By REBECCA RUSCH
(Editor's note: Ketchum's Rebecca Rusch sent out the following email to supporters Wednesday, informing them of her victory in Saturday's Leadville 100 mountain bike race):
Last weekend, I lined up at the start line of the Leadville 100, the highest altitude and biggest endurance mountain bike race there is.
Over 1,500 people including Lance Armstrong lined up for the event in the frigid, wee hours of the morning at 10,200 ft. Aug. 15. I traveled to the race with Mike Sinyard from Specialized, Blair Clark from Smith Optics and a few other friends from Idaho.
We were all Leadville virgins, so I relied heavily on course information from other athletes and the race website. I knew the course was primarily fire roads, so I chose to ride my brand new Specialized S-works 29er hard tail for this event.
It was a bit of a whirlwind getting the bike and myself sorted to race so soon after coming home from 24 Hour Solo World Championships, but I did not want to pass up the opportunity to compete in the Leadville 100. It's a legendary event, but I did have some major trepidation about how I would perform at such high altitude so soon after a grueling 24-hour solo effort.
It normally takes me at least four weeks to feel right again after a 24, and I was sitting right on three weeks for the Leadville start. I spent the three weeks in between Worlds and Leadville riding the fine line between recovering, healing my body and trying to milk the season's peak to last a bit longer than originally planned.
My coach Matthew was once again able to pull a rabbit out of a hat and keep the elusive peak going for an extra few weeks. It's intoxicating to peak for an event and feel as if the race is almost easy. However, the weeks, months, years leading up to that peak are nothing but suffering, hard work and insecurity about your fitness. After events like Leadville 100 and 24 Hour Worlds where it all comes together on the right day, it's impossible not to be seduced by that feeling and want it over and over again at every single race. However, fitness peaks cannot last the whole season and what goes up must come down so that it can go back up again.
It's a frustrating process, but oh so sweet when it comes together.
Leadville was one such occasion where everything fell into place beautifully. I was not sure of my participation until just five days before the race. At that point, I scrambled to get hotel, flight and logistics sorted. I also had to get my new Specialized 29er race ready. I've packed my gear enough times before and I got myself to the very early morning start on Saturday.
The town of Leadville sits at 10,200 feet and the weather Friday and Saturday was cold and dismal.
A cold and dismal start
I was flattered to be invited to line up on the front line with all of the big name athletes and past winners of the race.
I had not seen a start list for the women's field, so I was unaware of whom I was racing against.
The shotgun start was fairly civilized with a neutral roll out for a few miles until we hit the dirt road and started climbing. I felt the mass of 1,500 people behind me and just concentrated on staying near the front pack and staying upright.
There are five major climbs on the course and the total ascent is about 13,000 feet over the course of 103 miles. I looked at some past women's times and used that as a gauge for myself. With the help of another athlete, I put together a race profile with time estimates, distances of climbs and elevations. I taped this mini course map to my top tube and relied on it heavily during the race to keep track of how I was doing.
I led the women's race from the start. I was not getting time splits, so I was unaware of what sort of gap I might have established. I assumed that someone was probably right on my tail and kept the pressure on the whole race. I imagined that every guy in front of me was a woman and tried to keep catching people.
The crowds were insane and they cheered wildly when they saw I was the first female. The first half of the race was bitter cold, freezing rain and even sleet. I was barely able to shift or hold the handlebars and had to stop to put on shell gloves. Thankfully I was prepared with a thin jacket, arm warmers, shell gloves and a Buff for my head.
I didn't put the extra clothing on, but was somewhat comforted to have it with me. Instead, I just kept riding harder and pushing the pedals in an attempt to stay warm.
Columbine Mine at 12,500 feet is the 50-mile turnaround and the high point of the race. There is a 3,000 foot, seven-mile climb to get up there. The course is an out and back format, so as I was climbing up, I got to see Lance Armstrong, Dave Wiens and the rest of the top men come flying downhill. As I reached the turnaround, the cold rain turned to stinging sleet.
