This year, Ketchum resident Rebecca Rusch won the 24-Hour Solo Mountain Biking World Championship (for her third time). Three weeks later, she won the women's division of the Leadville 100, the epic 100-mile mountain bike race ridden entirely above 10,000 feet in Colorado's Rockies. (Lance Armstrong won the men's division.) Not bad for someone who considered herself a poor cyclist just four years ago.
But outlasting and outperforming her competitors is nothing new for Rusch, 41, a former adventure racer. Now, the Chicago native is featured in Race Across the Sky, a documentary following the Leadville race. BW caught up with Rusch before a recent Boise screening of the film.
How did you get into adventure racing?
My sport endeavors have fallen in my lap a little bit. With adventure racing, I was working in a rock climbing gym in Santa Monica, Calif., ... and some people started coming in to learn to climb and rappel and they were doing adventure racing ... Eventually, it just sort of worked out.
What was it that kept you with it?
It is sort of the modern-day explorer. Going to new places, going to places where you felt like nobody's ever gone before ... And actually traveling with your teammates and working together, and feeling like you're on an expedition and you're trying to figure out your food and navigate. It's a race, but it's also kind of a survival experience. It's very addicting.
Why move to mountain biking?
Actually, about four years ago, a bad situation turned good. I lost our team sponsorship for adventure racing, and still had Red Bull as a personal sponsor ... so I was left to think, "OK, is it time to go get a real job now?" Then I talked to Red Bull ... and I talked to my coach, Matthew [Weatherly-White] who lives here, and we just kind of [asked], "Well, what else can we do that capitalizes on my experience of having endurance and being able to go a long time?" and the 24-hour mountain bike race kind of popped into my head. But I was a lousy cyclist, so I didn't really think it was feasible. So, I went and did a race. I went to 24 Hours of Moab with some girlfriends and did that as a team and ended up getting the fastest women's time of the whole race. And I tried a 24-hour race solo and ended up beating all the men and the women. So, I was like, "Alright, I'll do this now."
Why 24 hours on a bike?
I've always been better at long-distance things. And the adventure racing, discovering that, I mean, those races were seven days long sometimes. So making the transition to the 24-hour mountain bike racing, in theory, it was short for me.
What's your training schedule?
Throughout the season, I'm probably 50 percent on my mountain bike, 50 percent on my road bike. So I'm alternating between cycling. And it's almost primarily cycling. I do a little bit of running, stretching, trying to do that stuff. Then, winter is my off-season, so I coach cross-country skiing and go to the gym and get back into the swimming pool and get back to doing yoga.
What was Leadville like?
It was by far the most energy I've ever felt at a mountain bike race because of the sheer number of people. There were 1,500 racers and, they estimate, 20,000 spectators. So, for a mountain bike race, to be riding through lines of people cheering your name and cheering for you, it's like the Tour de France of mountain biking, which really doesn't happen. A lot of my race experience in ultra endurance events, you're kind of out in the woods all by yourself. There's nobody cheering--there's nobody around.
Did you set out with the goal of winning or just experiencing?
I'm pretty competitive, so I really don't line up to any race without getting some of the Eye of the Tiger. It's just kind of in my personality.
Did you know about the film before the race?
I didn't know it was happening. I saw some helicopters and some cameras floating around but, on race day, I'm very focused. ... After the fact, I found out they're doing this great film, a really high-end production and it was going to be in giant, regular-sized movie theaters, so it was definitely a bonus and icing on the cake.
You've reached the pinnacle of the sport pretty quickly. Does that surprise you?
It does surprise me ... I never expected this, and it's been a great extension to my career and an exciting opportunity, and I'm having a blast.