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Episode 50: Navigating at Home with Endurance Athlete Rebecca Rusch



In part 6 of our Alchemy Series (sponsored by Prudential and Wells Fargo), our hosts, Erik and Jeff, meet with Rebecca Rusch—a familiar face of the adventure scene. Rebecca speaks about her journey “home” and what that means in this pivotal moment in history. Known as the “Queen of Pain” with a heart of gold, Rebecca is a multi-decade professional athlete and 7x World Champion. Her career includes numerous adventure sports, and countless wins and accolades including induction into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. 

In 2017, Rebecca released an Emmy award-winning feature film, Blood Road, which followed her personal journey along the 1,200 kilometer Ho Chi Minh Trail. Now, as CEO of Rusch Ventures, she hosts her signature gravel bike event, Rebecca’s Private Idaho (RPI), Rusch Academy backcountry gravel camps, and her epic travel adventure MTB-LAO. 

She is also the best selling author of Rusch to Glory, a world-renowned motivational speaker, and volunteer firefighter. Finally, her Be Good™ Foundation, a nonprofit organization has raised over $500,000 for bike-centric charities on a local, national, and global level.

Join Rebecca for her Giddy Up for Good Challenge for COVID-19 Relief. Choose from four elevation challenges to complete over Memorial Day Weekend. Proceeds go to CDC, World Bicycle Relief, and People for Bikes.

Additional Resources:

Photo credit for the image of Rebecca used in this episode’s graphic is Annemarie Hennes @adventurescoutmedia

» Hear an extended version of our interview with Rebecca here.


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Episode Transcript

Rebecca: We are navigating right now with no map, but we all still have our internal compass. You may not know exactly where the trail is but you look for a handrail, which is something obvious. It's not going to change like a river or a peak and you use those. You might bounce around in the middle of the map, but you still are headed in the same direction. So, if people are floundering right now and looking for their handrails, I mean, find out can you articulate what your internal compass is? And what's really important to you and right now is a perfect time to be doing that.

Erik: It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend, Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon. And I happened to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers' life. To define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to aluminate the universal elements that exist along the way, and that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in, in the summit exists a map. That map, that way forward is what we call no barriers.

Jeff: Rebecca Russ is the queen of pain with a heart of gold. As a multi-decade professional athlete and seven time world champion. Her career includes numerous adventure sports and countless wins and accolades, including induction into the mountain bike hall of fame. In 2017, Rebecca released an Emmy award winning feature film Blood Road, which followed her personal journey along with 1200 kilometer Ho Chi Minh trail. Now as CEO of rush ventures, she hosts her signature gravel bike event, Rebecca's Private Idaho, Rush Academy back country gravel camps, and her epic travel adventure, MTV Lau. She's also the bestselling author of Rush To Glory, a world renowned motivational speaker and volunteer firefighter. Finally, her Be Good Foundation, a nonprofit organization has raised over a half million dollars for bike centric charities on a local national and global level.

Erik: All right, kick it off. All right, where do we start? Rebecca, you've been super busy. You're very eclectic, I would say. I was checking out all your pursuits, activities and expertise's and man, it's pretty amazing. Seven time world champion in different sports. Can you list all seven off the top of your head?

Rebecca: Yeah a lot of them are cycling. So 24 hour mountain bike racing, actually masters cross country skiing is one of them, adventure racing and whitewater rafting.

Erik: Yeah.

Jeff: I have a very vague memory of you. And this was back in 2003. For those uninitiated in the world of adventure racing, which is slash suffering. It's a multi adventure, multi-disciplined race. Erik and I did a few, but notably we did one. It was in 2003, I believe and you were there. My memory is it took Erik and I 10 days to do that race. I remember like being in some field on day, like the morning of day two or whatever. And somehow like we saw you and your team and somebody, I think [Kammie 00:03:58], our teammate was like, "That's Rebecca's team." And we were all like, "Woo." And you guys were sprinting off in the distance. And I was like, I looked at you longingly, like you guys were gone man. You were going to be drinking beer and we would still be basically like not even a third of the way through the entire thing. So-

Erik: Inspiring and demoralizing all wrapped up in one.

Jeff: Yeah, inspiring and... That's exactly.

Rebecca: Yeah but here's the deal, your team finished ours did. So you got to get to the finish line.

Jeff: Yeah. You're a world champion adventure racer. So give us something that you have learned in these adventure races specifically, or maybe just the super ultra endurance events that you've done and how it is paralleling. Where you are right now, where we are right now, collectively in the middle of sort of quarantining pandemic times.

Rebecca: It's a good question. I'm kind of grateful that I'm an endurance athlete and I have four decades of experience of going through hard stuff and suffering and getting lost and coming out the other side, because I actually feel like right now, more than ever, that those events have been preparing me for what we're going through right now. And I'm taking so many lessons from the trail of like, "Okay, I've gone through stuff like this before."

