Called the “world’s greatest female endurance cyclist,” six-time world champion Rebecca Rusch owns numerous victories in multiple ultra endurance races, including the Leadville Trail 100, Dirty Kanza 200, and holds the record on the 142-mile Kokopelli Trail. Rebecca also works as a part-time firefighter and EMT for the Ketchum Fire Department.
by Rebecca Rusch
Throughout my life I’ve been incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to shape a fulfilling athletic career. I’ve been racing and competing in one sport or another since high school, including rock climbing, kayaking, adventure racing and cross country skiing. Most recently, my career has segued into the sport of professional mountain biking. I am fortunate in that I have been able to do extremely well in the world of racing, particularly in endurance events.
It still blows my mind that my job revolves around something I love to do, and I get to enjoy amazing adventures in the process. Thanks to generous sponsors and support among my friends and family, I have experienced the thrill of standing atop numerous podiums, reveling in years of training, hard work and commitment. Through it all, I even earned the nickname “Queen of Pain,” which I proudly accept, since it encapsulates the hard work and tough grit required in the world of endurance bike racing.
As a professional athlete, I’ve gotten to travel to a myriad of amazing places, and if it weren’t for athletics, I’m not sure I would have ever had the chance to go to places like Borneo or Brazil. I’ve raced all over the globe, in some of the most sublime,
challenging and striking places in the world. Nothing is quite like my hometown of Ketchum, Idaho, however, which led me to create my own event to showcase the awesome magnitude of the mountains surrounding my little town.
Last year was my first time organizing my own race, Rebecca’s Private Idaho. I wanted to show off my backyard by presenting a grueling one hundred mile race amidst the towering, snow- capped peaks that are my training grounds. So, in 2013, I put together a long-haul gravel grinder that would take a few hundred cyclists from the streets of downtown Ketchum into the high mountain basins of the Pioneer Mountains. This was my chance to bring the world to my home turf and benefit some charities in the process.
In the days leading up to my inaugural ride, events took a surprising turn: dry temperatures, wind and lightening combined to create a formidable challenge to my race. The Beaver Creek wildfire took hold of my local community, and with it I had the unique experience of seeing my cycling career coalesce with my other passion, which is fighting fires.
If I wasn’t a professional athlete, I’d be a professional firefighter. As a part-time firefighter with the Ketchum fire department, I get to respond to all sorts of emergencies including structure fire, wild land fires, backcountry rescues and EMS calls. The only bad part of the job is that I don’t get enough time to do it.
The training challenges my brain in an entirely different way than my athlete job, and my fellow firefighters are an eclectic group of people I might never have crossed paths with if it weren’t for the fire service. It’s staggering the level of respect and trust that develops almost instantly with this type of shared job responsibility and singular focus. Fire and EMS crew always work in teams, and you are trained to walk into a burning building together or seamlessly orchestrate emergency care for a patient. The task and goal is always very clear, even if the steps of how to get there are not. It is teamwork 101 at its best.
In the fire service, adventure racing, or planning an event, I have always lived by the motto that everyone is good at something and that to get the most out of a team, people need to feel respected and be allowed to do the skill they are the most comfortable with. This way, you get the best from all of the players instead of trying to push a square peg into a round hole.
I learned a lot about this last year in the few weeks leading up to Rebecca’s Private Idaho (RPI). Little did I know that a massive wildfire would rip through the mountains just above my town, an unpredictable force that almost dashed my well-laid plans. For a moment, it seemed as if my gravel bike race was quite literally going up in smoke before my eyes.
Sixteen days out from race day, a lightening strike near Ketchum began the horrific domino effect that would lead to the biggest forest fire the Rocky Mountains would see that year. All of my planning just had a huge wrench thrown into it. I was in Canada at a SRAM Gold Rusch event when I heard the news; the fire was moving toward Ketchum and people were beginning mandatory evacuations. Twenty-four hours later, and a few hundred dollars in airline change fees, I was frantically on my way home to go to work with the Ketchum Fire Department.
By the time I got there, the blaze was completely overwhelming the Wood River Valley. The airport and most local businesses were closed, the air was filled with heavy smoke and nearly all of the residents of were evacuated. In their place, an operational camp-city had sprung up with hundreds of firefighters, rigs, and a complete command structure to deal with the 126,000 acre fire. As I drove into the black cloud, I felt like a fish swimming upstream against the mass exodus. I was the single vehicle driving north against a sea of people fleeing the scene.
The next five days were spent working 17-hour shifts doing structure protection and watching the skies turn orange. RPI’s event coordinator and its course director are also on the fire department, so all work on RPI came to a screeching halt. Our singular focus was protecting our community as the fire was quickly upgraded to a Type 1 incident. The stress of my dream being crushed and my hometown in turmoil was overwhelming. Ten days from event day, I made the somewhat educated but risky decision to go for it and host the event as planned. This decision was a huge weight on my shoulders. As a lowly firefighter, I jumped ranks in the fire service and went directly to the Operations Manager on the fire. Luckily Capt. John Kennedy from the Reno Fire Department was also an avid cyclist and he had heard I lived in the area and was on scene. He was more than willing to help me with this momentous decision. I confided in him about the details of the event and asked his opinion on the fire behavior and progression.
