There’s so much to say about Rebecca Rusch that it’s difficult to know where to start. Mountain biker, climber, adventure racer, Nordic skier, champion of women in sport, activist. A world champion 7 times over, she’s even ridden her bike UP Mount Kilimanjaro! Rebecca epitomises the word ‘badass’ and I’m thrilled to have her on Lessons in Badassery.
Hope you enjoy the interview.
Rebecca Rusch’s sporting CV is so diverse that it mixes world-firsts in climbing (the first female ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan) with river boarding (the first ever 300-mile unsupported descent of the Grand Canyon). Her career in adventure racing, which saw her at the forefront of the sport, navigating leech-filled jungles with disorientating fatigue and illness, ended unexpectedly due to a sponsor takeover, throwing her reluctantly into a career in mountain biking. Despite a self-confessed lack of technical MTB skills, Rusch was immediately unstoppable – firstly in 24-hr MTB races and then in the Leadville 100, a notoriously tough 100 mile mountain bike race she won four times in a row.
Before Rebecca and I chatted, I’d read her book, Rush to Glory: Adventure, Risk & Triumph on the Path Less Traveled, which gives a fascinating insight into her career as an athlete and also her humble character and impeccable work ethic. She turned pro in mountain biking at the age of 38, and now, at almost 50 (it’s her birthday on the 25 August!), she’s still a badass on a bike.
You were the first woman to ride a bike up Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro – how did this come about?
I was actually one of the coolest trips I’ve done. A friend of mine asked me and I was like, ‘Yeah, that seems crazy, but why not?’ It was the highest elevation I’ve ever been to, but a lot of the stuff I’ve done has been on an invitation like that; saying yes instead of no. I talked to my coach and the biggest concern was the altitude and what the riding would be like, because not many people have been up there on a bike. So I was studying pictures and wondering whether it would be too technical for me to ride.
How did you prepare for riding at altitude?
I really had to figure out what altitude would change, and that involved sleeping in an altitude tent at home and going to Colorado Springs to altitude chamber training with my coach. In the chamber in Colorado Springs, they can create any altitude they want, so with my coach we mimicked going up progressively a few days in a row, a couple of thousand feet higher each time to see what that would feel like. And that was really good for me to see my body’s response to it and know the kind of pacing. I felt that I could get to the top, but it would just be a matter of making sure that I take care of my body.
It’s interesting because Kilimanjaro is one of the easiest of the 7 summits technically, which is why a lot of people do it, but it also has the highest death rates because a lot of people can do it. Your normal person can go up Kilimanjaro, so people go up too quickly and they end up getting altitude sickness. So that was one of my concerns, to be really careful and conservative, to make sure we could get to the summit. And it was amazing. All the preparation with the equipment and the altitude training totally paid off. It was a cool experience.
The ride was also to raise money for World Bicycle Relief?
It was one of the first big trips I did that was not just for me. I had a personal goal to summit, but we were also raising money for World Bicycle Relief in Africa, and we visited some of the schools and were able to donate some of the bikes with the money we raised. For me, that was really powerful; that was a much more complete adventure, seeing those kids riding their bikes, being with them and seeing what their life was like in Africa. It was really intense. I’m lucky; I do these trips all over the world, and one of the most amazing parts of what I do is being able to interact with the locals. The bike is such a universal tool – whether it’s in Laos or in Africa, everyone understands riding a bike. So it’s opened doors to have a commonality even when our lives are so different.
Switching to climbing, you achieved the first female ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan. How did you manage your fears during the climb? You seemed to take it in your stride in the book…
I don’t know about taking it in my stride. People assume that pro athletes don’t experience fear and what surprises people [in my book] is that everybody’s just really normal and we all have the same human emotions. Fear in rock climbing especially is kind of primal because there is this fear of falling that goes much deeper than somebody feeling afraid. It’s a primal reaction. So when people say, ‘I conquered my fear’, I don’t really believe in that; I believe that it’s there for a reason, it’s there to protect you, and so while I listen to it, with climbing I’ve noticed that if you really let the fear take control of you, that’s where you put yourself in a more dangerous situation. You start climbing badly or routing badly, and you aren’t doing as well because you’re consumed by the ‘What if I fall…?’ So it really is a game of recognising fear and knowing it’s there, but trying to put it a little bit in the backseat.
