Culture

An Interview with Endurance Queen Rebecca Rusch

Meet Rebecca Rusch—a jack of all trades when it comes to endurance sports

Meet Rebecca Rusch—a jack of all trades when it comes to endurance sports. Starting from a young career in running, growing into a love for rock climbing and re-inventing her near-40-year-old self as a mountain biker, Rusch owns a crazy resume of adventure accomplishments—some including nothing more than rapid white waters and a foam boogie board! With her new autobiography, Rusch To Glory ($19, velopress.com), available now, the “Queen of Pain” shares her journey toward self-discovery and happiness through various sport outlets, inspiring women to dream bigger. We chatted with Rusch about her book, how she got started and what three (actually four!) tips she has for athletes aiming to achieve bigger goals in 2015.

Women’s Running: A lot of people who enter the world of extreme endurance sports have something pivotal in their life that inspires them to tackle new challenges. Was this true for you, and what was that moment?

Rebecca Rusch: I was working at a health club in Chicago that had an indoor rock-climbing wall, so I learned to rock climb. I’d never done anything like that. It really kind of opened my eyes and mind—like, wow I want to do more of this. So I started climbing outside and eventually that led to me leaving Chicago and living out of my car for awhile and finding all sorts of outdoor sports like climbing, hiking, running and biking. So really working at this health club that had a 90-foot climbing wall when there weren’t a lot of them around—this was the 90s!—it was cool. People actually did this! It was definitely getting used to that and then taking it all outdoors.

WR: So you tackled that and decided to “run” with it as your career?

RR: Well I started just going on climbing trips and went with my boyfriend at the time on a three-month rock climbing road trip, and I never ended up going back to the Midwest. That long trip took me to a bunch of places that I’d only about in books, and I started meeting a bunch of other outdoor people and living in the mountains and thought, wow, okay, this is kind of cool. Living in Chicago, we went camping and stuff, but I wasn’t really exposed to real outdoor sports.

WR: So this was like your “gateway” activity!

RR: Totally! In high school I was a runner—I ran track. They were great, I loved the team aspect; running was my first sport. But it wasn’t until I found rock climbing that I discovered there was a big world out there—there’s a lot of stuff to do. I’ve been athletic, but I didn’t really know all the other things you could do that were challenging and inspiring.

WR: Do you use running for cross-training at all?

RR: Yea, I do a lot. It was the first sport I ever found and it’s the easiest thing when I’m traveling and just need a pair of shoes, or if I only have a pair of shoes, or if the dog needs to get out. So I definitely use it a lot when getting on the bike or getting on the skis is too cumbersome. It’s definitely the quickest hit. It’s definitely more trail running based on where I live [in Idaho].

WR: With running, there’s often mental “demons” that runners deal with when they are training or racing. What do those look like for you when you’re trying to execute these rigorous endurance feats on the bike on anywhere else?

RR: For me, the demons are more in your head. Even as a professional athlete, for the first 20 minutes, you’re like, Oh my god, I’m in such bad shape. I suck. My legs hurt. What’s wrong with me? But sure enough, you warm up and get in a vibe, and it starts to feel easier. So I think a lot of times it’s mental demons over physical. But for me, some of the bigger ones in other sports like climbing or white water is just the fear of heights or being in the water. I’ve never been a water baby—there’s definitely a primal fear of drowning. I think if you don’t have fear, there’s actually something wrong with you! Because those are healthy things to fear when you’re on a wall or in the water. Another thing is I’ve been the only woman in a lot of “guy” sports, so there’s definitely the demon of lack of confidence in my own abilities, thinking I won’t be able to keep up. But I try to talk to myself the way I would talk to another person; you would never say to another person, “Hey, you really suck!” I try really hard not to say that to myself.

WR: That’s awesome advice! You remind me a lot of one of the first endurance junkies I ever met—Dean Karnazes. He’s someone I’ve loved to read about. Which endurance athletes have inspired you through your own career?

