Veteran ultrarunner Brian Rusiecki wrapped up another rock-solid year of running with a win at the Hellgate 100K in Fincastle, VA in 11:01:26. The man has been a stalwart of the East Coast ultrarunning scene for the past decade, seemingly winning everything there is in that region. In the following interview, we spoke about his recent win, what motivates him, how he races so prolifically yet consistently, and the differences between East Coast and West Coast racing. Rusiecki exudes an extraordinarily easygoing manner. He’s quick to laugh and a little self-deprecating, downplaying his successes. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Quick & Dirty: Congrats on your win at the Hellgate 100K earlier this month. This was your first time racing Hellgate, right? How did you like the course and how did the race go for you?
BR: Yeah, it was my first Hellgate. I don’t usually run that late into the year. I usually lose motivation by November [laughing]. I had signed up for Hellgate once before, but it snowed or something, so we didn’t go down for it. So this year was a chance to try it again. The course isn’t super rugged, but it almost feels like bushwhacking in parts. The first half is just kind of like, “Am I on a trail?” [laughing]. It’s like four people in Virginia walked on this in the last year [laughing].
It’s not like you’re on this super-rugged course, but there’s just all these leaves. The first part, I couldn’t get in a rhythm. I was just trying to figure out where I was going [laughing]. It’s dark, it’s midnight, you’re half asleep and trying to get going. You have to go through a bit of water in the beginning too, and it was super cold—I guess the coldest year they’ve had yet. It got down to maybe 8 degrees. Finally, once you get to about 30 miles, you get to some more runnable dirt roads. I felt a little better then, and once the sun came up, everything got better. Or maybe it was just my mental state that was better. You’re in the mountains with some nice singletrack and you actually see the ground every once in a while instead of just piles of leaves [laughing].
Q&D: When did you make your way to the lead?
BR: You know I actually started out pretty far back. It was just so cold and I started out with handheld [water bottles]. My hands were freezing, my pants were falling down and I couldn’t pull them up because my hands were numb [laughing]. I’m all out of sorts, can’t get in a rhythm, can’t find the trail, and I’m just like, “What’s going on?” [laughing]. So I was probably in fifth or sixth place at 20 miles. At 30, I was like, “OK, I’ve got to put it together, it’s time to get going.” After that I started working my way through the field. A couple of the guys who were out front were well ahead of a pretty solid course record pace—by maybe 10 minutes or so. So I just did my own thing for a while. I’m not exactly sure where I caught them—maybe mile 35—but after that I just ran steadily.
I didn’t even want to think about going until half way. So you know [despite being listed as 100K—or sometimes a 100K++]the race is 67 miles, or maybe 70 [laughing]. I mean who knows—you know, these are “Horton miles” [i.e. miles that measure every bit of a full mile under Race Director David Horton]. I’m thinking, “I’m at mile 30, but is it really 30? Or is it 35…” [laughing]. But really, my thought was if I’m going to be out there for 11 or 12 hours, I’m going to take it easy for a while.
Q&D: Well that sure worked out for you; it probably paid to take it easy for a while at the start. You mentioned that you usually lose motivation near the end of the year, but you’re actually quite the prolific racer. By my count, you’ve run 12 ultras this year; most of them over 50 miles, and three of them were 100 milers—Massanutten 100, Vermont 100, and UTMB. But most impressive is the level at which you’re racing those; you notch a lot of wins and podium finishes. Is that with intention, your racing of an ultra about once a month year round? What motivates you to race so much, and how are you so consistently competitive—for nearly a decade now?
BR: That’s crazy, a decade? [laughing]Have I been doing this for that long? I wonder how many races are in my UltraSignup profile.
Q&D: There are 111 right now [laughing]. A few of those are probably trail half marathons and the like, but still.
BR: Oh man, that’s ridiculous [laughing]. But then, there’s some they don’t have in there you know…
So I know a lot of people deal with injuries, but somehow my body just holds up. I’ve never really had any problems. Some guys are super fast—the [Jim] Walmsleys and the like—and I can’t run that fast, but I can just keep on going. I can run consistent results at a moderately good level.
When I try to get fit to start racing, I try to race at least once a month or sometimes even more. Because I just don’t work that hard in training. I get bored or give up and never really want to run more than four hours. So I’ll use races to train for another race. I mean, I’ll always race hard, but that’s how I pack a lot of them in there. After doing it so long, it’s not as hard as when I first started. My body has gotten more used to it and the recovery isn’t that bad anymore. I don’t take any days off before [races], and I don’t really take much time off after. I tend to just get stronger as the year goes on.
Q&D: We ran together for a few miles at the Cayuga Trails 50 Mile, and I didn’t realize the stretch of racing you were in. You were just three weeks removed from a win at the Massanutten 100 Mile, yet finished seventh at Cayuga. Then you ran a 54 miler at the rugged Manitou’s Revenge two weeks later. And then a month after that you’re off winning the Vermont 100 Mile. So that’s two big 100-mile wins with two 50 milers in between. I don’t think there are many people who could do that.
BR: Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve been it doing for a while now, and I guess my body’s not worn out yet. Maybe I’m getting there [laughing].
Q&D: What race do you think was your best this year?
BR: Ooo, I knew you were going to ask this. You know, everything I raced this year other than Hellgate, I’ve run before, which kind of messes with your head. You’re looking at your watch and thinking, “Oh man, three years ago I was 20 minutes ahead at this point.” And then you just get down on yourself. Like with Vermont, I’ve run it seven or eight times. It’s hard to race faster simply because I’ve run it so many times!
Actually the race that I thought was really solid was Bear Mountain [The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile in New York]. I got second there, but it’s the fastest I’ve ever run it. I was so excited. A guy got me at the end, but whatever, I was just excited by the time. It had been so long since I’d run a race and actually improved at it [laughing].
Q&D: While you occasionally race farther afield, most of your racing is on the East Coast, or more specifically, the Northeast. What are your motivations for where you race, and what are the cultural differences in racing near home versus racing abroad or out West?
BR: Well, I work 40 hours a week and I pay for everything out of pocket, so that’s a big part of it. You can only take so many trips. It’s a lot of money and time to commit. So if I want to race frequently, I’ve got to do it near my home.
But if you ask me whether I like East Coast trails more than the West Coast, you know, I kind of do. It just feels like home—not quite as much vertical, no altitude, just rocky trails. When I was out at Western States with [my wife]Amy, I was like, “This is how it is out here? The ground’s so hard!” [laughing]. But we do like traveling, so we’ll wrap a vacation around a race maybe once or twice a year. We’ve done that with UTMB, Leadville, Western States, the Zion 100, Cascade Crest 100. That last one is a really awesome race.
Q&D: It’s great that you and Amy are both so into it and can plan vacations around big races.
BR: Yeah, though you know, the tough part is that you can’t crew for one another when you’re both racing. Like at UTMB this year, we both raced but really kind of needed each other as crew. We’re the ones who know how to motivate each other. It seems like when we both run a big one at the same time, it goes poorly [laughing]. It’s tough. You kind of need someone there…
Q&D: Maybe you’ll have to swap on and off in the future.
BR: Yeah, maybe we will, plus I don’t know how many years I’ve got left [laughing].
Q&D: Well for now, you’re still kicking butt. Congratulations again on a really great year!
Brian Rusiecki lives in South Deerfield, MA with his wife Amy Rusiecki, who is also a highly competitive ultrarunner