By Rebecca Rusch
My sole purpose this year was to donate every bit of knowledge, strategy and motivation I had to help my friend get to the finish line in her fastest time ever. The result? I went home empty-handed in the hardware department, but with a very full heart.
This year, I raced the Leadville Trail 100 MTB slower than I ever have before — and I did it on purpose. I was just as proud of my sixth Leadville race as I have been of any of them, including my four wins. I didn’t ride this time to duke it out for a spot on the podium, but instead as a pacer for a friend who was racing her tenth year.
Over the course of a decade, Lisa had been inching from 12 hours to 9:30, but had never made it under the nine-hour mark to earn the coveted big belt buckle. She got closest with a 9:30 on a singlespeed, so I figured with some gears and some coaching from me, I could help her get there as part of her 1,000-mile milestone.
I’ve raced and participated in sports with teammates for most of my life. I ran cross-country in high school and college and then became engrossed in rock climbing (which is obviously a partner sport). I paddled on whitewater and outrigger teams, raced around the world on adventure-racing teams and even my bike racing has taken place in team format. We do very few things in life that are truly solitary. Even 24-hour mountain bike solos require a posse of friends and supporters who are willing to feed and wrench for us.
The Leadville Trail 100 MTB also exemplifies this camaraderie. Sure it’s cutthroat at the pointy end of the field, but even there, alliances and partnerships are formed. We band together to climb closer to our personal goals and also help give meaning to the journey.
Due to the heavy burden of writing my first book, I didn’t have the laser-focused training I needed under my belt to race Leadville and challenge for the win, but I still wanted to be part of this event I’ve come to love and that has in part defined who I am as a cyclist. I am a passionate teacher and one of the biggest joys I know is sharing my experience and ushering someone else towards their goal.
That being so, I asked Lisa if I could escort her on race day. My sole purpose would be to donate every bit of knowledge, strategy and motivation I had in order to help her get to the finish line in her fastest time ever. She agreed to team up two weeks before the race and our preparation began. We talked through her nutrition, gear choice, aid station stops, descending skills and race tactics. I studied her like I would a course I was going to tackle myself. She was my project and I approached my mission seriously. I searched for weaknesses she could improve, the chinks in her armor, ways I could bolster her and sought to understand how she reacted to stress and how she processed feedback. While she thought we were just riding together the week before the race, I was evaluating her every move and making a game plan of how hard I could push her and where she could squeeze time off the clock. I admit I was really excited to race Leadville with a friend and the part I could play in her success. I knew she could do it, but that it would take a herculean effort on her part. She had the tools in her toolbox, but had never really used them before. It was my job to hand her the keys to unlock her potential. I was going to make her hurt like she’d never hurt before and she would thank me for it later.
My adventure racing experience and duo mountain bike stage racing had prepared me well for this endeavor. Those years and thousands of miles racing side-by-side earned me the equivalent of a PhD in team dynamics. I know intimately what it feels like to be the strong and the weak link. I know what works to motivate and what doesn’t. I know that subtle cues like a tiny whimper or a bobble are early signals of disaster. I know that actions speak louder than words. Someone may proclaim “I can’t,” but if you don’t acknowledge the words and give them an out, sometimes they find out they actually can.
During Leadville, all I asked Lisa to do was try her absolute hardest. I told her I didn’t care what her finish time was as long as she didn’t quit— and she didn’t. In fact, she rode the race of her life and finished in 8:39, a full 50 minutes faster than her previous best time. Elation, exhaustion, laugher and tears filled the finishing corral as we celebrated the achievement. It was a shared victory and a shining reminder of how wonderful it is to ride our bikes with friends and work together toward common goals.
The following morning, she stood on the podium as the 7th female, 4th in her age group and proudly held up both of her new big belt buckles: a sub nine-hour buckle and a 1,000-mile buckle. I sat in an unfamiliar place on the sidelines in the auditorium at the awards ceremony. Instead of standing on the podium with arms raised, I was cross-legged on the floor beaming with a backpack of my new books next to me. The book was my trophy for this year. Even without the public recognition of a podium, I was proud of what Lisa and I were able to accomplish together on the course.
Leadville is a special race from the first person to the last. It was strange to line up a few corrals back and be mixed up in some of the conga lines of people walking, instead of riding up Columbine. It was a little different to finish in the triple digits overall instead of double digits. I think people assume the front end of the field is somehow having a different kind of race than the rest of the field, but from what I have now seen, I know that’s not true. Other than a bit more traffic, there is no difference. Throughout the field there is still steely determination, laser focus, passion, pain and joy that all athletes share as we move across the stunning landscape together. Ken and Merilee only hand out trophies to a select few. I’m grateful to have collected my fair share of those in the previous five years of racing Leadville. 2014, my sixth year, I went home a little empty-handed in the hardware department, but with a very full heart. It was a different kind of Leadville win for me and one that I will cherish just as much as those heavy ore cart trophies.