Rebecca Rusch is simply one of the most decorated endurance athletes ever. While her mountain bike history runs deep, she has recently dipped her toes in the ever growing bikepacking scene. This year she lined up for the Smoke n’ Fire 400 – she took a close 2nd place and endured her first true bikepacking event.
Where are you from and how did you come to being such a great endurance mountain biker? I grew up a bit of a tomboy in the suburbs of Chicago and got my first taste of sports through the track and cross country running team in high school. Joining that team changed the trajectory of my life and I’ve been an athlete in multiple sports ever since. Even in those days, I did better at the longer events and gravitated towards the more adventurous nature of cross country versus track.  Since then, I’ve had a long, successful journey of different sports including rock climbing, adventure racing, paddling and finally mountain biking.  I didn’t start mountain bike racing until age 38 and frankly I was lousy at it.  But I was really good at going long.  I got involved in 24 hour solo MTB racing and that launched a whole cycling career that was really unexpected.  Nearly 10 years later, I’m kind of surprised to call myself a professional cyclist, but that’s how it has turned out.  The whole story is outlined in my new book Rusch To Glory.  It’s not just a book about me, but a book about some great adventures and just might motivate you to get off the couch and find your own adventure! Rebecca Rusch Many people know who you are from your days at Leadville, and your long history of endurance racing. I know you are still new to it but what sparked your ultra/bikepacking interest? Bikepacking is actually the perfect melding of the skills I acquired from 10 years of multi-day international adventure racing with the cycling skills and fitness from nearly 10 years of elite mountain bike racing.  I started to hear about these events in the past few years and would see riders coming through Leadville each year on the CTR.  I’ve been intrigued and my Kokopelli record ride a couple of years ago was the first step to checking out self-supported cycling.  I have a feeling there’s more in my future.  My career as an athlete has lasted over 20 years because I’ve made a point of following what types of events inspire me.  If something is calling to me, there’s a reason for it and I have to listen. The past two years you did the Fat Pursuit, a much larger leap into bikepacking, what motivated this? I wanted to know if I could do it and there was only one way to find out.   I’ve known Jay P a long time and his event was close to home.  My husband Greg had been getting into fat biking and so we just started collecting the gear and one thing led to another.  Jay was super encouraging (almost too encouraging), so I had to try it out and couldn’t really say no to him.
Rebecca Rusch
Photo / Karoline Droege
You just took on the Smoke ‘n’ Fire, a 2nd year event that actually goes through your hometown. How was your preparation going into the race? Did you pre-ride any sections? Ha!  Preparation?  What’s that?  My preparation was to host the biggest event of my year, Rebecca’s Private Idaho, in my hometown with nearly 500 riders just 3 days before the start of Smoke n’ Fire.  That included tons of work, stress, minimal sleep, multi-tasking and then riding 100 miles with friends.  I went into S n’ F totally exhausted, feeling very unprepared with gear or route prep and just kind of winging it.  I hadn’t really looked at the map and hadn’t ridden more than around the block on my new Niner bike with the gear set up. There was some great competition this year. What was your goal going into the race? My only goals were to finish, to explore some beautiful parts of Idaho, to be efficient and to have some alone time on my bike.  I honestly had no expectation about a finish time or place.  I just wanted to go on the longest bike ride I’ve ever done in my home state and see how I liked it. After the first section from Boise to Ketchem, you found yourself in 1st, how were you feeling at that point? I admit, I was kind of surprised because I honestly wasn’t racing.   Don’t get me wrong, it was hard work and I was enjoying the effort, but I wasn’t really trying to knock anyone off the leader board.  I have tons of endurance experience but this was for sure the longest ride I had tackled.  Being in first that early in the event didn’t really mean anything to me.  I know enough from my racing that whatever is happening in the beginning of the event is not always representative of what will be happening at the end of the race.  I was happy to be in the mix, but also knew that there was still too much ahead of us to get excited. Did you sleep at all? if no, how did you manage not to? I slept 2 hours from about 2:30 AM – 4:30 AM on the first night.  I was hoping to make it through the first night without stopping, but my body just wasn’t cooperating.  I was so tired from the weeks leading up to the event that I just had to nap.  I started second guessing my navigation and swerving because I was falling asleep on the bike and I knew it was time to pull over.  I knew I would get passed, but I had to stop for my own survival.  I honestly thought 10 people would pass me while I was sleeping. I was super surprised to see the top 2 guys again in the morning and find out I hadn’t lost much time.  I knew I had made the right decision to stop.  The second night was easier to stay awake because I was close to the finish and smelling the barn. You and Sam got a solid lead on day two from the rest of the crew, did you think you could catch him? Did you ever see his lights? Honestly, I had kind of written Sam off in Ketchum because he seemed so out of it and defeated.  Andy, Sam and I were all at the same gas station in Ketchum fueling up and chatting.  Sam was talking about sleeping and needing to take a rest.  I saw Andy again on the morning of day 2 at Redfish Lodge and he was in a world of hurt there.  But he was getting warm and eating breakfast, so I figured he would bounce back.  I wasn’t thinking of catching Sam or Andy, I really was just doing my own ride.  I didn’t see Sam again after Stanley.  I for sure was looking for lights ahead of me and behind me, but all I saw were glowing animal eyes.
