s big goal – next to having a healthy baby and a happy marriage – is adventure racing, a mix of bike riding, mountain running and kayaking. Sort of like triathlon, only with more bog and bother:

Moire O’Sullivan racing in Glendalough during the 2017 National Adventure Race Series
Quest Ireland

this single day adventure-racing format is becoming increasingly popular in Ireland. There are races springing up all around the country, as far south as Killarney and as far north as Donegal. There are also a few dotted along the country’s wild Atlantic coastline in places like Dingle, Westport and Achill. Doing such races might motivate Bike and I to get out and about, and not get stuck permanently at home with husband, baby and dog.

(O’Sullivan, it should be said, is the sort of practical, no nonsense person who calls her bike Bike. She’d probably have called the sprog Baby, just like your one in Dirty Dancing, but I reckon her husband would have nixed that: the kid would have to change its name by deed poll when he became Boy and again when he became Man. (In fact, for the first fortnight after his birth Sprog II was actually known as Baby, so much so that that’s what Sprog I – obviously taking after his mother in terms of being the practical, no nonsense sort – kept calling him, even after O’Sullivan and her husband had settled on Cahal, “an old traditional Gaelic name that means valiant warrior.”))

With her first pregnancy taking up the first sixty or so pages and the second about half of that, most of Bump, Bike & Baby is about juggling motherhood and marriage with a growing interest in adventure racing, O’Sullivan setting herself the goal of completing the 2014 National Adventure Race Series, with races in Dingle, Donegal, Connemara, and Killarney. Then, after that, she catches the baby virus a second time she sets herself the target of bouncing back from that by completing the 2016 National Adventure Race Series.

If you’re the type to ‘Oooh!’ and ‘Aaah!’ over babies you’ll probably get great kicks out of stories like O’Sullivan finishing one four-hour adventure race and almost immediately having to change her baby’s nappy in the front seat of the car: parenting, isn’t it just so much fun? And if you’re not the type to ‘Oooh!’ and ‘Aaah!’ over babies, Bump, Bike & Baby offers a universal tale that all who are trying to attain some athletic goal can get behind, the babies being the sort of obstacles to training that we can all relate to, in some fashion.

Far too many recent books telling stories about ‘ordinary’ people taking on extraordinary bike-based challenges have been written from a point of view that excludes spouses and family commitments. Bump, Bike & Baby is a breath of fresh air and shows that the two can be mixed while still telling a story that can inspire and amuse in equal measures.

Bump, Bike & Baby, by Moire O’Sullivan, published by Sandstone Press