Feb 21, 2020

Staying on the run

Jennifer Bigham balances the challenges of competing with being a stay at home mom.

By Julian Alexander 

Grady Sports Media 

It’s 5 a.m. in Squirrel Hill, a picturesque, hilly neighborhood near Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While some professional marathoners have started their morning routine, one hasn’t: Jennifer Bigham. 

It’s not that Bigham doesn’t want to start her workout before the sun rises, it’s that she can’t. Apart from her running career and coaching a high school track team, she’s a full-time stay-at-home mom to three children.

“They sense that someone is up, it must be time to get up,”she says.

A typical morning consists of getting her three children off to school and daycare before finding a window to get a workout in. In the afternoons Bigham runs again with the Winchester Thurston School team.

Along with the challenges of raising children who are now three, six, and ten years old, Bigham frequently travels with her husband Jeffrey, an Apple research scientist and associate professor at Carnegie Mellon. 

She adapts her workouts wherever she finds herself — on cross-country camping trips, foreign trails or the cityscape and parks of her adopted home. 

“My husband and I are a good team - we talk it over every day and we just get [training] done,” she says.

All three of her siblings, Josh, Jessica and Jason, grew up as runners, taking after their father, Doug Ordway, an amateur. Both brothers have run in previous trials. 

“No one ever told us to run,” Bigham says. “For some reason I just knew I was gonna run.”

Bigham began racing at age 13, and she carried an intense work ethic all the way through to Ohio State, where she walked onto the cross country and track teams. 

After college, Bigham worked at a credit union while living in Seattle and ran for fun. She rose early in the morning to get to her job, coached a school team in the afternoon and marathoners in the evenings.

Everything changed in 2010 after the birth of her first child, Currence. She decided she wanted to find an outlet that could allow her to stay home with her kids while still doing something for herself.

“She wanted to do something that’s great that her kids could look up to her for,” Jeff said.

The answer was running, where she felt she had not yet reached her potential. However, postpartum anxiety caused her to run faster rather than farther. 

“As a new mother she was really worried about being away from Curry,” Jeff said. “She would run out…[and] she would run really fast back just to see her.”

A few months later, while returning from a wedding in New Jersey, it was who Josh told her she could qualify for trials. In Bigham’s memory, he told her “you have to train, but you can qualify for the trials.”

Bigham didn’t believe her brother, but she decided to try. 

Bigham ran her first marathon eight months postpartum, finishing with a time of 2:51. It was the beginning of a 10-year journey that saw her running career interrupted by pregnancies, injuries and illness. 

Bigham hit a serious roadblock in 2016 after the birth of her third child, when she came back too fast and fell ill with a stomach bug that lasted for 14 months. Despite being in great shape, her stomach would not hold up over distance runs.

“It made running not fun,” she said. “It was the first time in my life that I thought I might have to give up running.”

Bigham did manage to recover, but it was a slow process involving trips to multiple doctors. She even tried acupuncture to remedy the situation.

It was not until a last minute entry into the Osaka Women’s Marathon in Japan on Jan. 28, 2018, that Bigham was able to finish a race with no stomach problems, finishing in 3:02. 

Bigham hit her Olympic qualifying time in April of 2019, when she won the Eugene Marathon in Oregon with a personal record of 2:41:37. She then competed in the New York City Marathon in November 2019, where she placed 27th on the women’s side.

Bigham is ready for the challenge the Atlanta course brings. She wants to pursue her own Olympic dream, even though she acknowledges that her chances of making the team are slim. 

The whole family is coming down to Atlanta, and they will be cheering her on every step of the way. 

Leading up to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon, Atlanta Track Club partnered with the Grady Sports Media program at the University of Georgia to profile some of the competitors in the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials. The authors of these stories are undergraduate students enrolled in the program and have been lightly edited by the Club. See all of the stories at https://www.atlanta2020trials.com/news/uga-trials-project.