For athletes around the globe, the pandemic derailed plans. For Catharine Pendrel, who had planned to retire after the Tokyo Olympics, it meant that she had to decide whether to try to start a family like she had been planning to do in 2021 or continue preparing for the postponed Olympics and further delaying motherhood. At 40 years old, Pendrel decided she didn't have the luxury of time on her side and on January 26, 2021, Pendrel gave birth to her daughter Dara. It turned out, that it wasn't an either/or situation after all, and Pendrel then returned to racing at the highest level in Albstadt, just three months after giving birth.
I caught up with Pendrel in Leogang after the Nove Mesto World Cup where she is staying ahead of the Leogang World Cup next weekend with her husband Keith and their baby Dara to find out how she was able to finish a remarkable 23rd just three months after giving birth, what training through pregnancy was like, and what it was like to be back on the start line after not having raced an XCO race since the Tokyo test event in October of 2019.
Where are you now, and what is your day to day life looking like?Catharine Pendrel:
Right now I'm in Leogang, Austria since our next World Cup is here. To minimize logistics, we're trying to go one place and stay there for as long as we can. We have a nice apartment looking out at beautiful mountains, and day-to-day I'm just training and spending time with Dara. Often I'll go out training first so it’s high quality, and then I'll come home, and I'll hang out with Dara, and my husband will get outside for some exercise too. For us it’s really important to make sure we both get out to ride to make the best parenting team. The weather has been a little bit challenging, because it's been quite wet. We were spoiled before, when we could go out and ride together, in the couple of hours a day where there was a good weather window. Now pretty much one of us is always riding in the rain. That's okay. We're making it work.
When did you head to Europe ahead of the first World Cup? Catharine Pendrel:
The original plan was that we were going to come over and do a Swiss Cup and have a good lead into Albstadt. We had the oopportunity to get vaccinated though so we pushed our trip back to the latest possible we could. We just arrived in Albstadt at 9pm at night on a Wednesday. Then I was already racing the Short Track Friday afternoon. It was definitely a really compressed schedule, a little too compressed for good performance, I realized. It's one of those things where, when you're young and child-free, you can kind of get away with it. We're just kind of learning the new reality now.
That's still pretty incredible for anybody to perform when you get to Europe on a Wednesday from North America and race on a Friday though isn't it? Catharine Pendrel:
Totally, yeah. One time we did it, and it just worked out super well. My teammate and I went one, two at a World cup and we're like, "Oh yeah, we can totally do that." But it's what you can do when everything goes perfectly according to plan. That's not the usual.
Did you feel like you hadn't quite set yourself up for the best performance in Albstadt? Catharine Pendrel:
Short Track is always hard for me, but the Short Track went okay. I think, because it was just 20 minutes. But it really showed up in the cross-country, where I just fell apart like at the halfway point of the race. I think my mind was like, "Oh man, okay, here's the limiter of the pregnancy training you were able to do, and the compressed timeline." But then I wanted to see how things would go in Nove Mesto with much better preparation and things have gotten so much better fatiguewise. I was like, "Okay, how much of that performance was actually the travel and it being quite a hot race in Albstadt?"
Have you been doing any races? There haven't been any races in Canada that you've been able to do, right? Catharine Pendrel:
No. That was my first race, a World Cup Short Track, and then 44 hours later World Cup cross-country.
When was the last time that you'd raced?Catharine Pendrel:
I did one Short Track in the U.S. in 2020. That was the day that the U.S. went into a national lockdown, and then we all flew home. My last XCO cross-country race was actually the Tokyo test event in 2019.
Wow. That's over a year and a half without racing XCO. I guess we could back up a little bit here. I wanted to kind of talk about your pregnancy and what the timeline for that looked like. When did you decide that you wanted to have a family? Catharine Pendrel:
I guess my plan had been to retire after last season, and then see if we could have a family, because you never know if you're able to. That's kind of as late as I wanted to push it with my age, and then last year the Olympics got canceled. There was talk about them being postponed, but you don't know. We didn't know what was going to happen. It was like, "Do I want to put the rest of my life on hold for something that may or may not happen?" We decided to try, and then we did get pregnant right away. I guess it was just not wanting to put that part of life on hold anymore.
