Today was the first day of the Cascade Cycling Classic – a 95-mile road race – and I’m sweaty, exhausted, and dusty. I’m completely spent and yet, when our team van pulled over on the side of the highway eight miles from my host house, I got out and started running home.
Well, running is an optimistic term. It was barely a jog into a headwind along a wide-open uphill highway at altitude. The struggle was real. It got even better when all the other team vans driving home from the stage started passing. I’d have hidden behind a tree if (a) there were any trees and (b) I’d had any energy to spare.
I had to run, though, because my only exercise for the day thus far had been driving the team van and working the race start and finish. It was hard enough to sit out the race; I had to at least do something. And most medical sources say that pregnant women should get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day.
Yes, that applies to me. I’m pregnant.
It feels incredibly weird to write that. Or say it or even think it. I can’t keep plants alive and yet I’m growing a person and then going to turn them into an adult and send them out into the world. It’s been a bit of a shock from day one and still continues to this day.
The beauty of getting pregnant as a professional athlete is that everybody asks (or at least wonders), “Are you happy?” As in, was this an accident? It’s a fair question; our careers revolve around our bodies and we work so hard to train, torment, teach, and perfect our bodies, so any massive deviation from that raises questions. “Was this what you wanted?”
Yes. I’ll be honest: the timing was a surprise, because my partner and I assumed that with my intense training, residual eating disorder issues, and the physical setbacks of the year, it would take a while for a kid to happen. We were willing to gamble. It seemed unlikely to occur but we were more open to having it happen early than delay a few years and learn then that it would be struggle. Fertility issues in pro athletes aren’t so rare that I wasn’t concerned. So we rolled the dice, and hello baby. I was shocked and scared at first but his response upon hearing the news was enough to steady my nerves and excitement has taken over for us both. Sometimes you end up in a break you don’t expect and all you can do is settle in and ride the race you’ve been handed.
In the positive test photo I sent to my best friends the morning I found out, you can see a “YES+” and the toes of my sponsor-correct Base Cartel socks. That sums it up: suddenly planted in two vastly different worlds.
I found out two days before the Armed Services Cycling Classic. It had already been an ongoing debate as to whether my clavicle and concussed head were ready to return to racing just four weeks post-crash, but now I had another variable to consider. If not that weekend, when would I be able to race again? I was still feeling good and fit but wasn’t sure how long I’d have before pregnancy symptoms set in or I’d be risking the baby. All medical advice I sought advised that I could safely race those two crits and when my partner didn’t object, it was decided.
I told my teammate the morning of the first stage and then lined up and raced hard. It was a great day; I didn’t feel amazing and was nervous about going down on the arm that couldn’t withstand a hit, but I focused on making it the best damn race possible in case that was it. When the officials awarded me the Most Courageous Rider jersey, it meant so much more than most people there could possibly know. In the post-race interview, Brad Sohner (race announcer) asked me all about coming back from the crash to race that day and I could hardly keep from blurting out BUT WAIT, HERE’S THE REAL NEWS.
The race took more out of me than a crit normally would, but I was determined to finish out the weekend and raced again the next day. I’m so glad I did: to end this chapter of my career at my hometown race surrounded by friends and family in a special jersey while racing with somebody who has been a dear friend and teammate for years meant so much. No matter what comes next, I will always have the memories of that weekend.
That Most Courageous jersey was mailed to our team doctor, who more than earned the acknowledgement after supporting me all season long though, “Hi Dr. Baker, I have bronchitis…I have this heart condition…I’m in the hospital after a bad crash…I’m pregnant.”
As for what comes next, I do plan to come back and race again. When I contemplated having a baby a year ago in a very different life, I figured I would retire for good. But my life is different now, my partner is so supportive, and I don’t feel done. Not because I have any specific box to check but because I still feel that fire to compete. When I watch people race, I want to be in the pack waiting for that perfect moment to attack and bleed out my eyeballs. Even having to sit out group rides now is terrible.
That sounds dramatic but it’s not entirely untrue. Pregnancy is really hard, at least for me. I feel like an alien in my own body – things look and feel drastically different, my clothes fit strangely or not at all, and the lack of energy is staggering at times. My dearly beloved had to go to McDonalds at midnight because I had insomnia and was so queasy and only a McD’s hamburger would fix the problems. He then had to go back again the next morning to get me breakfast. Prior to that, I hadn’t eaten McDonalds in years. Now I hate salads and coffee and could live entirely on buttered toast, fried eggs, and artichoke hearts. I’m pretty sure USA Cycling is required to revoke my pro license now on the grounds that I can’t stomach kale or beets.
The hardest part has been letting go of my fitness. After the Armed Services crits, I decided to stop racing; it wasn’t worth the risk and in the coming days, my energy levels kept dropping and even training became challenging. The bike was uncomfortable, I felt sluggish, and was afraid to push too hard for fear of hurting the kid. Being a pro cyclist meant learning to ignore discomfort and push through physical limits; being a pregnant woman means having to relearn how to take physical cues. As much as I wanted to attack the group ride – or even just stay in for the hard parts – my body said no. So I backed off. Started running. Walked as much as I could. Learned to settle for “exercise” instead of training.
Well, I’m still learning to settle. Honestly, it’s hard as hell when everybody is out racing and smashing shit and I’m spinning around at 150 watts feeling like a dying animal. I hate feeling fat and slow. I hate getting on the bike and no longer feeling fast and powerful and happy. I’ve cried a few dozen times and felt a loss of identity and some serious anxiety over being able to get back to riding like myself after the baby comes. But this baby is so loved and wanted, and so I focus on that. I try to take it one day at a time, always do my core workout and get in at least an hour of exercise a day no matter how terrible I feel, and trust that when the time comes to train again, I’ll have enough fight to suffer through whatever it takes to come back.
Plus I feel reasonably confident that childbirth is going to put race pain into some serious perspective. Oh, a mountaintop finish at altitude? HA! Let me tell you about the time I shoved a watermelon through an olive.
The second trimester is supposed to be easier; more energy, less queasiness and ridiculous bloating. I’m hoping I’ll start to love riding again and feel more at home on a bike. Even if it doesn’t happen that way, though, I will keep going. Stay as fit as possible, keep reminding my body what it’s like to pedal even if it’s only slowly, and focus on how this is an amazing (and blessedly time-limited) process. At the end of this journey, they’re going to hand me a baby, which still blows my mind. I can come back and win a lot more jerseys if I’m willing to work hard enough, but this kid, this miniature mix of me and my favorite person, this will top any victory ever.