Rebecca Rusch: Endurance athlete ‘Queen of Pain’ reaches peak

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Despite passing active volcanoes and walking near the arctic tundra, Rusch says the prospect of braving subzero temperatures was what captivated her.

“I was really scared of the environment,” she told CNN Sport. “The cold was really the last frontier for me.”

Before setting his sights on pristine landscapes, Rusch remembers running through the woods in the sprawling Chicago suburbs. “There was always that aspect of exploratory curiosity in what I did, even as a kid,” she says. “I was born with this.”

His first entry into endurance sports was through his high school cross country team. “I really felt out of place somewhere for the first time.”

She developed her confidence and later moved west, combining her business marketing degree with her love of indoor sports to open a chain of climbing gyms in California.

At 52, Rusch solidified her legacy as an adventure athlete, seven-time world champion, best-selling author, activist and Emmy winner.
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In the 1990s, she discovered adventure racing, a marginal activity that gained popularity with the birth of Eco-Challenge. Produced by acclaimed Mark Burnett Apprentice and Survivor, the reality show followed athletes who raced 300-mile courses over difficult terrain, from Fiji to Maine to Morocco, in which Rusch has competed.

“I never thought I would be a professional athlete, it wasn’t in my career plan,” she says. “I was just doing something that made me feel whole and inspired me.”

A turnaround

When the show aired in 2002, the sport of adventure running lost its sponsorship and funding.

Rusch’s career as a professional athlete was changing. She eventually made the decision to move to Idaho and got a part-time job as a volunteer firefighter, which she still does to this day.

But his journey was far from over.

Rusch attends the 36th Annual Salute to Women in Sport at Cipriani Wall Street in October 2015 in New York City.
A friend recommended that he ride a mountain bike, and Rusch won several events, including three 24-hour solo mountain bike world championships, the Idaho State Short Track Championship, and a World Championship title. ‘Cyclocross State.

Almost 15 years later, she is just as committed to her sense of adventure. “Being an ultra-endurance athlete? This is my life.”

Blood road

In 2015, Rusch took her quest for self-discovery to a new level when she set out to hike 1,200 miles on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Known infamously as the “Blood Road,” the route was used by Vietnamese troops to transport supplies during the Vietnam War – an event Rusch and his family are all too familiar with.
On March 7, 1972, his father – Stephen Rusch – was on an attack mission over Laos to bomb trucks when his plane was shot down in the village of Ta Oy. He died when Rebecca was three years old.

“Growing up, it was hard to cry for someone I didn’t know,” she says. “It wasn’t until I hiked the Ho Chi Minh Trail and went to where he died that I really felt it for the first time.”

Since then, she has inherited her father’s memories from meeting people who knew him, including the son of the man who buried his father all those years ago. “We were extremely connected,” she says.

In 1972, Rusch's father died during the Vietnam War.  She honors her legacy through the Be Good Foundation, using her bike as a catalyst for healing, empowerment and growth.

Rusch also forged a close relationship with his Vietnamese riding partner Huyen Nguyen, a decorated cross-country cyclist whose father faced American resistance during the war.

“We didn’t need the language to communicate,” she says. “We both came together to heal and forgive, and using the bike as that tool has been a really special journey.”

Now Rusch commemorates his father through the Be Good Foundation, a humanitarian organization named in memory of his war letters, which he would sign with the phrase “be good”.

She uses the foundation to create opportunities for outdoor exploration, personal discovery, and humanitarian service locally, nationally and globally.

“I distinctly feel that he got me to allow ourselves this trip… to show me that I can use my bike for more than podiums and awards,” she says. “I feel like he’s teaching me, fathering me, even though he’s not physically sitting here with me right now.

“ No one will ever know what we went through ”

From horseback riding in Vietnam with Nguyen to plowing across Iceland alongside nature photographer Chris Burkard and former cyclist and professional filmmaker Angus Morton, Rusch is used to working with other athletes to maximize his potential. .

“I find in teams, often your actions, instead of words […] are the most powerful tools. “

She only had two weeks to recover between her victory at the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska in the autonomous category and the expedition to Iceland. With little contact with Burkard and Morton before meeting them at the airport, Rusch was nervous.
Rusch prepares a meal with his expedition partners in Iceland Angus Morton (center) and Chris Burkard (left).

“I knew where they were coming from as people, what I didn’t know was how they would react in times of stress.”

Ultimately, their shared memories of triumph will outlive their moments of crisis. “No one will ever know what we went through crossing Iceland in winter except Chris, Angus and myself,” she says. “No picture could really tell the whole story.”

A life of preparation

Rusch is living proof that midlife can be a time when a woman can hit her stride.

She may have worn an amethyst as a lucky charm in Iceland, but she recognizes that achieving “the best performance” of her career ultimately requires years of physical resilience and emotional intelligence.

“You don’t deteriorate as you get older, you grow older,” she says. “Alaska and Iceland couldn’t have happened without decades of experience in knowing myself, knowing my body.”

The Rusch trek in Iceland involved a route 90% covered in snow and ice.
Rusch’s ability to subject her body to excruciating physical challenges and become a stronger athlete is perhaps why Adventure Sports magazine dubbed her the “Queen of Pain” in 2004.

“It’s doing something difficult with a goal that you don’t know what the reward is on the other side, but you keep going anyway.”

‘We share this land together’

Going on grueling expeditions and spending time away from home takes balance.

Having met on a bike ride in Idaho and having been an endurance athlete his entire life, Rusch’s husband, Greg martin, understands the responsibilities that flow from his career. “We do a lot of these adventures together, but it’s a commitment to be away,” she says.

Over the past year, she has had the opportunity to reassess her relationship with nature. “I really, really understood the importance of having my feet on the ground, on the ground.”

In May 2020, 36% of people responding to Natural England’s people and nature survey said they were spending more time outdoors during the pandemic than before. A similar report found that nearly a third of Americans were considering moving to less populated areas, according to a Harris Poll survey.

“Nature is therapy for people,” she says. “Part of my responsibility is to show people these beautiful places in the hope that they will fall in love and understand the importance of protecting them.”

“The one thing we all share around the world is that we are on the ground […] and we share this land together. “



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