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No Barriers Podcast Episode 126:The Ultra Barrier Breaker: Amy Rusiecki



Erik and Dave speak with East Coast running champion, award-winning coach, and barrier-breaking athlete, Amy Rusiecki. This episode is sponsored by Winnebago Industries Foundation. Amy Rusiecki is the owner of Beast Coast Trail Running and the Race Director for the Vermont 100 mile race, Seven Sisters Trail Race, Chesterfield Gorge Ultra Event, and Mount Tobey 50k, as well as a winning endurance athlete herself

Amy is a true barrier-breaker in the ultra community. She successfully petitioned for the Vermont 100 to be the first ultra race in the country to recognize AWDs (athletes with disabilities) in their own division and has taken the Vermont 100 partnership with Vermont Adaptive to new heights. Since becoming the race director seven years ago she has helped raise close to $1M for the adaptive sports organization.

She has made bold moves to push past gender barriers, creating non-binary divisions in all of her events and she has led conversations nationwide about how to better manage gender equality within the race industry. Amy has been coaching for 18 years, working with High School and College running and XC ski teams, named ‘Coach of the Year’ three times.

Amy herself fell in love with trail running and ultras. She has three times represented the USA at World Trail Championships, her best finish was at the 2013 World Trail Champs, where she was the top American and 15th female. Amy has raced up and down the East Coast and ultimately enjoys running regardless of distance, terrain, or location.

Special thanks to the Winnebago Industries Foundation for their support of this podcast and their advocacy for accessibility in outdoor spaces.

Resources:

Vermont 100: https://vermont100.com/ 

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter

Beast Coast Trail Running: https://www.facebook.com/beastcoasttrails/

Vermont Adaptive: https://www.vermontadaptive.org/

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Episode Transcript

Speaker 1:
Today's episode is brought to you by the Winnebago Industries Foundation and is part of a series highlighting pioneers in outdoor and adventure accessibility.

Amy Rusiecki:
If you don't know your why, then it's really easy to buckle under the negative head space or the tough moments. But if you can keep in mind why you're out there, or what you're trying to accomplish, then you just kind of keep bringing that to the forefront of your mind. My goal today is to cross the finish line and every step I'm taking is getting me closer to that finish line. Sometimes it's not pretty, but if I can just kind of keep moving forward, then I'm working towards that goal in some way or another.

Erik Weihenmayer:
It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barrier's life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. And that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in the summit exists a map. That map that way forward is what we call no barriers.

Speaker 1:
Today, thanks to the generosity of Winnebago, we have an amazing conversation with Amy Rusiecki who's the owner of Beast Coast Trail Running and the race director for the Vermont 100 mile race. She herself is also a winning endurance athlete representing the USA at world trail championships three times. Amy is a true barrier breaker in the ultra community. She successfully petitioned for the Vermont 100 to be the first ultra race in the country to recognize athletes with disabilities in their own division. She has made bold moves to push past gender barriers, creating non-binary divisions in all of her events. And she has led conversations nationwide about how to better manage gender equality within the race industry. Enjoy the conversation.

Dave:
Welcome to the No Barriers Podcast. We are really excited today to meet Amy Rusiecki. Amy, welcome to the show.

Amy Rusiecki:
Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Dave:
And, Eric. I know we are surrounded by extraordinary people in the No Barriers community and Amy is no exception. Amy has just a list of accolades that's so amazing. But for me, I'm really excited today to talk about how people who really commit to do extraordinary physical things, how they do it and how they keep doing it over and over. And Amy's a coach, so she not only does it for herself, but she's won coach of the year award multiple times for coaching others to do it. And I just think for any listener who's listening today, who is good or struggles with setting big and bold ambitious, and tries to stick to it, today, I think it's going to be just a really interesting conversation about how we push ourselves to be our best.

Erik Weihenmayer:
But also, Dave, in terms of the next step, which is then how do you take what you love and then use it to elevate the world in some way. So I think that we'll get a lot of ideas around that as well.

Dave:
Oh yeah, for sure. So no pressure there, Amy. We're just giving [crosstalk 00:03:43]

Erik Weihenmayer:
We set you up well there.

Amy Rusiecki:
Oh boy. I'm scared of myself now.

Erik Weihenmayer:
You're intimidated. Don't look in a mirror.

Amy Rusiecki:
I know, right? Wow.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So you are the owner of Beast Coast Trail Running and also the director of a bunch of races, including the Vermont 100. But you also were a competitive runner and you were in the trail world championships and you placed number one for women in America. So that's pretty wild. So you have this long history of competing, not just directing races, but competing as well. And so I want to dive into just one question, which is so what do you do for 20 hours when you're running? What do you think about? Do you sing songs in your head or play hangman? What's going on?

