In this episode, you’ll get inspired by the extraordinary Rebecca Rusch, Adventure Athlete, World Champion, two-time Hall of Fame Inductee, Speaker, Best-selling Author, and Emmy Award Winner. Among the many accolades of “The Queen of Pain,” Rebecca is a 7x world champion in the ultra-adventure/endurance MTB (Mountain Bike), was recognized by Outside Magazine among the Top 40 Women Who’ve Made the Biggest Impact, set the FKT (Fastest Known Time) on the Arkansas High Country Route, clocking 1,041 miles in 8 straight days of pedaling 12-15 hours per day, wrote “Rusch to Glory: Adventure, Risk & Triumph on the Path Less Traveled,” and got an Emmy Award for her film Blood Road, which documents her pedaling of the 1,200-mile Ho Chi Minh trail in search of the crash site that claimed my father’s life in the Vietnam War.
Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host. We’re honored and privileged to have you join us. Wonderful listeners, you inspire us. We have an amazing guest with us today. She is a world-class explorer, professional athlete, acclaimed speaker, and author who brings her wilderness wisdom to top trailblazers to reach the heights of human performance and leadership, business, and life. Welcome, Rebecca Rusch.
Rebecca Rusch: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Steve Shallenberger: It’s gonna be fun for all of us today. Before we get started, I’m going to explain why. I’ll tell you a little bit more about Rebecca. Simultaneous with her record-setting journey as an athlete, Rebecca launched three thriving organizations: Rusch Ventures, The Be Good Foundation, and Rebecca’s Private Idaho. Can’t wait to hear about that. Her award-winning film, Blood Road, inspires evolution through the story of becoming the first person to bike the entire 1,800-kilometer Ho Chi Minh Trail. Rusch to Glory: Adventure, Risk & Triumph on the Path Less Traveled, Rebecca’s bestselling memoir, weaves lessons of grief and failure, the mind-body connection, and endurance, perseverance, and resilience. Rebecca’s powerful framework of speaking engagements centers on human potential, holistic performance, failure as fuel, and lessons of endurance, perseverance, and resilience from her years of reflection and work on her inner and outer being. She delivers the tools top leaders need to unlock their hidden edge and reach the pinnacle of performance with unbreakable strength, unshakeable confidence, and transformative vulnerability. All right, way to go. Let’s get right into this, Rebecca. Tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that have had a significant impact on you.
Rebecca Rusch: Well, thank you for that amazing introduction. As you can tell from sort of the accolades, I’ve been a lifelong athlete in various endurance sports and an entrepreneur in the sports industry, building my own sponsorship model, athlete business speaker, and events, all while competing at the world-class level and really exploring the world. I have a business and marketing degree from college, and I was always drawn to sports as a young kid just for the community, fitness, and the fun. So, I looked for work in health clubs; I opened a chain of rock climbing gyms. And really, the first big turning point in my career was actually leaving that inspiring job, what I thought was a dream job of running and opening climbing gyms. It’s what I felt I’d studied for, but I realized my path that I needed to be outdoors, and I needed to explore more, and that four walls weren’t the place for me. So, I left that job and began traveling for different sports competitions. And really, being a good athlete was kind of my ticket to travel and see the world. So, I kept kind of cashing that ticket in, thinking like, “Okay, one day this will end, and I have to get a real job.” But eventually, after that evolved into a lifestyle, a career, and really, three decades later, I was still competing, have crafted a multifaceted sports business around on exploring, storytelling, and now educating people. And there was a second really big turning point that I’m glad you asked about, and that was in 2013, when I did the biggest, most impactful, most important ride of my life down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, that’s the film “Blood Road.” And that journey through Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia was a massive expedition, but really with the goal to go exploring, but to go to the place where my father’s plane was shot down during the Vietnam-American conflict, and he died there 45 years before I went there. But going there really helped me hear his words, which were “Be good.” That’s how he signed all of his letters home. And I left there with an understanding and a purpose that my career was about a lot more than standing on podiums, or the top of a mountain, but instead, to help others reach their summit and their mountain. And so that’s the turning point where I launched the film, speaking engagements, The Be Good Foundation, and still competing and exploring, but now through the lens of helping other people reach their summits.
Steve Shallenberger: Okay, so tell us about The Be Good Foundation. What is that? I love it. That’s what we believe. That’s what we work on. That’s our inspiration, Becoming Your Best. Tell us about that.