Rebecca: The biggest difference is a physical challenge versus what is an emotional challenge right now for a lot of people but it really is the same. I mean, it's like, everyone wants to go back to how it was and we're like, "Why are we here?" But there's nothing to do but get productive. I mean, we can feel sorry for ourselves and be mad about it and kind of go through the stages of grief. But now we're at the point where, "Okay, what are we going to do about it? We are really in this." But it's darkest before the dawn and you guys know from adventure racing, you just kind of soldier on and eventually the sun does come up.

Erik: But you've talked about nesting. You mentioned it in your TED Talk and I'm not picturing you as like a big nester or are you?

Rebecca: Yeah well, my TED Talk, I called it navigating home because I really felt like... I did a ride. The most important ride of my life five years ago was my ride down the Ho Chi Minh trail. It's a 1200 mile bike expedition, but the big part of the motivation to go there was to go to the crash coordinates where my dad's plane went down during the Vietnam War. And he died when I was young and I just had these map coordinates and it was drawing me there. And I did that ride, I went and stood in the place and when I came home from that ride, the TED Talk was the first time I'd spoken about it other than in my journal. And I call it-

Erik: It was beautiful by the way, I'd highly recommend everyone go watch.

Jeff: Yeah, it's amazing.

Rebecca: Really what I felt like in that TED Talk that navigating home is feeling a sense of a physical sense of home, which I feel like I found in Idaho, but it was more an emotional feeling of home, of understanding who I am, what I stand for, why I do all this stuff. I mean, Eric, you guys get the same questions. "Why do you do all this crazy stuff? What are you trying to prove? Why do you torture yourself?" And really that ride, I felt like I came home. I learned who I was and I feel like my dad brought me there to teach me. Even though he's physically not here, my bike and my endurance and all my adventures, everything has been leading to that ride for me to find out what it's all about. And so, while I wouldn't say I'm a big like home body nester, it's a sense of home in my heart. And so yeah, that was really a pivotal moment for me. And I've spent the last five years really kind of evaluating that ride and what it means and figuring out what I stand for.

Erik: I think that's really beautiful. This idea of being a home in your heart, I love that. Everyone thinks about home in a physical way, not about a place inside themselves, that they feel comfortable and secure and loved and loved the world, right? That's a different kind of home. That's cool.

Rebecca: Since that ride five years ago, so much of my career has... It might look the same from the outside but just things I've really solidified and become clearer for me. And I do believe that he's around, he's been watching and he's been hanging out and now more than ever he's helping guide me. And I launched a foundation in his name.

Jeff: And what do you do with the foundation? What does the Be Good Foundation do?

Rebecca: So the Be Good Foundation is all about using the bicycles as a catalyst for healing and empowerment. And so the genesis of it was when I did the ride down the material, I was appalled to learn about all the unexploded ordinance that is still there. And a war that ended 50 years ago is still killing people. And so I came home, launched the foundation with the initial goal of helping clear unexploded ordinance in Laos, which we still do through bike trips that I take over there.

Jeff: And you wrote a book, yeah?

Rebecca: I did. I wrote a book before I went and did this journey. I think there's probably a second book in there.

Erik: Oh yeah, for sure.

Rebecca: With all of this other stuff, but that's way harder than an adventure racer. [inaudible] writing books. Oh man.

Jeff: It's hard, right? It's very cathartic, but it's painful to say.

Rebecca: Yeah, yeah.

Jeff: And the book is Rushed To Glory: Adventure Risk and Triumph on the Path Less Traveled?

Rebecca: Yeah. That was the first thing I did where trying harder didn't produce a result. A physical training is way easier than a creative process. And that was really new for me. And I didn't really have the discipline to do it very well. And I still don't, I'm still working on that one.

Jeff: You've continued to find new ways to take your skillset and your drive and your passion and sort of recalibrate it and do things that make the world a better place.

Rebecca: Yeah. I was going through sort of the like... I think I said the stages of grief, of coming out of Alaska chosen isolation, this amazing adventure to the pandemic really blowing up and kind of just being like, "What is this? What's going on?" And first denial and then sadness, or being grief and being pissed and being scared. And I'm sort of in the next phase of like, "All right, we're in it. What are we going to do about it? I was just as an athlete, all my events have been canceled and I was like, "I need something hard to train for to keep me accountable." So I launched the Giddy Up Challenge and kind of as a nod to private Idaho because it's all Western themed, but I basically launched a challenge for Memorial Day weekend and I wanted to do it on Memorial Day weekend because of my dad and in honor to him and the funds for the ride will go through Be Good Foundation and all go towards COVID relief through the CDC Foundation and World Bicycle Relief and People For Bikes.

Rebecca: And so it's a ride challenge that you do wherever you are, indoors or outdoors or run challenge. And there are four different elevation markers to hit for. One's about 5,000 feet in a day or 10 or 15, or I'm going to go for a full, what they call ever sting 29,029 feet on my bike and you choose one Hill and you go up and down as many times as you need to do it. And if you go to Rebeccasgiddyupchallenge.com or Rebeccarush.com, all the info is there, you sign up. Mostly we're all getting together for a big ride to do a good thing on that weekend.