Was your initial plan was to retire after the Tokyo Olympics. Catharine Pendrel:
When did you find out you were pregnant? Catharine Pendrel:
I found out in early June. It's kind of funny, because I had been doing a lot of Zwift races because things were pretty locked down and it was an easy and social way to train at that point in time. I was just getting so tired. I'm like, "Man, these Zwift races are so hard," and then I found out I was pregnant and that fatigue is a huge symptom in the first trimester. Then a lot of things made sense.
As an overview, how did your training have to adapt through the different trimesters of your pregnancy? Catharine Pendrel:
Training in the first trimester was really good, because it actually helped a lot with morning sickness. And I was closer to being race fit so you're still feeling good that way. But it's a weird one, because from the outside, you don't look pregnant at all, but inside it's the most dramatic changes that you go through and you just don't feel great. But I was still able to train at a pretty high capacity.
Then I had some health issues where I actually had to take six weeks totally off training and I got really out of shape. When I was able to start training again, everything just felt really hard, because you're out of shape, your body's bigger, and pregnancy makes you breathe harder. Getting an e-bike then was awesome, because otherwise I just felt so limited in what I could do. That was super nice to just kind of help me get back to feeling good.
I actually gained confidence in what I could do in my pregnancy, the further I got in. I actually felt quite good in my third trimester, even though I was bigger. It was wintertime, so I transitioned to cross-country skiing. Skiing was way more comfortable since you're upright. It was also really nice to be doing something where I didn’t constantly have my power and heart rate in front of me, where I could just go based on how I felt. That just felt more natural and nice. Then I actually felt like I was regaining my fitness and I felt pretty good with what I was able to do. It was mostly just aerobic training, but I'd say I was able to do 70% of my normal volume in the third trimester.For more details on training through pregnancy, visit Pendrel's blog here.
How many years have you been a professional racer for now? Catharine Pendrel:
Have you ever taken off six weeks in that time?Catharine Pendrel:
No. Well, in the winter, I always cross-country ski. I'm on the trainer three or four times a week, but I'm doing my volume on skis so I do get a good break from cycling every day. But in terms of taking time off, it would typically be like four days off training, maybe even a week of not training. I take time off of intervals, but I would always be very active.
What was it like to have like six weeks entirely off? Catharine Pendrel:
It's just such a different reality, because I didn't feel good. I just kind of embraced my current reality, but I was really hoping that that wouldn't have to be a long-term thing. I started knitting and then I stopped knitting as soon as I could do other stuff again. I think because I hadn't had a break like that, that I just got to totally embrace it for what it was in the moment.
Where did you get information on how to train at an elite level through your pregnancy? Catharine Pendrel:
There are two books that I relied on. There's "Exercising Through Your Pregnancy" by James F. Clapp. He did some longitudinal studies on athletes that he qualified as exercising at a high intensity level, exercising at least five times a day at moderate to vigorous exercise. Then another one was, “The Pregnant Athlete” by Brandi Dion and it gave more strength workouts that you could do and maintain through your pregnancy.
I had also read some academic journals on the best cross-country skier in the world, Marit Bjørgen. She came back to being World Champion in cross-country skiing after having a child. Her training has been super well documented by Norway. There are a couple of academic journals on athletes like her that I looked up. Also at the Canadian Sport Center of Victoria, Trent Stellingwerff, he worked with his wife, Hilary Stellingwerff, who was an Olympic runner. They had had a pregnancy and then come back to do another Olympics. He was definitely one of the first people that I called to say, "Trent, I'm pregnant. Now what can I do?"