Amy Rusiecki:
Oh gosh. Sometimes that's way too much time in your head. I'll be honest. No, I mean, I'm someone... I mean, I love running obviously, but part of what I love most about it is the community and getting to talk to people. And so a lot of times I'm not running alone. I try to latch on to someone and just have an awesome conversation and get to know them and let the energy of that conversation and getting to know a new person or getting to know a friend better, just kind of let that carry me through as many miles as it can. It makes the miles go by. It makes amazing memories. It means you have somebody to talk to when you see an awesome view so you're not the crazy person just...

Erik Weihenmayer:
But don't they say, if you could have a conversation, then you're not running hard enough.

Amy Rusiecki:
I mean, the great thing about [crosstalk 00:05:25] right? But when you're over running, if you're out of breath, you're not going to make it 100 miles. So-

Erik Weihenmayer:
So you have to keep it under that threshold.

Amy Rusiecki:
Yeah. Exactly.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). But beyond that, you must have some strategies, right? How do you keep yourself motivated when you're just feeling crushed and... because I work out and do some endurance things, nothing like what you do. But when you're running or working out for a long time or on some big mega climb, I'm trying to think of things that motivate me. But as you get more tired and more exhausted and more grumpy, those strategies start to fall apart a little bit.

Amy Rusiecki:
I mean, one of the things that I've learned about myself in general is when I start to have those negative thoughts, it's normally that my energy's running low. So normally my response to this negative head space is all right, let's take in some energy. Let's have a gel or let's have Swedish fish, which is kind of my secret sauce when I'm out there. But I think beyond that, I mean, anybody that does anything extreme, you have to know your why and that pushes you through it. And that's true for so many things that we do. For the ultra running that I do but even for people that are out there that are running a really fast 5K or people that are out there that are climbing Everest or anything.

Amy Rusiecki:
If you don't know your why, then it's really easy to buckle under the negative head space or the tough moments. But if you can keep in mind why you're out there or what you're trying to accomplish, then you just kind of keep bringing that to the forefront of your mind. My goal today is to cross the finish line and every step I'm taking is getting me closer to that finish line. Sometimes it's not pretty, but if I can just kind of keep moving forward, then I'm working towards that goal in some way or another.

Erik Weihenmayer:
I hate to ask you this because it's sort of like the typical question, but you went right into the bucket. So what is the why for you then? What was the why when you were competing? I mean, you're still competing.

Amy Rusiecki:
I am, I am. Not quite competing as fast as I was. Still competing. I mean, I guess the why for me changes but a lot of it is that feeling when you cross the finish line and you're exhausted, but you've achieved something great. That for me is a big part of the why. But I think also I've been someone who just... I always crave adventures. And when I was younger, you could, do these longer adventures because you had summer vacation and you could do stuff. Now that you work, you have to cram those adventures into really short periods of time. And that's where I found ultra running kind of fit that niche because I could have an adventure all day, Saturday, and then go back to work on Monday and not have to take any time off.

Dave:
I'm curious, Amy, because I love this idea and it's something we teach a lot about at No Barriers is find the why because that will drive you through the adversities that you're going to face and will lead to more fulfilling. So you're also a coach of other people. So is part of the coaching process to help people find their why and if so, how do you do it?

Amy Rusiecki:
I mean, yes. Well, just the short answer, yes. That's what we do.

Dave:
And so how do you do it?

Amy Rusiecki:
No, I mean, a lot of it is... I actually end up... most athletes that I coach, I feel like I end up becoming good friends with them. You just end up getting so intimate. And through those intimate conversations, that's where the why comes out. I have an athlete that I just started working with about a month ago and she actually sent me this email today where when we first talked, I was like, I just want to know, what are the goals? And what are the long term goals? Where are the short term goals? What are we working towards? And it took her a month of us working together and she sent me this really long, beautiful email today where she was finally willing to say out loud, I think I want to work towards winning a race.

Amy Rusiecki:
I think maybe I have that capability, especially if you're pushing me. And so now we're going to have a better relationship anyway, because we've kind of... she's been willing to say that out loud, but she also put that out there. And I think there's also an element of accountability. Once you say something like that out loud, it holds you accountable. When I was dreaming of making my first US trail running team, I remember it was one of these goals that I was so scared of and yet wanted so badly. And I feel like the breakthrough happened when I was willing to be on a trail run with a couple of close friends and I said it out loud. And just saying it out loud made it real. But it also meant that then all of my friends were on board.

Amy Rusiecki:
They weren't going to just be, okay, good luck with that. Instead they were like, all right, Amy, let's push this uphill because you have this goal and I want to help you achieve it. And so by saying these things out loud, as scary as it is, and it as much as you may or may not achieve them, it at least, it helps you to kind of create this community around you of people that want to support you and help you get there. And that just makes it that much easier to potentially achieve it.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So I'm just reading this book and it is okay. I won't even mention the name, but it's talking about value. So you value one thing over something else. And so you got to own that. And so you value that experience and that good feel of competing and being a part of that community over some of the other things. For instance, it's hard on your body, right? I know at 52 trying to climb, I have these long 20 hour days in the mountains and my back hurts, my knees hurt. I know I'm doing damage to my body, but the value of the climbing experience for me is bigger than the damage I'm doing. And now as I'm getting older, I'm trying to figure out how to be more integrated, more well balanced in my life. So with ultra running, it's pretty extreme. Is there any way to be integrated and well balanced and be an extreme competitor? I mean, do the two go together or is it really impossible?

