Hectic racing schedules and last-minute planning are nothing new to Brian Rusiecki.
He races more frequently than most ultrarunners – Rusiecki finished 10 ultras in 2016 and already has six to his credit in 2017. It’s common for him to register for a race at the last minute, hit the road to Vermont or Virginia, show up at the starting line and see what happens.
That longtime approach may bode well for Rusiecki as he prepares for one of the biggest races of his career. On May 9, UltraRunning Magazine announced that Rusiecki was the men’s winner of the UltraRunning Race Series and that he, along with women’s winner Clare Gallagher, 25, of Boulder, Colo., had been awarded Golden Ticket entries into the Western States Endurance Run June 24-25 from Squaw Valley to Auburn, Calif.
Speaking by phone last week from his home in South Deerfield, Mass., Rusiecki was busy making plans to head cross-country and compete in the sport’s original 100-mile footrace.
“I bought plane tickets last night, and now it’s like I actually have to do this,” Rusiecki said with a laugh. “I was looking forward to it for a long time, but there’s kind of a realization that now I’ve got to go do it – and I have to run smart and run well there.”
For Rusiecki, the “run smart and run well” part is important. It’s why he hasn’t raced Western States before, even though he had opportunities.
Rewind to July 23, 2009, when the Montrail Ultra Cup announced the expansion of its race series. Then the presenting sponsor of Western States, Montrail awarded Golden Tickets to the top two male and female finishers of each Ultra Cup race. Previously, the Ultra Cup consisted of a trio of California races, as well as the Mountain Masochist 50-miler in Virginia and JFK 50-miler in Maryland. In 2009, however, the Ultra Cup expanded to 11 races. Among the new editions was one New England offering: the Vermont 50.
Rusiecki wasn’t yet a household name in New England ultrarunning, let alone known on the national scene. He’d earned his first-ever ultramarathon victories two months earlier at the Pineland Farms 50-miler in Maine and the Pittsfield Peaks 50-miler in Massachusetts. He completed his first 100-miler five days prior to the Montrail Ultra Cup announcement, and the soreness and stiffness from the Vermont 100 were still lingering on his body.
Two months later, Rusiecki toed the starting line of the Vermont 50 at Ascutney Mountain Resort. He’d finished ninth the year before with an impressive time of 7:49:45, but this time he was second to nobody as he raced to victory in 7:12:29. A year later, he returned to the Vermont 50 and won again in a blistering 6:36:08. Both triumphs earned him Golden Tickets into Western States, but he declined to cash them in either time.
His natural talent for trail and mountain racing was evident, but Rusiecki had only begun racing ultramarathons in 2007. He believed he still had a lot to learn before stepping foot on the hallowed trails of Western States.
“When I got (the Golden Tickets) before at Vermont, that was a long time ago and I hadn’t figured out how to run 100 miles yet,” Rusiecki said. “I just wasn’t ready. I’d run Vermont (100) once, and I suffered a lot, so I wasn’t ready to go to the most competitive race in the US.
“If it was a 50, I’d have thrown down and given it a shot. But 100 miles is a different thing, so I wanted to be sure I was ready and more experienced at it. It took a while for me to figure out how to run 100 miles. I wanted to be prepared.”
By passing on the chance to race Western States as a 31- and 32-year-old, Rusiecki ended up waiting a lot longer than he’d hoped before getting another chance. He finished third at the Vermont 50 in 2011, and then the Montrail Ultra Cup dropped Vermont from its race series. Eventually, Altra purchased the sponsorship rights to Western States and placed the nearest Golden Ticket event in Georgia. Rusiecki competed at the 68-mile Georgia Death Race in 2016, but finished 11th overall.
