Friday, December 25, 2015

Rebecca Rusch--The Queen of Pain

There is no crown atop the head of Rebecca Rusch on the cover of her book "Rusch to Glory" signifying her as the "Queen of Pain," as she was anointed by "Adventure Racing" magazine, and as her publisher VeloPress identifies her in its ads for the book it regularly places in "Velo" magazine, its sister publication.  It's not a title that her modesty allows her to accept.  Even though she has won world championships in three different disciplines--adventure racing, mountain biking and cross country skiing--she maintains a strong humility and doesn't consider herself a queen of anything.  She regularly mentions her vulnerable side, even writing, "I still experience fear almost daily."  As impressive as a crown might be, even more so for her are the world champion rings on the cuff of the jersey she's wearing on the book's cover.

She managed to keep "Queen of Pain" off the cover of her book, but not the somewhat trite phrase "pain cave" on the back cover.  Pain had to be there some where, as overcoming the pain that all-out exertion inflicts upon endurance athletes figures prominently in her narrative.  It's a wonder she wasn't featured in the November "Why we love to suffer" issue of "Velo."  She writes, "You have to be willing to suffer...My biggest advantage is that I know how to suffer and persevere...I break down and feel pain like everyone else, but I just don't quit."  Despite the abundance of pain, she holds off addressing the "Queen of Pain" issue until halfway through her book, a title she balked at, but is willing to go along with to please her sponsors and supporters.

Her relationship with pain began when she ran cross country for her high school in Downers Grove outside of Chicago.  One of the defining moments of her life came when she quit a race in her senior year "to stop the pain," not from an injury, but from her struggles to keep up with the leaders.  It left such a bitter aftertaste that she never wanted to quit a race again. Even though she developed into a world champion, she was no prodigy.  She briefly competed for her college, the University of Illinois, but without encouragement or distinction, so left the team.

After college she was drawn to rock climbing, which introduced her to the world of adventurers.  That led to her being invited to join a team for the blossoming sport of adventure racing--navigating wildernesses for several days, sometimes having to repel down mountains and paddle down rivers. The four or five person teams required one female. She soon distinguished herself enough to put together a team of all women and one guy, upending the notion that women were "mandatory equipment."  Her first team competing in a race in Morocco was a disaster with both her female teammates reduced to crying fits before quitting.  She referred to their performance as a "shit show." But the next team she put together finished fourth in a race in Patagonia, winning the respect and accolades of all.

Her never-die spirit has served her well in all her endeavors, keeping her going during an 18-day paddle on a board through the Grand Canyon with two other women, a feat that had never been attempted before nor since, and on a several day first ascent of El Capitan.  Any one of her remarkable adventures and competitions, not the least of which was spending a year rebuilding a truck, could have filled an entire book.  The several pages she devotes to each is hardly enough.  She doesn't even have space to write about her skiing exploits other than an off-handed mention that among her world titles was one as a masters cross country skier.

The second half of her book is mostly devoted to her mountain biking.  She didn't take up bike racing until the age of 38 when the sport of adventure racing faded away.  She wasn't ready to retire from competition, especially since she had a year left on her Red Bull sponsorship.  A friend suggested she try 24-hour mountain bike racing, since she was so adapt at dealing with sleep deprivation.  Even though she had done a fair amount of biking in adventure racing, she never cared for it.  She hated it more than any other sport she tried, and in fact hadn't ridden a bike in years when it was included in one of her first events.  She was always happy when an event didn't have a biking segment.

But her tenacity and ability to push herself to her limits was particularly suited to the biking.  She won the 24-hour national championship in her first year of competition and then the world championship later that year in 2007.  It wasn't until 2009 that she attempted the Leadville 100 mountain bike race, the highest profile mountain bike competition in the US, if not the world.  It was much shorter than what she was accustomed to and preferred, not much more than eight hours for the leaders.  The longer the race the better for her, but she won it at the age of forty, sharing the podium with Lance Armstrong, the men's winner. It was the first of four straight wins, the most by any woman.  The next year she set a course record and shared the podium with Levi Leipheimer.  She called it the most painful day she ever had on a bike, but also one of the most rewarding.  

Her string of Leadville victories came to an end in 2013 when she finished third.  She was proud of her effort, as she had trouble finding the motivation for the "extra one per cent it takes to go as fast as possible and really make yourself hurt on race day," after learning that a good friend of hers was killed in a biking accident in Ketchum, Idaho, her adopted home town.  Only her boy friend convinced her to race, rather than going home.  She finished the race in tears, not for finishing third, but for the loss of her friend and the joy of competing.

She mentions crying almost as much as suffering.  Sometimes they are linked and sometimes not.  She cries over a death that she witnessed of a fellow competitor in an adventure race.  She cries when she has to back off on a pitch on El Capitan, when her team has to pull out of a race, as she feels tendinitis coming on. She cries when she sees the banner with her name on it across the start line for a 100-mile race she put considerable effort into organizing to celebrate her favorite trails around Ketchum. In 2013.  She cries regularly during a competition in Vietnam, as her father had died there, shot down during the Vietnam War.  She cries when she sells the truck she had rebuilt and lived out of in her nomadic days of subsisting on ramen and tuna.  

Her body is covered with scars, but her favorite is the one on her left thigh from a grinder that continued spinning after she turned it off while working on the truck.  As with all her exploits, including her present work as a fire-fighter in Ketchum, she makes no big deal of engaging in activities generally considered to be in the male domain.  She does point out that women should not feel limited or confined, but she is not preachy.  Hers is an inspiring story for anyone.  The biggest surprise is that it wasn't put into book form until after her 2013 campaign.

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