The Elite Mommas of OCR: Rose Wetzel
Spartan, Ninja, Momma
If you have been around the sport of Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) or have watched American Ninja Warrior (ANW) on NBC, there is a good chance you have heard of Rose Wetzel. Rose is a former Division 1 collegiate runner, has finished on more than 50 Spartan Race podiums and has been a two-time ANW National Finalist. While her athletic resume is impressive, one of the most stand-out aspects of Rose’s athletic career is her impressive journey back into the elite world of OCR and ANW following the birth of her daughter Taylor in 2017. This journey came with unexpected struggles, newfound strength, and immeasurable love that turned her world upside down.
The athletic career of Rose Wetzel is fueled by an unparalleled passion for running and competition. Following her collegiate career she ran semi-professional track and field and had a successful road running career. In 2012 a friend from her track and field club introduced her to the sport of OCR. As is true for many who come into the sport, once she started racing in OCR “the rest was history.” She later discovered American Ninja Warrior in 2015.
Today she says her drive to compete is two-fold: 1. She loves how elite level competition builds character, strengthens the mind, and provides an opportunity to inspire others. 2. She loves the pure, child-like joy that comes from running fast, swinging on obstacles, and playing in the mud. This drive to succeed and love of OCR was a key element in her motivation to return to elite competition following her pregnancy.
Despite being an elite athlete prior to her pregnancy, returning to competitive OCR was still a challenge. As Rose puts it: “There are so many factors you just don’t know about. You can read all the books, get all the advice, do all the things, and still there will just be things you will not know.” After all there are so many components to motherhood. Between pregnancy, delivery, recovery, nursing, and raising a new little human, people often find themselves living very different lives. Something Rose speaks candidly about is the challenges she faced throughout her pregnancy and postpartum period and how she overcame these challenges to achieve success both as a mother and an elite OCR athlete. After listening to her story, three lessons emerged as the central theme to helping her get through her pregnancy and postpartum period: 1) Listen to your body, 2) Set Realistic Goals, and 3) Run by minutes not miles.
Listen To Your Body
The concept of “listening to your body” is not a groundbreaking revelation for anyone in the fitness community. However, it is something that becomes especially important during perinatal periods where additional factors are at play like growing a human. While every pregnancy comes with its own set of challenges, Rose was fortunate to have a relatively normal pregnancy. This fact, combined with her extensive running pedigree and fitness level, helped her run and continue training up until her due date. She maintained a training plan similar to her pre-pregnancy program with modifications to her effort and intensity aiming for 50-70% of her maximal effort.
While pregnant, running for her was “uncomfortable at times,” but she was able to keep running. When she was seven months pregnant, she ran a half marathon. She says it was more of a “run, jog, walk” and her goal was simply to complete the race not to get a Personal Record (PR). At nine months pregnant and on the week she was due, she ran a 400-meter track and field race. Being a lifelong runner, Rose had the knowledge and experience to run throughout her pregnancy, but she stresses that she also kept in constant communication with her health care provider. She stayed ahead of possible concerns, avoiding complications by “decreasing mileage to a fraction of what I was running before, staying well hydrated, eating healthy, and running in the mornings when it was coolest to avoid overheating.” Most importantly, she listened to her body.
Needless to say, there is a little added pressure when it comes to pregnancy. The decisions a woman makes have an effect on the baby. These include overheating, exhaustion, dehydration, and a poor diet. While organizations like The American College of Sport Medicine (ACSM) and Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing (JOGNN) have an abundance of evidence supporting regular exercise during pregnancy and the postpartum period, any momma will tell you that the value in simply listening to your body cannot be overstated. This simple strategy was ultimately the key to Rose’s ability to successfully transition back into competitive OCR, but being realistic about the postpartum recovery period is often easier said than done.
