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A Case for Suffering: Rebecca Rusch is the ‘Queen of Pain’ and wants to keep it that way

On a hunt for hurting, Christopher Case checks in with Rebecca Rusch to talk pain and her upcoming record attempt on the Kokopelli Trail

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Sometimes, the best things in life come with the highest price tag. No, I’m not talking about your next bike. I’m not talking about that villa in Tuscany. I’m not even talking about a thing.

Sometimes, the best that can be had can’t be held in your hands; it is intangible and without traditional value, except for the effort involved to reach what might be called success, or nirvana, or, maybe, just survival. You sweat, heave, bonk, gripe, moan, ache, hurt, and suffer, and then you reach an apogee that you never thought possible. When you reach the end, you’ve really just reached the beginning.

Such is life for a certain endurance athlete, affectionately known as the “Queen of Pain.” Rebecca Rusch was born in Puerto Rico in 1968. She’s traveled the world for adventure, self-discovery, competition, paychecks, and she keeps on riding. It hasn’t always been a ride, mind you.

Long before she raced a mountain bike, Rusch led professional adventure racing teams for 10 years, including one that took the top prize at the 2003 Raid Gauloises Adventure Racing World Championships. If you’re not familiar with the Raid, suffice it to say it is astonishingly difficult. She won the 24-hour solo mountain bike world championship from 2007 to 2009. In 2010, Rusch won a masters cross-country skiing world title. She’s since turned to the bike to cement her position as one of the best endurance athletes in the world.

Case in point: last August, she won her fourth straight Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race, setting a new female course record along the way. This was after saying she wasn’t going to return to the high-country race. Well, she did, and she says she’ll be back again in 2013.

Rusch just doesn’t want to stop. Her latest project is not a feat for the faint of heart, and fits my definition of worthy: absurdly difficult and breathtakingly beautiful.

Starting at midnight on April 27, Rusch will ride the iconic, 142-mile Kokopelli Trail in an attempt to break the female record of 15 hours and three minutes, set by Lynda Wallenfels in 2006. Rusch will ride unsupported, starting in Moab, Utah, and finishing just outside Fruita, Colorado. She’ll carry her own lights and be unable to ditch them. She’ll have to filter water along the way. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, she’ll likely hit stretches where the clay soil will become thick, unrideable stretches of muck. She won’t have anyone cheering for her, or chasing her down, pushing her to go faster. The engine of success will be in her head. And to top it off, she hasn’t seen a single inch of the trail. “It’ll be one big blind date out there,” Rusch said.

I caught up with her to talk about the attempt and the all-important question of why she keeps doing this to herself.

VeloNews: You’ve been doing these endurance events for a long time, so you know they’re going to hurt like hell. Why do you keep going back to them?
Rebecca Rusch: Shorter races may hurt, too, but I don’t feel like I grow as a person or tap into who I really am, or slay inner demons, or draw on mental strength and problem-solving skills, perseverance. I like who I am on the other side of [these challenges]. I like knowing how I’m going to deal with that stuff. This is my outlet to keep growing as a person. It takes a ride like that — 100 miles, 200 miles, four days, whatever it takes — to make the experience more core. Yeah, it hurts, but the best things come with a high price tag.

VN: What have you learned over the years on how to push yourself farther?
RR: I’ve definitely learned more about the science of training, training with power and things, which have added a whole new level of performance. I used to just go out and do things for a really long time when I was adventure racing; now I’ve gotten faster because I pay attention to power meters, and cadence, and pedal stroke. It’s fascinating and cool to see improvement even when you’re getting older and you’re supposed to be “slowing down.” But I still think my forte comes from my long adventure background — I know how to pace myself, I know how to turn the head off and just keep plugging along. I’ve learned time and time again that if you just keep going, a lot of times that’s enough. Even if you’re going at a snail’s pace, there’s somebody else going at, you know, a slower snail’s pace [laughs]. But there are a lot of head games out there; even at Leadville, I don’t look at the power meter, I go on feel, I go on what I know.

VN: Why did you decide to make the record attempt on the Kokopelli Trail?
RR: Red Bull always pushes their athletes to come up with projects or ideas — obviously they love competition — but they also love the “personal competition” as well. Just look at Felix Baumgartner jumping from outer space. For a number of years I’ve been thinking about a project. And my background is adventure racing and long endurance stuff where you don’t really know the course, you’re just out there for hours and days. The adventure side of things always appealed to me and I wanted to think of a classic route that would excite me. I looked at the Colorado Trail Race for years, but I decided I wanted to do something alone. And the Kokopelli Trail came up. I’ve never been on it, never touched it. And maybe this leads to bigger and better things. I’ve been thinking about riding the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam, so this could be a launching point for some other cool adventures.

VN: Do you feel like you’re drifting away from competition and more toward solo adventures?
RR: I’m a competitor for sure — I think I’ll line up for the rest of my life in one way or another — but there’s also this wanderlust that I’ve had since I was a kid and wanted to be camping out in my own backyard. That part of me is definitely not dead; with the high-end competition the last five years, some of that has gone by the wayside, but I might be revisiting some of my roots a little bit. I think it’s great to do both — to push yourself physically in a cyclocross race or a 24-hour race — but I think these really long journeys where you have to take care of yourself are good for everyone to dabble in, to get the best of both worlds.

Since we’re all about the self-discovery to be gained from suffering in this column, it’s worth noting that after Rusch finishes her own personal journey, she’s enticing others to do take one of their own. The “Join the Rusch” campaign will encourage people to complete their own 142-mile challenge. The rewards will be bountiful: personal growth, a lot of pain, satisfaction, and prizes (wheels, tours of the Kokopelli Trail, and so on), of course. Check out for details.

Editor’s note: Managing editor Chris Case has spent enough time racing parking lot crits to know there are far more enjoyable ways to spend time racing a bike. In his quest to find pain and pleasure in equal measure, he has sought out the most unique, challenging, and captivating competitions to test his mind, body, and equipment. Follow along with his experiment to race the best and most difficult courses, the iconic and the emerging, the most punishing and most promising, on and off road. Live vicariously through him, poke fun at him, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @leicacase. Questions or concerns for his well-being? Send him a note at [email protected]