She Emerged From The Iditarod Trail Ultra-Marathon To A Global Pandemic

She Emerged From The Iditarod Trail Ultra-Marathon To A Global Pandemic
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Who am I? What do I stand for? What am I made of?

They are the questions ultra-endurance athlete Rebecca Rusch asked herself when she was isolated deep in the Alaskan wilderness, trying not only to win the Iditarod Trail Invitational, one of the world’s most challenging ultra-marathons, but also, on a very basic level, to survive.

But after she emerged from a week on the trail in early Marchhaving made a navigational error that turned her competition into life-and-deathto news of a global pandemic, these are also the questions Rusch asks herself as she, like most of the world, shelters in place.

“Extremely challenging crisis situations like this are absolutely our opportunity to grow and learn and evolve,” Rusch says by phone from her home in Idaho. She and her husband, Greg Martin, live in Blaine County, which has one of the highest per-capita infection rates of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in the United States.

Martin, who also competed in the Iditarod Trail Invitational this year, is a firefighter at the Ketchum Fire Department. Rusch is a volunteer firefighter on top of her athletic pursuits and her running the many facts of her business, including her nonprofit, events and speaking engagements.

Now, they’re finding that the lessons they learned on the trail are eerily applicable to life in isolation.

“On the trail you’re your own first responder, to use a fire department term,” Rusch says. “There are friends and networks and digital connections we can make, but you have to save yourself, so to speak, and a time of isolation is a really good time to get to know who you are and be your best friend; to dig into your psyche and find out what you’re really made of, peel back the layers of the onion.”

Digging deep is a learned practice for Rusch, 51, who has been a Red Bull ultra-endurance athlete for 20 years and a professional athlete for three decades.

After pivoting to mountain biking relatively late in her career, she’s a seven-time World Champion and has set numerous records, including taking first overall in her first solo event, a 24-hour race in Spokane, Washington. The race she founded, Rebecca’s Private Idaho, considered one of the world’s top gravel events, raises funds for her nonprofit, Be Good™ Foundation.

Of course, in the age of COVID-19, there’s no guarantee any of the events that normally mark Rusch’s extremely busy calendar will go off as scheduled this year. Right now, all Rusch can do is try to stay in shape; work with her husband to support the Ketchum community; enjoy time with her rescue dogs, Diesel and Gracie; and try to keep her business afloat.

Oh, and reflect.

“For us, there are obviously moments where we’re outside or playing with our dogs or enjoying where we are, but there is this ongoing level of worldwide stress that we’re all feeling,” Rusch says. “People are worried about their jobs, including me. We’re all trying to find joy, but this is something none of us have gone through in our lives, and there’s a level of intensity and stress that’s there and not gonna go away for awhile.”

As Rusch tries to cope with our new shared reality, she keeps returning to the lessons she’s gleaned from her three-decade career in action sports. “We are in a time where there is no map, there is no compass,” she says. “We’re having to just look at our past experience which doesn’t really match up perfectly with where we are and draw on it to help guide us.”

Of course, it’s Rusch’s most recent experience, the most harrowing of her professional career, that’s looming large in her mind as she self-isolates, drawing eerie parallels between where she was a few weeks ago and where she is today.

This year was the second ever that Rusch competed in Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Invitational winter ultra-marathon—the “short version,” which is about 300 miles. Though she won the women’s event in 2019, it was, as she puts it, “a shitshow.” She finished “only by grit and perseverance.” “I didn’t have the right gear, I didn’t have the right confidence, and it took me 3.5 days to finish that course.”

Before she entered the 2019 race, Rusch always swore she’d never do a winter bike expedition. She has breathing problems in cold weather and poor circulation in her hands and feet—not ideal for winter endurance racing. But she decided to enter because, to that point, she hadn’t done anything in her career that required that level of commitment; quite simply, she wanted to prove to herself that she could do it. “I hadn’t done anything,” she says, “I wasn’t sure I could finish.”

And 2020 would be better, she thought. “This year, I was way more fit, way more prepared, super dialed, confident, I came back ready and prepared and was way stronger,” she says.

But in comparison, due to weather and the conditions and a navigational error, it took her seven days to finish the course. Remember—Rusch went into the 2020 event hoping to beat her 3.5-day time last year. Instead, she doubled it.

The mistake happened early on—a half-hour into the very first day. Rusch made a navigational error and ended up “hours and hours” behind her competitors. She went from thinking she had a chance to win the race to pure survival mode—alone, off the race trail, at night, in a snowstorm. “I went through the stages of grief, being mad at myself, to, no, this is serious, I am in Alaska truly alone, and I better get myself out of this situation,” she recalls.

