Endurance champion talks ‘Blood Road’ before Breck Film Fest
September 21, 2017
Endurance champion Rebecca Rusch pedaled 1,200 miles along the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail to reach the final resting place of her father, Stephen A. Rusch, an Air Force pilot shot down over Laos 40 years earlier.
Rusch's grueling journey is detailed in the documentary "Blood Road," one of a number of films that will be shown this weekend at the Breckenridge Film Festival.
"Blood Road" will play at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Riverwalk Center. The screening will be followed by a discussion with Rusch, a four-time winner of the Leadville 100 MTB and seven world championships in multiple sports. Tickets are $20 each at BreckFilmFest.org.
Prior to the screening, people can join Rusch and the women of Mountain Bike Mondays for an intermediate-level trail bike ride beginning at Carter Park in Breckenridge. The plan is for everyone to arrive around 10 a.m. and have their wheels ready to go by 10:30 a.m.
Ahead of Saturday's events, Rusch made time to answer a few questions about the film and her career.
Summit Daily News: Without giving away too much about the film, what did you know about your father coming into your 1,200-mile ride? What did this journey teach you?
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Rebecca Rusch: I knew he was a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War. I knew he was shot down in '72. They hadn't found his remains for about 30 years so, for a long time, we didn't know if he was missing in action, a prisoner of war or if he had died.
Most of my life growing up, I knew my dad had been shot down, and that's kind of all that we knew. I was 3 when he was shot down so I don't have any personal memories. Really, the things I knew about him came from stories from my mom and my grandmother, but I don't have any of my own. … That was the history we had.
Then they finally did find his remains and confirm he died in a crash; that was in 2007.
We could talk for hours about what the journey taught me, but the biggest part: Obviously, it was a really amazing expedition to plan this route and map out what was an intentionally secretive trail, to try to put together a historically accurate route.
There was a lot of logistical planning and, you know, expedition planning that was exciting and had me diving into the history of that area a lot more. I learned a lot more about the war, the conflict, how the trail was built and what the trail meant. It was a great history lesson and to be able to ride that in person was like opening a history book but right in front of you.
All along the trail, there were still remnants of the war, people who remember the conflict and parts of the original Ho Chi Minh Trail laid in stone that were still there. It really was a three-dimensional history lesson, but I also feel like I got to know a lot more about the current culture, who Southeast Asians are and, especially, learning about the unexploded ordnance issue is still something that's killing people every day even though the war ended 45 years ago. It's still actually hurting and killing people; that was one of the biggest surprises.
And then finally, I feel like I got to know my dad and feel closer to him that way. A lot of people will hear about the story and say, 'Oh, it's great. You must have found closure.' But it's exactly the opposite for me. It wasn't closing a book on my dad. It was getting to know the person that I haven't known my whole life. It was an opening more than a closure and more a discovery trip for me.
SDN: Why was it so important to you to do this?
RR: Really it was a combination of what I do as an adventure and endurance athlete with how my father's life ended. It was really a way for me to go looking into my own life.
If I took a plane and a car to the crash coordinates, for me, it wouldn't have been the same journey. I really feel like my life is built around endurance sports and that's part of what's important to me.
A lot of it is the 'alone time' on the trail and striping away physical comforts and defense layers to be able to experience something a little more openly and emotionally. … If I just took a car to the crash site, I wouldn't get to know my dad and really get to know a little bit of myself — a lot of myself.
SDN: You have a long list of accomplishments and awards, including seven world championships in multiple sports but certainly not limited to them. Is there one of those accomplishments that stands out in your mind? Of all the things you've done so far, which one are you most proud of?
RR: Definitely, this one — riding Blood Road, doing the journey and making it all. There are so many challenges in front of us — even though there is no world champion title at the end of riding Blood Road — I'm definitely most proud of this one.
SDN: Being a female athlete who often smashes glass ceilings, can you talk about how sports treat men and women differently and how you've dealt with the double standard?
RR: Well, it's not the sport that treats men and women differently. It's people that do. I mean, the trail doesn't know if you're male or female — it doesn't care. I was never brought up that, 'Well, girls don't do this,' or 'Women don't take that career path.' That was never a vocabulary that my mom, my sister or my grandmother (used). That didn't enter our upbringing.
To me, I grew up in a house full of girls. Dad wasn't there, and my mom was a single parent and an executive in the computer industry. My sister is a colonel in the Air Force and it's not something that I put on myself. I can't do that; it just wasn't part of how I was brought up.
It was always kind of surprising to me when I got out into the world and everyone was like, 'Oh, you're the only woman doing this.' Being a trendsetter or unique in this, I didn't really understand that at first. … I think that's been part of how I try to carry myself in my career, by teaching girls classes, getting them involved in sports and trying to set a good example that gender isn't what keeps or allows us to do something. And so, I guess the way I've dealt with those issues is when they're presented to me, I just do my best.
SDN: You often push your body and mind to the limits and beyond. Do you ever wonder if you might be a little bit insane?
RR: I don't. Maybe other people do. For me, going long distances is a way of meditation, a moving therapy and finding out who you are in the quiet time on the trail.
I'm most at home out there, and I do feel like things that are worthwhile are a struggle, and the hard things that we do end up being the most rewarding because of the lessons they provide along the way. So no, I don't think I'm crazy. I feel least crazy when I'm out on the trail going long distances.
There are definitely times it's painful, and I wonder why I am I pushing myself so hard, but I feel like the question is always answered, it's just not right in front of you. Maybe, it takes me a long time to get some of those answers.
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