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LEADVILLE, Colo. (ST) — Rebecca Rusch’s nickname is the Queen of Pain, but perhaps the Diesel Diva would be more fitting.
After falling as far back as fifth place during the first half of the Leadville 100 on Saturday, Rusch slowly clawed her way back to the front, taking over the front of the race for good on the long trip up the Columbine climb, about 45 miles into the race.
From there, it was a clean run back to the finish in Leadville, where Rusch (Red Bull-Specialized) claimed her third straight race win, breaking the course record in the process.
Rusch’s time of 7:31:46 was 16 minutes faster than the record time she posted last year, and nearly four minutes quicker than this year’s second place finisher, Gretchen Reeves (Tokyo Joes). Pua Mata (Sho Air-Specialized), Jennifer Smith (Alpine Orthopedics-SRAM-Breezer) and Tammy Jacques (Eriksen) rounded out the top five.
“I’m a diesel. It takes me a while to get warmed up,” said Rusch. “The same thing happened two weeks ago at the qualifying race in Crested Butte. But that worked out for me, too. I just tried not to freak out today, and when I heard it was just two minutes to the leaders at the base of Columbine, I knew I was OK because I love that climb.”
Indeed, though at varying times, Mata, Smith and Reeves each led the race during the opening 50 miles, it was Rusch stamping her authority on things when it counted, reeling in all challengers on the 10-mile grind to a peak elevation of 12,550 feet.
“I was with Jenny on the way up Columbine and then all the sudden Rebecca comes flying by and I was just like boom — detonated,” said Reeves, who won the race in 2007. “I probably lost two minutes above timberline alone. But once I got back down to the bottom I just started hammering. I wasn’t going to give up.”
If Reeves had a moment of difficulty, the women behind her had outright catastrophes. Mata was the race’s early leader, but drivetrain issues, a tire puncture and a cracked wheel proved her undoing.
“It just wasn’t meant to be today,” said Mata, choking back tears. “It’s too bad because I had good legs.”
Smith was going well, too. But then a bad case of upset stomach saw her lose touch with Reeves and then get passed by Mata in the race’s last five miles.
“Basically I was throwing up after mile 65,” she said. “This is the longest race I’ve ever done and probably the hardest.”
Giant’s Kelli Emmett was also in contention early, but crashed out of fifth place after a bungled mussette bag handoff during the trip back through the Twin Lakes aid station after the Columbine Climb. Besides bumps and bruises, Emmett’s carbon handlebar was snapped at the shifter; she was forced to abandon.
As for Rusch, she admitted that this was the hardest — and most satisfying — of her three wins.
“The level of competition at this race keeps going up,” said Rusch, whose win gave Specialized a sweep of the day when combined with Todd Wells’ win in the men’s race. “This was harder than last year. I was cramping bad a few times. But it’s always hard. That’s Leadville.”