It smacks of cliché: person quits job, seeks adventure, achieves success and writes memoir. And yet, how many of us actually do it? Rebecca Rusch left her job as co-owner and manager of a rock climbing gym in LA nearly two decades ago to compete in adventure races and off-road cycling events, living out of her car to save money. Over the past two decades she’s netted multiple national and world titles in events ranging from the Eco Challenge, an adventure race, to off-road cycling events like the Leadville Trail 100 and Dirty Kanza 200 — not to mention sponsorships from Red Bull and Specialized. Today her focus is biking: she continues to race and organizes her own event in her hometown, Ketchum, Idaho, where she’s also a firefighter and EMT. We caught up with Rusch to talk gravel racing, life decisions and porterhouse steaks.
Q. What’s one thing every person should know?
That it’s okay to take a risk — and that’s where the best stuff happens in life. For me, deciding to leave California and live out of my car (so I wouldn’t have to pay rent) and do the Eco Challenge worked out for me. It launched a whole athletic career that’s lasted 20 years now. I was part owner and manager of a rock climbing
gym in Los Angeles at the time, and it was a scary decision. I went to college and had a degree in marketing and, on paper, had a killer job. Then I lived out of my car and was pretty homeless for probably five or six years. The hardest part was there was no sense of place or home. Holidays would roll around and I wouldn’t have somewhere to unpack and have my stuff. That weighed on me after a while…and never being able to find anything in the truck.
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
There’re plenty of things that if you’d asked me in the moment, I’d say that was the hardest thing I’d ever done. Adventure racing was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done in terms of sports. Bike races are hard, but you’re never afraid you’re going to get eaten by an alligator. Right now it feels like writing this book (my memoir) is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Q. What are you working on right now?
I’m working on the book and building my event, Rebecca’s Private Idaho
, and SRAM Gold Rusch
events and clinics. It’s a lot of building around what I’ve done and sharing it and passing it on. I get paid and get people riding and have a good time myself — that’s an awesome deal. But that doesn’t mean I’m done racing yet.
I’m pretty inward in a race. I’m not elbowing or talking smack.
Q. Name one thing you can’t live without.
It’d probably be my home and my sense of place with my house and my boyfriend and my dog. Part of it is leading a nontraditional career path and all the uncertainty of living out of my car, living hand-to-mouth, and never knowing if I’d be able to afford health insurance next month or have a medical bill. All the freedom I’ve had has weighed on me. The symbolism of being able to buy a grown-up house in a beautiful town is a sense of security and comfort that I haven’t ever really had. The last time I had a house with a garage was living in my mother’s house in high school.
Q: Who or what influences you?
Some of my early mentors were my high school cross country coach, who introduced me to sports, and my mom, who was a single parent. I learned to work pretty hard because she worked pretty hard. I just came back from a Red Bull training camp where they pull athletes together from different sports — whether it’s a Formula One driver or Lindsey Vonn or an Olympic ski jumper. Getting to meet people at the top of their game is pretty cool. I meet people every day who inspire me. I can relate to following a passion.
Q. What are you reading right now?
My own book and my own stories about myself. Yeah, I’m reading about myself. It’s kind of cool, though, because I’m reading old race reports. I’m able to process why I did some of the things I did, why I quit the cross country team in college at the University of Illinois or why I moved out west. I can look back and see the reasoning for why I made some of those choices. My decisions make sense to me. I don’t regret any of them.
Q. Name one thing no one knows about you.
I was an aerobics instructor in college. It was the tights, the leotard, the leg warmers, the whole ’80s thing. That was when I quit the cross country running team and I was a little lost. I didn’t have sports to do or a community of people. I knew I didn’t want to get fat in college so I looked for a job at the health club and they didn’t have openings except for the aerobics instructor — so that’s what I did. This one woman made up the routines and you just followed them. It was memorizing the routine in front of the mirror and then getting people jumping around. I was really glad there were no college students in the classes. I got a free membership, made a little money and learned some sweet moves.
What dorm will I live in? What if I get in a car accident? Then you get in one and you’re okay. You survive all the ups and downs and make it through.
Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A vodka martini — Grey Goose or Chopin, top shelf, for sure — and a really nice steak, grass-fed porterhouse, probably.
Q. If you could go back and tell your 16 year old self something, what would you say?
Chill out and don’t worry so much because everything is going to be okay. I was kind of a stress case as a kid. I don’t know why. I didn’t really have anything to stress about. Everything was dramatic. We had to fend for ourselves a little bit, but then you get to college and start to see that everything kind of works out okay. What dorm will I live in? What if I get in a car accident? Then you get in one and you’re okay. You survive all the ups and downs and make it through, but when you’re young you don’t think you will.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as a competitor but a nice person. Those two things hit most of it. I’m pretty inward in a race. I’m not elbowing or talking smack. I’m serious and intense and don’t say anything — but it’s all happening inside.