Two weeks ago, Rebecca Rusch solidified her legendary status as the “Queen of Pain” by establishing a new record in completing the Kokopelli Trail from Moab, Utah to Loma, Colorado. In an event she dubbed the Red Bull Rusch Hour, Rusch covered the 142 miles in 13:32:47, smashing the old record, and her own goal of 15 hours.
Complicating this “adventure race of one” was the fact that Rusch had not seen a single mile of the trail prior to her ride on April 27, and conditions could have made this already epic event nearly impossible. While numbers alone don’t tell a story, they do help us understand the physical and mental toll a ride like this can take. Rusch graciously allowed TrainingPeaks to dig into her power file and see how the numbers corresponded with her experience.
View Rusch’s full Quarq power data at TrainingPeaks.
First off, 142 miles is a long way no matter what bike you’re on. Add in the 17,100 ft. of elevation gain recorded by Rusch’s Garmin and the real challenge begins to show itself in entirety. In the first three hours, Rusch covered 30 miles at an average power of 199w. That equates out to 3.2 watts/kg, a very strong output to start when you consider that there would be 10 more hours of riding.
One reason for this high output but relatively slow pace was that she also gained 6,246 ft. during that time. That means she covered 36 percent of the elevation gain in the first 21 percent of the trail. It was no accident that Rusch put out such a big effort off the bat.
“I was glad that the big climbs were in the beginning when I was fresh and the temps were cool,” Rusch said. “My strategy was to go quite hard on the beginning climbs to allow for the inevitable slowing that happens after many hours in the saddle. Of course, I felt the effects in later miles, but was still able to stay pretty consistent in speed even as my power wore off.”
While Rusch had power available, she opted not to view her power or heart rate during the ride. “My pacing strategy was based 100 percent on average miles per hour I would need to maintain to hit the 15-hour target and my own perceived exertion and pacing experience,” Rusch said. “I specifically elected NOT to be able to see my heart rate or power numbers on the Garmin 810 screen during the ride.”
That doesn’t mean power was not important to Rusch when it came to preparing for this feat. She works with coach Dean Golich of Carmichael Training Systems, who Rusch describes as being “all about power.” For athletes like Rusch, who have a wealth of experience training and racing in “pre-power meter days,” being able to “feel” whether an effort is sustainable is a vitally important skill. However, these athletes are able to fine tune their RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) and then be even more efficient using a power meter. The combination of a strong understanding of internal signals coupled with knowledge of how to use the external data works best. As Rusch says, “My training, however, is very much based on power and hitting certain numbers for certain blocks of time. I love it for training, but I don’t let power dictate my race strategy.”
Nonetheless, Rusch was amazingly consistent given the distance and topography of the course. For the first 69 miles she averaged 144 watts, or 2.3 watts/kg. In the second half of the ride, she still averaged 127 watts, or 2.0 watts/kg. Given the difficulty of the first miles and that Rusch hit those miles hard, that is pretty even pacing overall. That said, Rusch certainly felt the fatigue at the end. In her last hour she averaged only 96 watts, covering 8.79 miles and gaining 758 ft. Her cadence also dropped and there were longer periods of coasting.
A big key to staying consistent throughout the miles is nutrition. The fittest athlete can come undone by a bad stomach. Since her ride was completely unsupported, Rusch had to carry every calorie with her and relied on filtering stream water for hydration. Based on the kilojoules expenditure from her Quarq, we can see that over the ride Rusch burned 6,664 calories, a rate of around 500 cals/hr. Of course it is impossible to replenish exactly what you lose, and each athlete has their own ability to tolerate calories. In total, Rusch took down 3140 calories through a mix of GU products, Honey Stinger Protein bars, some special treats, and the Red Bull she downed at the start. In her post-race write up, Rusch said she felt no stomach issues and her nutrition strategy worked perfectly.
Overall, the ride registered a Training Stress Score (TSS) of 775, the equivalent of doing nearly eight 40K time trials back to back at 100 percent effort. Rusch’s TSS nearly doubles that of a typical “big day” for Tour de France riders, who average in the range of 250-400 TSS per stage. To put it into context of a typical amateur racer, in one day she accomplished a TSS value that many would be proud to have for a week of riding. A few other impressive data points: the ride was at an average of 5,399 ft., she topped out at 8609 ft., her average speed was 10.21 mph, and she hit a top speed of 40.86 mph.
So how does one train for an event like this? Living in Sun Valley, Idaho presented some challenges for such a big endeavor early in the year. While Rusch didn’t get to train as much as she wanted, her consistency over the years was a big key. Rusch got in her typical winter training of indoor rides, XC and backcountry skiing and a few road miles as well. But specificity is a key element and Rusch did get a few mountain bike events in.
“The only mountain bike training I was able to do in preparation for this was Trans Andes stage race in Chile, 24 hrs of Old Pueblo and Sea Otter,” said Rusch. “I’ve been an endurance athlete for a very long time, so I have to admit I was relying heavily on experience and endurance that I already had, because I am surely never as fit in April as I might be in August.”
Rusch described the feat as “a near perfect adventure, even with crashing and dislocating my finger and having a light malfunction.” Long distance rides will always be about the adventure and testing your limits, not about mechanically putting out watts. But a look into the numbers can provide a new perspective and re-affirm the internal signals you received on the journey. They can tell you if you bonked because you didn’t have enough calories, went out too hard or just weren’t prepared enough. In that, they help you to be better prepared for your next adventure — no matter how epic it may be.
Editor’s Note: Throughout the 2013 racing season, TrainingPeaks is providing race data analysis from major events including the Spring Classics, the Tour de France, the USA Pro Challenge, and more. To view all TrainingPeaks power analyses, visit our Training Center.