Rebecca Rusch may be the Queen of Pain and 7x World Champion, but she's also a small business owner, a part-time firefighter, a race organizer, an author, an activist, an Emmy Award winner, and a dog owner. Right now, she's someone used to traveling who is stuck at home like the rest of us. I caught up with her on the five-year anniversary of her journey along the Ho Chi Min trail. We talk about how that journey helped her find a new purpose to her riding, the power in being vulnerable, and what her advice for business owners, racers and individuals is during these uncertain times.
It’s been five years since you started your ride on the Blood Road. What has changed for you since that journey?
Everything. Initially, I thought it was going to be a personal journey and a big expedition for myself. By the end of the ride, it wasn't about me anymore. I think the biggest thing that came out of it was realizing that the story wasn't just about me. It launched a purpose for my riding and a really pivotal moment of realizing I could connect with people and use my bike for a lot more than just podiums. In the past five years, I've launched the Be Good Foundation, my event Private Idaho has grown, I’ve grown my following, not intentionally, but just by talking about my rides in a different way. It’s more about the lessons that I’m learning than the wins. I feel like the trail is my teacher and that awareness started coming from the Ho Chi Minh training. People ask why I do these long rides and it’s because these long trails are a teacher for me.
Since Blood Road, all of these really cool things have happened with my career because my eyes were opened to looking beyond my own racing motivation and to look for more of a purpose to my riding. From the outside it might not look any different, I’m still doing Iditarod and stuff like that, but my reason for doing those things has expanded far beyond just me.
It’s like a racehorse taking the blinders off. Suddenly I see everything that’s to the side and behind me and around me. I see the amazing community of people that are all connected by the bike. It really is this vehicle for connectivity. I think we’re really seeing it right now, especially people who can’t get outside and ride their bike, they’re realizing how precious of a commodity that is for each of us personally. Whether it’s your transportation or your racing or your therapy or a way outside or to ride with your kids, once that’s taken away or limited people realize how important the outdoors and the bicycle are.
As a racer, you come across as strong and almost invincible. What were some of the emotions this trip brought up and what was it like for you to deal with the emotions that this trip brought up?
That was for sure one of the hardest parts of it - being vulnerable and being interviewed and slowing down and having to communicate my feelings. But it was almost like going to a therapist. I think a lot of us put up a strong exterior, we put up this wall that says, “I can do everything, I’m independent, I’ve got this,” and having to talk about all that was like breaking down that exterior that I worked really hard to fortify and strengthen for years. But it was actually really refreshing because I wasn’t holding back in the film. I was just saying what I thought. It was all so personal and emotional for me. Director Nicholas Schrunk became a friend and everyone was so nice to me that I didn’t feel intimidated by opening up. And I also wasn’t sitting there going “I wonder how this is going to sounds on film.” I wasn’t in that headspace. I just was talking as I would normally talk. I think what was powerful about that and that people resonate with is that we are all pretty vulnerable.
It’s kind of like in a 12 Step program. I don’t want to minimize anyone’s addiction, but the first step is admitting that you’re scared or admitting that you have a problem or admitting that something is hard. And as soon as you let that vulnerability out, it allows you to find a path to handle it and grow from it. I think that was the really big lesson of being vulnerable in Blood Road is that I found a purpose and a way to use my bike. No one was like “Omigod, you were so weak in that film, or you cried.” People were just like “I can relate to you now because you’re like me or you were scared.” There’s a lot of power and strength in admitting failure, admitting you’re scared or you don’t know the answer to everything. That’s like that part about taking the blinders off. Realizing I can ask for help with my business, or I can ask for help about technical riding with someone who is better than me. Not feeling like you have to know everything.
You had to slow down from your regular racing pace for the film crew and your riding partner, it sounds like that was a positive experience?
It was. If I didn’t have Huyen as a teammate, if I had done that ride Rebecca-style, it would have been much faster, I wouldn’t have stopped and waited by the side of the trail, interacted with villagers, gone into a temple, taken the time to see past what’s on the side of the trail. Or had time to journal and do voice recordings. If I had done it at race pace or my speed, I would have missed a ton of things.
People think of me as a racer and they can’t ride with me because all my rides are too fast. But it’s just like your weekend rides with friends when you take a sandwich and you stop and talk and hang out at the top of the hill. I think those kinds of ride experiences are really important. Just as important as cranking out hill intervals and getting strong physically. I think the social and slower aspect of rides either alone or with people is pretty important.
