By the time her running career officially began in sixth grade, Massachusetts trail runner Amy Rusiecki had already been orienteering for years. Her father was the president of the New England Orienteering Club, so she grew up running in the woods, never knowing that trail running was a distinct sport. From junior high through college, Rusiecki was a successful cross-country and road runner, but it wasn’t until she discovered the local trail racing scene that she truly flourished. Over the past year, for example, Rusiecki won the Vermont 50 and the Bear Mountain 50k, finished second in the 50-miler at Pineland Farms, and finished third at the Cayuga Trails 50. In early July, she traveled to Wales to run for the U.S. team at the World Trail Running Championships. And one year ago, she finished second at the Vermont 100. On Saturday, she’ll return to the starting line of the Vermont 100. But first she answered a few questions from Far North.
Why did you decide to run your first ultramarathon?
It’s a funny story. I read Dean Karnazes’s book Ultramarathon Man, and the impression I got was “Oh my gosh, I’m such a slacker. I only run marathons.” Which is incredible. So I read that and thought I had to do an ultra at some point.
I’m not always good at actually following through with these sorts of things, but I happened to lend the book to a friend to try and get him inspired to do the Reach the Beach relay with me. He read the book and said “I’m a slacker. I should do more.” And I said, “Do this relay with us. We’re going to run 30 miles over the next 24 hours.” So it worked, but then it backfired, because a few months after that he said he was going to run the Vermont 50. I’m not one to get shown up. So, of course, if he was going to do it, I was going to do it. That’s kind of how I got into it—somebody kind of almost daring me to do it.
I understand that you are running for the Western Mass Distance Project. Can you tell me about the team?
Sure. It’s a really unique program. It’s not just a bunch of people who put on the same jerseys on race day and that sort of thing. We train together. We push each other. We get up at five in the morning to do track workouts in the winter. Stuff like that. We really motivate each other and we’re really close friends. And that’s how we approach racing—if you really believe in the team and you’re really supportive of everyone, you get these amazing performances out of people.
The last year has been a pretty good one for you. You’ve had a lot of success. Are there any races or running moments that really stand out for you?
There are so many. I love it so much that of course I’m always having fun in the moment. I did Mountain Masochist for the first time this year. I enjoyed that race so much. I was so burned out at the end of last fall that I decided to just run it. Not race it, but just run it and have the pure joy of running for that 50 miles. And it was a great experience. Virginia, where the race is, happened to get hit by a blizzard about a week before the race, so we got to run through snow drifts in Virginia for like 15 miles of the race or something. That was such a unique experience.
Then, of course, racing in Wales a couple of weeks ago was an incredible experience. To put on the Team USA jersey, to get to run with amazing runners and call them teammates, and to race with them for a common goal was just incredible. And to be surrounded by the top athletes from so many countries was an incredible experience.
There are a couple of people who automatically get on the team. If you raced at the previous world championships and finished in the top 10, you are automatically on the team. Same thing If you win a USATF national championship. Other than that, people submit resumes and the team manager looks at them and looks at what the course is going to be and tries to piece together the best team he can. I was fortunate to have a strong enough resume that I was selected.
I understand that you carried the flag at the opening ceremonies. What was that like?
That was incredible. If you see any of the pictures from that, I’m beaming because I’m so excited that I got that honor.
You finished 15th and were the top American female. How did you feel about the race?
The course itself didn’t suit my strengths. I felt like I raced well in spite of that. It wasn’t a very technical course; it was more of a fast road runner’s type of race. Running in New England, we’re people who like trails and mountains, and throw some rocks in there for us. But a couple of my teammates there struggled, so I ran as well as I could.
Tell me a little more about the course.
It was probably about 60 percent dirt road, like jeep trail in the woods sort of dirt road, but not technical. The other 40 percent was closer to singletrack, but very little of it was actually technical. I found that every time we hit a singletrack section, especially a couple of sections that had roots everywhere and rocks everywhere, I was flying by these other girls. Then we would get to open roads and these speedsters who can probably run a 17-minute 5k were just flying by me like I was standing still.
Let’s talk about the Vermont 100. This will be the fifth time you’ve run Vermont. Why do you keep coming back? What’s so special about this race?
The biggest thing is that it’s local. For me, it’s very easy to get a lot of support up there. I feel like I end up knowing half the people who are volunteering at aid stations. Especially for my first few one 100s, it was great to have that support along the way. I’m an engineer and I’m very methodical about things. I wasn’t someone who wanted to fly across the country and try my first 100-miler where I couldn’t have the support I wanted and where I might be puking my guts out and not appreciating where I was. I wanted to stay local and figure this thing out before I started traveling for races.
