Interview: 3x Solo World Champion Rebecca Rusch

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Rebecca Rusch is an accomplished adventure racer and pro mountain biker who rides for Specialized and can kick pretty much anyone’s ass when it comes to endurance races. She just bagged a three-peat win at the 24 Hours of Adrenalin Solo World Championships. And eight days after Worlds, she decided to jump in on the Super D at Crankworx in Colorado for fun–and took first place. Check it out here.

What’s next for you?
Racing the Leadville 100 and then some international endurance MTB racing to some exotic places. Then shop appearances for Specialized and some media stuff. Twenty-four hour solo Worlds was the primary race, so the remaining half of the season is focused less on performance and more on spreading the gospel of riding dirt. Also hanging in Ketcham, Idaho doing long rides with friends and taking advantage of the riding that’s left this summer. Plus, getting back into the fire station here and putting some time in with that part of my life.

Are you going for four, or something else where you hope to get another three-peat?
I can’t say for sure, but the three-peat for Worlds was the main goal. Now that I’ve achieved that, I am brainstorming on another sort of record-breaking feat, or a Big Red Bull expedition that hasn’t been done before. What that is I don’t know, but I’ll keep you posted.

How much of your calendar gets determined by your sponsors?
Both Red Bull and Specialized are really flexible and allow me a lot of freedom. Of course I take exposure, titles, and media into consideration. I have never been forced into an event or in a direction that I wasn’t willing to go. They trust me and the freedom has allowed me to do some unique international events.

Tell me about the day you decided to go pro.
It wasn’t really the day I decided to go pro, more: “the day I decided to quit my awesome job and move into my truck.” I was the manager of a rock-climbing gym and having a blast. I’d been climbing, paddling, and running successfully. I was recruited for some adventure racing and after dabbling a bit, I realized the only way to take advantage of the travel/racing invites was not to have a job or rent holding me down. That was over 10 years ago. Finally, I was free to travel the west in my ’75 Bronco. The opportunities kept rolling in, and I kept saying yes. I was able to use my business-marketing degree to solicit sponsors and design a new career for myself. It’s still hard to suppress a grin when people ask me what I do for a living, and I reply: “I am a professional athlete.”



What food cravings did you have after 180 miles and 30,000 ft. of climbing?

Absolutely none after a 24-hour solo event. Fueling is one of the most difficult parts of these ultra endurance events and the one place most people falter. You are never hungry and your digestion is extremely impaired because all your blood flow is required to turn the pedals. During the event, I am doing mostly liquid nutrition such as hammer nutrition perpetuem, sort of like a shake. After the event I really, really, want to drink a cold beer and eat a big greasy meal, but I usually can’t. It takes me a few days to enjoy food again.

Do you cross train?
if so, what do you do, and why?
Yes, and I believe it’s kept me injury-free and psyched for 15 years of hard racing. I’ve been competitive in rock climbing, paddling, adventure racing, Nordic skiing, and cycling–even did a power-lifting competition in college! Variety is the spice of life. The last four years have been cycling specific, but I still Nordic ski, run, back country ski, hike, swim, do yoga on a regular basis. I am one of the few cyclists that doesn’t ride much in the winter. We have a big snow season, so that means loads of TV and trainer time. I do a bit of that but mostly like to be outside and use skate skiing as my primary training. It’s the best cross training you can do and gives the mind/body a break from the hunched bike position.

Tell us about your worst flat?
I’ve been really lucky over the years with mechanics. For big races, I take my own mechanic Jason Bauer from G-Fit Studios in Boise. He is a genius and kept things running smooth for years. My worst crash was a high-speed lawn dart at about 3 a.m. in the last Worlds. I was ripping downhill in the dark about 20 mph and I hit a slick muddy rut and shot off my bike into a streambed. I landed on my helmet, I was rattled, my neck was sore, multiple people stopped to assist. I got back on the bike and rode it off, but I probably shrank two inches from that crash. After the race, I took my Specialized helmet off and the inside was broken in about 10 places, it probably saved my life!

Did you ride any laps with your boyfriend, Greg Martin?
Greg is the one who suggested 24-hour solo racing to me. We’ve raced side by side and are usually similar speeds. He rides a single speed and is the 2×24-hour solo world champ. This year we were within seconds of each other, and the race director accused us of trying to cheat and help each other out since we were riding the same speed. I am not sure how you do this on a technical mountain bike course where drafting is nonexistent, but they did put me on warning and were watching us closely. Our crew actually held me back for 15 min. during a pit stop to spread us out a bit.