Amy Rusiecki:
I mean, yes, they go together and sometimes they don't. But I think if we're talking about values, I also value a long relationship with running over a couple of results. I'm not someone... I think there's some people that have accomplished some extraordinary things, but they've been kind of a flash in the pan. And I'm not knocking that at all. But I've been running since I was, I don't know, 10 years old. And so at this point I've been running 30 years and I want to keep running another 30 years. And so part of that is taking the extra day off when you have a little niggle or integrating cross training into it, stuff like that. But I've also found that the trails are less harsh on the body than road running. So there certainly is an element of doing the trail running even if you're doing ultra distances, I think isn't quite as harsh on your body as training for a road marathon and just pounding mile after mile after mile on the pavement.

Erik Weihenmayer:
And you think it's possible to be healthy and not obsessive when you're just so focused on something that's 99% of the world will never do?

Amy Rusiecki:
I hope so. I don't know. I mean, I think there's-

Erik Weihenmayer:
When I ask some of these questions, by the way, at a part of a podcast, I'm asking questions to you that I want to know for myself too. So don't take it personally.

Amy Rusiecki:
It's fine. No, I think there's an element of you have to be a little obsessed to kind of be able to achieve these things because you can't you can't run 100 miles if you're only running once a week, if you're not up upset best enough to like put in the day after day after day training. But I don't think you have to be so obsessed that you never drink alcohol or only eat clean foods or that sort of thing. Certainly you can get there that way, but I don't think that you have to do these things or that you have to do 100 mile weeks or that your entire world has to revolve around it.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So it sounds like it is kind of a tricky line between to live a great, good, healthy, fun, integrated life, and also have a bit of that obsessiveness of discipline and training.

Amy Rusiecki:
Right.

Dave:
I'd love to hear how you got into the... you said you'd been running since the age of 10. Have you always known you're going to be an athlete as your career? Was this something that came at a different time in your life? Tell us a little bit about how you got into this place in your life.

Amy Rusiecki:
I mean, it was kind of a long journey. I'll say that I grew up in one of those families where we went camping all the time. We did orienteering when I was really young. So that was kind of my first exposure to running and kind of being in those sort of competitive running through the woods experiences. And then we actually started cross country ski racing at around that time too. So that was kind of my sport through elementary school, middle school, high school, all of that time. I guess I would've said I was a cross country skier who ran to stay in shape. But then it was just kind of this long journey of everyone kind of did marathons after college. So you felt like you had to run a marathon. I ran myself into an injury so then I started biking and I did triathlons. But one of the things, my sister lives... I have an older sister.

Amy Rusiecki:
She lives six hours away from me. And one of the ways that we stayed connected, especially throughout my twenties, so our first several years of being apart was once a year we would find a race and we would do it together. And not necessarily next to each other together, but we both kind of experienced things together. So our first marathons were on the same day. We both did the same one. We did a ski marathon together one winter. We did a triathlon together. We did our first half Iron Man together. So a lot of these things that we tried to do together. And so-

Erik Weihenmayer:
So it's about connection too, with family and so forth and friends.

Amy Rusiecki:
It was a neat thing anyway. So we kind of... at one point it was let's do a trail marathon together. So that kind of got me a little bit into the trail world to just kind of try this whole thing out. But I mean, it's kind of this funny story how I got ultra running specifically and I guess I'll kind of say that it was halfway through one-upsmanship or a bet gone wrong, or I don't know. Just kind of one of those things where I was doing one of those relay races where several people run 200 miles throughout the two day period, and I needed another teammate. And this new guy had just started at my work and I didn't want to approach a random new guy and be like, "Gey, you want to spend 24 hours in a van with me and my friends and we're all going to be stinky."

Amy Rusiecki:
And that just felt really awkward. So instead I was like, "You're a runner. Hey, have you read this book, Ultramarathon Man? Maybe read it and see what you think and whatever." And so he read it and afterwards it's like talking about how, oh my gosh, I feel like such a slacker. I feel like I should do more. And I said, "Oh great. I need this runner." And so I manipulated him onto this [inaudible 00:16:47] team with us and just kind of thought that would be it And then it was a month later after he could walk again, because, P.S, he wasn't actually trained for what I manipulated him into doing. But once he could walk again, then he was like, "Hey, Amy, I heard of this race, it's called the Vermont 50."

Amy Rusiecki:
And all of a sudden it was like the gauntlet was thrown down and it was like now I've got to do this too. And kind of the rest of Was history. You do it once. And with anything that's the right thing for you, you do it once and all of a sudden you're like, "God, that was horrible, but I could have done better if only." And you just... the day later you're searching for the next adventure or the next race that you want to do. But I guess getting back to the beginning, it's like it kind of all came from my family, always being the family that was outdoors and we were always adventuring and all of that.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So you competed in the Vermont 100 five times, was it? All sub 20s. Really amazing, really impressive.