Capt. Kennedy consulted the head meteorologist and we pored over maps to make educated guesses on fire, smoke movement and containment. His input was somewhat reassuring, although no guarantee in any way. I was trying to predict inherently unpredictable fire behavior in hopes that the fire, now over 100,000 acres and only 20 percent contained, was going to be under control in the nick of time. Incredibly, it was. Over the next few days the fire containment numbers continued to grow and crews were slowly sent home. The tide had turned and the air was clearing.
Ketchum came back to life, and Rebecca’s Private Idaho was a much-needed celebration for a community back from the brink. As RPI visitors rolled into town, they witnessed “Thank You Firefighter” signs in nearly every business window and on every lawn. The sense of relief and joy was palpable among the locals who were rushing back into their homes. Street parties with free beer for firefighters were hosted nearly every day. I proudly wore my Ketchum Fire Department t-shirt, not ju st for the free beer, but the pride of being able to have done my small part to protect where I live.
Standing at the start line on race day and looking at my friends, the smoke-free sky and the banner overhead with my name in bold letters brought tears to my eyes, tears of exhaustion, joy and pride. People came. Sponsors believed in me. Everyone pitched in. Riders were smiling and ready to roll 100 miles through my beloved training grounds. A huge weight had been lifted and I felt light as a feather. As our announcer called, “Three. Two. One. Giddy up,” I crossed my personal finish line and settled in for my favorite ride of the year and one of my proudest accomplishments. A lump formed in my throat and I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face. I rode with a ton of different people that day, chatting, fixing flats, taking pulls, snapping photos, offering motivation, socializing at aid stations and rolling across the finish in the middle of the pack. It was the best ride I’ve ever done. I closed out the day celebrating with live music and plenty of flowing beer being slung across a table for Gelande Quaffing. Don’t know what that is? Look it up. It was the perfect end to a fantastic ride.
I have high hopes for this event becoming a legacy of mine. I want even more people to know about the scenery, the hospitality, and the sheer perfection that my Idaho home offers cyclists. More than that, after so many years living as a nomad and laying my head down in so many different towns, Ketchum welcomed me with open arms immediately. I knew I was home the first week I arrived. There was no pretense, no cliques, just small town hospitality and jaw-dropping terrain. This is what I want people to feel when they come to Rebecca’s Private Idaho. The mountains sell themselves. But my mission is to make people feel like they’re coming home too, that they are Idaho locals; if only for a few days. The fact that this takes place from the seat of a bike is just a convenience, something we all share that helps us reach a bigger, better understanding of what’s important in the world around us.
What is “Rebecca’s Private Idaho,” and why you should join this cycling challenge? Q & A with Rebecca Rusch by Christine Colbert
Q: Other than showcasing the beautiful scenery around your hometown, what are some other factors that motivated you to put on such a big event?
As much as Rebecca’s Private Idaho is about the ride itself, it’s also about using the bike to do more than just raise heart rates and take in the sights. This ride benefits three great organizations that are very close to my heart: The Wood River Bike Coalition, our local voice for trail-building and bike policy; PeopleForBikes.org, the nation’s top-shelf all-around bike advocacy group; and World Bicycle Relief, an organization bringing practical bikes to villages in Africa in order to provide independence and improve quality of life. Last year, we raised over $7,500 for these charities and I want to improve on that number each year that we do this.
Q: Can you give us an idea of what the course is like?
There are two route offerings for this fully supported ride: the 95- mile “Big Potato” and a 50-mile “Small Fry.” You can ride the race to win, or treat it like a grand fondo and take in the scenery. Both leave Ketchum together and take you over the hotly contested Trail Creek Summit segment. This dirt road climbs more than 1000 feet and is a regular punish wagon for local hammerheads. At the top of Trail Creek Summit, the course travels into the remote and beautiful Copper Basin. The Small Fry reaches Wild Horse Creek, offers a stunning view of the Pioneer Mountains just before riders turn back towards home. The Big Potato continues further and does a lap around Copper Basin Loop road and then heads back to Ketchum. All riders will end with an exciting descent down Trail Creek Summit as they roll into Ketchum.
Q: We hear you throw a pretty decent party afterwards. What do you have planned for this year?
We throw a big street festival on Ketchum’s town square as riders start returning across the finish line. This year we’ll have live music, food trucks, vendors and a gelande quaffing competition thanks to the help of Smith Optics. The race occurs around Sun Valley’s “Wagon Days” weekend, so we like to call our celebration the “Off the Wagon Days” festival. We’ll have a kickin’ band, and Nissan will even be there to show off some jacked up new Titans. We might even have some baked potatoes too.
Q: Any last words of motivation?
It’s a cyclist’s paradise here. A lot of people say that about their hometown, but give me a day with you in the saddle and I think I’ll have you convinced. Join me on August 31, 2014, and in future races. We promise a spectacular day on the bike for a challenging, spectacular day on the bike and get in on the unlikely grandeur of Rebecca’s Private Idaho. And for my fellow firefighters, we even have a fire services discount. Come see us in Ketchum, and the mountains we worked so hard to save.