Katie Compton has been the dominant force in American cyclo-cross for more than a decade, but faces her hardest challenge yet to obtain her record 12th straight USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championship title. After a summer battling health issues that left her mentally at rock bottom, she is confident she now has the fix for all of her problems and is back on track, hoping her form will be good enough to win on Sunday.
Despite her winning record, Compton has always battled one devastating health issue or another. Early in her international racing career in 2008, she battled mysterious leg pains that she attributed to travel. A few years later, she learned she had low thyroid function. More recently it's been allergies and asthma, making it difficult to breathe while racing, and an antibiotic resistant infection that required powerful drugs to treat.
For an athlete who is accustomed to winning big races, struggling to 27th place in the World Championships last year was tough, but with her health further declining after she returned home, she began to get desperate for answers.
"This summer was the hardest summer emotionally and physically," Compton told Cyclingnews. "After Worlds I felt bad, but then I kept feeling worse. It wasn't getting better and I was getting depressed. I didn't have energy and just going for a walk was a struggle. I got so frustrated and scared, because I'm used to being a healthy person, and then I couldn't even go for a walk and be able to breathe. I kind of hit rock bottom, and that's why I wanted to figure out the underlying cause - it can't just be diet or nutrition or my asthma getting worse."
Compton thinks she figured out the problem when listening to a podcast that described symptoms which closely matched her ailments. After bringing up the possibility with her endocrinologist, she was tested and confirmed to have a genetic mutation that could inhibit conversion of an essential vitamin, folic acid, into a useable form.
"I felt really tired and slow, and being on two strong antibiotics the last two seasons because of a MRSA infection, it kind of just did me in. It was a cascading effect from the small things I was dealing with. The leg pain, breathing and asthma were all linked to this mutation."
Though this type of diagnosis and treatment are uncommon in conventional medicine, and the disorder is mostly discussed by naturopaths and wellness bloggers, Compton says small changes to her diet and supplementation with a different form of vitamin B9 have made a big difference.
"Part of me can't believe I've finally figured it out. I feel so much better. I still have some allergies, but now I know what I need to do, how I can dial in my diet and avoiding folic acid is pretty easy," she said.
However, an entire summer off the bike has left her playing catch up with her fitness. "It's hard with all the racing and travel to actually get solid training in. It's been a little bit slower than I wanted. I definitely feel better, and am getting faster, but just not quickly enough. I would have liked to have been faster a month ago."
Compton showed that she is well on her way back to her old self with a second place in the Zolder World Cup in December. The result gave her fresh motivation for Sunday's championship race and the Worlds, which will be held on the same course in Zolder.
"I'm still eager and excited to race and go hard, which is good. In years past I've just been so tired by January, that every hard effort wore on me. It's good this year because I'm fresher, especially mentally. I'm eager to race.
"Health-wise, I'm 100 per cent, I'm way better than last year. I feel better, and I can push the pedals and breathe. It's just a matter of finding some speed in my legs."
Whether she can keep her winning streak alive in Asheville on Sunday remains to be seen.
"12 is a big number. I think this will be my hardest national championship yet just because I don't know how I'm riding. I'm getting faster, but also little Katie [Antonneau] is riding faster and had some good races. You also don't know - Crystal [Anthony] and Amanda [Miller] have had some good seasons, too. And you can't forget Rachel Lloyd. It's going to be a good race. I'm not quite sure what's going to happen. You never know who's peaking for this event. This is a big one for the last qualification spot for Worlds, too. Elle Anderson will want to have a good race, and Courtney McFadden and Meredith Miller."
Compton hopes for muddy course conditions in Asheville
The course on the Biltmore Estate has been dubbed as the hardest US national championship course in recent history, and has some tough climbs and tricky, technical sections. "From what I've heard it is challenging, so I'm curious to see how it rides. If the course breaks down... you never know how slippery it will be with the temperature changing."
Heavy rain is predicted for the days leading up to Sunday's elite races, and Compton hopes that the streak of muddy national championships continues. "I don't think we've had a nationals that has been dry and easy since I can remember - I think we had a dry race in Kansas City (in 2008), that was the last time.
"I think it's more fun racing in the mud. It takes the tactics out and you just race your bike. I'll be curious to see how it turns out. I would definitely take a mud race."
Whether she wins on Sunday or not, Compton is determined to keep racing after this season now that she feels like she has her health back.
"I want to keep racing, especially now that I can train like a normal athlete and I can breathe, and I'm feeling good again. It's kind of new, and it's sad that I had the entire summer of not riding and am just getting fitness now. I think if I have the whole summer to train and dial in nutrition better, I will be able to keep getting stronger instead of just trying not to get slower.
"It was tough, but it makes me appreciate getting to race my bike, to do what I do, and the results that I've had. This year's been toughest because I've been struggling so much, but it helps me to appreciate winning races, and how good it feels to win, and how bad it feels to have bad results - to work really hard to get 30th.
"It's all good learning - now that I can look back on it, I can say that. This summer showed me I wasn't ready to retire yet."