Rebecca Rusch: Imprisoned in pollen

Originally posted on May 5, 2011 at 12:12 pm

By Rebecca Rusch

Last year I signed up for the Trans-Sylvania Epic as part of my spring volume-training block. Each year I search for races that fulfill multiple purposes. They must fit into my training schedule and the master plan for the season. Each race must also must intrigue me in some way and grab my attention. The primary lure of TSE 2010 was the promise of sweet eastern singletrack promising to school me in my never-ending quest to master technical riding. The format also seemed creative; the race directors are devoted riders and the novelty of staying in a scout camp as an adult seemed fun.

My boyfriend, Greg Martin, and I signed up and even invited our parents to pop in for some racing action. Stage racing has become a staple in my training and is an essential way for me to pack in miles with intensity that I would not otherwise do myself. Last May I did two stage races almost back to back. With only a week between I raced the Red Centre Enduro in Australia then, with a quick turnaround at home, headed to TSE. It ended up being 14 days of racing over a 20-day period. It nearly killed me physically and emotionally, but I believe it was the foundation needed for my Leadville 100 record breaking ride in August.

I had one of my worst race experiences ever in Pennsylvania last year. I loved the event, the trails, the friends I made, but I suffered like a dog and teetered dangerously on the edge of anaphylactic shock. While Greg was having the race of his life and riding to a dominant singlespeed win, I was struggling just to finish some of the stages. I still don’t know exactly why, but my asthma kicked in HARD in Pennsylvania. Some say it was a bad pollen year and extra humid.

Whatever it was, I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life. I had to walk my bike and sit on the side of the trail multiple times. Stage after stage, I cried a lot and struggled to breathe through a tiny, swollen airway. I was a shadow of my normal racing persona and was really just beating myself up. My inhaler was ineffective. Racecourse medics and other competitors were concerned and poised to pull me from the event. My stubborn attitude forced me to continue and I did finish the race 3rd in the women’s division, but it was a hollow performance. I came home with a bruised ego, some serious health issues to address and soul searching about the rest of my season.

As torturous as it was, that race was the catalyst that prompted me to get some medical attention and take a hard look at my health. With the help of the scientists at the Red Bull Performance Center, I went through a series of tests including complete blood work and food sensitivity testing. I discovered some big holes in my nutritional profile. I needed amino acids, magnesium and a host of other things that I was either not getting through my food or not absorbing. I made some simple changes and saw immediate results in my energy levels. Despite a really shaky start, my 2010 season turned out to be one of my best yet.

I still have asthma and have not been back to visit Pennsylvania since TSE. I’m a glutton for punishment and feel I have some unfinished business there. Like last year, TSE will still a building block in my training and not the ultimate goal for the season. I will once again be coming off one long stage race and heading straight into TSE, so I expect to be tired. My overall placing out there is not as important to me as being able to feel like I’m racing instead of simply surviving. Instead of suffocating in the thick, pollen-laden air, I want to feel that spark of intensity and the familiar burning in my lungs and legs that comes with a solid race effort.

I’m excited for the race, but cautious. This year, I will arrive in Pennsylvania armed with course knowledge, the experience to know not to push my lungs to the point of no return and a couple boxes of Claritin.

If the air just doesn’t suit me, and I have to pull back the intensity, then I am prepared to do so. Plan B will be to ride instead of race and just enjoy the sick single track and great vibe of one of the best stage races in the world.

More from TSE: Read all our racers’ exclusive dispatches from the race.

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