Just making it through 2006 was a big thing for Ketchum adventure racer and mountain biker Rebecca Rusch, who collected four national championships during an extremely challenging year of competition.
Five-year professional athlete Rusch, 38, morphed from two concentrated years of adventure racing into solo 24-hour endurance mountain biking this past year. From February through October, she was on the go, going for the gold.
Rusch said, "It was a busy year, pretty intense. I was juggling the multi-day adventure races with 24-hour races. And both take a toll on your body. I was burnt at the end, but I feel pretty good about it."
The busy year was an experiment, Rusch said, one that demanded that she address some weaknesses in her athletic resume. Could she learn the intensity needed in 24-hour races after years of multi-day adventure racing? Mountain biking was never her favorite. Could she deal with it?
"Mountain biking used to be the least favorite of the things I did with adventure racing. It just didn't click for me—all these moving parts, things that could wrong with a bike," Rusch said. "But I'm getting better with bicycles. This is really my first year, and I'm liking it now."
She must be.
Rusch, whose aliases include the nickname "Reba" and also "The Queen of Pain," attacked the subculture known as 24-hour mountain bike racing with customary resolve.
During spring in the southern tier, she tuned up with two NORBA five-hour-plus mountain bike marathons. Her first 24-hour race at Spokane, Wash. in May was a big success. She blew everybody away, men and women, in 24 hours.
Plowing ahead, she won the national women's solo championship with a first-place ride of nearly 19 hours in Wisconsin during July. It was a qualifier for worlds. Racing for 23-and-a-half hours in a tough elite field of women, she placed second at the World 24-hour Championships in Georgia in October.
Along the way, the itinerant Rusch won an orienteering national championship in early May in Oregon and, oh, by the way, joined up with three Australian men in February to win a 650-kilometer adventure race in Tasmania in February 2006.
"I love the travel and go to the coolest places. My passport is full," said Rusch.
She still drives the same 1975 Ford Bronco she bought upon moving west to California from her native Illinois 11 years ago. She rebuilt the engine herself and lived in the vehicle for several years.
The old Stylistics song was called "Betcha By Golly, Wow." They may have been talking about Reba's year of 2006—the year of the bike.
Several sports and outdoors magazines have honored Rusch with year-end awards for outstanding efforts. Add the Idaho Mountain Express to the list, since Rebecca Rusch is our 2006 "Athlete of the Year." But as you'll see, she's being recognized for the way she is as much as for what she has done.
Many of Rusch's achievements are indicative of a single-minded athlete pursing solitary goals. She has tremendous focus and organizational skills, to be sure. And she can be very competitive.
Above all, though, she is a superb team player, one who relates to all different kinds of athletes and is very supportive.
"I really enjoy the team stuff and I've learned a ton by racing with other people," said Rusch.
She added, "When you're doing a multi-day race, you have to leave your ego at the door. Nobody can stay 'on' for
five days, 24 hours at a time. You have to ask for help and give help at every race. As a woman, it's probably easier to say that. I guess I just enjoy being a mother."
Ketchum physical therapist/strength and conditioning specialist Karoline Droege of Koth Sports Physical Therapy grew up alpine ski racing and is new to endurance racing.
Droege and Rusch are friends and training partners. They were members of the "Team Ketchum If You Can" women's squad that won the women's expert division of the 24 Hours of Moab mountain bike relay race in Oct. 2005. Rusch anchored the victory with an amazing lap time.
"One of Rebecca's big strengths is that she can relate well to men, to women, to old and to young," said Droege. "She is concerned about everybody's well being.
"As I've gotten to know her, I've learned she's great at bringing everyone together. She can be super-mellow, chatting with everyone and riding at the back of the pack. She's intense only when the gun goes off.
"With Rebecca, I expected a person who would train with a ton of intensity. But it's the exact opposite. She has a lot of fun doing what she does. She keeps it fun and light, not hammering it at all. It's probably a lot healthier to do it that way.
"I was a little shy at first with her, a little intimidated to go out training with someone like that. She's just fun to hang out with. I guess I've been one of the few who doesn't say no to her when she calls up. She's just given me a ton of confidence to go with her. She doesn't care if I'm slow.