You didn’t speak the same language as Huyen, what was it like to ride so many miles and so many days in silence or with broken communication?
I’ll be super honest, it was really frustrating at times, for both of us. I couldn’t really communicate the navigation or what I thought was going to happen. Sometimes we had trouble communicating just the logistics of our ride day. But then we couldn’t get any deeper. We could talk a little bit about the war that her dad fought at the same time as my dad did, but we couldn’t get into it any deeper, like “How does that make you feel? What do you think about that?”
In some ways, it was really frustrating because I wanted to know more, but in other ways, it was actually really unique because we began communicating non-verbally. I could tell when she was upset and she could tell when I was upset. It was really interesting when I finally got to see Blood Road. All of her interviews were in Vietnamese so I didn’t know what she was thinking of feeling along the trail. I knew she supported what we were doing and was a really nice person, and we talked a little bit, but we couldn’t go that layer deeper. But when I read her subtitles in the film, I was so blown away by the depth that she understood me and what I was going through. She was very intuitive about my emotions and she was able to verbalize that. It blew me away that she couldn’t understand me that deeply without using any words.
It was frustrating on the surface level, but sometimes we fill our world with words and it was nice to ride silently. It allowed me the meditation time and the time to process what this ride was about and what I was doing. So the silence was kind of nice.
What was it like to spend so much time with your thoughts?
I ride alone a lot and I do feel that my bike is my meditation. Long rides without music or podcasts or anything are really important to me. I don’t have any issue being alone in my head. What was a cool aspect to that film and that I’ve started doing is now for myself is recording myself on the bike. I feel like all these ideas come into my head and I solve problems that I couldn’t solve at my desk when I’m on my bole.
While I was on Blood Road, the Director required me to carry a voice recorder and I would just talk into it a few times a day. It was really cool because all those stream of consciousness thoughts that are almost like lucid dreaming when you’re out on a long ride, I recorded a lot of those and they’re some pretty cool thoughts. So I do that a little bit at home now. I’ll record into my phone. I’m happy being alone in my thoughts but it’s almost like I need a better way to capture them where I can still keep my hands on the handlebar.
What are some life lessons that you take from your trip along the Blood Road that you bring into your everyday life?
Very much the purpose of why I ride and that my ride can help and affect a lot of people. There’s a giving aspect to a lot of the stuff I’m doing with my rides, whether I’m telling a story or doing a ride for my charity or taking a kid for a ride. Definitely the purpose of my riding has expanded and that was one of the lessons from the trail.
Connectivity is another one. You think of how different Huyen and I are riding this trail together and coming from opposite sides of a war. But also how similar we all are and how the bike bonds people around the world. It’s motivated me to do trails like the Iditarod. All the people on the trail are connected by the trail, it’s like a little umbilical cord. Or people who have ridden in Kamloops, or somewhere else, it’s this thing that connects people. Even if you’ve never met them, you know where they’ve travelled and where they’ve been.
Working with and understanding someone from another culture, another place, a different background, but still connecting deeply by having a common goal. Finding out how we are more similar than different was powerful for me and Huyen. Today in this global pandemic, we are truly one world with one mission… to survive.
When I took the blinders off and considered what Huyen was going through, what the film crew was going through, and stopped thinking just about myself, the expedition really came to life and we all started to grow and become cohesive. It was pretty magical to see strangers come together in that way. I feel now that we can be more compassionate towards people around the world because we are truly all in this together.
It's about perseverance and going forward when it’s not the way you planned or not what you expected.
A big part of being a successful athlete is being able to deal with uncertainty, we wouldn’t watch racing if we knew who the winners were or Blood Road if we knew exactly how it would turn out. How did you deal with that uncertainty throughout your career?
Not knowing what your job is going to be like tomorrow or the next year or in a race is exciting, but it’s also a high level of ongoing stress. Honestly, the way that I deal with the unknown, and it’s kind of where we are right now in this world, is that you can’t change the past. Huyen said that in Blood Road, that “the past is done. There’s no reason to feel hatred or anger or regret. It’s done. The only thing that we affect is right now in the preparation for the future.” This moment today, this time talking to you, is all that we can focus on right now. I can’t worry if someone will read this interview or what does it mean. You don’t control the outcome, you only your preparation and how you handle a situation.
That was one of the biggest things for Blood Road. I wanted to control the expedition, I wanted to choose my teammate, I wanted to go the pace that I wanted to go. I’d never made a film before and letting go of that control of what was going to happen was something that I really struggled with. The fact that it didn’t turn out exactly how I thought it would, I didn’t have control of everything, that provided some of the biggest gifts.
