Queen of Pain: Rebecca Rusch Rules the Mountain Biking World 

Sun Valley super athlete conquers all

In person, Rebecca Rusch looks like an otherwise sane--albeit ridiculously fit--person: no outward signs of any mental instability or psychosis hide behind her warm smile. But then you find out the nickname her professional peers have given her: Queen of Pain.

No, she's not a dominatrix, but she does dominate when she's on two wheels cruising over the single track. Her nickname comes from the fact that she seems to be able to push herself through more discomfort, exhaustion and pain than anyone else on the mountain bike racing circuit, a trait that has taken her to the top of the sport at the tender age of 42.

Just more than a year ago, BW sat down with the Sun Valley resident on the heels of her win at the near-legendary Leadville 100--a race she did on a whim--to talk about her multiple world championships in the sport of 24-hour solo racing and her past in elite adventure racing.

A racing season later, Rusch is celebrating being named mountain biker of the year in the Endurance Live Awards, an offshoot of endurance sports publication Competitor magazine.

It's not the first time Rusch has been singled out. She was previously honored as an adventure racer, a multi-day, multi-sport team race. This second award makes her one of only a handful of athletes who have been honored in multiple sports.

The Endurance Awards have been handed out for 19 years as a way to showcase the talents of athletes who often go unnoticed by the mainstream, according to awards founder Bob Babbitt, editor-in-chief of Competitor magazine.

"While they might not know each other, they share a common ability to hurt. It's a camaraderie built on pain management," Babbitt said. "It's a tough lifestyle. They're not going to make the money, but they love it. It's a passion."

Winners are selected by experts at the publication who look at specific disciplines, be it mountain biking, road racing or triathlon.

"She's hands down the best female mountain biker around," Babbitt said of Rusch.

The award is the cherry on top of another epic season, which included Rusch's repeat win at the Leadville 100--a 100-mile race set entirely above 10,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies. This time around, she not only won the women's division, but set a new course record--becoming only the second woman to beat the eight-hour barrier--and finished 22nd overall.

"Now I have a huge target on my back," she said with a laugh.

Just as Rusch transitioned from adventure racing to mountain biking more than six years ago, she's finding new focus as she moves from 24-hour races to stage races and shorter courses--although few would call 100 miles short.

"I have asthma, and the long efforts were taking their toll on me," she said of the day-long races. "I wanted to give my lungs a break."

Her new focus has allowed her to compete in more races thanks to the shorter recovery time between events. It also meant that Leadville has become her target race, the endpoint of her long hours of training.

Last year, Rusch went to Leadville better prepared, better acclimated and with a clear vision. But as a defending champion, she was the focus of more attention from both fans and competitors.

"Part of being an athlete is being able to handle that stress," she said of the pressure. "You can harness it and use it to your advantage."

Rusch's ability to compete at the elite levels of multiple sports testifies to her talent, Babbitt said.

"It has the ability to transcend her sport," he said.

Much has been made of Rusch's domination of a sport with ranks filled with younger athletes, but age isn't a factor for her. In fact, she sees her experience as a benefit.

"I train smarter and know more," she said. "I'm a better athlete now than I've ever been. It's just brains."

While she's happy she can be an inspiration for other athletes, Rusch admits to being a bit riled when some race organizers want her to enter the masters category rather than the open class, but she doesn't focus on it.

"I can't change it, so I'll embrace it," she said. "You're seeing it more and more, everywhere. You're seeing older athletes doing better and training better."

It's a view Babbitt shares, adding that Rusch is a racer to keep watching.

"Women and men are staying fitter longer ... if you continue to train, and your body is better able to handle the training load, you become smarter about it," he said. "[Rusch is] smarter than she's ever been and faster than she's ever been. That's a pretty good combination."

Unlike many other mountain bikers, Rusch hasn't headed to a warmer climate where she can ride year round. Instead, Rusch's winter training includes hours spent in the gym, on the trails skate skiing and in the hills backcountry skiing.

"I don't want to leave Idaho just to ride," she said. "I would miss skiing and all those other activities."

Next month she'll head to South America to begin her race training by competing in various races, including several in Argentina. She said her focus will remain on shorter races, including the possible addition of some Super D races--hard-core downhill cross-country bike races she categorizes as "pretty fun."

In the true style of great competitors, Rusch is already planning two steps ahead, admitting that she's toying with the idea of time trial road racing. So don't be surprised to see her turn up at the Twilight Criterium sometime in the future.

"I'm not usually a road racer, but the time trial is you, alone, and I think it might be a good race for me," she said. "That's sort of in my head--not this year, but next."

Regardless of what race she turns up at, there is no question that she will be racing.

"I don't feel old yet," she said. "There will come a day, but I'm not there yet. I'll do it as long as I'm competitive and having fun."

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