"Like she called recently and said, I've had a month off, I'm fat, lazy and I've eaten too many bon-bons. I need some help. So we went out and did something. Motivationally, she's given me perspective about how far it's possible to push myself. Now, when I'm taking a long mountain bike ride and my back starts to hurt and feel uncomfortable, I've learned to suck it up a little.
"She has taught me how to approach a race, but she's super-motivating just as a person."
Certainly Rusch can relate to Karoline's bon-bon reference. A few days before Christmas, she was rushing around, doing her duties as a part-time Ketchum firefighter, beeper in hand, when she stopped into the Express office to talk about her year.
She had been out skiing with her friend Muffy Ritz's Vamps women's cross-country group and found out she wasn't in such great shape at all.
Rusch said, "We were doing 10-minute intervals and I was just worked! It's funny, you work for a year to get to this level of fitness and then it's gone. Really, I'm lazy. I want to sleep in, eat chocolate, have a beer—just like everybody else. Fifty percent of the time, I don't want to do workouts. For me it's easy to rest—intensity has been a challenge, something I've had to learn."
Until she came to Ketchum in 2001 after roaming the West for six years, Rusch hadn't had a training regimen with a coach since her days of running high school cross country for a state championship team at Downers Grove North High School in Downers Grove, Ill., a western suburb of Chicago. She got the competitive bug with that running team.
A regimen of training in a place like Ketchum is something tangible.
Being exposed to the caliber of endurance athletes who live here, she has learned why it's so important to have a coach like Matthew Weatherly-White of Boise. He helped her a lot in 2006 when Rebecca has been trying to balance the demands of working out hard and taking rest.
You have to think about scheduling training races and goal races and working your peak periods around the goal races, she said. You have to think about mileage and longer and slower intervals and giving your body a rest to build your foundation.
"Sometimes it's a lot better to have someone who's not in your body telling you these things," she said about the importance of having a coach like Weatherly-White.
But there's nothing like living in a place like the Wood River Valley where your motivation isn't hampered by the logistics of getting to the trails. She said, "It's so quick and easy to go up Baldy or Adams Gulch for a long hill climb and sweet downhill and then you're back home."
Her suggestions for someone just getting into more rigorous training?
Rusch said, "Two things. Number #1 is having friends, a support group—I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have people like Muffy and Karoline. Number #2 is simply signing up for races and making yourself line up at the starting line. It keeps you focused. You will never work as hard in a workout as you do in race."
A decade of hammering it
Rusch never knew her father, a U.S. Air Force pilot shot down during the Vietnam War—and of course she was born in 1968, one of the war's pivotal years. She inherited much of his itinerant nature.
She graduated from the University of Illinois with degrees in marketing and kinesiology. Rusch realized from her experience of working in a health club with a climbing wall that she wanted to mix business with the fitness industry.
Rock climbing was her first love. When she first migrated west to California in 1995, she helped open and manage rock climbing gyms in Costa Mesa and Los Angeles. She met people and went places and ended up doing first-female ascents of big walls in Yosemite and Zion.
"It was a cool experience," she said.
Her next challenge was being on an outrigger canoe team. She quickly became a member of the U.S. Whitewater Rafting Team. In 2001, she set another milestone—the first self-supported river board descent of the Colorado River, over 300 miles.
Rebecca discovered the relatively new, 15-year-old sport of adventure racing through her teammates on the canoe team. Others might have felt reluctant to try such new and demanding things. Not Rusch. "I guess I was brave enough to try things lots of people don't feel confident enough to attempt," she has said.
For several years, she lived out of her Ford Bronco. Rusch said, "I floated around from Truckee, Moab—I had keys to four different houses. I was sort of searching."
By 1999, she captained a team of three women and one man to fourth place in the Eco-Challenge Patagonia adventure race. From 2000-02, she did either Eco-Challenge or Raid Gauloises multi-days in Tibet/Nepal, Vietnam and New Zealand. She and her mother Judy spent time in Vietnam remembering her dad.
