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La Ruta de los Conquistadores

Rebecca Rusch shows off her finisher's medal

Gringo paceline day

Rebecca Rusch
November 21, 2010, 16:27 GMT,
November 21, 2010, 16:30 GMT

Time to swim in the Carribean and sleep

My apologies for not writing this report last night after Stage 4, but the clean sheets of my hotel bed were just too enticing. Waking up at 6:30 am felt like luxury after so many days of 3:30 am wake up calls.

We started our final stage of La Ruta in pouring rain. The stage profile gave us 40km of typical Costa Rica climbing, followed by 80 km of flat roads to the Caribbean. Although the profile is flat, many of the roads are rough and imbedded with rocks. There are multiple river crossings and the infamous railroad track riding and terrifying trestle bridges.

It is the sort of stage where it pays big dividends to make sure you are not alone on the flats. It is by no means an easy road day. There are some great descents and smooth pavement sections, but those are regularly interspersed with the tracks, bridges, and puddles that all require power pedaling. The riders with nothing left in their legs would be hating it.

I started the day solidly in third place in the GC and feeling a bit flat. I was a bit worried on the first 20 km of climbing because I wasn't really turning the pedals over that well and was hoping the day would not be spent alone suffering and watching the kilometers slowly tick by.

I got a boost of motivation when I found myself with Chris Carmichael and one of his coaches, Jane Rynbrandt. We banded together and motivated each other up the final steep climb. That's when the sky opened up and the rain really let loose for our descent. I have never seen more rain in my life. It was impossible to see and the pavement was running with water as we flew downhill.

Luckily I was surrounded by people who were good, steady riders. After the descent, the rain subsided and we organized into a well oiled peloton of four to five people. We picked up a really strong roadie from Alabama and another Gringo who was feeling strong. I was incredibly grateful to have some good wheels to follow and people who were willing to share the work. The company and camaraderie were a welcome change from so many hours of riding alone this week.

We were cruising along at 30km/hr and flying toward the finish. The railroad tracks abruptly put and end to our coordinated efforts and split up our Gringo Peloton. After the first section of tracks, it was just me and Mr. Alabama together trading pulls. The trestle bridges were scary this year. They are so high above the rivers and so long and offer huge consequence for a mis-step.

I heaved my bike onto my shoulders, took a deep breath and walked across slowly. The rain had mad the railroad ties slippery with bike cleats on. I heaved a bit sigh of relief when I was safely past the last one. I was enjoying the railroad riding sections because I felt I had some power left in my legs. My friend, Matt, who has done La Ruta seven times told me that the key to the tracks was to push a big gear and keep up as much speed as possible to smooth out the railroad ties. It seemed to work and I was pulling away from my group and passing more people.

When I reached the final aid station 20km from the finish, I could see Angela (Parra) and Louise (Kobin) turning off the tracks just about a minute ahead of me. The last 20km along the beach were an energy suck. The rains in last few weeks had flooded the road and there were giant puddles everywhere that covered the whole road. I was dodging from side to side, looking for the fastest lines and the smallest puddles. Most of them were shallow enough to ride through as long as you had momentum and just went for it. However I went into a few that came well above the axles on my bike. Twice I was toppled over and completely submerged in the brown, muddy water. It's alway amazing how long the last 10km of a race can feel, even though I'd covered hundreds of kilometers this week.

The welcoming beach finish finally came, and I finished the stage just a minute behind Louise and Angela. This stage was one of the most rewarding stages because I had a really fun group of people to share the workload and keep me company for most of the day. It is energizing to form a cohesive group and make friends out on the race course.

Like most of the athletes, I went straight into the ocean as a reward for a really hard week of racing. I am really proud of how I raced this week and with my performance. I finished third in a very strong women's category. Unlike 2006, La Ruta did not have its way with me. Instead, I raced well, gave the course the respect it deserved and had a fantastic time. It goes to show you how experience and the right frame of mind can completely change a situation.

Thank you to the La Ruta race organizers for a fantastic time and thanks to all the riders who shared time with me over the past four days. Perhaps I will see you again!

Lead moto driver Frederico with Rebecca Rusch at the finish. He was her motivation on stage 3.

Lack of sleep adds to challenge

Rebecca Rusch
November 20, 2010, 4:06 GMT,
November 20, 2010, 4:46 GMT

Race organization cracks down on rules

Racing with Frederico in my head.

Today's stage included approximately 10,000ft of climbing up to Irazu Volcano, followed by around 11,000ft of descending into the town of Turrialba. The course was not as varied as the other stages, but in some ways, it was easier to wrap my head around one massive climb followed by one huge descent. Instead of wondering where I was in the stage, or what was ahead, at least today's stage was really mentally straightforward.

Seriously, I climbed for about three hours up to nearly 10,000ft. The majority of the climbing was on good gravel road and pavement. It was just a matter of putting your head down and spinning away. I was again caught in no man's land with Angela (Parra) and Louise (Kobin) up the road, so I was faced with a brisk headwind, a bit of rain and temperatures down into the 50s. I was grateful for the cool temps, while many of the Costa Ricans were putting on jackets and layers.