It seems like you’ve figured it out pretty well. You’ve finished anywhere from sixth to second place. Do you have any really memorable moments from the Vermont 100 in past years?
Well, last year was the first time I didn’t puke during the 100. So I would say I finally figured it out last year because I reached the finish line without puking, which is a success in my book. But probably my best memorable moment was last year’s race. I had three girls crewing for me who had never been to a trail race, never been to an ultra, and really had no idea what they were doing. They were just training buddies of mine who’d been hearing my stories for years. But they did the perfect thing. I tried to drop out at mile 62. I was having such a bad day. My knees were aching. It just wasn’t happening. I felt like I had run enough 100s to know that this isn’t just normal pain. And in their minds, they were saying, “She’s getting married in a week. We don’t want her to drop out because this will hang over her during her wedding.” So they wouldn’t accept me dropping out. They made me continue on, and by mile 70, things had turned around. I felt great. At that point I had slipped from lead female all the way back to 6th female. From there I got the bit between my teeth. And for the last 30 miles I ran so hard. I was flying by people. I ended up running out of space on the 100-mile course and finishing two minutes behind the winner. I almost caught her.
So, if only it had been a 110-mile course, right?
It could have been 101 miles. I was closing that fast. I just needed one more mile to get her. But it is what it is. I ran a PR. The girl that won ran a PR. We both had amazing days. I just needed a couple more minutes out there.
Speaking of your wedding, you married Brian Rusiecki who won the Vermont 100 last year and is one of the top ultrarunners in New England. Do you guys train together?
We don’t train together that often. We used to when we first met. And after about a year or so of that, Brian was really looking to take his running to the next level. So we basically decided that as much as I love him running with me, he wasn’t going to get better if he was running with me every day. He needed to run faster. He needed to be pushing himself harder. So now we run together maybe once a week or every couple weeks on his easy day or sometimes warm up together for a run and then go our separate ways.
Both of you probably know this course as well as anyone who will be racing. Do you talk race strategy?
I think ahead a lot. I certainly have a strategy and I have plans for how I want to do it. And I do know the course very well—not only from having run it, but also from participating in the trail clearing crew. So I’ve run it a lot. But Brian doesn’t like to talk strategy. He doesn’t like to overthink things. He just likes to run based on how he feels.
Without giving away your secrets, can you talk about your strategy?
I’m going to try not to puke. Happy belly is the best thing. Also, one of the things that I struggle with in races is staying mentally focused. If my legs feel good, it’s easy to keep running well. But if my legs don’t feel good or my stomach doesn’t feel good, I sometimes talk myself out of racing. My biggest strategy this year is just to try to keep it positive, keep it relaxed, and try and run through everything. I think what I proved to myself last year is that, even if you have a rough patch, you can overcome that and still run well.
What does a typical high mileage week look like for you when you’re training for Vermont
I typically try to get in a couple of 100-mile weeks, maybe a little more than that. It’s hard to say because I don’t have a GPS watch and I don’t know how far I run on the trails. I just kind of assume. So I never really know what I do for mileage. This year I think I got in a high week of about 140 miles, but that was specifically when I was doing all the course sweeps for the Vermont 100 course.
Are there any parts of the course you are really looking forward to or any that you are dreading?
I dread all the hills. And there are a lot of them. The blessing of running a course I know is that I can look forward to the trail sections. The last 30 miles, when you have a pacer and there’s a lot more trails than roads, I love those sections as long as I feel good. The curse of knowing the course well is that I’m going to have mental challenges going from mile 57 to 62, because that’s where I struggled last year. I always have a little moment of silence when I pass mile 65, because the first year I ran the Vermont 100, I puked my guts out all over the road there. So I think of that every year when I pass it. Every time I pass a section where I struggled in years past, I think of it. Every time I pass a section where I had a great experience in previous years, I certainly think about that as well.
Do you know anyone else running Vermont that you are excited to race against?
I think there are going to be a lot of women there who are super solid, super strong runners. Larisa Dannis has been running super strong for the past year, and I think she doesn’t even realize how good she is. Kathleen Cusick is coming back. She’s the defending champion, so I’m certainly looking forward to a rematch against her. Amy Palmiero-Winters who, if you read Runner’s World at all, you’ve heard of her. I’m excited to see what she can do because certainly being on the U.S. 24-hour team, she is an incredible athlete. And then Gnarls Barclay (or Emma Parlin) from Maine, she’s another super strong woman. I haven’t raced against her in years so I’m excited to see what she can do.
Look for Amy Rusiecki at the Vermont 100 wearing bib #263.