People often refer to professional mountain bike rider Rebecca Rusch as the “Queen of Pain.” It’s a title she wears proudly. Rusch is an endurance athlete to the nth degree. She’s won or nearly won some of the toughest races cycling has to offer: first place overall in the Dirty Kanza 100, second at the Smoke and Fire 400, second at the Italy Divide. She holds a number of overall records, including being the fastest woman to complete the Kokopelli Trail, a 140-mile onslaught from Moab, Utah, to Loma, Colorado.
Rusch is known for her mountain biking today, but it was not always so — especially during her adventure racing days, when she was cutting her teeth in endurance sports. “I come from a climbing and kayaking background, and biking was just one of the events that we had to do,” she said. “And I hated it and I sucked at it. I was so, so bad.” We caught up with Rusch in her training ground and home, Sun Valley, Idaho, to hear about her path from sucking to dominance in mountain biking — and got some gnarly stories about how she earned her nickname, too.
Photo: Sung Han
Q: How did you first get into cycling?
Rebecca Rusch (RR): It was really through adventure racing. I did that for ten years. When that sport died and went off TV, I was managing our team and managing the budgets and getting sponsorship. I got a call from our sponsor, who was Montrail: “We got bought out by Columbia; it’s over.” I had a year left on my Red Bull contract. I was like, I’m done with this sports thing it’s time to get a real job. Red Bull basically said, well, you have a year left, we’re not going to take the money back. Just find something to do, we don’t care what it is.
I figured I’d have that year to sort of play or do something, and then I’d get a regular job. All I knew is that I could go for a long time — I had a lot of endurance. So I looked into ultra running, and was like, no, that just looks awful. Someone told me to go do a 24-hour mountain bike race. The eco challenge races were seven- to ten-day races with little sleep, so I was like, One day? I can do that.
I dislocated my finger. I crashed on the first downhill. I had my gloves on and didn’t realize until later. I kind of put my finger back in place and kept going.
The food and nutrition was no big deal. It was just that I couldn’t ride a bike all that well. The first 24-hour solo race I did, I ended up beating the entire field. I was like, Alright, maybe I’ll do this for a little while. I was running down all of the technical sections, but I could just go for a long time. The second race I did was nationals, and I won nationals.
Q: The endurance thing is interesting — that you knew you had the endurance to go long distances. Can you train endurance? Do you think certain people are predisposed to being able to go longer and endure more pain?
RR: I think that physically, anybody can train for it. If you don’t have the physiology to be a sprinter, for example, you can hone it in a little, but if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. But, I think anybody can go do long distance endurance stuff. I think it’s a little less about the physiology and more about your brain and your mind, and whether you have the mindset to — what some people may call — “suffer.”
I feel it’s a discovery. You find things out about yourself that you’re not going to find out in a two-hour mountain bike ride or a one-hour run. I don’t think people are physically predestined for that. I think perhaps mentally they are. Some people just don’t want to go there. They don’t want that kind of introspection. There are so many things wrapped into it. I believe anyone can do it; it’s just whether they want to and whether they want to face those demons or not.
Q: What’s the single hardest ride you’ve done? The one where you felt like you were going to fall apart, but held it together and finished?
RR: It happens all the time. Kokopelli was a really good example. I dislocated my finger. I crashed on the first downhill. I had my gloves on and didn’t realize until later. I kind of put my finger back in place and kept going. When I finished the race, I ended up doing what’s called an open dislocation. It had gone back so far that it had ripped open.
Q: And you rode the whole trail like that?
RR: Yeah, the whole trail. And then at about midnight my light malfunctioned, which I think was from the crash. So I had to run for six hours. But there’re a lot of stories like that. Italy Divide was another one — a really big bikepacking trip I did last year. Five hundred miles from Rome to Lake Garda through Italian hills. It was beautiful, but I wasn’t in great shape and the weather was nasty. I was wearing a trash bag, going to the store for three trash bags because I couldn’t stay warm. I snuck into somebody’s house because I was cold in the middle of the night and slept on their couch. The woman came down in the morning and I was so apologetic. She didn’t speak English, but she looked at me and she looked at the bike, and she was like, ‘Do you want some coffee?’
