Keeping the Wheels Rolling

An injury and an accident did not stop Kate Ginsbach ’11 from pushing herself into the world of elite extreme sports—and one of the most challenging races on the planet.

By Dave Greenslit

Do you speak Jesuit?

If so, you may have heard of a “cannonball moment.” It’s something that comes out of the blue (like that cannonball that hit young soldier Ignatius of Loyola in 1521) and shatters your expected life direction, only to set you on a completely new, eye-opening path.

On Mount St. James, Kate Ginsbach ’11 had two cannonball moments in quick succession. In her third season playing varsity volleyball at Holy Cross, Ginsbach sprained her right leg, suffering nerve damage in the process. Given a choice between swimming and bicycling for rehab, she chose biking. It became her passion.

Then, in Ginsbach’s senior year, she was cycling near campus when she was struck by a hit-and-run driver. She wasn’t badly hurt, but the trauma of the accident prompted the environmental studies major to design an independent study with Psychology Professor Mark Freeman on living a meaningful life. That, too, changed Ginsbach, now a law school student, who combines competitive mountain biking with raising money for an organization that puts bicycles in the hands of people in Africa who truly need them. “That’s really what Holy Cross gets you to ask about yourself,” says Ginsbach, “How are you going to be of service to others?”

Holy Cross is a long way from Ginsbach’s hometown of Hot Springs, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and her family wasn’t crazy about her traveling far away to college. She landed on Mount St. James in large part because her mother, an attorney, works as general counsel and director of development at the Jesuit-run Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

“I grew up with all these Jesuits in my life. I knew if I pitched Holy Cross, my parents would let me go,” Ginsbach says.

After graduating, Ginsbach moved to Boulder, Colo., where she worked in a couple of bike shops and, in 2012, got a coveted spot in the Leadville 100 MTB. For the uninitiated, “MTB” stands for mountain bike.

The Leadville 100 MTB (or just “Leadville”), held in the Colorado town by the same name, is a 100-mile mountain bike race that is not for the faint of heart or the weak of muscle. One of the oldest and best known long-distance mountain bike challenges, Leadville bills itself as the race of all races: “One-hundred miles across the high-altitude, extreme terrain of the Colorado Rockies, this event was created for only the most determined athletes,” the organizers say. It starts at 10,152 feet and climbs to 12,424 feet—where the altitude and the spectacular views are breathtaking.

But Ginsbach never made it to the starting line in 2012. She crashed in training, suffering wrist fractures and a head injury. She got a medical deferral, and completed the grueling race in 2013. In 2014, she took on the Silver Rush 50 race, which qualified her for her second run at Leadville in 2015. Last summer, she won that 50-miler once again, earning a spot in the Leadville 100 MTB in August 2016, her third time and second year in a row.

How does someone train for events so long and difficult? “The simplest answer is you just ride your bike for a really long time,” Ginsbach says, adding with a laugh, “and then you just eat whatever you want because you’re burning so many calories.”

In getting ready for the 100-mile trek, she would typically ride six days a week, logging 17 to 25 hours on her bike. But this year, her first as a student at the University of South Dakota School of Law in Vermillion, S.D., she’s not sure if she will be able to train at the same level that earned her 39th place among 146 women, and 604th place overall out of 1,448 in 2015.
As if the distance and the terrain in the Leadville 100 MTB were not enough, Ginsbach faced an additional challenge last year. Early in the race, an arm warmer fell from her pocket and became tangled in the rear derailleur of her bike. In a blog she keeps, Ginsbach recalls saying to herself: “‘Okay, you have two options now: You can quit, blame it on the derailleur and walk away orrrr you can fight like hell. Oh yeah, option 1 doesn’t exist.’ I took off with a vengeance.”

She soldiered on, using whatever gears still worked, until mile 60, where a crew member straightened the derailleur as best he could. Then she gutted it out the remaining 40 miles to the finish. Despite the problem with her bike, she picked up 38 places overall—and 11 more among women—over her 2013 effort.

Before the 2015 Leadville race, World Bicycle Relief (WBR) contacted Ginsbach to see if she was interested in joining a team riding to raise money for the organization, which provides bicycles to entrepreneurs, healthcare workers, students and others in Africa. She looked into it, and enthusiastically bought into the mission. “I think of how much biking has changed my life, and I’m not dependent on using it for transportation,” she says, unlike those in Africa who receive the bicycles. On Ginsbach’s fundraising page for World Bicycle Relief, she tells the story of a rural healthcare worker who increased her patient load from four to 18 a day once she got a bike. Ginsbach raised $4,000 in 2015 for the group, which distributed more than 50,000 bicycles in 2014. She will be fundraising for WBR again in August.

Looking ahead, Ginsbach says that as an attorney she’d like to work for a non-profit, possibly one that makes an impact on healthcare. Both her parents are attorneys, and when her mother ran for a judgeship, Ginsbach helped on the campaign for her and heard about all her parents had done for others. “I just never really realized the impact that both my mother and father have had by being lawyers in a small town,” Ginsbach says.

“I finally understood that, for them it’s not a career, it’s a passion for helping others that really drives them,” she says. “Being a lawyer, you often step into someone’s life at one of their worst moments—a death, someone might go to jail, divorce—they really don’t know what to do. My parents step in and figure out those solutions.”

Ginsbach has big athletic goals, too. Besides this year’s Leadville, she’d like to ride a seven-day stage race in British Columbia and a coast-to-coast race in Costa Rica that will take four days. Before Costa Rica, however, she has to meet another challenge. “I’m deathly afraid of snakes,” she reveals. “I’m trying to get over that before I sign up for that one.”

Freeman, her class dean, knew her for four years and saw Ginsbach’s tenacity early on. “She was a fighter; that was clear from the get-go. I first saw that in the context of academics, where she was fiercely determined to shake off some of the difficulties she had confronted, especially in her first year, and to succeed. But I came to see it even more clearly in the context of athletics,” he says.

The independent study, titled “Optimizing Human Potential,” went beyond examining why elite athletes are able to push their limits to examine, as Freeman puts it, “much more fundamental questions about living and how it might be ‘optimized.’” Readings included Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Oliver Sacks’s A Leg to Stand On and Leo Tolstoy’s novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych.

“I came to see in Kate someone with an unusually fertile and imaginative mind, someone who was, who is, truly willing to think, to explore and to push further,” Freeman says.

Like Ginsbach, Freeman is an avid cyclist and he, too, has suffered his share of injuries. In fact, he does most  of his “riding” these days on a stationary bicycle—something he knows would be anathema to the adventurous Ginsbach. Still, he admires her pursuits, albeit with a caveat.

“I can’t help feeling just a bit parental, too,” he says. “And so, if by chance she reads these words, I’ll just say: ‘Be careful, Kate!’”

To follow Kate Ginsbach’s 2016 race season, check out her blog at ■

Worcester-based writer Dave Greenslit is an avid outdoorsman. A former marathon runner, he has lately turned his attention to skiing and finishing his hike of the Appalachian Trail.