Descending Columbine was my one and only chance to see how close the next female was. I looked at my Suunto watch at the top of the climb and tried to look for women in the crowds going uphill. It was a tricky descent with loose rocks, rain ruts and 1,500 people all coming up the same way, so looking at the other riders was difficult. I was freezing and focused on going fast downhill, but not crashing. I got a quick glimpse of Amanda Riley Carey who was in second place. At that point, she was probably 15 minutes behind me, but I still had 50 miles to go and plenty more opportunity for flat tires or other problems.
I made it down Columbine safely and that meant a big road flat, windy road section and two more monster climbs left in the race. On the way back after cresting Columbine, I was feeling decent, but the cold was making my legs cramp. I took some Endurolytes and tried to make an effort to finish my water. My motivation was elevated every time I went through an aid station by the thousands of people cheering and ringing cowbells.
This was by far the biggest turnout I've ever seen for a mountain bike race. I felt like I was in the Tour de France as I rode through lines of people crowding the course. I couldn't wipe the smile off my face as they were all cheering.
The hardest climb of the course is the Powerline climb at mile 80. I had to walk the steepest portions of it, but was still keeping up with the guys around me. A little group of about four of us had formed and we were silently riding together with only the sound of our heavy breathing and a few words of encouragement between us. Misery loves company, so it was nice to have a little support out there on the hard parts of the course.
After the last big climb, I was smelling the barn and the numbers on my odometer were very near triple digits, so I shifted into the biggest gear I could push and left my little group of guys as I motored toward the finish. The last few miles ticked by very slowly, and the course is actually 103 miles!
The final road stretch into Leadville was a welcome site. I had ridden this short stretch on Friday and visualized myself finishing the race. You can see the finish for about a half mile. It's the sweetest sight—with the finish banner, the only stoplight in Leadville and so many people lining the streets.
I got one little scare as I crested the very last hill and saw someone in front of me with curly blonde hair and a pink jersey. From the back and in my oxygen-deprived state I was not sure if it was a male or female rider. As I was rolling toward the finish I nervously asked one of the bystanders if the person in front of me was a guy. Thankfully, he was and I could roll into the finish line with my arms up and a huge sense of accomplishment in my heart.
Double hand pump for the red carpet finish
Big smiles...and so glad the pink guy wasn't a girl!
It was one of the most exciting race finishes I have ever experienced.
I finished in a time of 8:14 and was 30th place overall. The next female rider was 25 minutes behind me. At the finish, the sound of the crowd was deafening and exhilarating. I was immediately given flowers, a medal, hugs, and whisked off to the media room for an interview. In the interview, I was in a bit of shock to quickly try to re-live the moments of the race.
After a quick shower, I went back out onto 6th Street to watch my friends finish and be part of the whole crazy scene. At this point the sun had finally come out and the freezing rain from Columbine was a distant memory. I couldn't help but cheer for other finishers and smile as their families and friends hugged them.
Sunday morning's awards were chaotic and extremely entertaining. All 953 official finishers received a sweatshirt with their name and finishing time printed on the sleeve. It was finally warm and sunny and so many people were milling around sharing race stories. I saw a lot of old friends and had multiple strangers come up and congratulate me.
Obviously, the highlight was the awards ceremony where I got to share the podium with Lance Armstrong and Dave Wiens.
Afterward, and thanks
The sheer number of people who came out to race and to cheer provided an intoxicating vibe that just made you happy to be riding your bike.
The Leadville 100 was definitely one of the most organized races I've done and one of the most spirited.
It's a unique combination of a huge race with a hometown feel. It was an honor to be among such strong athletes and to stand at the top of the podium with a legend.
It is a day that I will not soon forget and a wonderful cap to an already incredible race season!
Thanks to everyone who gave me advice on the course, cheered for me, sent me photos and gave me motivation along the way.
Thanks to Red Bull and Specialized for getting me to the start line!