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Kerry White: Back in the Race, with Baby

October 11, 2011

Kerry White, getting ready for lap 5 of 24 hours of COS (Mary Topping)

[updated 9/13/2012]

Athletes like Kerry White finish ultra-endurance bike races like the 24 hours of COS (Colorado Springs) because they overcome the challenges of the dark hours. Helmet and handlebar-mounted light beams bounce over the off-road terrain, casting shadows and distorting shapes and distances. Pinon pines transform into black bears; sandy patches hide and surprise. Increased concentration, coupled with a hyper-alert state, exacerbates the fatigue that has accumulated from already pedaling over 50 miles. Alone at midnight, “You can start feeling sorry for yourself, wonder why you signed up for this,” Stephen White said.

Stephen White installs lights on Kerry’s bike at 24 hours of COS (Mary Topping)

On October 1st and 2nd of 2011 at the 24 hours of COS venue, Palmer Park, Stephen supplied food, drink, mechanical skill, and encouragement to his wife Kerry in her pit stop adjacent to this national championship mountain bike course. Stephen, a Nordic skier and 24 Hours of Moab national champion, enjoys crewing for Kerry. So does their one year-old son Calen. He crawled in the grass under the tent shelter, and pulled himself up on one of the coolers.

Kerry, an endurance cyclist with type 1 diabetes, rides for Team Type 1,  a world-class athletic program that includes professional, development, and elite cycling, triathlon, and running athletes. In addition to Team Type 1, PowerBar sponsors Kerry. The White family lives in Eagle, Colorado.

Kerry possessed a motivation for surviving the night that was likely unique among the nine women competing in the solo category. And she knew she needed one. The 24 hours of COS was Kerry’s first 24 hour race after a two-year break of giving birth to and caring for Calen. An accomplished endurance athlete, she’s completed multiple 12 and 24 hour off-road races with podium results, and was the only solo female to finish the 2007 Race Across America road competition.

Kerry and Calen White (Stephen White)

Going into the race she didn’t know how it would turn out. And she didn’t want to disappoint her family. “When you drag your family to a race, and spend $500 on things like accommodations and entry fees…the remorse I’d feel if I didn’t finish would be very depressing,” she said. “If you lose your head, your motivation to continue, you’re done; I was afraid of that, that I wouldn’t believe I could finish,” she said, after the race.

Calen helps Stephen in Kerry White’s pit area, 24 hours of COS (Mary Topping)

Kerry still breast-feeds her first born son Calen. She aims for breast-feeding over formula whenever possible because she found research that shows children of type 1 parents who are fed formula are more likely to acquire type 1 diabetes. During 24 hours of COS the choice she had made to protect her son by breast-feeding became a factor in the race for third place in the women’s solo competition.

Two days after the race, Kerry explained the decision she made at about midnight, half-way into the race which had started at noon on Saturday. Physically uncomfortable from the build-up of breast milk, during three laps she went back and forth about whether to stop to breast pump. She said, “I probably could have coped with the discomfort but mentally decided I wouldn’t make it if I didn’t pump, so I did. It was just two ounces which was pathetic, but mentally it made me comfortable for the rest of the race.”

This decision added 10 minutes to the typical five minute break between laps at a critical time in the race – Kerry held third place, but suspected she would lose time during the night laps, which she did. The winner is decided by the number of completed laps, and when there is a tie, by the rider’s total time. She said, “I walked a lot of stuff I could ride in the day. When it gets dark I fall apart. Even though I know I can ride it, I lose confidence.” During the two year break from competition, Kerry only rode once at night. “I set myself back by not doing a lot of practice at night. If I had done more night practice I probably could have made up the 10 minutes,” she said.

24 hours of COS, lonely at night in the start/finish area

One night ride in two years. If she hadn’t been pregnant, managed up and down blood sugar during pregnancy, worked, given birth, and struggled with Calen’s early lack of weight gain, yes, she probably could have squeezed in more night practice. The journey through first pregnancy poses special challenges for an athlete. At six and a half months pregnant, Kerry wrote in her blog, “…time is flying by…NOT…as a competitive cyclist when you are not competing or training for anything, and seem to be simply getting fat, the days seem to be very long waiting for this little blessing to make his presence known.”