Dave:
Six times.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Six times. Sorry. Punch me.

Amy Rusiecki:
Well, five times sub 20, but I finished it six times.

Erik Weihenmayer:
And so ultimately you become the race director. So how did that happen?

Amy Rusiecki:
I mean, I volunteered is the answer. But it kind of came at a time when there were a couple of other big races at the time that had gotten bought out by corporations. And I didn't think that was the best fit for the Vermont 100. Here's this race that I love and I loved the community and everything. And I think I was just scared that if a corporation took over, it was going to lose the essence of what made it so special to me and so special to the community. And so when they put the call out and said, Hey, we're basically interviewing for anybody who might be interested in directing, I put my hand up more as I might not be the right solution, but I'm probably a better solution than big corporation. So I'll at least throw my hat in the ring to try to be someone that ensures that this stays the community event and the vibe that I fell in love with and that everyone falls in love with at that race.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Because a lot of the races have been bought out. Anytime Fitness, I think, bought Leadville 100 and stuff like that, right? So that's what you're talking about. And you guys are still independent.

Amy Rusiecki:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Erik Weihenmayer:
That's really cool.

Dave:
So you have a full time job in engineering and then you make this additional commitment to training for ultra races and finishing in the top of those races, which is amazing.

Amy Rusiecki:
Yeah. Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:
As a race director, you started bringing in adaptive divisions into the race and you created this great partnership with Vermont Adaptive. What was your connection with disability to kind of be the impetus for that? And did any of the races when you started have adaptive division or any of these special divisions for different kinds of abilities?

Amy Rusiecki:
So the Vermont 100 was actually started as a fundraiser for Vermont Adaptive. So that relationship between the two started long before me. But it was always a relationship that they had, but there was never the adaptive athletes participating per se. So that relationship already existed when I started RDing. But it took... it's kind of a funny story. It took a participant who was going to do the race to kind of ultimately... the end of the story is we get the athletes with disabilities division. He had reached out to me because you needed to get a qualifying race in order to qualify to do Vermont 100. And so he emailed me and said, "Amy, I want to do Vermont 100 but I'm going to do only 45 miles at this race to qualify.

Amy Rusiecki:
And the rules are that you have to do at least a 50 mile or longer within certain time periods to do it. So he was asking permission to run shorter. And so I gave him the standard answer, "I'm sorry, you've got at least run 50. Hopefully you can make that happen." And he emailed me back and said, "Yeah, no problem. I just need to find a guide." And that's when I paused for a second and actually looked at the signature on the list and realized that his tagline was blind beer runner. And then I'm like, [inaudible 00:21:12]. I stepped in it, right? And so ultimately what my response back to him was, "Well, listen, I've never guided before, but if that's what's standing in your way, I'll learn how to do it and I'll take care of you. Let's not let this be a barrier. Let's live within the rule, but I'll help if need be."

Amy Rusiecki:
And ultimately he emailed back and said, "Great. You're guiding for me. I'll teach you what you need to know." And I went out there and I guided for him for 15 miles, so he could get 60 miles to get above the qualifying standard. And in that conversation, we started talking about Vermont 100 has this relationship with Vermont Adaptive, how come there isn't a deeper connection there. And that's when basically we worked together and kind of, in those 15 miles, we dreamt up having an athlete with disabilities division at the Vermont 100. And I'm proud of that. That didn't exist in trail or ultra running before we did that at the Vermont 100. And I'm actually really proud that there's several races across the country that are doing it to the point where I don't think anyone remembers where it started. And I think that's a great thing because now it's so much more accepted across the country.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Didn't that blind runner go back and finish... he did the 100, right? Is that this guy? Is his name Rabidoux? I keep reading about him in your articles.

Amy Rusiecki:
It's Kyle Robidoux.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Robidoux, sorry.

Amy Rusiecki:
And he's finished Vermont 100. He's finished the 100 miler once, the 100K once. He might have done it multiple times, but I know he's at least run the 100 mile and the 100K before.

Erik Weihenmayer:
And what was that like guiding him? Tell me about what you learned. Because, I mean, I run trails, they're rocky and I'm tripping and it's a tricky way to go to as a blind runner.

Amy Rusiecki:
I mean, it's amazing what he's able to do. I mean, I have to just kind of constantly be learning. He's really good at kind of giving me feedback where at times he's like, "Amy, just say this next time." Because at times there would be so many rocks and I would be like, I don't know how to explain this. I don't know what to say. So-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Rock, rock, rock, rock, rock, rock.

Amy Rusiecki:
So I would slow myself down to give myself time to say everything. And at times he's like, "Amy, lets you just kind of just say this and blow through it and it's all good." But it's something that I'm constantly learning and remembering kind of how to do it.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Do you bungee cord yourselves together or how did you actually do it physically? Just to give people an idea?