There are some other women in the cross-country field, like Gunn-Rita Dahle and Elisabeth Brandau, who have had children and come back to World Cup racing. Did you talk to any of your peers in the cross-country circuit about training through pregnancy? Catharine Pendrel:
Sonya Looney lives nearby, and we chatted a lot while she was going through pregnancy. She was a really great resource for me, especially because she had also shared a lot on social media about what her after-pregnancy looked like. Kikkan Randall, who's a cross-country skier, is another athlete mom that I was able to talk to. Then there were actually four CLIF athletes who got pregnant during the pandemic so we had this awesome four-way call one day, and talked for like two-and-a-half hours. That was really cool, talking to people in different sports, like a snowboarder, an ultra runner, and a triathlete. One had had a child and was pregnant with another, one had just had her child, and one was one month behind me. We had this real spectrum of athlete women training through pregnancy, and what that looked like.
How important is it, do you think, that athletes start talking about their pregnancy or desire to get pregnant so that it can be seen as part of the path for any young female athlete? Catharine Pendrel:
I think it's really, really great, because there's getting to be more information out there on how to train through pregnancy. It's a pretty uncertain time. Everything is a new experience for you, and you want to do the right thing, and you're nervous. A lot of the standard advice out there is very generic, and very conservative. I think it's really nice to see these examples of women being active, just so you can have conversations with a real person who's been through it. This isn't professional medical advice, but it's experiential advice. Sometimes you just need to chat with someone and be like, "You had a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby, what did you do?" It was just really reassuring to speak with other women.
Did you have an easy birth? How long did it take you to get back on the bike after giving birth? Catharine Pendrel:
I think I had probably the best case scenario. I was biking outside at like six weeks, and talking to a lot of women, they're like, "How are you doing that? It looks like you're riding a bike." I actually ended up having a C-section. It wasn't planned, and I had it when I wasn't super dilated, so I think that saved me a lot of pelvic floor damage. If you read about what happens to your body after birth, it's intimidating. I was really concerned about pelvic floor health and how long that was going to take to recover. What was it going to feel like to sit on a saddle? I actually started going to a pelvic floor physio, when I was five or six months pregnant, just trying to prepare everything to be the strongest and healthiest for the birthing process.
Then when I went to the C-section, I was like, "Okay, well, curveball, hopefully this goes well." My doctor had actually had a C-section, and had recovered super well from it so I was pretty confident that, as long as you were smart with your recovery, it could go well.
I just did short walks in the first two weeks, because you're definitely very uncomfortable and you're recovering from a surgery while trying to learn how to feed a newborn, and not sleeping very much. You're definitely pretty wrecked, and you're not thinking about training that first week or two. But then once you get out of your fatigue fog, if you're like me, you get kind of curious. "What can I do? Can I sit on a bike? How does that feel?"
I just started riding the trainer for a little bit every day, and just kind of progressively worked up. The first ride I did 25 minutes very easy. Then once I knew that my body was totally okay with that, I increased it a little bit every day, as long as my body felt good. By four weeks I was able to start riding outside. That was kind of a big reality check, because on the indoor trainer, I felt pretty good on the climbs on Zwift. Then you go outside and you really feel the gravity and you're like, "Oh, hills are hard."
And I'd spent the last six months on a bike sitting very upright so when I went back to my normal position because I could, my back and shoulders were pretty tired. It took me a while just to adjust back to sitting, just sitting on a bike, let alone pushing with any kind of authority. The fitness did come back shockingly quickly. Those first couple of rides, you were like, "Oh man, we'll see what can happen this year." But then once my body got comfortable just pedaling for two-plus hours, the power came back really quickly.
How many weeks did you have that you would consider training time before Albstadt? Catharine Pendrel:
I got in two months of training. I was able to do a month of base, and then two months of training bringing in higher-intensity work.
How much weight did you gain during your pregnancy? How hard was it to get back? Catharine Pendrel:
Off of my COVID weight, or typical racing? I gained about 28 pounds in the end. Then I've been able to get rid of all but the last five.
I made a choice to focus on increasing my power, not dropping the weight. It was kind of shocking, because when I got home from the hospital, I was only like three pounds lighter. I'm like, "What? I can account for at least 14 pounds that should have been lost from my body. Why am I just three pounds lighter?" But you just retain so much fluid. It took me about two weeks to lose the weight that I expected to have come home from the hospital having lost. You also look pregnant for like six to eight weeks until your uterus shrinks back. It was a bit weird because you're like, "Okay, what is my body going to be like?"