Some of the best parts of what happened on that trip were unexpected and uncontrolled by me. Some of it was super frustrating like the cave, but realizing that I don’t have control of them. It’s a bit of a Buddhist mentality that we’re only here now, live in the moment and be your best right now and that will set us up for the future. It sounds a little bit deep but it’s really true, especially right now in our world. We don’t know if Private Idaho is going to happen, if this event going to be cancelled, will I ever get race my bike again? We don’t know but I’m training as if I will get to and it makes it stronger now and even if I don’t get to do the next race on the calendar, I can’t control that. I can just control my preparation.
Before races and before this trip, what were some of your ways of calming your mind from racing thoughts?
I think it comes a little bit from experience. Okay, I’ve crashed my bike before and I’ve got up, I’ve had mechanicals before, I’ve gotten lost before, I’ve ridden in the dark before. Some of it is just experience and having a big toolbox of experiences to draw from. That keeps you confident that if something weird gets thrown my way, I can be adaptable and change. Like in Alaska, we walked our bikes for 150 miles of the 300 miles because the snow was too deep. That was not what I planned.
We’re training for races, but the races are what train us for life and how to handle hard situations and experiencing something hard in a bike event or riding the Ho Chi Minh trail, gives us knowledge and strength and experience for handling a global pandemic, the bigger stuff that happens in life. The trail is a teacher for a lot of us.
Now that you’ve transitioned from racing professionally full-time, how do you deal with goal setting?
It’s super important for me to have goals and have structure. I think left to myself I’m kind of a lazy person. I have a coach that I work with. Someone asked me what a coach could tell me, but the main thing is accountability. There’s a deadline and a workout schedule and I’m supposed to do this on Thursday. I do keep a coach because it helps me be really efficient with my training time and I am signed up for races. I don’t know if they’re going to happen or not, but having those mini-deadlines is really important for me.
Some of the bigger expeditions that I want to do are more bike packing and big iconic trails like the Ho Chi Minh trail. Doing the Ho Chi Minh trail did launch this whole idea for me of doing other famous trails in the world like the Iditarod. In between the shorter-term goals for those bigger expeditions are the bike races that keep me focused, keep me training.
Ultimately, when I lose total motivation, I reach out to my friends and have a ride meet-up. It’s super important for me to lean on other people, whether it’s my coach or friends. Right now, it’s hard since people can’t go out with each other, but I’ve just been texting with a friend who is a normal riding buddy asking if they’re riding today. Just that little bit of accountability keeps us honest. You have someone to answer to.
How have your days changed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic?
I’m lucky I still get to go outside and I work from home a lot. It’s really the travel that has come to a halt for events, speaking engagements. I’ve definitely lost a few jobs that I was supposed to have as far as appearances. That’s a little hard but I’m cherishing the time with my husband and my dogs and planting in the garden. I travel a lot so time at home is pretty precious.
What really has changed is trying to pivot business and look at ways of still achieving my mission of inspiring myself and other people with other tactics that are more digital and not in person. That’s probably the biggest part, trying to figure out how to still do my job even though it looks a little different right now.
Are you still a firefighter as well?
Part-time, yes. My husband is in fire. So that’s a big part of our life. We have in Idaho, in our county, one of the highest per-capita rates of infection in the whole country, so we’re right in the mix of it. He’s responding to cases every day. That’s a very real interfaced part of this. It’s not just like we’re at home, we’re having fun, we’re riding bikes. No, we’re responding to people that are really sick here. And worrying about our community and getting it ourselves. We’re a recreation community and tourism is our business and it’s shut down right now. There’s definitely this ongoing stress as everyone has of what is the economy going to be like, what’s going to happen.
It’s just like a big race. We don’t know the outcome right now and I’m trying not to stress about the future, I’m just trying to be proactive right now. How do I prepare my business and myself and my communication and fortify ourselves so that when things do open up, we’re ready? But this is like getting lost in the middle of a big race. I’m not sure what to do. Have yourself a little cry but then try to make it work and figure out how to find yourself again.
What are some of the things that you’ve found as a business owner that have helped you that could help other business owners? How has your community been supporting you?