Rusch got herself through the night, and the next day she set out to catch up with the race. Initially, she saw only signs of human activity—a bike track, footprints—but even those scant connections to other humans made her heart swell. She re-joined the race and even started passing other competitors.

She was on the lookout for one in particular—her husband, whom she had convinced to race with her this year. “When I did the first one, one of my first thoughts was, Greg needs to see this place, he would love it,” she says. “I convinced him to come, so this was his first year.”

With Rusch initially intent on trying to win it all, she and Martin didn’t plan to race together. They ride together at home in Idaho, but he wanted to give her the freedom to compete as hard as she needed to. As Rusch re-entered the race the evening after her navigational error, however, she finally came across Martin, who had pulled his bike off the trail and was bundled into his sleeping bag, napping. Not wanting to wake him, Rusch drew a heart in the snow nearby and left him a coveted piece of candy from her pack.

She continued on to the next lodge hoping that she’d run into him there, and when she did, the couple was so happy to be reconnected they decided, with winning no longer on the table for Rusch, to do the rest of the race together.

Of course, Rusch and Martin couldn’t have known the hardest part was yet to come.

Veterans who have competed in this race for 16 or 17 years later told Rusch this year brought some of the worst conditions they’d ever experienced. A combination of 50 mph winds, minus-50 temperatures and deep snow from multiple snowstorms meant the trail was blown in; Rusch estimates she walked her bike for approximately half of the 300 miles.

“We decided to do the rest of the event together, and it was really special because we didn’t know at the time the conditions were gonna turn horrific and be the ultimate survival test for us, with temperatures of minus-50—you do the calculation with wind chill, and it’s like minus-80,” Rusch says.

“It’s hard to even imagine what that feels like. But I was really grateful to have a partner and have a teammate. It was really special for our relationship. There were points where we were, like, up to our waist in snow and taking one step and pushing our bikes six inches in front of us. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, which sounds amazing to say at this point in my career.”

Rusch and Martin finally crossed the finish line in McGrath, Alaska, on March 8. As has been tradition for decades, they celebrated at the home of Peter and Tracy Schneiderheinze, who refuel finishers with their infamous “mancakes,” which require 500 eggs to prepare, washed down with beer from nearby Denali Brewing.

Even there, news of the growing epidemic—just days away from being classified a global pandemic by the World Health Organization—hadn’t reached the group. It was only as Rusch and Martin traveled home to Idaho by way of Anchorage and Seattle that the dire situation began to reveal itself. In a way, it was like they had jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.

“It didn’t really hit home until we traveled through Seattle to get home, and the airport is empty, and we’re seeing CNN running on all the televisions,” Rusch recalls. Normally, she says, after she returns from a major competition there’s a processing period where she reflects on everything she went through. This race experience arguably required the most decompression, and yet she hasn’t quite been able to do that work yet, moving from one crisis to another. In Ketchum, first responders from the fire department and otherwise are working to mitigate the danger in one of the country’s hardest-hit counties.

There have been three “layers” to Rusch’s experience of returning home in the midst of a pandemic. “The first layer was we’re physically tired,” Rusch says. “I think the second layer is wondering, ‘What do we do for the fire department? What about our businesses?’ And the third layer is how do I take that experience and apply it?”

Very few people will ever compete in an ultra-marathon. But Rusch has always tried to share the lessons she’s gleaned from her high-octane life with others through speaking engagements, her 2014 book, Rusch to Glory: Adventure, Risk & Triumph on the Path Less Traveled, and her recent documentary Blood Road, produced by Red Bull Media House. She believes sharing her perspective from the trail can help others cope with their new reality of isolation.

“I feel like our isolation right now, we’re in a little bit of that place where the things we love that have been part of our lives are taken away and you’re stripped down, just like on the trail, to what is truly important in your life,” she says.

“We’re all looking at those things, family, our health, a roof over our head, financial stability, suddenly those things are important, rather than the extraneous stuff that doesn’t matter anymore.”

It’s the middle of the night in Alaska for us all right now, Rusch says. And what can we do? We can’t go backward; the only thing to do is move forward. The “little shelters” we can find along the way are the friends you can call, journaling, meditation, family, pets, community work.

“I walk my dogs. I’ve been taking really small moments a day to go into my garden and move dirt around, to rake my yard. It may seem really simple, but we need to take tiny moments every day that are just ours,” Rusch says. “When deprivation happens, you appreciate the small things.”

Just like on the trail, tomorrow is a new day, and while it might be arduous, there’s nothing to do but keep moving forward—even if it’s just six inches at a time.



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