For Rebecca Rusch, the danger of losing her fingers and toes to Iceland’s hostile landscape compelled her to take on one of her most challenging expeditions to-date — a 327-mile biking trail and 25,600 vertical-foot climb across Iceland’s snowfields and glaciers.
Despite passing active volcanoes and treading near arctic tundras, Rusch says the prospect of braving below freezing temperatures was what captivated her. “I was really scared of the environment,” she tells CNN Sport. “The cold was really the last frontier for me.” From becoming the first person to ride the entire length of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 2015 to achieving the status of seven-time world champion in multiple sports, the 52-year-old ultra-endurance athlete has crossed many an uncharted territory.
Before setting her sights on pristine landscapes, Rusch has memories of running through the woods in Chicago’s sprawling suburbia. “There was always this explorer curiosity aspect to what I was doing, even as a child,” she says. “I was born with that.” Her first entry into endurance sports was through her high school cross-country team. “I felt like I really belonged somewhere for the first time.” She built up her confidence and later moved out west, combining her business marketing degree with her love of indoor sports to open a chain of rock climbing gyms in California. In the 1990s, she discovered adventure racing, a fringe endeavor that grew in popularity with the birth of Eco-Challenge. Produced by Mark Burnett of Apprentice and Survivor fame, the reality TV show followed athletes who raced across 300 mile courses in harsh terrains from Fiji to Maine to Morocco, in which Rusch was a participant. “I never thought I would be a professional athlete, it wasn’t in my career plan,” she says. “I was just doing something that made me feel whole and inspired me.”
When the show went off-air in 2002, the sport of adventure racing lost sponsorship and funding. Rusch’s career as a professional athlete was in flux. She eventually made the decision to move to Idaho and got a part-time job as a volunteer firefighter, something she still does to this day. But her journey was far from over.A friend recommended she take up mountain biking, and Rusch went on to win multiple events including three 24-hour solo mountain bike World Championships, Idaho’s Short Track state championship and a state Cyclocross title. Nearly 15 years later, she’s just as committed to her sense of adventure. “Being an ultra-endurance athlete? It is my life.”