Kate Courtney is a professional mountain bike racer. She is the 2019 Elite XCO World Cup Overall Champion, the current Pan American Champion, and the 2018 Elite XCO World Champion. Kate sat down with Just Women’s Sports to discuss the demands and rewards of being a world-class endurance athlete, as well as how she’s preparing for the 2020 Olympics. 

We’re only a couple months out from the Olympics. Now that you’ve qualified, how are you focused on getting prepared?

I am honored and excited to represent my country for the first time at the Olympic Games this summer in Tokyo. My goal was to qualify automatically and be able to focus my preparation towards this specific race. With my spot secured, it is full focus on being at my best when it counts most! As always that involves many hours on the bike, in the gym and working with my team to identify every possible opportunity to improve or gain an advantage with this specific course in mind.

Do you have specific performance goals for the Olympics?

Perform to the absolute best of my ability. Of course, I have outcome goals as well and bringing home a medal would be an incredible honor. But for now I am focused on the process of getting to that starting line ready to put down the best race performance possible.

For someone who isn’t familiar with cross country mountain biking, how would you describe it? 

It’s similar to middle-distance running, in that it’s short enough to be a full-out effort, yet long enough that it’s more of an endurance sport than a sprint. Our races are typically five or six laps around a 5km loop, which takes between an hour and twenty and an hour and thirty minutes. You’re going over a huge variety of terrain, so it’s equal parts endurance, technical skill, and racing tactics.

What does your training regimen look like throughout the year?

To be an endurance athlete, you have to put in the hours. There’s no way to shortcut the process. Outside of an annual five day break, I don’t take any time off, and most days I’m on my bike for anywhere between three to five and a half hours. A “down day” for me means going to the gym and riding for 45 minutes. To keep your fitness where it needs to be, there can’t be any lapses in your training.

How do you avoid burnout spending that much time on your bike? 

You have to maximize every aspect of your life to compete at the highest level, including your downtime. You have to train hard, but you also need to find ways to stay healthy, happy, and motivated. If I’m doing a long, endurance ride, I’ll listen to music or a podcast, or I’ll end my training with a trip to a bakery. If I know it’s a really scenic route, I’ll try to convince someone to come with me. On less intensive days, I might take an early break for lunch and get my nails done. I still put the work in, but I don’t torture myself. Then during more intensive days, when I’m trying to simulate a race, it’s all business. No music, no bakeries. I’m locked in and focused on rehearsing my race-day performance.

I’m also fortunate to have a really great team, and we’ve been working consistently in a way that I trust. Endurance athletes are most at peace when we know there’s nothing more we can do, and with my team, I’m never left asking if I have to do more. I also just train really, really hard. And I’m obsessed with improving. But for me, being a full-time athlete means learning to balance that intensity with rest.

What was it like being both a professional athlete and a full-time Stanford student? 

I won’t sell it short: it was incredibly challenging. It was ultimately a formative and positive experience, but it was easily the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Not being an official student-athlete made it difficult, as the official university policy doesn’t provide academic accommodations for professional athletes. I had to create my own support structure and find ways to navigate the system on my own. Every quarter I would register for 25 units and then go to the classes on the first day and tell the professors, look, I’m going to be gone for three out of the next ten weeks. I’ll do whatever you need me to do to make up for it. I’ll write extra essays, I’ll read extra books. I have a lot of plane time. Can we make this work? And a lot of them said no. But enough said yes that I was still able to graduate in four years, even though I took time off during the last Olympic cycle.

How did not making the Olympics four years ago change your approach?

In 2016, I was arguably too young to go, but I had a long shot, so I decided to go for it. It was just too exciting to pass up, and I was definitely caught up with the idea of having this amazing experience, getting all the Nike gear and meeting all these athletes. By the end of qualifications, it was between me and another woman for a discretionary pick. Neither of us had automatically qualified, so USA Cycling had to pick. I was the younger racer, and they could have picked me as a way of giving me exposure, but they chose her.

I knew I hadn’t quite done what I needed to do, but I was still super disappointed. But with that disappointment came the realization that I really, really wanted to be an Olympian. I had told myself throughout the qualification that, “It’s a long shot, so I’ll just do my best and see what happens.” But then when I found out I wasn’t going, I just thought, “Wow. I worked really hard, and I really wanted to go.” And I knew right then that I didn’t want to just go to the Olympics because I had potential or because it would be a cool experience. I wanted to earn the right to be there. I wanted to go, compete, race my bike, and be a favorite for a medal.

In the last two years, you’ve won both a cross-country world title and the overall World Cup season. How do you account for so much success at such a young age? 

There are so many things that go into successful races, but they rest on a foundation of years and years of consistent work and progress. For me, the consistency in my progress has been critical to making those big wins possible, and it continues to motivate me to make steady improvement in the future.