Rebecca Rusch Biked the Entire Ho Chi Minh Trail to Find Her Father's Crash Site
It was as much an emotional journey as it was a physical one for the championship-winning endurance athlete.
All photos: Josh Letchworth/Red Bull Content Pool
Rebecca Rusch earned the nickname Queen of Pain for conquering some of the world's most extreme races (in mountain biking, cross-country skiing, and adventure racing). But for the majority of her life she's been battling a different kind of pain: the grief of losing her father when she was just 3 years old.
Steve Rusch, a U.S. Air Force pilot, was shot down over the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos during the Vietnam War. His crash site was found in 2003, the same year his daughter first traveled to Vietnam. She was there for an adventure race-hiking, biking, and kayaking through the jungle-and it was the first time she wondered if this is what her father had experienced while he was deployed. "We went to see some of the old battlefields and where my dad was stationed at Da Nang Air Force Base, and that was the first time in my life I sort of dove into his personal history of being in the war," says Rusch. When a guide pointed out the Ho Chi Minh trail in the distance, Rusch remembers thinking, I want to go there one day.
It took another 12 years before Rusch returned to the trail. In 2015, Rusch set out to bike 1,200 miles through Southeast Asia in the hopes of finding her dad's crash site. It was a physically grueling trip-Rusch and her biking partner, Huyen Nguyen, a competitive Vietnamese cross-country cyclist, rode the entirety of the Ho Chi Minh trail-called Blood Road on account of how many people died there during America's carpet-bombing of the area in the Vietnam War-in just under a month. But it was the emotional element of the trip that left a lasting mark on the 48-year-old. "It really was pretty special to be able to combine my sport and my world with what I know was the last part of my dad's world," she says. (Related: 5 Life Lessons Learned from Mountain Biking)
You can watch Blood Road for free on Red Bull TV (trailer below). Here, Rusch opens up about just how much the trip changed her.
Shape: Which aspect of this trip was harder for you: the physical undertaking or the emotional element?
Rebecca Rusch: I've trained for my whole entire life for long rides like this. While it's hard, it's much more of a familiar place. But to open your heart emotionally, I'm not trained for that. Athletes (and people) train to put up this hard exterior and to show no weakness, really, so that was hard for me. Also, I was riding with people who were strangers in the beginning. I'm not used to being so vulnerable in front of people I didn't know. I think that's part of why I had to ride those 1,200 miles instead of just going to the crash site via car and hiking in. I needed all those days and all those miles to physically strip away the layers of defense that I built up.
Shape: Making a personal journey like this with a stranger is a huge risk. What if she can't keep up? What if you don't get along? What was your experience like riding with Huyen?
RR: I had a lot of trepidation about riding with someone I didn't know, someone whose first language wasn't English. But what I found out on the trail was that we are lot more similar than we are different. For her, riding 1,200 miles was 10 times bigger of an ask than it was for me. Her racing, even in her prime, was an hour and half long. Physically, I was her teacher, showing her how to use a CamelBak and how to put up a test, how to use a headlamp and how to ride at night, and that she could do a lot more than she thought she could. But on the flip side, she was probably more enlightened than I am emotionally, and she really escorted me into new emotional territory.
Shape: Most endurance challenges are about reaching the finish line; this journey was about reaching the crash site for you. How did you feel when you reached the site versus when you reached the end?
RR: Getting to the site was very emotionally stressful to me. I'm used to doing stuff alone, and so working with a team and especially trying to document this trip, I had to go at the pace of the team. It almost would have been easier if I did it alone, because I wouldn't have been tethered, I wouldn't have been forced to slow down-but I really think the film and Huyen forcing me to slow down was a lesson that I needed to learn.
At the crash site was like this huge weight had been lifted, like a hole that I didn't know was there my whole life had been filled. So the second part of the trip was more about absorbing that, and arriving in Ho Chi Minh City was so celebratory. I went on a ride to go look for my dead father, but at the end, my living family was there waiting for me and celebrating this journey. It made me realize that I need to hold on to that, too, and tell them I love them and really be in the moment with what I have right in front of me.
Shape: Do you feel like you found what you were looking for?
RR: A lot of people who haven't seen the film are like, oh, you must have gotten closure, but how sad, I'm so sorry. But I actually feel like it's a hopeful and happy film, because I did connect with him. He's gone and I can't change that, but I feel like I did change the relationship I have with him now. And in the process, I got to know my whole family, my sister and my mom, better, too-so it is a happy ending, in my opinion.
Shape: Has it gotten easier, since taking this trip and talking about your experience, to be more open and vulnerable with strangers?
RR: Yes, but not because it's easier for me. I'm learning that the more honest I am, the better the connection I have with the people watching the film. I think people assume that a hardcore athlete is just going to be super strong and never have any fears or vulnerability or cry or have any self-doubt, but I'm learning that the more I'm open and admit those things, the more people get strength from that. Instead of critiquing you, people see themselves in you, and I really feel like that honesty is crucial to human connection. And it's exhausting to try and be strong and perfect all the time. To let your guard down and say, yeah, I'm afraid or this is hard, there's almost a freedom in admitting it.
Shape: What's next?
RR: One of the most unexpected layers of this trip was learning about how this war that ended 45 years ago is still killing people-there are 75 million unexploded bombs in Laos alone. I honestly feel like my dad brought me there to help clean up and help with the recovery of unexploded ordnance (UXO). A lot of the Blood Road film tour has been fundraising for Mines Advisory Group in Laos in my dad's name. I also partnered with a jewelry company, Article 22, in New York, which makes really beautiful bracelets from the scrap aluminum war metal and bombs in Laos that are cleared, and I'm helping sell bracelets to raise money that goes back to Laos to clean up unexploded ordnance in my dad's name. And then I'm also hosting mountain biking trips back there; I'm just getting ready to go on my second one. It's something that I didn't expect to come from my bike racing, and really a way for me to use my bike as a vehicle for change. The ride's over, but the journey is still going.