Set realistic goals
Rose’s intent was always to come back into the world of competitive OCR and ANW following her pregnancy. She felt grateful for an already long and successful career, but she believed there was still more work to do. Rose, being a lifelong, goal-oriented athlete with a desire to continue competing at a high level after her pregnancy, immediately started to look for inspiration in the form of female athletes that had shared these same goals. During her second trimester, she stumbled upon an article about a popular marathon runner, Kara Goucher. Kara is known for many running feats, but the one that inspired Rose was her impressive 2011 Boston Marathon performance where she finished 5th place and set a new PR only seven months after giving birth. Motivated to achieve her pre-pregnancy level of fitness, Rose set the goal of returning to the elite OCR podium in nine months. However, this goal would ultimately teach her one of her most memorable postpartum lessons: set realistic goals.
While it may seem obvious that no two people are the same, it is often difficult for athletes to admit that their journey back to competitive athletics may take longer than their competitors or friends. Rose says that her pregnancy experience was almost entirely positive, but she did face struggles in the early recovery period. Rose lost a lot of blood during her delivery due to a retained placenta and the need for emergency surgery to remove it. This caused her to have a low blood level postpartum also known as anemia. Due to her significant loss of blood, Rose required two transfusions. Despite this treatment, her physician warned her that postpartum anemia can last anywhere from six to twelve months and could cause symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, and dizziness. Although Rose understood her condition and that she would not be at her “Elite Fitness in nine months goal” she was eager to compete. Rose signed up for the Spartan World Championships only two months after her delivery.
Rose’s main goal was “to finish in one piece;” however, as a competitor, she still high hopes. Despite this mindset, she recognized she “was just so far behind.” The Spartan World Championship is a grueling race for anyone, but especially for someone two months postpartum. It was at this race where she realized that it was going to take time. She recognized there were new demands on her body now. The game had changed. Her old 100% was not the same as what she assumed was her new 100%, but for her, that didn’t mean this change was permanent. Recognizing she needed to be more accepting of the new stresses on her body, she adjusted her goals to be more realistic, and she shed the ideas of comparisons and arbitrary timelines. Ultimately, she illuminated a female athlete’s natural inclination to assume their path may be similar to other women’s journeys, but focusing too much on these comparisons can be a recipe for a difficult road both physically and mentally. There is no “right” answer. The “right” answer is whatever is “right” for you and your body. With these new lessons in mind, Rose opened herself up to the unknown, and she soon experienced her next great breakthrough in the form of four broken watches.
Run by minutes not miles
A few months into her journey, Rose was getting frustrated with her inability to hit certain paces. She started to form a tumultuous relationship with exercise, and she no longer enjoyed activities that used to make her happy. To make things worse, her favorite Garmin watch died, two of her watch chargers broke, and a couple of weeks later her old Timex watch died during a run. She was left with four unusable watches and the need for a long vacation. While not everyone can understand this struggle, runners and OCR athletes absolutely know the pain of running without a watch. How do you know your Heart Rate? Your Paces? What was your Elevation Gain? Distance? Feeling fed up, Rose decided to take this turn of events as a sign, and she decided to start running based on minutes instead of miles. She continued to train with a purpose, but she used her phone to simply determine the time instead of focusing on the pace and distance. However, this simple shift in focus allowed her to be wholly present and enjoy the beauty of her sport. Looking back, she says she “wishes all her watches would have broken on day one!”
What we can learn from this
Rose competed in several races during the first 11-months after her delivery, but she stresses that the first time she truly felt like she had a “good” race was exactly ONE YEAR postpartum. Magically, this was on her daughter’s first birthday. Looking back, she wishes she would have had more patience with herself and the changes her body was going through. While she was proud of her efforts, the feeling of defeat she experienced by physically and mentally returning to the elite competitive space too early put an unnecessary toll on her.
If there is anything that rings true after talking with Rose, it is the importance of recognizing that while the motherhood journey is beautiful and unbelievably rewarding, it will be tough. Rose says “there will be setbacks and there are things that will affect you more than you know.”
Listen to your body
Set realistic goals
Focus on minutes, not miles
Oh… and maybe pay a little less attention to your watch…