Meeting long distance bicycle racer and noted cross-country skier Muffy Ritz was one the main reasons Rusch came to Ketchum. The place clicked immediately.
"It felt like home, definitely a lot of athletes, it just felt like a community," said Rusch, who has lived here for five years and owns a Ketchum condo.
In 2003, Team Montrail captain Rusch and Wood River Valley product Pat Harper, her teammate for the adventure race in Tibet, were members of the winning team in the 12th Raid Gauloises adventure race. It took place on a grueling 828-kilometer course in remote Kyrgyzstan of central Asia.
They became only the second U.S. team to win Raid Gauloises. Rusch's team was comprised of one woman and three men. It completed the arduous trek in six days, two hours and 16 minutes—four hours better than the runner-up team.
It was the high water mark of Rusch's adventure racing career that continued in 2004 and 2005 until she lost her title sponsorship with Montrail at the end of last year and had to look for other sponsors—and another direction for her athletic pursuits.
Among the important lessons she learned from multi-day adventure racing was the amount of punishment the body can absorb and still be able to push on. Sleep deprivation went with the territory.
"By the third day your feet and knees are swollen and your body is telling you to stop. Your eyesight gets fuzzy and you hallucinate. You're just so broken down physically and mentally. But from nearly 10 years of experience in doing it, I knew it was going to go away and I was going to be all right. I was ready for it. That was the key," she said.
She was very good at the end of long nights in adventure racing. She had the staying power.
Vital to her success were keen organizational skills. She has the ability to have things in their place when her thinking might be fuzzy. In contrast, the 24-hour solo mountain bike races she tackled in 2006 were completely different animals.
"It was intense. The pace of doing it for 24 hours seemed really high for me. There was no down time—the pit stops were 30 seconds or two minutes," she quickly realized. "I knew from adventure racing that I could ride for a while. But I wasn't quite sure if the pace would be too quick if I wanted to be competitive."
Rusch has been lucky avoiding serious injuries.
She badly bruised her shoulder crashing into a tree in a downpour at July's 24-hour national solo mountain bike championships in Wisconsin. She kept riding six more hours and blocked out the pain. She didn't realize how badly the shoulder hurt until she tried to pull the winning stars-and-stripes jersey over her head.
"I couldn't lift my arm," she said.
Doing the different activities of adventure racing may have helped Rusch avoid some injuries along the way, Droege said. "Rebecca has been a little lucky because she's been forced to cross train and you can avoid overuse injuries," said Droege.
But it's not like Rusch has ever made a lot of money. These days, her title sponsor is Red Bull. Other sponsors of the 10 or 11 on her list are Specialized, Gregory, Leki, Suunto and Petzl. She has her own Web site, rebeccarusch.com. She does a lot of office work in the winter along with all the things involved in running a small business, which is what she is.
"I haven't had a regular job in 10 years, since I was the manager of that climbing gym in L.A.," she said. "For the last seven or eight years I've been making a meager living. Endurance sports aren't glory sports. But I get a lot more out of it than money."
It was sort of funny that Rusch was ruled ineligible at the last minute for the 24 Hours of Moab mountain bike relay race in Utah this past October.
Another team filed a protest three days before the race claiming, rightly so, that Rusch is a professional athlete. Rusch didn't make a big deal about it. Instead, she had a great time crewing for Droege and Ritz's "Team Ketchum If You Can."
"I think I've made $1,500 mountain biking all year," said Rusch with a laugh. "I wasn't allowed to race with the girls in Moab so I coached and crewed instead. It was fun."
This coming year, 2007, Rusch will try to be smarter with her scheduling.
She said, "I'll look at a couple of the best adventure races and focus on 24-hour solo nationals and worlds again. I'll look at all of it, and try to find the rest time I need."
Excited about winning two 2006 national championships in two things that haven't been her main sports—mountain biking and orienteering—Rusch is excited about the new year, if only because she would like to take first instead of second in solo worlds.
And she's excited about putting a new stamp on her crowded passport when she travels to the adventure racing world championships May 24-June 2 in the Lochaber region on the west coast of Scotland.