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A race where you push yourself — and a stroller

The sport of ‘stroller running’ can be casual fun. But it can also be serious competition.

By Jim Sullivan

It was a hot, humid late-summer day, and Julie DiNardo was preparing for a road race like many runners do, stretching and adjusting her laces. But unlike many runners, she had something else to prepare. She strapped her three toddlers into the triple stroller she would push throughout the 10-kilometer run.

She pushed them fast. That day, August 26, 2016, Julie earned a spot in Guinness World Records, setting the record for — as Guinness puts it — “Fastest 10km pushing a triple pram (female).” She ran it in 49 minutes in North Kingston, Rhode Island.

DiNardo, now 33, has been a runner since age five. She earned 12 varsity letters in high school for cross country, indoor, and outdoor track. When she was in her 20s, she ran a race or triathlon almost every weekend. But she didn’t know stroller racing was a thing until she ran across an article three years ago in Runner’s World, featuring a woman who did just that.

“Once I read that article and knew her time, I felt that I could surpass it, and I went for it,” Julie says.

Stroller running — also called pram or buggy running, depending on the country — has been around since at least the last century; you can find footage of a British “pram marathon” from 1923. Organizers of the Pagham Pram Race in West Sussex, England, date their own Monty Pythonesque event back to 1946: servicemen back from World War II having some fun, with beer stops along the way and a fruitcake for the winner. (It’s still held every Boxing Day.)

But in recent years, participation has spread, with women often taking the lead, and taking things seriously. In 2006, pram races of at least one mile took place simultaneously in seven European countries, an event organized by Mother Centres International Network for Empowerment. (The event, which drew 2,015 prams, set a Guinness World Record for “largest pram/stroller walk in multiple locations.”)

The sport is the natural extension of several trends, from a surge in interest in running to a craze in postpartum fitness. And for some runners like DiNardo, stroller racing is a way to merge the immersive experience of motherhood with the thrill of competition. For a driven athlete, stroller running can seem like a best-of-both-worlds situation: rather than change your routine when the kids arrive, why not just bring them along?

“Every race that I’ve run with my kids, there is always one of them or all of them cheering at the top of their lungs, ‘Go mama! Go mama, go!’”

DiNardo is half of a rather athletic couple. Her husband, Lenny DiNardo, played major-league baseball for parts of six years — pitching for the Boston Red Sox during the 2004 championship season — and today is an analyst at New England Sports Network, the cable channel that broadcasts most Red Sox games. Lenny, 39, is still in tip-top shape, but says Julie is the better athlete. “Oh, she is by far,” he said. “I’m not joking at all when I say that.”

Julie ran eight races in 2018, six of them with a stroller. She has set other Guinness records, too — fastest half marathon pushing a double stroller, fastest half marathon pushing a triple stroller — though her records have since been broken.

She says her kids — Abby, 6; Lenny, Jr., 4; and Audrey, 2 — love being part of the racing, and she loves “knowing that when they grow up, they’ll be able to understand they were part of the record.”

Already, they’re aware of what’s happening. “Every race that I’ve run with my kids, there is always one of them or all of them cheering at the top of their lungs, ‘Go mama! Go mama, go!’” she says. “Which can be both inspiring and exhausting to hear for 13.1 miles, but I think they feel all of the positive race energy, too. They enjoy it as much as I do.”

But with records at stake, the races are also serious business. On the days Lenny pitched in the major leagues, Julie gave him time to be solitary, quiet, introspective, or ornery. Now, Lenny says, it’s his job to support her on race days. “The morning of the race can be hectic, especially with kids,” he says. “I know that there’s a point prior to the race where she needs to be by herself. She has this routine where she applies [anti-chafing] rubs on her knees, her legs, and her hips, and she’ll go in a corner. I try to stay out of her way, and realize she’s getting mentally prepared.”


Though people have been running with strollers for years, organized events began to take hold about eight years ago, after manufacturers began building sturdier, more efficient, running-friendly strollers, says Jennifer Flanigan, who founded a group called The Stroller Run in Boise, Idaho, in 2013.

The technological developments came at a time when Flanigan needed them.

