Katie Compton’s painful path back to the World Cup podium

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You’d never have known, seeing Katie Compton stand on the second step of the Zolder World Cup on December 26, that six months earlier she’d been in the depths of despair.

To the casual observer, or even the diehard cyclocross fan, it seemed as though it was business as usual.

Of course Compton, who has been the U.S. national champion for so long most have lost track, would be on a World Cup podium. The Trek Factory Racing rider won 22 World Cup events in her career, and was the overall World Cup champion in 2013 and 2014 — the first and only American to claim the series title. Over the past decade, it’s become more of a surprise when she isn’t on the podium than when she is.

But the reality was that Compton’s near victory at Zolder, seven seconds behind Belgian champ Sanne Cant, marked the end point of the darkest period of her life.

During the summer of 2015, months that elite cyclocross racers use for base miles and endurance training, Compton was off the bike completely, battling with the two-headed hydra of health issues and accompanying depression.

What started as a recurring saddle sore ended up as an antibiotic-resistant staph infection that swelled to “the size of an orange,” producing fever and cold sweats.

A trip to a mountain bike race in Iceland in June was a disaster, ridden almost entirely out of the saddle due to pain, and ended with her husband Mark driving her straight from the Denver airport to the hospital, to have the infection drained. However the cyst burst on the way to the emergency room, oozing blood and pus down Compton’s legs and through her clothes.

It was a low point, but only the beginning of a long recovery period. The wound, which created an undermining tube 8cm deep, took three months to heal, requiring regular cleaning and redressing of a gauze wick required to drain properly.

Compton wouldn’t ride a bike again until September 5th — just 11 days before the World Cup season opener in Las Vegas, where she would somehow finish 11th, 1:20 down on Katerina Nash (Luna).

Even for an athlete who has dealt with an inordinate amount of health complications — or rather, because of the accumulated effect — the summer of 2015 presented a challenge Compton had not yet faced before.

“It was the lowest I have ever felt or ever been,” Compton told CyclingTips. “I was at rock bottom. The emotional part, the physical part.. I just cracked. I kept asking, ‘why do I have to deal with all this crap?’ Sure, I’ve had good results, but no one else [in elite women’s cyclocross] has had to deal with all of this shit.”

The infection was the latest in a series of health issues — leg cramps, a thyroid imbalance, and exercise-induced asthma — that have collectively caused erratic performances uncharacteristic of a world-class athlete.

A promising junior talent, Compton walked away from individual competition in 1999, at age 21, due to a debilitating, chronic issue with leg cramps that recurred under heavy exertion; it was an ailment that for years went undiagnosed and, therefore, untreated.

Three years later she returned to cycling as the pilot of a Paralympic tandem team. She returned to elite-level competition in 2004 via then-boyfriend, now-husband Mark Legg, a talented New Zealander who competed at the 2002 world cyclocross championship in Zolder.

The leg cramps never went away, but over time Compton learned how to train, and race, around them. However the health issues kept on coming; she was diagnosed with hypothyroidism in 2010, and started having problems with allergy-induced asthma in 2011.

Time off the bike last summer forced Compton to seek out answers for the ailments that have hampered her entire racing career.

“Since I wasn’t riding, I had lots of extra time,” Compton said. “I was sad and depressed. I was reading a lot, and listening to podcasts, especially those focusing on diet, nutrition, and health, trying to figure out why I felt so awful. Even walking up the stairs, I would stop for recovery at the top, and this was when I was not even training. I would get tired even just out walking the dog.”

Compton came across a podcast focusing on thyroid issues that touched on all of her symptoms. Through this, she ultimately discovered that she has a genetic defect — her body lacks the methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase enzyme (MTHFR) needed to convert folic acid into the usable form of methyl folate. Without this enzyme, folic acid builds up in the blood stream to toxic levels.

“Blood tests confirmed that I have that gene defect. It’s the root of all of my issues,” Compton said. “I asked my endocrinologist to check for it, and I was positive for both defects on both genes, one from mom, one from my dad. All the symptoms — leg cramps, asthma, reduced ability to recover, antibiotics make it worse — are all from this defect.”

(Noteworthy: In January 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began requiring manufacturers to add folic acid to enriched breads, cereals, flours, cornmeals, pastas, rice, and other grain products, primarily because pregnant women with insufficient folate intakes are at increased risk of giving birth to infants with neural tube defects. Compton’s leg cramp issues began in 1998.)

After almost 20 years of complicated health issues, the solution to Compton’s problems is simple — taking methyl folate supplements, and avoiding foods enriched with folic acid.

“The entire time I’ve been racing, I’ve been dealing with this,” Compton said. “This is the first time I’ve ever been able to train without leg cramps. So there is a huge positive of not riding this summer. If I hadn’t had so much time on my hands, I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble to research this, and I happened to stumbled upon the right podcast. It’s changed my life.”