Amy Rusiecki:
So we'll bungee when we're on a road, which the Vermont 100 specifically does have a ton of dirt roads. So we can just be next to each other either bungeed or just be kind of elbow to elbow without even the bungee cord. But when you're on trails, what he does is he actually runs right behind me. So he's kind of a stride behind me. And so whenever I go over a rock I'll say either knees up, if it's a big rock or I'll say toes up, if it's a small rock and then he just does whatever I tell him one stride behind me. So he hears it and then his next stride, he either big step up, little step up, toes up, knees up. And that's what he does. And it's amazing.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Have you seen a lot of blood?

Amy Rusiecki:
He unfortunately falls about once every time I'm with him, which is probably... it's not the worst thing in the world when you're guiding someone. And I know that my mistake, I'm not the one that's beat up after I make a mistake, I'm beating up a friend when I make a mistake. And that's probably the worst feeling in the world. And unfortunately he always ends with blood on him.

Erik Weihenmayer:
But he chose to be there, right? So, I mean, you don't own him, right? You're just there as an ally. So he's making the decision. So he owns that blood.

Amy Rusiecki:
Yeah, yeah. I know.

Erik Weihenmayer:
What kind of adaptive athletes have competed in the 100 now? What other kinds of abilities?

Amy Rusiecki:
So we've had several visually impaired athletes, but we've had some mobility impaired athletes and that's the two classifications that we have is mobility impaired and visually impaired in the race. But one of the guys that's done the race several times is this guy that in the New England scene, we call him [inaudible 00:25:24] Dave. And he's someone who's had horrible arthritis and just has no cartilage at all in his knees. And so he uses two arm crutches to finish. And so he kind of puts the crutches down, swings the legs and then moves the crutches forward and then swings the legs. And he does that for 100-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Oh my gosh. He must have some serious callouses on his armpits.

Amy Rusiecki:
He has the crutches that kind of go around your elbow and then you hold [crosstalk 00:25:53] the duct tape that he has on his hands and on the grips by the end of the race because he has to... there's a lot of rubbing and chafing that goes on and serious arm strength to finish that way. So it's amazing.

Erik Weihenmayer:
By the way, one last thing, I was running with my guide one time and he screamed, "Gate." And I was like, "What about my gate?" And that's when I slammed into the gate. So I've bled a little bit myself.

Dave:
Since we've talked a lot now in this past 10 minutes about the Vermont 100 and started to paint a picture, for our listeners who have no idea what that is, tell people what is the Vermont 100? What is it like? What's the terrain like? What's the range of start to finish times? Just give us a picture of what that is.

Amy Rusiecki:
So I mean it's 100 mile running race. There's also a 100K running race. But the unique thing about it is actually it's also got 100 mile horse ride at the same time. So it's runners and horses on the same horse. Which 100 mile races kind of the genesis of it way back in the day was horse rides and then at some point... the famous story is some guy, his horse came up lame and he decided to run it anyway. And that's kind of when this thought got in people's heads of running 100 miles.

Amy Rusiecki:
So kind of our sport came from the ride and run, but we're the only one that still holds both those events on the same day. A lot of them are separated. So it's kind of this cool experience of nodding back to the history of this. So it's in the beautiful rolling Hills of Vermont. It's about 70 miles of dirt road and then 30 miles of Jeep trail. Nothing super technical because the horses have to be able to ride the same thing. So it can't be this rocky mess that you can get in New England sometimes.

Speaker 1:
Elevation change. Is it a big elevation or is it pretty steady flat?

Amy Rusiecki:
I mean, it's never flat. There's no... the big thing about Vermont is there's no flat section, but there's no big climbs, but you get about 16,000 feet of climbing throughout the 100 miles.

Speaker 1:
And what's the range? Top finisher finishes in how much time and the final finisher takes how long?

Erik Weihenmayer:
Your husband, right?

Amy Rusiecki:
Little brag here for a sec. My husband actually [crosstalk 00:28:17]

Erik Weihenmayer:
Go for it.

Amy Rusiecki:
So my husband has the course record, which is 14 hours and 47 minutes. So that's the fastest that anyone's ever run the Vermont 100. And then we have a 30 hour cutoff. So literally you have twice as much time as it took my husband to get it done.

Dave:
And if you're running 30 hours, do you take a nap in there or?

Amy Rusiecki:
I mean, some people do, but a lot of people are just kind of steady progress, which is kind of neat. I mean, the neat thing when you're looking at an ultra race is, yes, there's these young fit young guns that are just hammering, but there's all sorts of ages. We had a guy a couple years ago who was 75 years old that finished it. And he finished it in under 29 hours. So you've got all sorts of ages. You've got all sorts of body types. It can be one of those environments where everyone can succeed, which is really neat.

Dave:
If I'm an engineer listening to this and I'm thinking, I would never have time to do my job and do this. This woman's... she's got an engineering jobs, she runs races, she has introduced a whole new line of thinking about how we integrate adaptive. How do you encourage people who have day jobs to still carve out this part of their life?