I really enjoyed the day's climb because it took us way above the clouds and the views of Irazu and Turrialba Volcanos were spectacular. I was reminding myself to look around today while I was climbing and working on my fitness for next season. I felt good again today, but still could not match the pace up front.

I did have some good motivation from my friend Frederico, who is the lead moto driver and long time La Ruta participant. He challenged me to try to get in under five and a half hours today and said that would be a really good time. So, I was racing against that time today and pushing to beat his challenge. It helped a ton and I finished in 5:06! I'm happy with how this race is unfolding for me and when comparing the times and gaps from 2006, I have made a vast improvement in the past fouryears. Barring major drama tomorrow, the women's podium seems to be fairly set.

There could have easily been an upset today because the descent off the volcano was gnarly. It's called a "road", but I honestly cannot see how any sort of vehicle would travel over it. There were long, long sections of baby heads where I felt like I was in a pinball game.

Other sections were imbedded rocks with slick mud covering them. The "easiest" part of the descent was the super loose high speed gravel, but even those sections had huge consequence because of the speed. The last time I was here, the race leader, Jeremiah Bishop, crashed on this descent and broke his jaw. I think part of what makes it so hard is that it's around 30km of descending after three days of racing and a monster climb. I just want to point it straight and go to the finish, but I was so fatigued that I could not ride it the way I normally would.

I did get one flat tire, but it was a quick change. The remaining pavement into town had my odometer clicking at 67km/hr at one point. It felt great to get out of the technical descending, onto pavement and into a tuck. In those moments, I was making sure to not think about what would happen if a Costa Rican dog ran out in front of me. I almost squished one today, but he made it to the other side just in time.

The only black mark on the race for me today is the drama that has been created by rule enforcements. The race organization was faced with a difficult situation and disqualified one rider before the start of today's stage. The rider was caught taking outside assistance, which is clearly against the race rules. There are rumors, hearsay and some hard facts all flying around, regarding these riders and others who may or may not have been involved on various stages.

I have not personally seen any infractions myself, so I can't really make a statement about the situation. I will say, again, that I am glad to see the race organization cracking down and trying to enforce a fair race for everyone. I'm sure it's difficult to police everyone with hundreds of riders and hundreds of kilometers of race course, but I appreciate their efforts. There will be plenty of drama and discussion about all of this, but I feel it's a step in the right direction.

Now for the final stage and our arrival to the Carribean in Limon. This last stage is no cake walk either. It's still 120km. The first half of the stage is Costa Rican-style climbing. The second half features the famous railroad track riding and sketchy bridge crossings, followed by flat, hot, sandy road riding.

The worst part of this whole week has been the severe lack of sleep! Tomorrow's stage is a "late" start at 7:00 am. Breakfast is a 4:30 am, so I'm off to bed.

Thanks for reading.

Race leader Ben Sonntag, Blake Harlan and Rebecca Rusch share post-stage stories while catching the shuttle to their race hotel.

Finding motivation in the middle of nowhere

Rebecca Rusch
November 19, 2010, 2:14 GMT,
November 19, 2010, 2:16 GMT

Volcanos coming tomorrow

Today's stage was 75km with about 13,000 feet (3,900 meters) of climbing. The roads were the steepest I have ever seen in my life. Even defending La Ruta champion, Manny Prado, who is from Costa Rica, told me he has never seen anything steeper.

This place does not have one flat spot and the roads they build do not switchback. They head straight down or up from point A to point B. Riding up (and down) the hills today was nearly impossible on a bike. I cannot imagine trying to drive a car or motorcycle on them, but it does not seem to phase the Costa Ricans. It's quite normal here to have over 30% grade.

Ben Sontag and Alex Grant (Cannondale Factory Racing), had another awesome day out in the front of the men's race. They are sitting in first and second, respectively, in the overall standings. They have been battling with the lead pack both days in a very tight race. It has been exciting to hear their firsthand race stories each evening.

After two days of racing, the women's race has established a bit of a pecking order. Angela, Louise and I again finished first, second and third in today's stage and the overall rankings remain the same as well. However, today Louise and I were much closer to Angela. She was on fire on day 1 and was more within reach today. I'm hoping that momentum will continue. Just like yesterday, they both climbed away from me on the very first 8km steep climb. I was unable to go with them and had to settle into my own rhythm again.

My body felt good today, and I am really pleased with how I am riding, but I got a bit discouraged about halfway through the stage. I rode almost the whole day alone and was not getting any time splits or reliable mileages. I had the course profile zip-tied to my handle bars, but the route had changed slightly since the heavy rains a few weeks ago. I did not really have accurate information about distances or aid station mileages. I also had no idea if Angela and Louise were an hour up the road or just minutes.

The cumulative result of these things was that I lost focus for a while in the middle of the stage. I was afraid to push too hard for fear that the course was longer than I expected or an aid station too far away. It is also extremely hard to self motivate for five and a half hours when there is no one within sight to push you.

There were a few times today where I honestly felt like I was out on a casual ride. Don't get me wrong, it was a very challenging day, and I was not taking it easy, but really attacking over the tops of climbs and hanging it out on the descents makes a big difference in a multi-hour race. It's hard to put in that extra 1% when you are alone and unsure of the course.