At the 2014 World Cup in Nommay, France, Compton abandoned after an asthma attack while wearing the white World Cup series leader's skinsuit. Photo by Cor Vos.
At the 2014 World Cup in Nommay, France, Compton abandoned after an asthma attack while wearing the white World Cup series leader’s skinsuit. Photo by Cor Vos.

Another shot at worlds — but first, nationals

On Sunday, Compton will attempt to win an unprecedented twelfth straight U.S. national cyclocross championship in Asheville, North Carolina.

And what’s just as staggering as that impressive streak is that it’s almost unimaginable that she won’t achieve it, such is her talent and skill.

Compton’s first national title came in Portland, Oregon, back in December 2004. George Bush had just been reelected president, Mark Zuckerberg had just launched Facebook from his Harvard dorm room, and Compton was working as a coach at Carmichael Training Systems.

After a season spent racing locally near her home in Colorado Springs, Compton showed up to the 2004 nationals as a relative unknown. She rode alone at the front in muddy conditions from start to finish to take her first stars-and-stripes jersey.

She’s won every year since then — a reign that has, quite literally, spanned an entire generation. The silver medalist at Compton’s 2004 victory, Gina Hall, was born in 1967. The silver medalist at Compton’s 2015 victory, Kaitlin Antonneau, was born in 1992.

Over the past 12 years, Compton has won 108 UCI races across a career that has been shaped by a series of rivalries — in the U.S., against Canadian Lyne Bessette, and then Georgia Gould and Katerina Nash; in Europe, against German veteran Hanka Kupernagel, Dutch superstar Marianne Vos, and most recently, Sanne Cant.

But it’s Compton’s body that has been her biggest rival. And she’s been particularly disappointing on the one stage that matters most, the world championships, where she’s finished on the podium four times, with three silver medals, but has also been completely out of the picture, such as in 2014, when she finished ninth, and in 2015, when she finished a miserable 27th.

Her last podium appearance at worlds was in 2013, in Louisville, Kentucky, finishing second to Vos after a difficult start initially dropped her from the top 10, leaving her to wonder what might have been.

Compton is as aware of the conspicuous hole in her palmares as she is that time is running out to fill it. Now 37, she has only a few more opportunities to win that elusive rainbow jersey, and she must do it against a young generation of talented riders headed by Cant (Enertherm-BKCP), the number-one ranked rider in the world, who is just 25.

With Vos and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot sitting out the cyclocross season due to injury, and Nash stepping back from international competition, the upcoming world championship, held January 30 in Zolder, might be Compton’s best, last chance.

“I’m so over thinking about worlds,” she laughed. “It feels like I’ve been second or third so many times. I realize that three of the top girls in the world are not racing, so that’s almost three medals up for grabs. It would be great if I won it his year, but I’ve just dealt with so much disappointment at worlds. But I do like the Zolder course. It’s fun. It’s super hard, and it has everything — power, speed, technical sections, sprinting, climbing. An all-around ’cross rider will win, for sure.”

Compton has been on an upswing over the past few World Cups, finishing third at Koksijde on November 22, fourth at Namur on December 20, and second in Zolder, where she rode with Cant until the final lap. And as strong as Cant has been, she is not invincible, evidenced by a subpar showing in Namur, where she finished 14th.

“I’m feeling good, health-wise, but I don’t really have the fitness,” Compton said. “It’s not like I was all that fit in June, when all this happened, so it feels like I started all over again. My aerobic fitness sucks. I’m getting faster, but I still feel super slow. I’ve been trying to train between all the racing and international travel, but I haven’t had many good blocks of training.

“I’m definitely coming up, but I don’t know if it will be soon enough (for worlds). I’ll be faster at worlds, but I feel like I still need two more months. I can train hard, I’m not worrying about the leg pain, but don’t know if, by the time worlds gets here, I’ll be fast enough. We’ll see.”

First, however, Compton must take on the U.S. national championships against a hungry field of talented riders. Among them are Antonneau (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com), who finished second at the Valkenburg World Cup in October; Georgia Gould (Luna), a three-time silver medalist at cyclocross nationals; and Elle Anderson (Strava-SRAM), silver medalist at the 2014 national championship in Boulder, Colorado.

Other American women vying for the podium in Asheville include Meredith Miller (Noosa), and Boulder Cycle Sport-YogaGlo teammates Crystal Anthony and Amanda Miller.

And while Compton’s reign over the national title is such that it’s hard to imagine another winner, given the ordeal of the past year, she’s not taking anything for granted.

“I still take every year one at a time, especially since this season has been so rough on me,” she said. “It makes me appreciate winning a lot more — how great it feels to win, and how sucky it feels to not ride well. I’ve had so many low points, winning another national title would feel great.”

If Compton does take a twelfth national title, to many, it will simply be business as usual. But for Compton, it will be perhaps the most meaningful of her historic career.

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