The Leadville Trail 100 MTB race is one of the most grueling competitions on two wheels: it’s 100 miles through the Colorado Rockies, all at high elevation and with a total climb of over 11,000 feet. If you finish it, you’re hailed as a hero. If you finish it under 9 hours, you get a coveted belt buckle as a trophy to show off. Mountain bike champion Rebecca Rusch’s best time is 7:28.
Rusch has numerous professional accomplishments that are hallmarks of her life: Winning the high-altitude sufferfest that is the Leadville Trail 100 MTB four times is certainly among them.
But there’s a personal motivation for Rusch, as well. Her father served in the Air Force, and he didn’t come home from the Vietnam War. Riding her bike, she says, has served as therapy.
For this year’s Leadville, taking place on August 15, Rusch will pay tribute to both her professional and personal motivators by joining a team of wounded veterans riding for the Phoenix Patriot Foundation Cycling Program. “This will be my seventh Leadville,” Rusch says. “I’ve won four of them…but there are times when it’s not just about winning. I’ve seen some of the Phoenix Patriot Foundations athletes racing every year at Leadville, and I’m thinking ‘Aw man, I think it’s hard for me to ride?’ I wanted to find a way to use my exposure and the skill and the knowledge I have of Leadville to give back, and PPF seemed like a really good fit.”
One of those athletes is Juan Carlos Hernandez, who will be competing in his fourth Leadville. In 2009, Hernandez was serving in the Army, deployed in Afghanistan, when his helicopter was hit by a rocket propelled grenade. Injuries from the crash landing resulted in his left leg being amputated. As part of rehab, Hernandez started cycling—and realized he had a talent. “Once I started doing it for therapy, it just felt so good to me because I had never done it before and I didn’t have to retrain my body or my brain,” he says.
Hernandez says Rusch’s assistance on the team will be vital—especially her depth of knowledge on the rigors of the Leadville course, which is conducted entirely at high altitude and has a total elevation gain of 11,000 over the course.
It’s never easy, she says, but “whether you’re going for a personal goal or for the win, you don’t want to waste time on course. I’ll be an open book of experience, and they’re going to be motivating me too. It’s not a one-way street at all.”