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Was it beneficial to ride laps with him?
Well, it’s nice to see Greg on the course, and I am happy if he is having a good race. Obviously, I say hi. I don’t consider that cheating. It’s nice to see any of your friends or other racers cheer you on. It gives me a little boost to have a little cheer or exchange a few words with racers. Twenty-four hours is a long time to ride your bike, so a bit of social interaction is a welcome diversion.

Do you two train together?
Maybe half the time. My coach Matthew gives me a specific training program that I follow. Greg is more free-form and not a fully sponsored pro, so his focus is a little different. I do drag out some of my hometown girlfriends, but a good bit of my training is me and my I-pod.

Favorite snack during a 24-hour event?
Banania! It’s this crazy dehydrated banana I found in Brazil. They are about the same amount of calories as a gel and are a soft, chewy, chunk of banana. The only ingredient is banana, and they come in a handy small package. I brought 5 cases back from Iron Bike. The Specialized distributor from Brazil brings them back for me when he comes Stateside. This past race chicken soup broth saved me about 3/4 of the way through the race when I wasn’t feeling well. It’s different every time, depending on temperature, effort, etc. It’s good to have choices.

Was this one easier or harder than the previous two?
There is no such thing as an easy 24-hour solo race, not even for the last person that crosses the finish line. Each of the three World champs I’ve won have been very different. First one was characterized by really high temps. Dealing with heat and cramping were my main focus. The second was absolutely atrocious rainy weather, so much mud so keeping the bikes running was paramount. This last one had no weather issues, so it was just a pure race! I opened up a nice lead from the start and never looked back. The first 3/4 of the race were unfolding perfectly. After about 3 a.m. I did start to struggle with my asthma and nutrition. The last part was definitely the hardest because I wasn’t feeling well. Luckily I had a strong lead and I just needed to stay consistent, and protect the lead. In some ways this race was harder because there was a lot of pressure and expectation for me to win three times in a row. I tried to ignore the pressure and focus on my race, but there was a constant shadow of expectation following me around.

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What was your race strategy?
The race strategy my coach wrote up I tossed out the window after the first lap. The plan was to go out fairly conservatively and match the pace of the lead women, then put the wood down at night. But I felt really good from the start, and after the first lap I had a seven-minute lead on second place. I didn’t feel like I went out too fast, so I decided to keep a solid pace for a while. By 6 p.m. I had about a 30 min. lead, and I made the decision to keep the pressure on until midnight or until I lapped the second place pro female. The plan unfolded nicely, and by about 8:30 I lapped second place. I absolutely love night riding so I kept pushing until midnight before starting to take a few more breaks and settle in. For the final 12 hours I focused more on protecting my lead rather then extending it. There were a lot of crashes on the course so the EMTs were really busy. It was such a technical course. I tried to ride smoothly and stay upright. I always have a pre-race strategy plan with my coach, but it frequently has to be modified during the event based on the competition and what the race dishes out.

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Do you have a time in your head when you say the race starts?
I’d say night time makes or breaks the race. Most people can ride for eight or more hours, but when night falls and the reality of 16 more hours to race hits home, people slow down, get sloppy, and lose focus or motivation. Maintaining sharp race focus for 24 hours is difficult, and not everyone can do it.

Breaks in the pit: What did you eat?
Small, small bites of tortilla with avocado, chicken soup broth, watermelon, turkey. On course I was doing almost 100% hammer nutrition, Red Bull, and bananina, my secret race food.

What turns a sour stomach for you during a 24-hour race?
I am usually pretty good with digestion and don’t have too many issues. Much of my success with this is a primarily liquid diet of perpetuem and other easily digestible fuels. The problem with all racing is that the blood flow usually used for digestion is being pulled to your legs and muscles. Any sort of big solid meal will inevitably get stuck in your gut and you’ll have trouble digesting. It’s taken me 15 years to figure this out. I used to eat cheetos and gummy bears when I first started adventure racing because they were tasty, but didn’t realize they weren’t helping me move forward. I’ve gotten a lot better, but no one is perfect. The last race, I did lose my lunch about 3 a.m. and had to start over with fueling.

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Do you do any strength training for upper body?
I am naturally more muscular in the upper body area then most cyclists b/c my background is in paddling and climbing. Despite what people think, I am not in the gym doing bicep curls every week. I am just naturally a bit more muscular. I do have a strength coach and spend some time in the gym doing a lot of functional training with balance balls and body weight exercises. I also do plyometrics and a lot of leg work during the winter. I do upper body– chest/back/shoulders–to maintain balance and prevent injury. My main upper body work in the off-season comes from cross-country skiing.