Across the board, the only way I know to handle fear and manage it is in preparation. Before any big ride or event, I like to do what I call ‘Control the controllables’, so what I pack, what I carry, the food I bring, the navigation, studying the route – this is a way for me to be prepared. Even swimming the Grand Canyon, I had a bailout option, so if that didn’t work, I knew I was going to hike out. It’s reassuring to have a plan B or a plan C, so preparation is one way that I harness fear. The other way is through the people that I surround myself with. I tend to ask people a lot better than me to do these sorts of things. Climbing for example, Chris Kalous, who was with me [on El Capitan], is a much better climber than I am. In the Grand Canyon it was the same – I was the least experienced person on the trip and while that’s really stressful and scary, you rise to the occasion and you know you’re with total experts, and you learn from them.
You seem to say yes to challenges whether you believe you can complete them or not. Do you think that’s the secret to your success as an athlete?
I think it’s a big part of it, but I don’t say yes to people I don’t know or don’t trust or who ask me via social media. I choose really carefully. The people I say yes to are the people I know are kind of cut from a similar cloth; maybe you’re not the best at something, but you have the right attitude of collaboration and working really hard. I think the reason I get asked on these kind of things is because it’s a lot more about attitude than the skill base that you have. And I believe that for me, going from being a terrible mountain biker – it was my worst sport – to becoming a pro mountain biker [is because] I have a work ethic and an attitude, not because I have the skill base.
Women especially, we’re never 100 percent prepared for anything that we want to do. There’s only been a few races in my life where I’ve lined up thinking, ‘I’m so ready, I’ve done everything I could possibly do.’ It rarely happens. Usually, we’re there going, ‘Oh gosh, it’s not the right timing, I’m not good enough, I should have prepared more’. You’re never going to be ready. If you wait for the moment you’re 100 percent ready, you’re going to miss out on so much. If you can’t think of a reason why NOT to do something and your only reason is ‘I haven’t prepared enough’, well, that’s not a very good answer.
You had an incredible career in adventure racing. What are your favourite AR memories?
You know, I got to see the world, and I’m so grateful that I fell into that in the heyday of Eco Challenge and adventure racing as it really did shape who I am as an explorer. Things that stand out are the exploration provided to us, to travel the world and meet all these villagers. But also really the team aspect of becoming family. The people you race with are your lifeline – you’re hungry, you’re cold, you’re tired, you’re lost. You’re going through highs and lows with another two people and you really do create this bond that lasts forever. It’s impossible to try and explain that to friends when you come home. These people are still my best friends. So really, the people; the people in the countries I visit and the people who I was racing with, and seeing the world.
What’s super-exciting now is the way that my cycling is morphing, so I’m doing a lot more expeditions in bike riding and I feel like my cycling training and my adventure racing are coming together in this perfect storm of all the experiences I’ve built over my life. It really does suit more of my skill base rather than going round and round in circles as fast as I can on a bike!
You’ve had some hairy moments in adventure racing and you’ve lost teammates and fellow athletes along the way. Is this something you’re comfortable talking about?
It’s part of life that we’re gonna lose people we love and we’re gonna fail – it really is. Nobody can escape that. So if I wasn’t doing something passionate that fuelled me, I’d still have hard times, but you might as well make the highs really high, because we’re all going to have the lows.
When Nigel died, it was a real time of evaluation for me because I don’t do these sports to risk my life. That’s not why I’m doing them – and I don’t feel like I amrisking my life any more than getting into my car. So when Nigel (Rebecca’s teammate) died I thought, Why am I doing this? and I really had to evaluate why. I had to look myself in the eye and think, you could die doing this, is that what you want? In his situation, it was rock fall, an accident, and those things can happen walking down the street. You never know what’s round the corner. You really don’t. So it’s really Carpe Diem, live for today because nobody knows what tomorrow will be.
Cycling was your least favourite discipline in adventure racing. How does it feel to have achieved so much in a sport you initially didn’t enjoy or feel you were any good at?
It’s really surprising to me because this second part of my sports career has been far more successful than the first part with adventure racing. I’ve been able to build up a business out of this – instead of having fun, thinking, ‘I better get a real job soon’, it actually did turn into a career. It’s kind of shocking to me that that happened, but it’s proof that hard work does pay off and you may be the worst biker on your whole team, but just work really hard at it. I’m living proof that you don’t necessarily have to be good at something to make it work!
Your work ethic definitely comes through in your book – it seems whatever you turn your hand to, you put in the work to the nth degree.
I think it’s a lack of confidence. My friend, ice climber Will Gadd, once gave a speech, talking about the power of negative thinking, and it sounds really weird, but because I’m not a naturally gifted athlete, I always feel I’m not as good as the next person so that’s what’s motivated me to work harder. I’m like, ‘I need to put in more time, I need to study more’, to make-up for a lack of skill or a lack of talent or a lack of lung capacity or whatever it happens to be. So I think, what I’ve achieved – and it sounds really twisted – is because I didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t believe I could do this stuff so I just worked harder.
