If you've spent any time reading running and or pregnancy magazines/articles (especially if you're a woman) you have likely come across a comparison between the relative pain of Natural Childbirth and Marathon Running. Some say it's about equal while others say one is worse/better then the other.
If I've learned anything from my six marathons and two deliveries it's that no two marathons or deliveries are alike. I can say, however, that from a pain (and duration) perspective I'd take a marathon over a delivery any day. My deliveries were definitely more painful then my marathons. There are a lot of similarities, though, in the mental preparation and toughness needed to make it through both and a comparison of the processes isn't entirely useless =)
Summary of Labors: My first labor (story here) was a long back labor. After missing several nights of sleep, I got an epidural so I could try and rest. It worked for a few hours, and then it only worked about 50% through the delivery stage. I wasn't pleased with it, but it was definitely needed to help me get through that long labor. Fortunately, everyone turned out okay with a vaginal delivery and minimal recovery time.
My second labor (story here) was pretty much, I think, a textbook natural delivery. I had about 11 hours of 'normal' active labor that progressed steadily w/out any interventions. I labored at home as long as possible and then for about 5 hours at the hospital (I needed antibiotics since I was GBS positive). I did transition labor in a tub and then delivered vaginally with a pretty quick pushing stage. Recovery was very very easy - lucky here!
Pain Level: If I've learned anything from my marathon experiences and labor experiences, it's that no two are alike. Not even close. While there was pain involved at some point in each marathon, especially the last 6 miles, it was very different each time; sometimes I was nursing a recent injury; other times it was just the 'wow, I'm really taxing my body' kind of ache.
My two labors were also completely different and felt completely different. With the first, the back pain was so severe I didn't even notice any pain in the front/abdomen. The second time around, I was surprised that yes, in fact, contractions can hurt in the front (uterus), go figure! =)
If I had to generalize, I would say this about relative pain:
Mental Preparation: Completing either a marathon or a delivery (natural or not!) requires going into it w/ open eyes - prepared to do the work and see it through to the end. I found that with both endeavors, you can't over-educate yourself in advance. The more you know, the more informed and confident decisions you can make. This is as true for your training plan as for your birth plan/medical choices. Information is power; so research research research and you'll greatly reduce your stress level with making decisions in training, during pregnancy, on the course, and in the delivery room.
Physical Preparation: Marathon running is hard on your body. Months of careful training (at least 4) are needed to get yourself ready to run the distance w/out serious injury. You can try to run a marathon w/out this preparation, but it's not recommended!
Pregnancy is hard on your body. Months of careful 'training' (9 months, give or take) are needed to get ready to figuratively run the distance (aka, labor and delivery). You can't attempt labor and delivery w/out this preparation =) Pregnancy takes you all the way from 'normal' to this:
Support System: Marathon training affects those around you. You're out running or tired from running most of the time. Pregnancy also affects those around you, especially in the first and third trimester. You're uncomfortable and/or cranky from being pregnant most of the time =)
Support is also crucial during a marathon and especially during delivery. I had a strained IT band for my first marathon, but wanted to 'just finish' it anyway; since I was so excited about doing it. Knowing my husband, then boyfriend, was waiting for me at certain points along the course was a huge motivator to keep my going!
For my first labor, a back labor, my husband and doula had a very active role in providing support. For almost every contraction, over a long period of time, they helped apply counter pressure to my back during. They were almost as tired as me when we were finally done =)
My second labor was very different for my support crew. For whatever reason, I didn't want to be touched or talked to during contractions. What I did need, though, was help relaxing between contractions - and they were crucial in helping me do this. In both labors, getting the right support when I needed it made all the difference, just as it does in marathons.