Rebecca Rusch
Photo / Rob Huguez Photography
How was the last 40 or so miles, it looks brutal on a map. How did you feel when you were finished? I started the last section at dusk and figured I had about 4 hrs to go: piece of cake!  However, this ended up being the hardest section of the course for me with never ending, relentless climbing.  The miles were going by so slowly that I thought my Garmin was malfunctioning.  Physically, I was feeling OK and was excited that I was going to finish in under 2 days.  My legs were tired, but were still turning the pedals.  I was moving OK.  The wheels really started coming off near the summit of Bogus Basin ski area.  At that point, I was running on fumes and couldn’t keep any more food down.  I knew I just had to descend, but those miles of what should have been sweet single track were actually challenging navigation, my mind and eyes were playing tricks on me and I felt like I was riding the same trail over and over again…kind of like that hallway in The Shining.  The lights of Boise just never seemed to get any closer. And then they did.  The finish was perfect.  About 6 people standing in the middle of a deserted road in Boise with a few cowbells.  Sam was sitting in a chair waiting for me.  My friends Michelle and Jason were there with cowbells. I signed the clipboard and that was it.  I felt really proud of my ride.  I could have cleaned up a few things with navigation, equipment and been more efficient in a few places, but no big problems and I’m patting myself on my back.
Rebecca Rusch
Rebecca and Sam – Photo / Michelle Andersen
Rebecca Rusch
Photo / Michelle Andersen
Trackleaders said it was a total of 444 miles, was it more than you expected? Duh yeah… I thought this was a 400 mile race?!!  Bonus miles, I guess? What was your diet like out there? The first leg to Ketchum, I was able to rely on my normal race nutrition of GU products.  From there on out it was gas station food, which consisted of a fruit smoothie, nuts, a few Kind bars, bananas.  I tried to find the most nutritious things I could there, but it was challenging.  In Stanley, I made a point of stopping at the Stanley Bakery, waiting in the line that was out the door and taking the time to order two Crag Sandwiches (egg, bacon, avocado, cheese.)  I ate one there and took one to go. It was worth it to have some real food in my stomach for the 2nd part of the journey.  I struggled towards the end and the last couple of hours my stomach was shutting down, so I just kind of stopped eating.  It’s for sure challenging to get good race nutrition when you’re dealing with convenience store products. Any “oh shit” moments? My biggest oh shit moments involved wildlife.   I was not alone out there.  I nearly got side swiped by a huge bull elk that charged across the trail in front of me. I did have an altercation with a porcupine who would not move off the single track about 20 miles from the finish.  I came in hot around a corner and there he was in the middle of the trail.  I grabbed a handful of brake, but it was too late.  His lightening fast tail whacked about 25 quills into my front tire.  I stood there staring at the quills, waiting for my tire to go flat while the little fat dude just stared at me.  I carefully pulled out each quill and said a little prayer to the Stan’s sealant gods while I kept one eye on the porcupine.  The tire seemed ok, but Mr. Porcupine kept ambling slowly down the single track in the direction I needed to go.  I yelled at him, tossed little pepples at him, but he woudn’t move.  I ended up having to shoulder my bike and bushwhack off trail to get around him.  I was certainly on his turf and he won that battle.  Luckily the tire held and I rolled into the finish without any porcupine injuries. I wasn’t really feeling prepared for a ride of this undertaking and was seriously considering just not showing up since I was so tired from RPI.  I threw my gear together overnight and was falling asleep in the car on the drive to Boise.  All the time wondering if I was making a huge mistake and trying to cram too much into one week.  But I lined up anyway.  Then we rolled out in the dark and I just followed along on the Greenbelt bike path until we hit the dirt and the first trails.  At that point, it turned to chunky, sandy double track that forced me off my bike a few times.  That’s precisely when my Garmin started telling me to “make a U turn”.  It told me this over and over again and in my head I was seriously wondering if some higher power was really sending me a message through my Garmin as I walked my bike just an hour into the ride.  The Garmin was trying to navigate me back to the start and I was pretty close to listening to it.  I pulled over to the side as about 25 people rolled by and said friendly hellos.  I grumbled inside and re-started the Garmin navigation.  I told myself that if I restarted it and it still said “make a U Turn”, then I would just go back and save Smoke N Fire for next year.  Well, the Garmin lit up and pointed me forward, not back so forward I went and I’m glad I did. What bike and bags were you using? I used Revelate Designs bags.  I’m dialing in my system of what goes where and it’s working pretty well.  I probably brought a little bit too much stuff, but I honestly thought I might be out there three days. Any piece of gear that was specifically handy out there? My iPod really came in handy for the last 10 hours when I needed a little extra motivation.  The Air 9 RDO was totally the right bike for the job too.  I was really happy with all of my gear.  Nothing much that I would change.  Maybe I would add aero bars. Rebecca RuschWhat can we expect to see from you as far as ultra endurance events down the road? I’ve had my eye on the Colorado Trail Race and Arizona Trail Race for a while.  I’m not sure yet, but whatever I choose, it’ll be one that is in beautiful country with beautiful riding.  That is super important to me.  I won’t do something that hard if it doesn’t engage my soul. Anyone you would like to thank? Greg Martin, my husband and pretty damn good bike racer, has the most unbelievable patience with me and my little adventures.  Jay Petervary has given me some great advice and little nudges here and there. And Niner, SRAM, Red Bull and GU for never forcing me to do any certain event, but instead allowing me to choose what’s best for me and what inspires me most. And Norb for putting on a cool event that showcases the beauty of Idaho.


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