Erik: Like looking at the thread of your life, it seems like reinvention is a huge theme. Do you have any kind of recipe for reinvention for others?

Rebecca: Yeah. I mean, I would call it evolution more than reinvention. After I came home from Blood Road, I did write down a bunch of things of like, "What is my formula?" I kind of came up with these four like equations that themes started showing up and it was a cool exercise for me to do, to write down. And I am eventually sort of been a five year process, but eventually like wrote my own personal mission statement. And I think what's interesting is like in business, every single business has a mission statement and core values, but very few humans do. When you look at your life you're like, "What I want to build my life as? What I want my legacy to be? What I stand for?" The themes for me have been that I was able to identify a risk equals reward.

Rebecca: Passion equals pay off, I have to love what I'm doing. Give equals get, there has to be a component of that it's not just about me. And then the most recent one is less equals more and that has to do with focus and not putting so many things into my life that actually if I do a little bit less, I get more out of it. And then the ultimate personal mission statement that came out of that is that, my mission is to continually inspire and challenge myself and others to be good.

Erik: I like it.

Rebecca: And the important part of the mission statement is I have to challenge me, but I also have to challenge other people. Like if I'm just giving and giving and challenging a bunch of other people and inspiring them, but not doing so for myself, then the equation doesn't work. And same if I'm just doing my own stuff, inspiring myself and doing challenges but there's not an aspect for other people, then the equation also doesn't work.

Jeff: Well, there's no doubt that right now like those are all just so solid anchor points, because I think a lot of people are kind of spinning their wheels right now. Like trying to maintain momentum as well as establish discipline. I think there's a lot of lack of discipline right now. And rightfully so, but everything you just mentioned, they're like good circle back points for people to reflect.

Rebecca: Well, what I keep saying to people is like, we are navigating right now with no map like we don't have a map, but we all still have our internal compass. And if you can articulate and write down and figure out what your internal compass is for, then they're your guidelines. Navigation, there's a term called handrails that you may not know exactly where the trail is, but you look for a handrail, which is something obvious. It's not going to change like a river or a peak and you use those. You might bounce around in the middle of the map or the train between the handrails, but you still are kind of headed in the same direction. And so if people are floundering right now and looking for their handrails, I mean find out, can you articulate what your internal compass is and what's really important to you? And right now is a perfect time to be doing that.

Jeff: Because there's always a North star, right?

Rebecca: Yeah.

Jeff: It's like there's always something there you can lead towards. It may get obscured by the clouds, but it's there. You just got to keep a charging it towards it.

Rebecca: None of us are perfect and every day, there's going to be a rollercoaster, ups and downs.

Jeff: Well, to use the metaphor that you brought up, that wound that you charter repairs. It's hard to see it when it's fully repaired while it's still in the middle of that, torn up abraded sort of perspective, it's hard to see that. And I think that's where we are right now. And it's hard to understand what healing even looks like while it's healing.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Erik: Yeah. Thanks for all you've done. All the stuff you've done to contribute to the world and through your nonprofits, through these cool projects, like the Giddy Up thing. I really appreciate it and hope to come out and do your gravel race at some point. So thanks for the time you spent with us.

Rebecca: The three of us need to plan an adventure. I think we're like kindred spirits.

Jeff: I like it. Heck, yeah.

Jeff: Yeah. What do you got?

Erik: Rebecca wasn't using the word reinvention, more evolving. And I get that but I mean, I love that because I think this No Barriers journey is about evolution, right? I mean, of course it's a science, it's about mindset and motivation and all the skills that you're building to do the things that you want to do, but it's also about being able to react and respond to the things that happen, the stimulus in your life, the hardships, the deaths, the sadness, the pain, and responding to that and allowing that stuff to be sort of a catalyst to the next step for you.

Erik: So I think it's a good thing for all of us to contemplate like how do we use this moment as a catalyst to take the next step in our lives? And that internal compass, is one of the things we have to guide us so that was excellent too-

Jeff: And I damn forgot, that was my favorite.

Erik: Well anyway, hey, if people want to learn more about No Barriers come to our virtual summit, June 26th and 27th. We'll be announcing more about and it's all going to be virtual. You can experience it from your living room. Thanks to our sponsors, Wells Fargo and Prudential, and hey, No Barriers.

Jeff: See you next time.

Erik: The production team behind this podcast includes Senior Producer, [Pauline Schaffer 00:00:17:55]. Executive Producer, Didrik Johnick. Sound design, editing and mixing by [Tyler Cottman 00:17:58]. Graphics by Sam Davis and Marketing Support by Megan Lee and Karly Sandmark. A special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song Guidance. And thanks to all of you for listening. We know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time and we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com.



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