Amy Rusiecki:
I mean, if they are anything like me, my runs every day, that's kind of my me time. That's my time for my mental health. And I think if I didn't take that time, I'm going to be less productive in the day anyway. And I think for a lot of people, especially with the pandemic and all the stress and everything that has gone around with that, carving out the time in your day to let you do something for you and to let you kind of sort your brain out a little bit, I think, that, that's... I guess that's how I justify it is this is what I need for mental health to get through the rest of the day is to take this time for me. I also always throw out there that I don't have kids. I have a huge respect for people that do all the things that they do and are also these amazing parents. You know what I'm saying? I certainly throw out there, I don't have kids. And so as we're listing these accolades be clear that that's not also something that I'm juggling, which would-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Makes it even harder, doesn't it?

Amy Rusiecki:
Yeah. For sure.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Now what about the non-binary division? That's pretty wild. So how did that come about as the race director?

Amy Rusiecki:
I mean, I'll say first of, it's one of these challenges that I feel like a lot of... registration companies, first off, they don't even offer the option for people to register as anything other than male or female. And I'm fortunate that I work with a registration company that has offered that option for many year years now. So that was kind of the first hurdle right there was just allowing people to register as they identify. I have a friend of mine who identifies as non-binary and we were having a whole conversation about how they, at first, when they registered for races, they would register as female simple because they were a top level athlete and wanted to be able to compete. So even though they identify as non-binary, there wasn't an ability for them to compete.

Erik Weihenmayer:
To get the prize, they either have to sign up as a male or a female, right? So there's no option for them. Right. I see.

Amy Rusiecki:
But then even once there was an option, a lot of races were like, okay. That's fine. You can register as non-binary. But that just means that you can compete for the overall male awards or basically overall awards, which by default in many races is the overall male awards, which I guess wasn't recognizing somebody who is an estrogen based athlete who identifies as non-binary. And so really kind of what I've worked out for my races is if somebody registers as non-binary, I reach out to them and just say, look, I recognize that this is how you identify, if you would like to compete for the overall male category or female category, you just have to let me know whether you're an estrogen based athlete or a testosterone based athlete. And then you can still register and be recognized as non-binary, as you identify, but allows them to compete for the awards categories. And that has been... I've gotten a lot of great feedback on that from non-binary athletes that, first of all, felt welcome, but also felt recognized that they could still kind of race against their hormonal peers.

Erik Weihenmayer:
But is there a category, can they win the first place for the non-binary division or you're saying they ultimately are competing in one or the other?

Amy Rusiecki:
They're ultimately competing versus their hormonal peers. If I were to be totally PC about it, rather than having a male category, I would call it the testosterone leaning category.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Got you.

Amy Rusiecki:
The female category, I would call that the estrogen leaning category. But I mean, I will say when I threw this out there, and I've been doing this for many years now, but when I threw that out there, I basically said, "This is probably not the right solution." But I felt like everyone was so scared of finding any solution that they weren't willing to put anything out there. And so I was like, I'm at least going to stick my neck out and put something out there. And I hope that someone takes that, builds on it, I learn from it and ultimately this conversation gets started in the right solution, the right fit ultimately gets decided.

Erik Weihenmayer:
I think this is beautiful, because you're not saying, I have all the answers. Nobody does yet. But we're trying to figure it out. And if you're the first one to stick your head out of the fox hole and you get your head blown off, nobody's going to do it. So that's really beautiful and courageous that you guys have done this and you're trying to figure out what works, right?

Amy Rusiecki:
Right. And I haven't gotten any feedback on better ways to do this, although I'm sure there are better ways. Just a lot of people, every time I mention it to people, "That's awesome. I'm going to do that at my race." And so you know what? That's good too. At the end of the day, I want people to be able to register and be recognized as they identify within the bounds of how these races are.

Erik Weihenmayer:
And if you had a crystal ball, where do you think the race industry will go in the future? I mean, pick 10 years, 20, 50 years. Because the Paralympics is a little confusing, for instance. If you're an amputee, you get certain points and if you're blind, you get certain points, right? And it's a little bit confusing because there's so many disabilities. And I imagine there's so many ways that people identify as well. You can't create a category for everyone, for every little nuance in life. But at the same time, how do you approach that?

Amy Rusiecki:
I know. I wish I knew the answer because then we would know how to get there quicker. But I think the point is opening up a space where people can be themselves. And I think the trail community has done a great job. The trail and the ultra community have done a great job of allowing all sorts of eccentric people to express themselves. But one of the biggest hurdles has been gender issues. So recognizing people as they identify and not trying to pigeon hold them into male and female. And then also transgender runners and kind of when can they race as male, when can they race as female and some of that stuff, which at some races... I mean, I've heard some of the worst comments from people when they don't think anyone's listening. But I've heard some of the worst comments from people that I can only imagine doesn't make transgender runners feel welcomed because they're being judged on who they were when they were born and not how they identify and how they live currently.

Erik Weihenmayer:
I imagine if you're competing as a trans person, that takes a lot of courage too because you're kind of putting yourself out there, right?

