There Rebecca Rusch lay, in the dirt, writhing in pain. It was around this time last year. She was 90 miles deep into a 100-mile bike race, her competition in hot pursuit. But at the final water stop, her calf caught a major cramp, sending her toppling off her bike and into the dirt and rocks ... leaving here there, in the dirt, writhing in pain, struggling to get the calf to relax.
"I was tired, hot, thirsty and in so much pain," she said, reliving the moment. "The volunteers were looking at me like I was an alien, but at that point I just didn't care." Instead, she yelled at them to get her a saltshaker. "I just shoved a bunch of salt in my mouth, hoped it would loosen the cramp, forced myself back on the bike and took off," she said. "By Mile 90 in that race, you're just reacting in a primal way. It's all about survival -- you're not thinking like a rational, polite human being."
Twenty minutes later, her animal instincts paid off as she won -- with relative ease -- Colorado's Leadville Trail 100, setting a course record with a time of 7 hours, 47 minutes.
Leadville is no ordinary race. It's known as one of the most grueling mountain biking events in the world, and can humble you in an instant. Rusch, 43, likes it like that. "I take the good days with the bad," she said. "If racing was always wine and roses, it wouldn't be nearly as addicting. You have to be prepared for the times when it's not going your way, and learn to shut off that negative voice that fills your head with doubts."
What she lives for: The magical feeling when the start gun goes off. "The brain shuts off and adrenaline takes over," said Rusch. "I become a different person. Nothing else in life gives me that feeling."
But don't take her for your ordinary thrill-seeker. "I don't bungee jump. I don't skydive," she said. "I take calculated risks." Yes, calculated risks like competing against women half her age -- and crushing them -- in grueling events such as the 24-Hour Solo Mountain Bike World Championships (which is just what it sounds like: cycling up and down steep, rock-covered, root-littered dirt trails along the ragged edges of mountains for 24 hours without stopping).