Your crew works non-stop, right?
Absolutely, they are working non-stop. I have four people in my crew and they were all busy 100% of the time. Also, their work day starts well before mine and lasts longer, too. I just have to race noon to noon. They arrive at the pit at 6 a.m. to prep food, go over bikes, hang spare clothing, and organize the pit area. During the race, Charles is the kitchen b*tch and is primarily in charge of food and nutrition. He is organizing bottles, various concoctions of fuel, vitamin supplements in small coin purses and filling hydration packs. He is tracking how many calories and fluids I am ingesting per hour and trying to keep me on track with the nutrition plan I laid out before the race. When it’s not working, he’s got various things ready for me to try out. He is an absolute perfectionist, and will completely rebuild bikes multiple times before and during the race. I have two complete race bikes plus additional wheels and any spare part you can think of. He brings a whole bike shop’s worth of tools and sets up shop in our pit. I’ll typically ride a few hours on one bike, then switch to the next one. He gets to work completely cleaning and servicing the bike to get it ready. He’s also managing my lighting system. Making sure I have enough power, but not extra wattage with too many batteries. Donna and Karoline were busy keeping track of my clothing, assisting wth food and water hand offs, and keeping time and splits for me and my closest competitors. They are all doing the thinking for me so that I can just ride, put the food in my mouth, and keep turning the pedals as best I can. Karoline was also our media coordinator for this year and was twittering, blogging and taking pics during the event. It definitely takes an army to win a solo race.

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You’re timing other girls?
Yes. Timing splits, how long they stop in their pit area, seeing who looks strong.

Bike Prep is huge.
Yes, it’s a huge job. I’ve been really fortunate not to have any mechanical problems for three years in a row of solo worlds.

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Any tips for efficient fast eating on the course?
Liquid nutrition is easiest. Hydration packs are easier for me than water bottles because they require less effort to drink. On a really technical course, it’s much harder to reach down for a bottle then put a tube in your mouth. I also experiment with different ways to carry and hold gel packs, flasks, and vitamins. I use flasks for the perpetuem and this time mounted them on the top tube for easy access. Gels go under the leg of my shorts, electrolyte pills go in a little coin purse. All the new food goes on my right side pockets, all the trash goes on my left side. This way my crew can clean out my pockets and give me new stuff quickly. These little organizational tools help avoid fumbling around in the pits.

Do you have a nutrition chart or requirements you try to meet?
Yes. I write this out for Charles every race after I have pre-ridden the course. I make the nutrition based on how long the laps are, how easy it is to take your hands off the bars to eat, how hot the temps are. He tapes the plan to the table and we try to follow it as best we can.

Did you toss your cookies during the race?
Yep! Felt great right after I did that, but then knew I had to get right back on the fueling and catch up with what was lost. Just part of the job!

Do you go for eletrotyles right away? 
Yes I am always using electrolytes and just vary the quantity depending on temperatures. I’ll take more during the day than at night. I’ll up the quantity if I feel any sort of hint of cramping.

Plain water?
I rotate between plain water, HEED and water mixed, or Red Bull and water mixed.

How do you recover after a race like this?
The tendency is to want not to do any exercise at all, but I’ve learned the hard way that this actually extends the recovery time. It probably takes a few weeks to feel spunky again, however I am getting back on the bike again to at least move just a few days after the event. The day after, I went for a very easy hike with my crew, just to keep the blood flowing and help with my recovery. I am just about a week out now and have been on the bike. It feels good to ride, but right now my lungs seem to be taking longer to recover then my legs. I’m still coughing, and if I put in any sort of effort, breathing is difficult. It’s a very, very deep down fatigue, and it takes weeks to get back to normal. That’s the reason I only do a couple of these sorts of efforts per year.

Did you sleep well the night after the race?
Not really. This year my lungs were full of fluid and junk, so I had to sleep sitting up to keep from coughing. The legs are twitchy and really hot from lactic acid pooled up in there and your body is working really hard to try and recover what you did to it. So the first night, it’s like there is a war going on inside your body. After the first day, the recovery systems in the body seem to catch up a bit and I start to feel more normal. The second and third nights’ sleep are much better.

When it’s hard to fall asleep, like the night before the race, do you use sleep aids?
Ear plugs and REM caps from Hammer nutrition. I’m usually a pro sleeper, but the night before a really big race is a bit fitful since my mind is going over race strategy and I’m usually really hydrated, so several trips to the bathroom keep me up. Epsom salt baths are a regular thing for me for recovery and relaxation. I also do a little stretching, rolling on the foam roller, and a wee bit of meditation every night before bed.

Three tips on picking a coach:
Personality that meshes with yours, more educated than you are on training, and someone you trust and who motivates you.