I’ve got a core of four people that work with me. We basically looked at budgets, looked at everything and decided to trim everything back and agree that since I don’t want to get rid of anyone, everyone is going to have to pitch in extra. We’ve had some really cool creative group meetings with my team. “Well, this is our mission statement and we can’t do this camp and we can’t do that, so how can we make this work?” It’s kind of a cool time for creativity for people, me included. I’m looking at a subscription business and planning for future expeditions. But also thinking about how we can share the expeditions we’ve already done like Blood Road and Iditarod. I’ll probably record my audiobook that I’ve been putting off for a long time. We all have these projects that we’ve been putting off. To me, that’s the silver lining is I’m going to hopefully get some things done that I put on the back burner. I don’t know if I have any answers more than anyone else, but I’m just looking at my goals and looking at my mission statement and figuring out how we get there.
Not that I’m one to give advice or have all the answers, but I think for other business owners or individuals, if you know your business goal or your personal goal, that hasn’t changed even though the climate has changed. It’s about looking at ways of still staying true to who you are and what you want to achieve but in a different way. I’ve been watching what other athletes and people are doing and it’s cool to see how creative people are getting with the assets they have. We’re lucky that we have the technology.
What is your personal mission?
Through the process of writing more, reflecting and thinking about some big life questions during Blood Road, I was eventually able to articulate what I stand for and devise a set of equations for myself… kind of like rules to live by. I was also able to identify a personal mission statement and understand my purpose for what I do.
Those revelations spawned a logo redesign that includes a map and a compass because the Blood Road journey really helped me find my way. The map is the actual map of the tree in Laos where my Dad died. The compass is about finding direction. The colors are Buddhist monk colors. The four pillars that sort of go with the four directions of the compass are as follows.
Risk = Reward
Passion = Payoff
Give = Get
Less = More
My Mission: to constantly inspire and challenge myself and others to Be Good.
This really encompasses everything I do from bike expeditions and racing, to my foundation, to my events, writing, speaking, etc. Many people have said that I must have found closure after finding the place where my Dad died. It was the exact opposite of that. It was a dramatic opening of my eyes, my heart, my understanding of myself and the world.
How are you using social media and technology at this time?
I can’t tell you how many happy hours I’ve been doing, which has been funny. We’ve been doing video meetings, which is nice to see people’s faces and reactions. I’ve had some group meetings with ride groups and our business meetings are online. For us, it’s packaging stuff that we have in little shareable nuggets and even if someone can’t sit down and watch all of Blood Road, they can watch five minutes of lessons from the trail. That’s the angle I’m taking. All these things I’ve learned and experiences, can we put them into cool little video and photo packages and share inspirational nuggets of knowledge for people. I’m hopeful that by Private Idaho we can still have the event.
I do think that my business is going to come out stronger from this. All of these things that we’ve been thinking about for a while and putting on the back burner and blowing off, we have to do now because that’s the only option. I do think I’ll have a more multi-faceted business coming out of this that has a great online presence. And when we can all get out of our office, we’ll still have the personal connection. It will be a more well-rounded package since we’re working on our weaknesses right now while we’re at home.
What advice do you have for people who are spending more time than usual at home, alone and with an uncertain future?
I have tried to be disciplined. I do find that I’m looking at phones and screens and the news way more than I ever had. And that’s a little bit disconcerting. I’m trying to provide structure where I check into the news once a day. I can’t read every article about Covid-19. I check in locally and globally once a day but that’s it. I’m putting that constraint on myself. And we are on technology a lot so when I walk my dogs or go on a bike ride I turn my phone into airplane mode. I might take pictures but I’m very conscious about spending some time not on a screen. We’re all on overload right now.
My advice is not to be online, or on a screen or your phone for all of the waking hours of your day. I don’t believe it’s healthy. I think people need to go out and put their fingers in the dirt and garden and ride a bike if they can or walk, or just sit outside in the sun without a screen in your face. I’m really trying to do that.
Anything else you want to add?
If people are looking for ways to reach out or connect or get inspired, they can always send me an idea. We’re all kind of making this up as we going along. You’re asking me what I’m doing, and I’m asking my friends what they’re doing. The sharing has been really cool. I would say to business owners or people that are checking in, if you have ideas, share them with other people. Brainstorm with other people. We’re all learning and this is a really creative time for people.
I was reading something that said that most creative productivity happens in times of war and hard times. Really hard times are when art, music and literature are the most prolific. A lot of stuff comes out of hard times since people are just trying to express themselves and figure things out or be creative with their business. That is the opportunity with the challenge that’s in front of us.
You can watch the full Blood Road film here
and connect with Rebecca Rusch on Instagram here
. Her book is Rusch to Glory: Adventure, Risk & Triumph on the Path Less Traveled