Words by Anna Maria Diaz-Balart
I met Rebecca Rusch on a beautiful fall day in New York, in the middle of a giant construction site. Jackhammers, sketching scaffolding, cement mixers and a horn blaring traffic jam. It was a full on assault on the senses, even for a seasoned New Yorker. I was totally embarrassed, because I had picked the meeting spot. I had planned for the Highline, but I had failed to location scout. So there I was, with one of the most celebrated endurance athletes on earth, someone known for their love of everything outdoors, in the middle of urban hell. We shouted names over quick handshake, barely able to hear anything over the noise.
We walked south at a brisk pace and soon were surrounded by tall trees and the surprising quiet one can sometime find on the Highline. Thin metal benches are set back from the main pathway, a serene spot in the middle of Manhattan. I had been a little nervous to interview someone who’s known by the moniker “The Queen of Pain.” A four time Leadville 100 winner, six time World Champion (there are so many 1st's on her race results page, it looks like the the one key got stuck) a Redbull sponsored athlete, oh, and firefighter, who had just flown in and taught a 6am watts-based spin class; I braced myself to meet someone tougher than anyone I’d ever met before. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Rebecca Rusch has a mega watt smile. It literally changes the energy in the environment, and the roughness and grit I had been expecting were nowhere to be found. Although Rebecca had come to NYC to participate in the Women In Sports Foundation Gala, (an amazing organization started by Billie Jean King) it was Rebecca’s own race in her home town of Ketchum, Idaho that I wanted to know about. She started Rebecca’s Private Idaho three years ago, and the event had just happened this past September. A 100 mile gravel race, I had been expecting to hear how grueling Private Idaho can be.
“I chose gravel because it a great equalizer, between road and mountain, you can ride any type of bike that you want.”
“I wanted it to be super accessible to people, and I didn’t want to call it a race. I wanted it feel homey and welcoming and be about the beauty of Idaho. The feed stations have potatoes, there’s a party and tents with live music, it a celebration of life on two wheels”
I was stunned: up to this point everything I had ever hear about gravel racing is about how hard it is. Gravel was synonymous with agony, suffering and pain. Also, somewhat synonymous with really expensive, gear intensive ‘gravel grinder’ bikes. No one had ever said to me that “It’s great for mountain bikers who aren’t yet comfortable with single track.” Or even “You could do my race on a fat bike." Perhaps that’s why at 30% female participation, Rebecca’s Private Idaho might be onto something. The 100 miles that riders do out in rural Idaho certainly aren’t easier than 100 miles of gravel anywhere else, but maybe those miles are a little bit more fun, and the ride a hell of a lot more welcoming!
As a new, and timid mountain biker, I was keen to ask Rebecca questions about getting into the sport and how to work through fear. Rebecca famously took up mountain biking at the age of 38. With so many first places, I thought she’d taken to it immediately, but her first MTB experiences were dismal, and it became the part of adventure racing she liked the least. On a hand-me-down bike, she had struggled to keep up with the pack. She was overwhelmed by the equipment and didn’t enjoy the experience. Most crucially, she lacked a good teacher.
Again here I had expected a mantra of discipline and hoped for a magic formula for ridding yourself of fear, but Rebecca nips that idea in the bud. “It’s a misconception that athletes like myself don’t experience fear.” Fearlessness wasn’t how she found her strength in MTB. It was by dialing things back and taking things easier that helped her find her strength on the bike. It was through a good teacher, and finding a supportive community of female riders that she started to finally started to enjoy the sport. By approaching mountain biking with childlike joy, and “The mind of a beginner” she truly started to excel. Success doesn’t stem from dominating fear at all, it’s about putting your ego aside.
I was curious about Rebecca’s insights into women and endurance sports. As cyclists, we are often surprised that the endurance comes first and some of our greatest early accomplishments are simply riding all day. Nowhere in the sports world are the achievement gaps between men and women smaller, than in ultra-endurance races. Swimming, cycling and running (and combinations of them) favor the female endurance athlete. This is physiological, and Rebecca thinks so as well. It turns out that this four time Leadville 100 winner has never started out at the front of that race. She powers through, and paces and paces, and beats everyone. Could it be that the “Queen of Pain” is really the “Queen of Pace”?
Joy was at the heart of everything we discussed. For someone who’s life is dominated by first place victories, winning never came up. Stage races were “opportunities to travel and see the world.” Cycling is about seeing more, and enjoying the natural beauty of the world. “ It’s my tool of exploration’ she says, "It’s a way to get off the beaten path.” She finds motivation by getting friends involved in the sport, in fundraising for causes dear to her, in sharing her warm hospitality in Ketchum, Idaho.
It makes sense that along with Rebecca’s nuanced view of her sport, she doesn’t really need an off-season. Instead she just stays “ready”. And while that "ready" may keep her in a good place, with the necessary fitness to win a race, it’s clear that Rebecca is ready in a different sense as well. Shes ready to explore and experience life, to smile big and laugh easily, to grow the space for women in sports. Prior to meeting Rebecca, I thought her book, Rusch To Glory, might have some good tips for winning races. Now I’m dying to read it for her insights on living your life.
Before we ended our interview, Rebecca had asked me what my next MTB goals might be. Having just accomplished my first set of incredibly modest goals for this year, I sort of stumbled through a non-answer. I didn’t really know. We went our separate ways, and I continued to think about this as I dodged cabs and pedestrians in Midtown Manhattan. By the time I’d crossed the bridge and was back in Brooklyn I knew. Next year I'm riding Rebecca’s Private Idaho and Im inviting whoever reads this article to ride with me. A little Pretty Damned Fast contingent, riding together, on whatever bike you have.