Rebecca Rusch: Mountain biking's Queen of Pain lays down the rules
Endurance athlete Rebecca Rusch has some advice, her 12 Rules for Success:
Rule 1: Stack up your moments.
In a competitive career that extends back to high school, Rusch has amassed an array of trophies—for winning the U.S. Whitewater Rafting National Championships in 2001 and 2002; for leading Team Montrail to first place in the 2003 Raid Gauloises Adventure Racing World Championships in Kyrgyzstan; for four straight Leadville 100 mountain bike victories between 2009 and 2012. And in her free time she’s a volunteer firefighter in Ketchum, Idaho.
Last Tuesday, visiting New York City on a book tour for her recently published autobiography, Rusch to Glory, the 46-year-old Rusch talked to a small group of aspiring athletes at T2 Multisport, a cycling and triathlon gym on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Before introducing them to her 12 Rules for Success, though, Rusch put her listeners through their paces on the bikes. There are no short cuts.
Rusch is a survivor of what came before Survivor. From 1997 to 2002 she took part in the annual Eco-Challenge adventure race run by Mark Burnett, who brought Survivor to U.S. television screens in 2000. On foot, bike, horse, and by canoe, teams of men and women would race non-stop over a 300-mile course in such countries as Australia, Argentina, and Fiji.
Rule 2: Pay attention to the space in-between.
When everyone is cruising on the flat, race ahead.
Rule 3: No matter how you're feeling, it won’t last.
It didn’t. When Burnett turned his primary focus to Survivor in 2002, the Eco-Challenge was replaced by John Barrett’s $100,000-prize Primal Quest. Despite the demise of the Eco-Challenge, the high-stakes Quest was a sign adventure racing was still taking off—the 2003 Primal Quest became the first adventure race to be broadcast on national TV—and Rusch was one of the sport’s biggest stars.
But then, while he was leading the 2004 Primal Quest on San Juan Island, off the coast of Washington, Nigel Aylott was killed. As Aylott guided both Team AROC and Team Montrail, his and Rusch’s groups, respectively, down a ravine, John Jacoby from Team Montrail accidently dislodged a boulder. The rock crashed down the gorge and hit Aylott in the head. The seven survivors were airlifted to safety. Aylott’s body was recovered the next day. The race was stopped.
Barrett and the 56-team field held a memorial service for Aylott. This wasn’t the first time tragedy had struck adventure racing. At the 2003 Raid Gauloises, on a whitewater canoe stage, French competitor Dominique Robert drowned. And two years before that, at the inaugural Discovery Channel World Championship, British racer Carolyn Jones had almost been killed after being trapped face down in freezing water for more than 20 minutes. Robert’s death was put down to a freak accident, but the incidents in 2001 and 2004 were attributed to taking too much risk—race organizers were skirting the edge of safety to ensure that their events stood out.
Over the next 24 hours, the remaining racers discussed what had happened. Some blamed Barrett’s course design, others blamed AROC and Montrail. A few wanted to restart the race in solidarity, and to donate the prize money to Aylott’s family. The majority, though, still wanted the $100,000. The race continued, but without AROC and Montrail, and without the section on which Aylott had died.
At the end of the season, Rusch’s sponsor Montrail was bought out by Columbia. Her funding vanished, and she walked away from the sport. In addition to the money, she’d lost her enthusiasm. The adventure racing community’s reaction in the aftermath of Aylott’s death had soured her on the sport. Rusch, then 38, was resigned to finding a real job, probably tethered to a desk.
She had one last sponsor remaining, though: Red Bull. You still have another year on your contract, said the company, find something amazing to do. A friend suggested mountain biking. But there was one problem: “I hated mountain biking,” says Rusch. Out of every event in an adventure race, the bike stage had been her worst, and her least favorite. She signed up for a race anyway, a 100-miler in Idaho.
Rule 4: Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Be nice. Karma counts.
Rule 5: Remember why you ride.
If you don’t enjoy something, don’t do it.
Rule 6: Start slow, finish fast.
Maybe Rusch wasn’t great in the saddle, but she had one key advantage over everyone else: Eight years of seven-day-plus adventure races had taught her real endurance, not just how to stay up for days at a time, but how to race and keep racing. Her next event was a 24-hour team event in Moab. Rusch couldn’t ride the most difficult sections of the course, so she picked up her bike and ran. She set the fastest lap time of any woman there. Her team won the expert women’s race.
And Rusch kept winning. In her first solo race, the 24 Hours Round the Clock in Spokane, she beat even the men’s solo winner. The first time she showed up at Leadville—perhaps the most famous endurance mountain bike race in the world—in 2009, she shared the podium with Lance Armstrong. Even then, she still couldn’t stay on her bike the whole way around. Not until her fourth-straight Leadville victory could Rusch ride all the way up the Powerline hill.
Rule 7: Reach for non-performance goals.
There are different ways to be a winner.
Rule 8: Write your own script.
Don’t follow the crowd.
Rule 9: If you fall, get back up.
Never give up.
Rule 10: Forget limits.
Despite her age, Rusch is still not slowing down. In 2013 she won the six-day, 350-mile Brasil Ride across the Chapada Diamantina National Park in Brazil with her teammate Selene Yeager—coauthor of Rusch’s autobiography. In October, Rusch returned to Brazil with professional road cyclist Ally Stacher as her teammate. They didn’t win, but, then again, it was Stacher’s first mountain bike race.
Dubbed the Queen of Pain by one adventure sports publication, Rusch would rather think of herself as the Queen of Perseverance. She’s not the strongest, the tallest or the fastest athlete out there, but she prides herself on never giving up. “I really am just a regular person. Physically—for example my VO2 max—I’m completely average,” says Rusch. “Just ask my trainer.” She wants to inspire other regular people, too. In 2011, Rusch started the SRAM Gold Rusch Tour as a way to encourage more women and girls to get into cycling.
Now she is hungry for more adventure. Last year she decided to take a shot at breaking the women’s record for the fastest time on the Kokopelli Trail, a 138-mile track that runs from Moab, Utah, to Fruita, Colorado. Not because of the prize money—there was none—or the fame, but simply for the challenge. She set a new mark of 13 hours, 32 minutes, 46 seconds. Next she’s planning a mountain biking expedition of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. After a lifetime racing around the world, Rusch wants to find the site her father’s plane was shot down during Vietnam.
Rule 11: No short cuts.
Hard work pays.
Rule 12: Most of all...Enjoy the ride.
The journey is what it's all about.