Why did you pick Matthew as your coach?
Matthew is one of my best friends and has been absolutely instrumental in my transformation into a bike racer. He’s an old friend from adventure racing, and we have been teammates before. Because of this, he knows my strengths and weaknesses well. He knows my personality, my history, what motivates me, and what frustrates me. He is familiar with the area I live in and can recommend certain training loops. He’s an ex-bike racer himself so he understands the sport’s intricacies. He’s smarter than I am and has a thirst for education himself, so he’s always reading up on training and challenging us to do things better.

How long do you see yourself racing?
I have no idea. I would have never imagined this career would have extended the way it has. The plan is just to be open to opportunities and see where it takes me. All of the best things that have happened in my life are a result of being willing to try something new and go for it.

What edge does your age give you over the younger girls?
Experience. Experience. Experience. My training is also so much better and more efficient than when I didn’t know better. I still don’t feel like I’ve reached my peak in cycling yet.

Which is harder: adventure racing or 24-hour solo?

Totally different. Neither is harder nor easier than the other; they are just different. The mind-set is similar in that you’re turning off the pain and the drudgery of how long you have left to go. You live in the moment and don’t think about how much is left, or you would quit right there.

What aspects of adventure racing transcend into solo endurance?
My experience from adventure racing has absolutely benefited me in 24-hour cycling. However, the difference is that 24-hour cycling is at a much higher pace than adventure racing. You are on the rivet for much of the time so nutrition is different, pacing is different. But the mind-set is similar The biggest difference for me has been developing my cycling skills for 24-hour solo races. In adventure racing, it’s best to be jack of all trades and master of none. As a result, I was just an average cyclist. The biggest change I’ve made since focusing on cycling is working on my pedal stroke, my fit on the bike my technical skills so that I could become a better rider.

Do you miss the team aspect?
I do miss some of the team aspect. It was a blast to share that deep bond and emotional moments with good friends. However, I’ve had more than my share of disappointment when teammates got injured and we had to drop out of races. It comes along with the territory and you support your teammates, but is very frustrating to feel strong and at the peak of your fitness, only to drop out of the biggest race of the year because of someone else. In cycling, I like the fact that I am in control of my success or failure. I do have a team I can share the experience with–my crew. Jason always pre-rides the course with me and helps me with the technical aspects of the course. When I cry or lose my lunch, my crew is crying along with me. My favorite pic of this year’s race is me crossing the finish line, going through the tape with my arms up and in the background you see my mechanic with his arms up too and the biggest smile on his face. The victory is as much mine as it is theirs.

When you were on the team and the weaker link fell behind, what kind of athlete did you become–understanding, annoyed, frustrated, or patient?
I like to think, and have been told, that I was a very patient, good teammate. Perhaps being the only female on the team, I absolutely tried to look after everyone on the team and be both understanding and supportive. There were definitely times where a bit of tough love was important, but you learn very quickly that getting frustrated at someone who is already frustrated with himself doesn’t do anyone any good.

Were you ever the weak link? 
Sure. Everyone is. I was always a slow starter. So the first day of a multi-day event was my weakest point. I struggled to keep up with the guys and had to swallow my pride and frustration until we hit day two and the pace was more reasonable. Everyone’s always the strongest sometimes and the weakest sometimes. What makes a good teammate is what you do in those two situations. Can you accept help as well as give it?

What makes ERA women-specific? Do you notice a difference? (I was lucky enough to ride one for the Breck Epic and loved it!)
The first time I rode that bike was one week before the 24-hour worlds in 2008. I was at the specialized dealer event and had my race bikes all ready to go the following week. However, I demo’ed the ERA just for fun and immediately came back begging Specialized to let me take that bike to Camore. They made the quick change and made it happen, and I won the Worlds on that bike. I’m still riding the same model, and what I noticed right away on the course in Canada last year was that it made me ride better. Instead of stalling out climbing over roots or descending over logs, I was rolling over stuff that usually made me bobble or stop. My hands don’t fall asleep on that bike, neck doesn’t go numb and the fit is perfect for me. The brain suspension technology is the best of both worlds with a stiff climbing bike and a great descending bike.

What do you drink when you need a pick up? Red Bull, Full Sugar?
Red Bull and full sugar in a water bottle with water. It’s good for afternoon workouts when I am dragging a bit and the watered-down version is nice for riding. I am also loving the new Red Bull Energy Shots because I can take those in a pack for long rides instead of carrying a heavy can.

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What kind of drills happen during fire-fighting training?
We train every week, and the drills are everything from timed events like pulling hoses, throwing ladders, knots, and ropes-rescue practice, medical scenarios, engineering training, etc. It’s a very physical job, but also really makes you think and be on your toes. I love the training, and it’s a whole different group of friends. It also makes me feel good about giving something back to my community. Plus, driving the fire engine is just plain cool!

Interview by Heidi Volpe.

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