You’re never going to find those reality checks, or find out who you are, if you only go out for your workout around town, your loop.
There’ve been a lot of stories. A little cyclocross race is hard for me because it’s 45 minutes of what my brain doesn’t want to do. You’re never going to find those reality checks, or find out who you are, if you only go out for your workout around town, your loop. That’s kind of why I like to do big events. I like the self-discovery. I like the challenge of figuring it out. I thrive in that atmosphere.
Personally, the hardest ride I’ve done was the Ho Chi Min trail. My dad was shot down over there, so I was riding for him and went to the place where his plane crashed. But physically, it was 1,200 miles; we took a month, but the riding certainly wasn’t the challenging part for me. The challenging part was being in Laos, and Cambodia, emotional, and dealing with people, and trying not to get lost.
Photo: Red Bull Content Pool
Q: So there’s kind of this split between the super mentally challenging rides and those that are way more physically demanding?
RR: People always talk about mind over matter, or brain training versus body training. When you think about it, your head and your brain are part of your whole body. It is one unit, but people seem to separate it into brain training or body training. If I’m going and doing intervals, I am brain training, because I want to quit every single interval, and it sucks and it’s super hard. And mentally, you are training your brain to push your legs harder. So they are all intertwined. Sometimes it’s a bigger emotional or mental challenge, or sometimes it’s really a physical race like Leadville, that’s just fitness, fitness, fitness. But mentally, you need to believe. You need to mentally believe that you can do it, that you’re going to make it, that you can push harder. You need to be your own cheerleader.
I think the biggest thing about these endurance events is that you do need to be your own cheerleader and your own buddy. Instead of, ‘Oh, I suck, I’m not going to make it.’ There are a lot of situations like that, where you’re really broken down and you need to rely on your own motivation. I think that a lot of people can’t do that. And they just bail because they aren’t good at being their own cheerleader.
That’s not to say I’m always positive. Certainly not. That’s what’s cool. It’s way more than a bike ride, when you get into those places. And that can happen in a three- or four-hour ride. It can happen trying to ride something technical that you’ve never ridden before. It could happen on lift service, when you’re just pushing out of your element a little bit.
Q: You’re also a member of the Sun Valley Volunteer Fire Department. Can you talk a little bit about that?
A: The Fire Department is good training. We have training every Tuesday and you’re always moving ladders and pulling hoses. I’ve been with the Fire Department for 11 years. That was my backup. When all of that happened with the adventure racing, it was going to be, ‘OK, I’ll go to paramedic school, I’ll be a volunteer firefighter, I can get a job anywhere.’ That was my plan B if the sports didn’t work out. They worked out, and being in a small town, I can still be involved with the Fire Department. We do a lot of backcountry rescue. I put my bag on my bike and ride out to somebody.
Photo: Josh Glazebrook / Red Bull Content Pool
Q: Do people ever recognize you when you’re rescuing them?
A: It did happen last summer. This guy got a stick impaled in his calf, in his shin. He was just riding, and it flipped up and stuck in there. It was close to my house, so I just rode out there and was first on the scene. I was like, ‘Oh my god there’s a stick sticking out of your leg!’ And he was like, ‘Oh my god, you’re Rebecca Rusch! Can we take a picture?’ I didn’t do much for the guy except help stabilize him and wait until the paramedics came, but it made him feel better. It gave him something to talk about instead of this big stick sticking out of his leg.
Q: You’ve traveled around the world to mountain bike. What’s your favorite place in the world to ride?
A: Here [in Sun Valley, Idaho]. I live here because I love this place so much. There’re rides I still haven’t done. We have 450 miles of singletrack just in this valley.
Q: What’s your favorite thing to do outside of mountain biking or racing?
A: Playing with my dogs. Taking them on a fat bike ride or a run or throwing the frisbee. I feel like they are my little zen masters. I’ll go on a run with them, and I’m just so much more stoked because I’m watching them jump and play with a stick. I feel like if we all played like that, the world would be a much happier place. So I try to make to make sure that I have play in my workouts. You’re working hard, but there has to be play worked in.