Amy Rusiecki:
Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:
And have you seen some success stories there?

Amy Rusiecki:
I mean, I don't even know if it's a success story, but I'm proud of the fact that we did have a male to female transgender who finished on our podium several years ago. And, again, talking about some of the horrible comments, the female that finished right behind her, I overheard her brother saying to this third place athlete, "Well, you were really the second female on the day." And I just was like, "Oh my gosh. I hope that the person who finished second never heard that." But I also felt at least happy that I can recognize... this athlete I had great conversations with them afterwards just to say educate me because I don't fully know how can I ensure that you are falling within the realm of female athletes.

Amy Rusiecki:
And they just kind of reminded me that, what? Am I winning a pair of shoes? No one's going to cheat their gender to win a pair of shoes. The reality is they're living like this. If they are female, they're getting their estrogen checked regularly, their testosterone checked regularly. It's an entire lifestyle and it has nothing to do with running. It has nothing to do with anything, it has to do with them being their true self. And the last thing they need is to be judged by anyone.

Speaker 1:
Amy, what are you training for next? What's on your horizon in the next year?

Amy Rusiecki:
Oh boy. I mean, I don't know. I just wait until the inspiration hits me really. And right now it's so hard that so many races are full. And so I'm kind of looking more towards 2022 and hopefully finding a 100 mile race that inspires me to train up for.

Erik Weihenmayer:
And I heard quarantine hit you guys, the COVID thing hit the race industry, the trail racing industry really hard. Obviously you had to cancel a bunch of events. And I read an article that you said it was really hard to process because your coping mechanisms were stripped away. And I'm assuming your coping mechanisms were running and volunteering as the race director, right?

Amy Rusiecki:
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it's interesting because as a race director, things never go right on race day, right? I've never had a race that I've put on where everything is perfect and everything's been beautiful and awesome. There's always chaos behind the scenes. My motto for race directing is to appear duck like. So above the water, calm and placid, everything's okay no matter how much chaos is going on below the water. And so that's always the motto that I live by. And the tough thing about COVID too was we're used to as RDS, always finding a way to overcome. And this was something where I wasn't able to overcome.

Amy Rusiecki:
I couldn't think my way out of it. And it took me a really long time to realize that. There was a long time where I was like, "Well, but maybe we can still put on the race if this, if that. Can we just start one person every two minutes for however long. Everyone has to stay on opposite sides of the trail." My mind kept coming up with how can I think my way around this situation. Because that's, as an RD, what you're constantly doing is just problem solving and working your way through these problems to still put on this seamless event.

Erik Weihenmayer:
But it's so counterintuitive because you're right. Certain things, there is no solution. There's no secret way through. And you're beaten, you're beaten by this thing. But you ultimately did come up with a really cool idea, which is you ran a 100 race and raised some money. And we talk about this at No Barriers, right? Dave, you look at this problem and you can't figure it out and you just feel so helpless and so beaten and then you get this plan of attack and it gives you tremendous energy to really attack and walk into the storm. And so that's what you did. Tell us what you did.

Amy Rusiecki:
And I ended up doing this both last summer and this summer because Vermont 100... Vermont wasn't quite through COVID enough for us to have pulled it off this July. And so both years on the date that Vermont 100 would've happened, I went out and ran 100 miles from my backyard and just ran various loops around my house. And part of it was just getting back to what made me fall in love with the Vermont 100 as an event? What my first relationship this event was before I was the RD was I was a runner, I was a participant. And so that allowed me to kind of experience that again. But I also used it as an opportunity.

Amy Rusiecki:
Again, with that connection with Vermont Adaptive, I used it as an opportunity to fundraise for Vermont Adaptive. So that was really wonderful. And a lot of people got behind that. And, frankly, I used that as motivation when I... both years, I... the 60 to 70 mile mark is always a little challenging for me. And when I wanted to quit, all I could think was, oh my gosh, a lot of people have essentially sponsored me running for the day in a way. And you just kind of feel this obligation of I made a promise to them that if they donated, I was going to do this thing and now I have to do this thing.

Erik Weihenmayer:
I love the fact that you, on your first run to fundraise for Vermont Adaptive, you stopped at miles to 65 at your house and took a cold shower. That's Awesome. You can't normally do that in a race.

Amy Rusiecki:
I know. That was actually wonderful. It was also neat. You finish the run both years. It was like, I finished the run and then I was able to be like, "All right, I'm going to go to bed." And you walk up a flight of stairs and then you're able to [crosstalk 00:42:29]

Erik Weihenmayer:
But you raised a ton of money for Vermont Adaptive. Didn't you raise 15 grand the first time and maybe something similar the second time? So that's tremendous.

Amy Rusiecki:
It was 12 grand the first year. And then about five grand this year [crosstalk 00:42:45] I think. But one of the cool things this year that I want to throw out there is so Kyle who we were talking about earlier, he actually came by to support me while I was running the race this year or running my run this year, I should call it. And he actually went out there and he paced me.

