Saturday, May 30, 2020
Rebecca Rusch Talks Guts, Winning Ugly and Little Podiums
Rebecca Rusch’s Labor Day bike event Rebecca’s Private Idaho, named one of the 25 Best Bike Rides in the World by Outside Magazine, helps provide African villagers with much-needed bicycles.
Sunday, September 15, 2019


Rebecca Rusch laughed when she heard she was to be inducted in the International Mountain Bike Hall of Fame this weekend.

“I laughed because I’m a lousy mountain biker. I didn’t start mountain biking until I was 38. It’s my worst sport,” she said. “I’m more of a slogger. I put my bike on my back and try really hard. In fact, the first mountain bike article written about me was called ‘Winning Ugly.’ ”

Instead, Rusch says, it was her guts and never-give-up attitude that landed her on the podium this weekend with three others at the Marin Museum of Bicycling in Fairfax, Calif.

Riding the Ho Chi Minh Trail depicted in “Blood Road” meant the possibility of encountering anaconda snakes and elephants.

“It was saying, ‘Yes,’ instead of saying ‘No,’ ” she said. “When some people asked me to join their team for a class 5 whitewater championships in Argentina, I told them, ‘I have no whitewater experience. I’m afraid of the water. You don’t want me.’ And they said, ‘No, we want you because you won’t quit.’ ”

Rusch, who lives in Ketchum, shared her story this week at the fifth annual Conversations with Exceptional Women held Thursday and Friday at Ketchum’s Community Library.

The 51-year-old ultra-endurance athlete said she joined the high school cross country team after a friend told her, “You get a free t-shirt and you’ll never get fat.”

“Sports was a therapy for me when I started high school. And, even now, the times I’m at my worst, most confused, most upset, are the days I haven’t gone outside and gotten exercise. It’s my teacher,” she said.

Rebecca Rusch celebrated her “Olympic medal of documentaries” last year with “Blood Road” Director Nicholas Schrunk.

It was climbing a wall at her school in Chicago that propelled her into an adventurous life that’s taken her on Eco Challenge races in Morocco and mountain climbing in Patagonia.

She turned to endurance mountain biking when she needed to reinvent herself and soon found herself standing on the podium next to Lance Armstrong in the Leadville 100 marathon race and dubbed the  “Queen of the Pain” for her tenacity winning grueling races like Utah’s Kokopelli 100 despite injuries suffered along the way.

She was the first woman to ride her bike up 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

“When they asked me to bike up it, I thought, ‘Why not?’ And I couldn’t think of a good reason except that it was hard. Besides, it was a fundraiser to raise money to provide bikes for African kids,” she said. “Biking at 19,000 feet was incredibly hard. But their lives are even harder. And the bicycles were so such a powerful tool for changing their lives.”

Rusch told the audience at the event organized by David Adler’s Alturas Institute that she has always gravitated to endurance sports—"the longer, the better I do.”

Winning—standing in front of people cheering loudly –can be addictive, she added.

“Who doesn’t want to feel that? Who doesn’t want to have people saying you’re awesome?” she said.

 But one day she found herself standing on the podium, waving her hands in the air as the audience cheered, thinking, “What’s next?”

“I turned inwards. What can I do besides put another medal around my neck?”

Rusch found that next thing—what she calls her Olympics—in biking 1,200 miles along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to find the place where her father had been shot down while flying bombing missions for the United States during the Vietnam War.

“I thought it would be a personal journey, an adventure,” said Rusch, whose journey is depicted in the handsome Emmy Award-winning film “Blood Road.” “For me it was a way to connect to him. And I needed the 1,200 miles to be ready and vulnerable enough to receive the gifts waiting for me.”

Rusch was amazed by the forgiving spirit of the villagers she met along the way.

“For me to be able to go to people and say, ‘My dad was killing your people. Can you help me find him?’ and to have them welcome me into their homes was amazing.”

She found purpose--raising funds to clear unexploded ordnance—when she learned Vietnam-era bombs were still killing people.

“I think my dad brought me there to show me that. I go back every year to help clear away the ordnance.”

Fear and excitement look very much the same, Rusch told the audience. But it can be worth pushing through fears for the reward on the other side.

“I’m the biggest scaredy cat ever. I cannot jump off a cliff. When I did the Class 5 white water championships in Argentina, I researched how I might put Velcro on my shorts so I wouldn’t slip off the raft. Boogie boarding the Grand Canyon in winter was scary, but I researched all the places I could walk out—I had a backup plan. I always think what’s the worst thing that could happen and come up with a backup plan.”

One of the hardest things she ever did, she admits, was to write the autobiography, “Rusch to Glory,” at a publisher’s request.

“I didn’t want to write it. But I couldn’t answer ‘Why not?’ even though I didn’t think anyone would read book except my mom.”

Rusch recounted how she stared at a blank piece of paper and nothing would come out. Finally, her dog put his head on her lap. As she took him on a walk, the blood began to flow to her brain.

“I found that by moving ideas started to come. So, I did my writing in intervals. I’d write for 45 minutes, then get up for 15 minutes and empty the dishwasher or walk the dog. And things started to happen.”

She paused. “I still haven’t read the book cover to cover. But I’ve been asked to do an audio version so I’m going to have to read it.”

 While reviewing a reverse bucket list, Rusch said she realized she has done a lot of cool stuff.

“We don’t keep photo albums, anymore. And that’s too bad because they remind us what we have done.”

Rusch said she is often asked when she’s going to retire. “Never!” is her quick answer. “I ‘m learning all the time.”

“But, as an explorer, you’ don’t want to do the same thing. What’s important to me is always changing I’m in the process now of looking for the next thing. I’m treading water in the meantime.”

Last March Rusch rode the Iditarod Trail on snow bike, enduring temperatures that dropped to minus-25 at night. She will do it again this year.

“It’s hard. But it’s in those places that you find out what you’re made of--like a woman pulling her car off her baby. Comfort is the enemy of success. I think race is a four-letter word for a lot of people but I encourage people to sign up all the time. It takes you out of your comfort zone to be better.”

Rusch lamented that social media and other media’s emphasis on winning may be discouraging  participation in school sports.

“I talk about failure a lot as a prerequisite to success. It’s important to talk about all the stuff that goes wrong, how to get up from the dirt,” she said. “I think we’re beginning to see the public resonate with athletes who show vulnerability. And we need to keep that going.”

Rusch keeps her Emmy and other medals on what she calls her “I Love You Wall” in her home office. And she says she surrounds herself with friends who say, “You’re awesome,” even when she’s not out winning races.

“We all need to find a way to put a medal around our own necks. And, when we’re not standing in front of cheering crowds, we need to surround ourselves with friends who give us little podiums every day.”

THE SIXTH ANNUAL CONVERSATIONS WITH EXCEPTIONAL WOMEN, slated for September 2020, is slated to include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and and daughter and granddaughter, both lawyers, advocates and the first daughter-mother team to teach at Columbia University.



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