The accidental athlete
Jon Duval tracks endurance champion Rebecca Rusch’s humble pursuit of pain. Photos by David Campbell.
When Rebecca Rusch joined her high school cross-country team, she had no inkling of the impact her decision would have on the rest of her life.
"My neighbor said I wouldn’t get fat," said Rusch, who moved to Ketchum five years ago after leading a peripatetic lifestyle for nearly a decade. "And that I would get a free sweat suit. That sold me."
Despite such modest intentions, her results have been anything but common. She has ditched high school’s gray cotton sweats for Lycra, running shoes for clipless pedals and track meets for world championship mountain bike races. Today, Rusch is one of the world’s elite endurance athletes.
"I originally wanted to try hurdles and sprints, but my coach had me run the two-miler, and I started to find out that I was good at things that are really long," Rusch said. "In that way, all of this kind of found me."
"All of this" is Rusch’s humble euphemism for an extraordinary résumé: top finishes in grueling paddling and adventure races, national championships in mountain biking and orienteering, and in 2007, reaching the pinnacle of her career by winning the 24-hour Solo World Championship in mountain biking.
Rusch has recently branched into other endurance sports. On a whim, she entered the 2008 Nordic Ski Masters World Cup and, with only a few years experience, won her division.
"The motivation? I haven’t been able to clearly answer that myself," she said about her choices to compete in some of the most physically demanding sports devised since the Greeks honored Zeus at Olympia. "If something is simply fun and easy, it ends up being not that much of an achievement." Rusch seeks instead to define and extend her mental and physical limits. "Maybe this is the modern-day explorer in all of us," she said.
The sweep of her achievements is slowly dawning on her. When cycling sponsor Specialized invited her to California for a photo shoot with four fellow world champions, she allowed herself a moment of satisfaction.
"Here I am standing next to the best road cyclist in the world, Paolo Bettini from Italy, and I start to realize that they can’t do what I do, and that I must actually be good at it," she said this spring, hurriedly knocking back a coffee before departing for South Africa for a seven-day, 600-mile mountain bike stage race. April’s trip illustrates another reason she wills herself to the sacrifices of sweat and suffering: "Sports are an amazing way to travel." From Idaho to New Zealand to Kyrgyzstan, Rusch has chased athletic pain around the globe. This July she heads off to Canmore, Alberta, to defend her 24-hour Solo World title. "You see and experience things no tourist ever would. You also learn a lot about yourself."
Rusch learned a lot about herself three years ago in Utah at her first 24-hour team race. She entered 24 Hours of Moab at the behest of her friends, Muffy Ritz and Karoline Droege, names not far removed from Rusch’s in the annals of local athletic achievement.
"It sounded heinous at first," Rusch said of a full day in the saddle, adding that she had always considered cycling the weakest part of her adventure racing arsenal. But in the 24th hour, with team Ketchum If You Can trailing in second, Rusch turned in a blistering final lap, "putting the hammer down" to set the women’s course record that day and overtake first place by 11 minutes. The explorer had crossed into yet another frontier.
A year later, Rusch entered her first 24-hour solo race in Spokane, Washington. At registration, she was an unknown, just some girl from Idaho. Twenty-four hours later, she had beaten every man, woman and team on a bike. She was faster than 18 four-person teams, more than two hours faster than the next closest woman, and 25 minutes faster than the speediest man. "I’ve done well in the men’s field before, but I’ve never beaten everybody," she said after the win in June 2006. A year after this breakout rookie performance, she earned her World Champion rainbow jersey in Laguna Seca, California.
Looking back, Rusch sees a career that could have evolved differently. "I’m an accidental athlete," she said. Before finding her cycling niche, she briefly considered running 100-mile ultra-marathons. But with the ongoing backing of Red Bull, the energy drink company that remains one of her biggest sponsors, Rusch was free to explore other sports (endurance mountain biking for instance), rather than being forced into a regular job to pay the bills.
This summer, during the Montezuma’s Revenge 24-hour mountain bike race in Colorado, Rusch will turn 40. Talking about age draws a laugh as she gestures at her surroundings. "People around here are all 10 years younger than they actually are. And I don’t mean they just look it; they are actually 10 years younger," she said. "Everyone’s out there constantly doing stuff, from biking to skiing to hiking. There’s a collective mentality that if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it."
This mentality, along with what she calls "perfect terrain for training," provides a home base for the typically itinerant Rusch. She is part of the community; for more than two years she has been a stalwart volunteer emergency medical technician and firefighter for the Ketchum Fire Department, and a homeowner. On breaks from her race schedule, she works on her condominium, though the domestic idea continues to bemuse her; the last home she owned was a 1975 Ford Bronco.
"Other than that, I don’t have any long-term plans," Rusch said. "Well, except just staying healthy."
Rebecca Rusch on her favorite Ketchum training rides
I spend a lot of time training for my job as an endurance bike racer. It might sound easy to get on a bike to be at work, but there are plenty of days when bad weather, lack of motivation or weak legs make my work day as difficult as the next. I can choose not to show up, but I’ll pay for it months later with lousy performance and lost wages. The beauty of exploring the Wood River Valley on a mountain bike lies in the huge menu of options. I have only scratched the surface of what’s available, but here are a few of my current close-to-home favorites.
Traverse Trail on Baldy: Up River Run –
Down Warm Springs – Bike path home Time: 1 hour
When I don’t have much time and just need to get sweaty and get my heart pumping, the Quickie is my old standby. You can knock this out in about an hour if you don’t mess around or socialize with too many friends along the way. River Run is a fantastic climb that’s not too steep and has great switchbacks for working on your handling skills. You finish the climbing on the front end and then rip down one of the best descents in the whole valley. These trails are buffed and flow beautifully. It’s a fast and fun 10 miles; just be heads up for hikers and dogs. The vibe up there is always social, and you’re back home in no time.
Corral Creek – Pioneer Cabin –Johnstone – Bear – Parker Gulch Time: about 6 hours
You can hit this ride straight from town without even getting in your car. Boasting two very long climbs totaling 6,000 feet, the Test has the most elevation gain of any town-accessible ride. While short on mileage, it’s long on time. This is a true test; there is no hiding and uphill speeds are often just 3 mph. But with backcountry views into the Pioneer Mountains and sweet singletrack downhill, you are hugely rewarded at the end. It definitely won’t feel like you’re just a few miles from Highway 75 and Grumpy’s.
This may be far from secret, but I have never been anywhere else in the world with such a killer system of interconnected trails. The beauty of this spider web on the valley’s west wall is that you can ride perfect singletrack for 45 minutes, six hours or anywhere in between and rarely ride over the same section of trail twice. You’ll find climbing, swoopy descents, great views and, once again, you can access all of this right from town. If you’re feeling light, you can turn home or, if you feel like a rock star that day, you just keep adding on!