Do you believe in yourself now? Hopefully you’ve earned that confidence now!
Yeah, I have! I’ve learned a pattern, basically. I still don’t think I’m the best mountain biker out there, but I know my strengths and weaknesses. It’s like being in a bike race; I’m not great on the downhill, but I’m good on the uphill, so I work extra hard in the uphill and take a little time on the downhill. It’s about recognising my strong points instead of just being pessimistic and ‘Oh, I’m terrible at downhill!’ I can now recognise what I’m good at and it all evens out in the end if you’re aware of your own strengths and weaknesses.
Your gravel MTB event Rebecca’s Private Idaho* is coming later this month. Tell me more.
Yep, that’s coming up. I’m really excited as we’ve expanded to four different distances and it’s grown to the biggest sports event in our valley within six years, so I’m pretty proud of it. We’ve expanded it now with a stage-race format all the way down to a 20 miler Tater Tot. What I like about that is that anyone can come, whether you’re a beginner, whether you’re a pro, whether you’re a family, you ride a tandem – whatever you want to do, there’s something for everyone, and that feels really good to me to welcome people to my community.
And the Private Idaho is a fundraising ride, so it kind of goes with this mission of me wanting to Be Good™ and do things that matter for people other than myself. Private Idaho fundraises for local, national and worldwide bike charities, so World Bike Relief, People For Bikes and also our local trail organisations and local high school cycling league.
*Rebecca’s Private Idaho runs August 31 to Sept 2.
Which of the events do you ride?
I’ll participate in the whole thing, I’ll ride the stage-race and the big 100 mile ride, but I don’t race it, I just ride socially and spend time with people. It would be really rude for me to win my own race, be on the podium and give myself an award! [Laughs] I’ll ride with everyone, it’s really fun. And it’s right around my birthday, so it’s basically going to be like a giant birthday party.
Right now do you have a training schedule or do you just do what you feel like?
It’s kind of a combination. I’m not in a really strict training schedule like I have been for years where it’s ‘Monday you do this…’, but I do have a general format that I stick to for training which is at least one really long ride a week and a couple of days of intervals; short, sharp sessions. And you know, I try and stay consistent with that, but it’s not a full schedule with my coach right now, just because I have a lot of other projects that I’m working on. But I’m an athlete so that will always be the centre of my wheel.
Like anyone, I try and squeeze in workouts when I can. I find the best thing for me is to just sign up for events because it keeps me honest and forces me to work a little harder. I follow a lot of my own advice that’s in the book of getting out there, balancing work with what you want to do. But I feel really lucky, because all of the work that I do revolves around cycling, exploring, adventure and doing good work.
You’re known as the Queen of Pain – where does this mental grit come from?
You know, I feel like the reason I can keep going and doing all these things is that I have a few core values that I live by and I’ve only in the past couple of years identified – everything follows this pattern: risk equals reward and passion equals payoff. So if I’m doing something that makes my hands sweat a little bit, gets me really excited, I know it’s going to be the right thing, even though I don’t necessarily know the outcome. Like bike racing, it got me excited so I took a calculated risk. Like I say, I usually have a back-up plan. But it really is a pattern; when I talk to people and they say ‘You’ve done all these cool things, you’re so lucky’ – it’s not luck. I chose those things. I saw that they’d be exciting and I figured out a way to make them happen. And over the years now that pattern has evolved into shaping a career.
When it gets tough in an event do you have any mentally strategies or is it not something you think about?
No, I think about it all the time. Just like anyone, I think about quitting or I think, ‘If I crash or if I just broke my pinkie, I could drop out and nobody would say anything…’ [Laughs]. We all have those demons in our heads saying, ‘This is sucking, this is terrible’. But you know, a big thing that keeps me going is that I quit one race in my life, in High School, and it still haunts me. I think about how ashamed I was to go to my teammates and my family and my coach and they were like, ‘What’s wrong, why did you stop?’ and I had no good reason other than mentally I was weak and I just quit.
To me, that feeling is more awful than the physical pain of going a little longer in a race or pushing a little harder on the peddles. Do you want the emotional pain of quitting and of being ashamed, or do you want the physical pain and that celebration of pushing through something really hard? For me, I’d rather finish last – and I have! – and have people be like, ‘Good for her, she’s finished’, than to quit and have to make an excuse.