Rusiecki raced heavily as the years went by, and he grew smarter and raced better. He won races large and small, mostly in the Northeast, but not always. Most important, he learned how to confidently and competitively run a 100-mile race. He has completed at least 18 races that are 100 miles or longer, including the Vermont 100 eight years in a row. He has won Vermont three times; in Virginia, he won the Massanutten 100 twice and Grindstone once. He was the 2013 Cascade Crest 100-mile champion out West in Washington. He has also finished the 166K Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in Europe twice, including a top-20 finish in 2014.
Now 38 years old and vastly experienced, Rusiecki turned his focus to the UltraRunning Race Series. It allowed him to parlay his love of frequent racing and his consistency at a variety of distances into a hard-earned Western States Golden Ticket. The UltraRunning Race Series began in May 2016 and ran through the end of April 2017. Runners earned points based on performances at 100-mile, 100K, 50-mile and 50K distances, with points further tabulated based on finishing time, race distance, gender place, strength of the overall field, and size of the race.
Rusiecki won both the Vermont and Massanutten 100-milers in 2016, and he took the lead in the points standings after a dominant performance at the grueling Hellgate 100K in Virginia. He raced four 50Ks and a 50-miler since New Year’s while bolstering his position at the top of the standings.
“You don’t have any control over how other people are going to do,” he said. “I think I had the lead after I ran Hellgate, and that was in December. Then I thought, ‘well, I’d better run some 50Ks.’ I ran all spring to build up some points and get in shape. I’ve been watching (the standings) since December wondering if it was going to hold out.”
Rusiecki’s final point tally of 335.21 points edged Alex Nichols (331.34) of Colorado Springs, Colo., and Jim Walmsley (317.20) of Flagstaff, Ariz. Both Nichols and Walmsley won Golden Ticket races earlier in the year and will join Rusiecki at Western States.
After passing on his first two Golden Tickets years ago, Rusiecki is cashing in this time. He has put in years of preparation, and he’s ready to put forth his best effort.
“I’m excited to go and give it a shot,” he said. “I don’t know how it will go – hopefully well! I’ll shoot for the top 10; that’s my goal. I’m a little apprehensive of doing it because it’s a pretty big race, but I’ve done bigger races like UTMB, so I know the drill. I’ve just gotta try to be smart.”
Rusiecki has developed into a remarkably durable and consistent racer during the past few years, and he hopes that will benefit him at Western States. Additionally, he is not entirely unfamiliar with the Western States experience. His wife, Amy Rusiecki, ran Western States in 2016, and he crewed and paced her. That allowed him to log miles on the course and familiarize himself with the terrain.
Rusiecki will head to California two weeks before the race to explore a bit and adjust to the heat and elevation. Amy will fly out later to join him.
Rusiecki said he looks forward to representing New England and the East Coast at Western States. A handful of New Englanders have broken through and finished among the best at Western States in recent years – 2016 Golden Ticket winner Kyle Pietari, then of Brighton and a Harvard Law student, finished eighth last year, and Arlington’s Josh Katzman placed 22nd overall in 2012.Going further back, Rusiecki mentioned the 2009 race when Andover’s Kevin Sullivan and Conway’s Leigh Schmitt finished fifth and seventh, respectively, and he also noted strong performances among the women by New Hampshire’s Larisa Dannis (second-place female in 2014) and Vermont’s Aliza Lapierre (numerous top-10 finishes among the women). Overall, though, the race winners and podium finishers typically hail from places like Oregon, Arizona and California. Rusiecki hopes to make sure New England gets a little bit of the spotlight, too.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself, but I want to represent the East Coast,” he said. “I’ll give it my best, but you can only do what you can do.”
Ultimately, Rusiecki will enter Western States as a seasoned ultrarunner, far more prepared to “run smart and run well” on the big stage than he was as an up-and-comer six and seven years ago. He’s going there to race, but he’ll be ready to rely on guts and grit when necessary to reach the finish line.
“I think my goal is just to try to run in the top 10, and that’s about it; and if I totally explode, then just finish,” Rusiecki said. “Unless I fall off a cliff and a snake bites me or a mountain lion grabs me, I’m going to finish the thing.”