But then after that I knew that if I just ate healthy the weight would come off because I was going to be able to exercise longer and harder than I could when I was pregnant. Breastfeeding takes fuel too. I probably averaged half a pound a week of weight loss without trying to cut calories.
What's been the hardest part after giving birth? And getting to the first World Cup? Catharine Pendrel:
I think the hardest part is trying to get in the right training for me, but not putting too much load on my husband to do it, and still having the time that I want with Dara. When I first started training, one of us would get to do something in the morning, and one of us in the afternoon. It just felt like this really busy trade-off. Then I would try to do what I would normally do on rest days, or an easier day, where I'd do interviews, get work done, or have board meetings. I realized I had to cut down a lot on the additional stuff that I would normally do around training, because I didn't want to be multitasking all the time, or busy all the time, when I had a baby that I wanted to be spending time with and a husband that I didn't want to be asking too much of.
So that has been the hardest balancing act. Our life balance has been really good considering, but it's always on the edge. It could teeter too much in the wrong direction, and get out of balance in a hurry. That's something we always have to be aware of.
How do you think you got back to that top 25 result in the World Cup just three months after giving birth? Catharine Pendrel:
I think I have the benefit of training for a long time and years of base to build off of. I think Keith and I worked really well together to make sure that we were getting enough sleep. First of all, Dara's been a really good baby. She was able to take a bottle early and so we would divide the night. One of us would sleep from 8:00 to 2:00, and then wake up and trade off, and then be the one that's being woken up and feeding and diaper changes in the middle of the night.
Then you're always getting at least four hours of sleep in a row. You might have a couple of hours of broken sleep, but being able to get even just that three or four hour chunk of sleep in a row undisrupted does so much for recovery. I think that was really huge. I was very fortunate that my pregnancy and birth didn't have many complications. Some women's bodies are just put through a lot more. There can be a lot more recovery involved, but I think a lot of women can get back to whatever level they were at before, just the timeline that you're going to do it in depends on the stresses that the pregnancy put on you, and the birth process, and of course your support system after.
How different were those first two World Cups of this season, compared to some of the World Cups you've done in the past? Catharine Pendrel:
It's very different. It’s not justy about my ideal prep anymore, it’s about making sure Dara and Keith are ok too before I leave the house. With travel, Dara had jet lag too so we were breastfeeding more often in the middle of the night the first week. But she actually adjusted super well. In my team environment, where you would normally come back after training and just be hanging out, now our entertainment is playing with a baby. That's not the reality of many teams out there.
I felt like the first race, just with the rushed travel, it was really hard to find the time to get my head in the game, because you just don't have that quiet time alone. Normally I do a lot of journaling, and put a lot of work into my mental preparation for a race. I kind of went into that, the first World Cup in Albstadt, being like, "Ooh, hopefully it all comes together in the race." Because it was like 9:30 at night and I was messaging a friend asking what her process goals were for the race, something we’d normally write out and go through way before.
What are some of those things that you would usually do to prepare your mental side? Catharine Pendrel:
Typically you have your goals before you even get over here, but after I've done my course recon and I know what I'm expecting of the race, I'll know how I want to ride a lap, and what's my perfect lap. What would that look like? What would that feel like? What do I need to do to set myself up to have that kind of ride? I'd have my plan and my mind really ready so I know exactly what I'm going out there to do, and I know how to deal with adversity if and when it happens in the race.
That just gets you into a race in a pretty mentally fortified zone and you don't have the time in a race where you're like, "What am I doing here? How much do I want this?" You don't leave room for those mental gaps. In all the races I've done this year, in the first three minutes, I'm like, "Oh, do I actually like this? This really hurts." Then you can kind of settle in. And you're like, "Oh yeah. Okay. I've got this." When you've been practicing the distraction control of being in a World Cup race, you're a lot better at it, but it's definitely harder to limit the distractions when you're out there racing after a long break, and stay focused on that performance.