Some female athletes say the pain of childbirth raises their threshold for pain during competition, but this — like other claims about how pregnancy can affect female athletes positively, isn’t true for Kerry. She wanted a natural delivery. But as Calen’s heart rate dropped and did not recover, she decided to have a C-section. She said, “I was bitterly disappointed in myself that I couldn’t do it, I didn’t go all the way through birthing, but the pain up until the C-section was as much as I could handle. But no, pregnancy hasn’t made a difference in my pain threshold.”

Calen White as newborn (Stephen White)

Female athletes sometimes experience stronger performance post child-birth. “I don’t think it’s made me tougher or faster,” Kerry said. “Sari Anderson, a friend I often compare with, has had two children and gotten so fast it makes me jealous. You hope the same will happen to you and it doesn’t.” Kerry doesn’t think she’s gotten slower. “I’m probably about the same,” she said. At least one study has concluded that while each woman’s body responds differently to pregnancy, it’s unlikely that pregnancy will have a negative impact on an athletic comeback.

Commenting on her performance in the 24 hours of COS, Kerry said, “I was as consistent as I have been in the past. That was a good feeling.” Her first 5 laps came in within 13 minutes of each other, averaging 97 minutes on the 13.5 mile course. By noon on Sunday, Kerry had completed 13 laps in 23:51:35. Laureen Coffelt, who finished third, logged 13 laps in 23:37:21. First place Monique Mata rode 15 laps in 22:34:57.

Perhaps Kerry’s not entirely the same person she was prior to Calen. Kerry specializes in making more when others make do, and turning what others define as obstacles into assets. The way she describes her experiences with 24 hours of COS and motherhood imparts the notion that having Calen has provided a deeper reservoir of belief in herself to draw upon than she previously possessed.

Achieving a high level of athletic performance, “requires more mental energy now than before,” Kerry said. “I will ask myself, ‘why am I spending all this time on the bike, I’m sacrificing time with my child and husband. Do I really want to do this?’ This struggle makes it harder. It’s taking a long time to rebuild the endurance I had before, and it’s nerve-wracking to think I have not prepared enough. I’m learning to accept I can do it with a lot less training hours.” Kerry now trains about 16 hours a week; before pregnancy she averaged 25 and as many as 30 hours of training weekly.

As the end of the race approached, the time differences between second, third, and fourth places in the women’s solo race at 24 hours of COS compressed. Second place finisher Kt Desantis slowed down; Laureen and Kerry sped up. Sometime between 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., Laureen’s pace overtook Kerry’s to achieve third place. Kerry said, “My goal was to finish. I was happy to finish and with my results and performance. I didn’t drop out. I had the mental toughness to continue to the end, and that’s all I can ask for.”

Kerry White finishes her 24 hours of COS (Mary Topping)

In early September Kerry raced in 12 hours of Snowmass and placed third in a field of six in the women’s solo category. She’s looking forward to returning to the 12 hour Sunlight Endurance Challenge where she won the women’s duo race in 2010. She’s also looking forward to supporting Stephen. “It’s Stephen’s turn this winter,” she said, “he’s given up a lot this summer so I could get back. I need to give him a chance to do more racing.” The couple married in 2003.

Kerry doesn’t regret her choice to breast-pump at midnight while her competitors continued to cover more ground. When a woman becomes a mother, the increased responsibilities lead her to become more realistic in her expectations. “It is what it is. Whatever place I’m in I’m pleased I achieved my goal to finish. I’m not remorseful that I could have been third.”

Kerry White’s happy with her 24 hours of COS ride (Mary Topping)

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Find Stephen and Kerry’s blog at http://xcwhite.blogspot.com/.

Sari Anderson, Kerry’s friend and a multi-sport endurance athlete, won the mixed duo mountain bike national championship in the 2010 24 hours of Moab six months after giving birth to her second child. She lives in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Read about training advice and more in her blog, http://sarianderson.wordpress.com/sari-anderson/.

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