I feel that if I'd had someone in sight as a rabbit, I would have been able to shave some time off today. If I'm in the same situation tomorrow, I will just have to visualize another competitor and be sure to keep racing 100%.

I still had a solid day and rolled into the stage as the 27th rider overall. I felt thankful that my brakes worked all day on the terrifyingly steep and slippery descents. I will be putting in fresh brake pads for tomorrow's 30km downhill finish.

I also have to give a shout out to the group from Carmichael Training Systems, including Chris Carmichael himself. They have a group of about 15 athletes racing here along with full mechanic and aid station support. They have graciously taken me under their wing and really made things easier for me in this race. One of my favorite parts of this race has been how all the American athletes have banded together to help each other out like this. Sam (Schultz of Trek), Blake (Harlan of Jamis), Alex (Grant), Ben (Sonntag) and Matt (Ohran of Cannondale) have also been keeping an eye out for each other and for me. It's a pleasant surprise to travel this far from home and still have friends who are watching your back.

Tomorrow's stage is the Irazu Volcano day. One big massive climb and one big massive descent in 75km.

Rebecca Rusch with La Ruta's Pipa Leon. Leon worked hard to ensure a talented women's pro field competing in the race.

Much better than last year

Rebecca Rusch
November 18, 2010, 4:26 GMT,
November 18, 2010, 4:31 GMT

Impressions from day 1 very different

Today was a blast. It was a completely different experience than the last time I was here.

My favorite part of the day was actually the worst part the first time around. The Carara is extremely difficult with a ton of hiking, but beautiful and isolated. The "trail" there is just a place for the water to go, and the erosion ditches are sometimes head-high. The mud wasn't as bad this year as everyone said it would be. I was happy with my tire choice, and my bike was perfect all day long.

I lost touch with Angela (Parra) and Louise (Kobin) on the very first climb, but I didn't let it discourage me and just rode my own race. I ended the day about 30 minutes off the lead and 10 minutes behind Louise, but it's a long race and anything can still happen.

I felt like I managed the heat well - no cramping, and I felt strong and solid the whole day. I'm happy with my result and feel like I didn't burn too many matches on day 1.

I heard rumors today that some top racers received warnings for getting outside assistance, and I'm encouraged to hear that the race organization is cracking down and taking the rule seriously.

The most terrifying part of today and my least favorite part was the final 10km through the outskirts of San Jose. After seven hours of isolation and beautiful countryside, I was suddenly thrown into the chaos of Central American traffic. There were dogs, cars, people, trucks and I was like a little tiny ant in the middle of it all trying not to get squashed. It was super scary and the difficulty was magnified by the rain that had just started and by trying to look for route markings at the same time, but I made it unscathed.

I got a massage and got my bike all set up so I'm ready for tomorrow.

I loved today, I think because I raced with a different perspective this year.

A view from the beginning of the La Ruta stage 1 course.

Back again but with a different attitude

Rebecca Rusch
November 17, 2010, 3:40 GMT,
November 17, 2010, 3:51 GMT

Rusch returns to La Ruta four years later

Here I am back four years later at La Ruta. I swore I would never come to this race again, but I'm actually really excited this time. I have a different perspective and a different respect for the race. People have been asking me why I came back. It's two reasons.

The first is that the race organization really wanted to support a top women's field. And I wanted to help in their efforts. I appreciate that they want to give equal recognition to the men and women.

The second reason I came back is to redeem myself. The first time I was taken by surprise and the course had its way with me. I felt that in 2006 I wasn't able to race and was barely able to finish. Now that I know what I'm in for, I'm coming with a much more open attitude and respect for the course and knowing that I'm not necessarily racing against other women. It's kind of me against the course.

So I feel excited instead of nervous and I'm actually looking forward to what the mud will dish out. The reputation of this race is legendary for being super hard and now that I'm ready for that, I feel like I'll have a much better time.

Both the men's and women's fields are really strong, and they've made improvements with increased aid stations and cracking down on outside assistance, and they've worked hard to make it one of the best events in the world. The country has experienced landslides, record-breaking rain and hurricane weather in the past couple of weeks, so the course has been slightly changed, and I expect it will be even more of an adventure than the first time.

In true Costa Rican style, it just started raining tonight.

Tomorrow's stage is 104km. The race director estimated top finishing time at 6.5 hours, so I'm gauging for eight hours. This first stage has a reputation for being the make it or break it stage. It ends a lot of people's races due to mechanicals, dehydration and the sheer difficulty. So I'm treating this first day as a race in itself.

La Ruta de los Conquistadores

Rebecca Rusch first raced La Ruta de los Conquistadores in 2006.  She's back for her second attempt at the race.

The three-time 24-hour solo world champion has raced several endurance events this season including the Trans-Sylvania, Trans Andes, Tour de la Patagonia, Red Centre Enduro and the Leadville 100, which she won while also setting a women's course record.

The 42-year-old Rusch lives in Ketchum, Idaho.

Follow her daily race blog here.