What's changed for you with the Olympics being delayed, with regards to qualifying. Are you in position to qualify right now? When do you find out? Catharine Pendrel:
I qualified based on my 2019 results. Then there was an opportunity at the first few World Cups of the season, if somebody did better than my fifth, they would qualify ahead of me. However, nobody met that standard. Even to be in the Olympic pool, you have to do a top 12. Nobody new even hit that standard. There would be performance maintenance criteria. I think I hit that with doing a 23rd, and I think it was just 27 seconds off the top Canadian ride of that race. I think that sets me up really well. We'll find out in June who is nominated, and then of course it can be open to appeals and we'll see if anyone appeals. Then the official word to the public won't be until July 5th.
At this point I'm pretty confident that I have a spot so I'm training as if I do, preparing as if I do, and just kind of go from there.
Every country is different, but how does qualifying for the Olympics work for Canada, in a nutshell? Catharine Pendrel:
We just got notified on the 23rd of May that we did get two spots for the women, and one for men. Our criteria were to get in the pool, you had to get a top 12 at a World Cup. Three women hit that criteria, myself, Haley Smith, and Emily Batty. Then the top results from within that pool would take the first two spots. Haley Smith got a third in Nove Mesto in 2019, and I got a fifth in Lenzerheide in 2019. Emily got a ninth in Sainte-Anne in 2019. So the selection would be based on that, Haley, myself, Emily. The last selection event was Nove Mesto this year and no one surpassed the results set by Haley and myself so by our criteria things look good!
I think you said that the CLIF Pro Team paid for your maternity leave. Is that common within cycling contracts? Catharine Pendrel:
I'm not sure how common it is. I know when Willow Koerber was pregnant many years ago, Trek did support her through that. But I was able to, through a pandemic and pregnancy leave, maintain my contract as is. I think that's pretty exceptional, especially because it's a U.S.-based company and maternity is typically six weeks in the U.S., but I was supported through the entire pregnancy and postpartum. They're a pretty phenomenal company, and I'm really grateful to have been riding with them for so many years.
This is the CLIF program's last year. Are you planning on retiring after the season? Was the end of the program based around your timeline and the other athletes on the program? How did that work out? Catharine Pendrel:
It is CLIF's last year, and it, coincidentally, was well-timed with my own planned departure from at least World Cup racing. I hope I'll always do a bit of racing, like we kind of joke that mountain biking is the only sport that you retire from so you can do other kinds of mountain bike racing. I'm sure I'll show up at mountain bike races and do some stage races, but I don't feel like I need to be racing and competing at the World Cup level anymore.
After the last Olympics, where you got your bronze medal, were you planning on staying on for another four years at that point, or five years, I guess now? Catharine Pendrel:
It was kind of year to year. I was definitely getting ready to phase out, I'd say, but then 2016 went so well. I won the World Cup overall. I won an Olympic medal. It's like, can you retire now? What I learned from my pregnancy is that I think having taken a step back actually would have been way better for my performance, because I was getting pretty burnt out. I think that I can perform as well or better this year, just because I had that time away, and that mental and physical break from high performance for a while.
It's just really hard to leave the sport, because it's really fun. It's a great job. I love training. I love so much about it, that it's hard to think about doing anything else, especially if you're still able to perform at a high level.
What are your hopes for Dara, for your daughter? Do you want her to follow in your footsteps? Catharine Pendrel:
I have no desire that she should be a professional athlete, but I hope she really enjoys biking. I hope that it's something that we can do together as a family. We've definitely talked about what sports we'd want to put her in, and not. But I think what's important is that she enjoys sports, and it's something that we can do together as a family. Hopefully if it's something that we do as a family, it's just her lifestyle and she'll also love it. But we'll see. Maybe she'll want to cross-country ski, or maybe she'll, I don't know, play chess. Who knows?
After retirement, do you think you'll be a coach? Catharine Pendrel:
I was just on a ride with Sandra Walter yesterday and I was like, "So Sandra, what should I do with my life now?" I do enjoy coaching, especially working with young women. I really enjoy doing some coaching and mountain bike camps. We started kids programs in Kamloops, and there's a lot of potential for more kids programs and just more mountain bike instruction. So we'll see. No firm plans.