RR: A really big one is Lynn Hill. She’s a rock climber and in the 90s and 2000s, she was better than all the men in the world. She was the first person to free climb the nose on El Capitan, which is 3,000 feet. No one had ever climbed it without aid before. Then she went back and free climbed it in one day—people take weeks to do it! If you look her name up, she was really cutting edge as far as women or men in the sport of rock climbing early on. Plus there weren’t a lot of Americans doing it. So she went to Europe and killed everybody, came back and did all these crazy climbs here. I met her—and she’s just a super nice, chill person. Another is Robyn Benincasa, who’s been a mentor of mine. She’s awesome and has gone on to do cool things for women in sports, like her Project Athena that helps women come back from injury.

WR: Awesome! Moving from rock climbing to your current gig in mountain biking, what would you say are the biggest differences between running on trail and doing mountain bike events, like Leadville, which you won four times?

RR: With mountain biking you can coast the downhills. There’s no coasting in running—even running downhill is hard. There’s also more drafting in mountain biking, which you can do a little bit in running, but I feel like running is much more a solitary endeavor. When I go on long runs, I’m by myself all the time. But with mountain bike races, there’s a lot more interaction on the course.

WR: Is it more nerve wrecking on the bike versus running?

RR: You have a little farther to go when you fall on the bike, but really it’s the same. You fall when you’re trying to challenge yourself technically and work on skills, but you don’t fall that much. It’s just like running—if you do, it’s unexpected. There’s more momentum on the bike, so you might go flying a little bit further! But it’s just like skiing. You can go on a green run, a red run or a black run. You don’t have to ride hard stuff. You can challenge yourself fitness-wise.

WR: What has been the scariest moment you’ve encountered in any of your races?

RR: I did this expedition with my friend where we [boarded] the Grand Canyon. We did it basically on boogie boards, and we were all self-supported and towing our food. That was probably the scariest thing. One, because you’re committed. Once you’re in, there’s only a couple of ways to hike out. I’m not a huge white water person, so I was tossed into doing this with two amazing white water people. I was totally out of my element. We made a little film, “3 Women, 300 Miles,” about it, and nobody’s ever done it before or since.

WR: Wow! No one else has done it?

RR: No. And Julie [one of her friends] has been trying for years to get the permit to do this, and they wouldn’t issue it. Then they finally did in the winter because they probably thought no one in their right mind would go in the winter, but we went away. So not only did we do it, but the water was 42 degrees! No one was down there, so it was a super gnarly solitary experience.

WR: What does nutrition look like for that or for any other expeditions?

RR: A lot of dehydrated foods you can carry. I’m not super crazy or Paleo or anything like that—so everyday it’s just normal stuff. I do a lot of rice and eggs. I make my own bread, and I do a chocolate recovery smoothie drink almost everyday. My husband is a hunter, so we always have organic meat in the freezer. Pretty basic. I try to not buy too many things in packages. When I lived out of my car, tuna and Ramen noodles was all I ate because it was super cheap and quick. If I had money, I threw veggies in there.

WR: You’ve said that one of your goals through the Gold Rusch Tour is to be inclusive and lower the intimidation factor in mountain biking. What do you hope to see and expect to see in the future of endurance sports as it relates to equal playing field between men and women?

RR: You can see it happening already. You see more girls and women running and discovering the sport at a later age. The movie Mr. Presentation is about how women are represented in the media. There’s a great quote in there from Marie Wilson: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” And you see it now—there’s so many women starting their own fitness clubs and little clubs for running. We’re creating more examples for everyone to see what women can do—run for president, run the Boston Marathon, swim the Grand Canyon. The more examples they see out there, the more inspired they are to dream big on their own. We aren’t any different—women are just seeing what’s possible and dreaming bigger too.

WR: What three pieces of advice would you give someone who may be intimidated by their own goals?

RR: One thing is start small—you gotta have mini goals along the way. I have different things on the calendar; it keeps me honest. The second is enlisting friends. It’s important to me to have people to help me. It’s motivation and also someone to share your adventures with. And then the third thing is choosing a goal that means something to you. If it doesn’t get you excited or make your hands sweat or make you a little nervous, this it’s too easy to blow it off. So pick something that kind of makes your hands sweaty and makes you excited! And that might be doing a race in a really cool place. And I wrote down four things actually—be forgiving. No one follows their coaching or training exactly as they should. Forgiving yourself when you’ve had an off day is important too.