Erik Weihenmayer:
He's the runner who happens to be blind?

Amy Rusiecki:
He's the blind year runner. And so he paced me while he was out there. And he made this comment while he was doing it where he said this is my first time ever getting to pace someone. And it's because typically when you're in a race, you can only have one additional person with you at any given time to pace you through different sections. And because he needs someone to guide him, he's never had an opportunity for him to be able to support someone else the way that we've supported him for years.

Amy Rusiecki:
And so it was this really kind of perfect moment where, because there were no rules at my event, I had another friend that was pacing him and he was... guiding for him, sorry. And he was able to pace for me and kind of feel like he was giving back something that he'd never had the opportunity to do before. And again, it felt really great to be with this connection to Vermont Adaptive and everything, to have Kyle having this experience. And he's such a supportive person anyway, that him sharing miles with me was exactly what I needed in those moments.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So, Amy, just to finish up, what ingredients do you think make an ultra runner or a trail runner? What are the secrets? Are there a couple secrets? If somebody is thinking about, I want to do my first run or my first race, is there some advice or any kind of secrets you could give them a bit of a head start?

Amy Rusiecki:
I mean, I think the biggest secret is just to one foot in front of the other and keep going until you reach the finish line. And I somewhat say that in jest but the reality is that's how it is. It's you just keep moving and you kind of let go of any pretext of what paces you expect or when you should be running versus when you should be walking and that sort of thing. But I've also [inaudible 00:45:04] and said that I think that my greatest asset as an open runner was that I am just stubborn. I am a stubborn person. That's who I am. And sometimes you need that stubbornness to just... it gets you into trouble. It gets some stupid ideas in your head, but that also can, at times, lead you to the finish line when you probably should have said quit 20 miles ago. So stubbornness is also one of those things that certainly helps the equation a little bit.

Erik Weihenmayer:
But I imagine along the way, in that 100 miles, there's so much beauty too. Have you had these moments where you're in the middle of the race and you just look around and you're like, wow, this is amazing or there's something amazing about how I feel or how I'm reacting right now?

Amy Rusiecki:
And, again, those are some of the moments that fuel me to do the next one. I think particularly of this, I was doing this 100 miler in Washington State called Cascade Crest many moons ago. And the race started at 10 o'clock in the morning. So everyone ran through the night. And I was about at mile 85 when the sun started coming up and I was coming off this mountain. You had to do this out and back to a peak. And I was coming off that out and back and you looked out into the distance and the sun's just coming up and you could see, I can't recall if it was Mount Hood or Mount Rainier or what mountain you could see, but you could see some snow tipped volcano with the sunrise behind it. And it was just one of those things where it's like, it still stands out to me nearly a decade later. That was probably one of the most beautiful things that I saw.

Amy Rusiecki:
But I think even if I had been on that mountain but not at mile 85, I wouldn't have appreciated it because it was also, I had been working for 18 hours of constant movement to get to this moment and to see that view. And it was me and my pacer and there was no one else to appreciate it with me. But it was one of those things that I will remember that view and that moment forever. And it's like, I have so many moments like that. Whether it's sharing a mile with somebody that you've idolized your whole life or just accomplishing something that you've never thought possible. Crossing the finish line at UTMB. I mean, I ran slow, I had the worst day ever there, but I crossed the finish line. I ran through Chamonix and everyone in the streets and that sort of thing. And that moment, it's just... you get addicted to those moments and then you just want to keep having more of them.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Powerful.

Dave:
Well, Amy, for any of our listeners who have heard these crazy adventures and struggles, and think I want to do that, I want to give it a try, tell us where our listeners can go to learn more about you and the races you've mentioned.

Amy Rusiecki:
So vermont100.com is the best way to find me. But I also do coaching through The Run Formula. So that's just therunformula.com. So that's how to reach my coaching network. And then other than that, just look up Beast Coast Trail Running and you'll find the other races that I put on.

Dave:
Great. Well, thank you so much, Amy, for all of your time. As always listeners, any of the organization or things that were specifically mentioned in this podcast, you can take a look at the show notes to find links. We appreciate all those listeners who joined us today and hope you took away some inspiration and some practical tools for you to use as you're moving forward in setting big, bold goals for yourself. Thanks so much, Amy. And thanks, Eric.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Thank you guys, Thank you. That's East Coast guys.

Dave:
Guys. That was great.

Amy Rusiecki:
Thanks guys.

Erik Weihenmayer:
All right, appreciate it. Thank you, Amy. No Barriers.

Speaker 1:
We would like to thank our generous sponsors that make our No Barriers podcast possible; Wells Fargo, Prudential, CoBank, Arrow Electronics and Winnebago. Thank you so much for your support. It means everything to us. The production team behind this podcast includes senior producer, Pauline Shaffer, sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Cottman and marketing support by Heather Zoccali, Stevie Dinardo, Howey and Alex Shaffer. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song, Guidance. And thanks to all of you for listening. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com.

 



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