So is that what drives you to keep going when it’s tough?
That drives me, and also, I have enough experience to know that there are so many rollercoaster highs and lows in a bike race, and in life, that if you stay a little longer on the uphill eventually it becomes a downhill. And if you trust that that pattern will eventually come, it does. Things don’t stay hard all the time. You get a reprieve and it’s just patience. So rather than the ‘Queen of Pain’ it’s more the ‘Queen of Patience’ and sticking it out a little longer, until it gets a little easier. And it always does.
How do you fuel your long multi-day races like the 350-mile Dirty Kanza XL?
It depends on the race. There’s a pattern that I’ve learned: I need about 150-200 calories an hour, I need a certain number of electrolytes an hour, amino acids for endurance racing and this much hydration an hour. So it really is a very clear, calculated math problem. I always start with the best laid plans! Obviously, things happen on the fly either where you can’t get water or you can’t find food. Or, in races like Dirty Kanza where it’s unsupported, it’s too much to carry 28 hours of food and water, so then I have to calculate where I can get replenishments. And Dirty Kanza in particular, all we had access to were five or six convenience stores in the middle of nowhere, so I carried GU Roctane Powder, which is calories that go in a bottle, very easy and light. But I also knew I’d have to go into a crappy convenience store with terrible packaged food and try to figure out what’s the best choice.
You’ve got to replenish with what’s available, especially in an international race. On the Ho Chi Minh Trail, for example, you take what the villagers have, which is rice. Sometimes in racing it’s what you can get, other times, if you’re able to carry it and have feed stations you can plan for, it’s calculated food and nutrition: Red Bull, GU, the things I’m used to using at home. But sometimes you just have to wing it and take whatever’s offered to you, even if you can’t recognise what it’s made of, like some sort of mystery meat [laughs].
What are your favourite items of kit for riding?
Maybe it’s a bit cliché, but I partner with people who I really love what they’ve got going on, so it’s easy to recommend things. One of my partners who I’m really excited about with the evolution of my career, is Garmin. I’ve been using Garmin since my adventure racing days. They’re doing a lot more women’s campaigns and I’m using their GPS, their bike computers, their watches. I’ve been using their products for 25 years but this is the first year we’ve officially partnered!
I am already a total 100 percent fan and that’s the thing with Red Bull too. Garmin’s one of my newest sponsors and Red Bull’s one of my oldest. When I was living out of my car and driving all the time, when Red Bull first came out, it kept me awake driving! And then landing in California, I was near their offices when I opened a rock climbing gym and I was like, I’m gonna go over there and tell them. And I’ve been with Red Bull now for 17 years. What’s been great is that I’ve obviously changed and morphed along the way and they want athletes to evolve. Never once have they told me what I have to do – they always ask, ‘What do you want to do?’ Which is cool.
In 2017 you cycled the 1200-mile Ho Chi Minh Trail to find your father’s crash site. Did the physical side of the journey help you cope with the emotions of the trip?
Yeah, that’s a really good question. That was the most important ride in my life and the best expedition I’ve ever done. It was the culmination of all my experiences added on with a really emotional story. People would ask me, ‘Why didn’t you just go to the crash site? Why did you have to ride 1200 miles to do that?’ And I had to do that because it was my way of taking what I do and what I know and connecting with my Dad. I felt like I needed that many miles to strip away the defence layers. As an athlete I’ve been trained to be hard and confident and strong, and this was going to a very vulnerable place. It was like an onion layer; every day I had to peel away another layer, get a little more tired, get a little more vulnerable. I really needed to be able to pedal all of those miles to kind of be ready, to get to that tree and see the wonderful things that were there for me on the entire trail.
People were like, ‘Oh, it must be closure for you and so sad.’ And it was the opposite; getting to know him and realising that I’m on the right trail. I’m doing applications for a new non-profit foundation in his name called Be Good that will house all of the projects I’m doing – my Private Idaho, Bike Laos, any other trips where I can use my skill and reach as an athlete to do amazing projects. People will be able to see what I’m doing, maybe join in some of the trips I’m doing, get involved however they can.
And it was such a great journey. It’s shaped the whole next part of my career. I honestly feel like my Dad, and everything I’ve done in my career, has been leading me there. I feel like he’s teaching me now, fathering me even though he’s gone.
You can follow Rebecca via her social media channels: www.twitter.com/rebeccarusch, www.instagram.com/rebeccarusch, and www.facebook.com/rebeccarusch, and find out more about her events and fundraising by visiting www.rebeccarusch.com.