“I was a runner before,” she says. But having kids complicated her running routine. “You wanted to go out for a run, but you don’t want to leave your children behind. There’s that guilt. As soon as we got strollers that were able to run long distances, a lot of us were able to regain our freedom. The kids came along and then the whole ‘race’ aspect of it fell in line.”

She and her brother, John Malfatto, have organized 5Ks exclusively for stroller moms — and dads and partners — in Boise; Portland, Oregon; Washington, D.C.; the San Francisco Bay area; Chicago and elsewhere. (The group’s slogan is “Run Like a Mom.” About three-fourths of the runners are women.) They hope to stage six to eight events over the next two years.

Julie DiNardo broke the record for the fastest half marathon pushing a double stroller in 2018 in Wakefield, RI.

Meanwhile, strollers are still improving. In April, the London Telegraph noted the development of a specially designed new pram called the Bugaboo Runner, which has state-of-the-art suspension and huge tires. Katie Samuel, a trainer for Buggy Fit, which runs exercise classes for mothers across Britain, touted the particular benefits of exercising while pushing your children along. “Running with a buggy works your hamstrings, quads, and glutes,” she told the Telegraph. “Steering challenges and tones your biceps and triceps. And your abdominals will need to be engaged to run with good posture.”

The Stroller Run works in collaboration with various “mommy groups,” mostly on the U.S. West Coast, Flanigan says. The Stroller Run events, which draw between 400 and 800 participants, are not highly competitive. “It’s more the ‘fun run’ side of things,” says Malfatto. “We make it laid-back and spread out. The camaraderie of the community is something to celebrate. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some people who take it seriously and want to run fast.”


The most serious stroller racers, like DiNardo, tend to gravitate toward general races. In the northeastern U.S., any given half marathon or 5K may have 10 to 20 moms-with-strollers in the mix, DiNardo says.

Dianna Chivakos, who holds the Guinness World Record for fastest marathon pushing a pram, ran the Bay State Marathon in Lowell, Mass. with her then three-year-old son, Evan, in October 2017. (Her time: 3:10:26.)

“I had been running a ton before hearing about the record, and was already signed up for the marathon,” Chivakos says, “but as it got closer, I realized that I might be capable of breaking the record, which was when I decided to push the stroller. And happily, it all worked out.”

Gary Minissian, who organizes races in Rhode Island for Ocean State Multisport, has welcomed DiNardo’s participation in several of his races — and has allowed strollers in his races for eight years. “Most of the time, I tell runners that Julie is trying to break a record,” he says, “and they actually cheer her on.”

But competitive adult races are not always welcoming of strollers, due to safety and insurance concerns. DiNardo says some race directors have turned down her request to run with a stroller. Chivakos, too, says she can find it hard to enter a race with her kids. “I’ve had some race directors give me a flat-out no when I’ve asked,” she says.

Even Minissian throws up a caution flag. “I don’t advertise it and try to keep it low-key,” he says. “I tell them that they have to start in the back of the pack, as I’d rather not have the strollers mix in with the runners, so no one gets hurt. After the first half mile, it becomes more single file and makes things easier.”

Jonathan Beverly, editor-in-chief of the website PodiumRunner and author of the books “Your Best Stride” and “Run Strong, Stay Hungry,” warns that chasing records with kids on wheels is risky. “I don’t have any problem with people pushing strollers in races,” he says. “But I think chasing records can impair good judgment when it comes to safety choices. It’s a tricky thing, as no one wants to endanger a child with reckless stroller running.”

Still, interest in stroller running shows no sign of waning. Race organizers in Italy have contacted The Stroller Run for advice, says Flanigan. “Europe is not as auto-centered [as the U.S.],” Flanigan says, “so they are most used to using strollers in all aspects of life, and that’s included with their races. Some races have specific stroller divisions.”

As for DiNardo, she expects to be back on the road, with the strollers, on August 25. The DiNardos welcomed their fourth child, Max, into the family in April. If her postpartum recovery and training progress as she hopes, she plans to break either the half marathon record or her own 10K record.

And, this time, she’ll be pushing a quad stroller, as Max joins his siblings for his first race.

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Jim Sullivan is a writer based in Boston.

 

Illustration by Ben Boothman

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