Celebrating Women’s History in March
By Kathy Bedell, © Leadville Today
“I was riding my bike across ice that was cracking underneath my tires. I was alone. I was seeing wolf prints. I was literally howling with the wolves at night, and I made it.”
Pro-athlete Rebecca Rusch was talking about her 2019 trek at the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI), the world’s longest winter ultra-marathon held in Alaska. It was one of several dozen media interviews she did last summer in Leadville when she was in town to participate in the Women Ride the World panel discussion, as part of the Leadville Trail 100 MTB Expo. On Sunday, March 1 – notably day one of Women’s History Month – Rusch will be at the #ITI start line again, defending her top-spot on the women’s podium with a 2019 time of 3 days (!), 20 hours and 51 minutes.
“There are very few expeditions I’ve done where the commitment level is so high,” said Rusch, “where the risk factor of just messing up doesn’t mean you might not podium, it means you might lose digits or drown or not come back.”
Even the more seasoned journalists and athletes were leaning into this conversation last August as cycling chatter rued the day with racers preparing for what would be their toughest challenge: the iconic Leadville 100, a race Rusch still dominates on the record books. But this ride story is different, taking self-sufficient cyclists across tundra often described as from another planet and present-day conditions as posted on Rusch’s Facebook Page days ago: “30 inches of new snow in parts, with sub-zero temps and hungry/aggressive moose.”
“It’s the most committed thing I’ve done in ten years,” she continued, comparing it to her 1,200-mile trek down the Ho Chi Minh trail, a journey chronicled in the Emmy-award-winning film, Blood Road. “You know, the packing, the mapping, compassing the expedition. There’s a lot more that needs to happen than how many miles you can crush out into your pedals.”
But for Rusch, that kind of danger-laced DNA is also part of her leadership style, one of the core values that the “Queen of Pain” has built her career on: risk=reward. It’s that same how-to-get-from-A-to-B in the most efficient way possible approach that has translated over to Rusch’s success in other areas as well. Whether it’s her signature hometown race, Rebecca’s Private Idaho celebrating 7 years in 2020 or the #BeGood Foundation established in her father’s honor, Rusch’s passions are well-balanced on and off the trail at her Idaho home which she shares with her two trail-happy dogs (Diesel and Gracie) and her husband Greg Martin, an accomplished cyclist who will be joining Rusch on the icy trail at the ITI 350 this year.
Yet still, as Rusch spoke about what is considered “one of the most challenging experiences on the planet,” with participants braving extreme physical, environmental and mental challenges,” even the most seasoned ultra-endurance athlete leaned in to listen.
“I was really afraid. I didn’t think I could survive in that kind of terrain. I took way too much stuff,” she explained. Who could blame her? Described as “a true test of human endurance,” competitors travel 350 miles on the historic Iditarod Trail under their own power while hauling all of their survival gear with them. Only six checkpoints with food and minimal sleeping quarters are offered prior to reaching the finish line in McGrath, Alaska. Rusch’s respect for the @itialaska speaks volumes coming from a world-champion cyclist whose “clipped-in” resume tallies record-breaking-performances by the dozens.
“Last year was messy, it was really messy,” Rusch described her 2019 trek, which she won by the way. But that experience simply motivated her all the more to return this year with the confidence that she can survive the terrain, a lighter more dialed in gear load and an end goal to return in 2021 to do the big race – the ITI 1,000 – three weeks in the frozen Alaska tundra.
“When I did the 2019 Iditarod it very much played on all my weaknesses. I hate being sleepy, I hate being cold.” Which begs the question for all pro-athletes, especially the ultra-endurance variety. Why?
“I really do like the things that make my hands sweat,” said Rusch, adding, “I mean, I love riding my bike and I love going fast, but I missed the adventure.” It’s a statement that in many ways, brings Rusch’s trail full-circle, to where it all began with adventure racing, as chronicled in her book, Rusch To Glory.
But Rusch is not alone when it comes to that type of drive. The allure of exploring the Iditarod Trail draws athletes and adventurers from around the globe who have qualified to undertake the challenge of covering 350 miles of the Alaskan wilderness on bicycle, foot or skis. So #JoinTheRusch this Sunday as one of the world’s top endurance athletes rolls up to the start line, and the calendar flips the page to Women’s History Month. Fans are likely to see some heat put on the record books, blazing a fresh trail along the icy trails in Alaska!
Happy Trails and God Speed, My Rebecca Rusch!