Rebecca Rusch: Yeah, and those words, he signed all of his letters home with the word “Be good.” So, I took his words to heart. The foundation, we use the bicycle as a catalyst for healing, empowerment, and evolution. So that may be doing bike rides for military to recover from PTSD, or bikes in Africa for kids to get to school, or trail work in our local community. So it’s really using movement and the outdoors and the vehicle — or the bicycle — to help people and communities heal and evolve. Thank you for asking about that. It’s been really fun to combine my work and my passion with my dad’s words, and then bringing other people into the outdoors and into movement.
Steve Shallenberger: I already feel connected to you and your dad. So, good going. I love it — what an inspiration. He must have been an amazing guy.
Rebecca Rusch: I think he is. A lot of people say that that trip must have been closure, but actually, it felt like it was an opening for me to hear his words, to get to know people that served with him, to be in the place where he was. So, it was a pretty powerful ride.
Steve Shallenberger: Rebecca, as a world-class, ultra-endurance athlete, what have you learned in all of your outdoor endeavors around the world? And how do these learnings apply to highly successful leaders?
Rebecca Rusch: Yeah, I love that question. Because people ask me, “Oh, you’ve been doing this for so long. Why do you keep going out and doing all this crazy stuff?” And for me, ther are so many lessons that I’m starting to recognize now, from decades on the trail, climbing mountains, navigating through forests. I can look back at my career and realize that I thought I was training for these races all along. But now I realize that there are training grounds for not just athletic success, but for success in life and relationships and leadership skills. As humans, we don’t get an operating manual, we don’t get instructions on how to do it. So we have to figure it out ourselves. And what I’ve learned and passing on to others is that you take on athletic challenges in the outdoor world. This is the perfect training grounds to practice things like that you talk about in your book, things like commitment, resilience, adaptability, failure, teamwork, goal setting, and communication, many of the 12 principles can actually be practiced outdoors on the trail. So when you do get to the boardroom, you’ve actually got a skill set that you’ve been practicing all along.
Steve Shallenberger: Oh, that is terrific. What are some of the insights, or connections, that you’ve had? And, you just mentioned them; what would you say are the top two or three that have helped you excel as an athlete at the level you’re at, and in leadership?
Rebecca Rusch: Well, that failure is really a prerequisite for success; you cannot avoid it. It’s part of the game. It’s actually part of the learning. And the second thing is that you’re never done learning. Being a lifelong student, a lifelong learner, a lifelong athlete, there’s always something new to learn. We often think we graduate college, or we get this big job, or get promoted, and then we’ve got it all figured out. And as good leaders and executives know, hopefully, you’re always learning; you’re leading, but you’re learning at the same time.
Steve Shallenberger: Brilliant answer. I love that. What a perspective and way to describe that! Now, Rebecca, your nickname is “The Queen of Pain.” So, what does that mean? And what is your relationship to pain? I’m grateful you talked about failure. I’m sure pain is part of that. But can you go into that a little bit more?
Rebecca Rusch: Yeah, I was given that nickname, “The Queen of Pain,” really, for the super intense, difficult exhibitions I do: things like 24-hour mountain bike racing, and events that take a week to complete with very little sleep, no stopping. I was given that nickname, “Queen of Pain,” but I think it’s misinterpreted a little bit. And I think the word “pain” kind of gets a bad rap. It’s sort of a four-letter word for some people, and we try to avoid it a lot of times. In sport, you hear people often say, “Oh, I’m going into the pain cave,” as a phrase for doing something really hard. But I have a little bit of a different take on that. Pain — it’s not a cave that you go into, and go in the fetal position and hide in the dark, and then come out the same entrance that you went in. I actually like to think of pain, or doing hard things, really, as a tunnel; I call it the “pain portal.” And pain is a tunnel. So doing something super hard, you’re tackling—whether it’s raising a family or getting a promotion or doing a presentation—is hard and difficult. And you enter into a pain tunnel. Because really, there’s no way through but through. And when you get to the other side of it, you’ve navigated your way through that challenge, there’s light at the end, and you actually exit a different way than you came in, and you exit stronger and more resilient. For reference, if any one of the listeners think about something really hard that you’ve done. You can look back, in hindsight is 2020. And go, “Yeah, I’m glad I pushed through. I learned a lot from that. I’m a better, stronger person because I pushed through that hard thing.” So, “Queen of Pain,” it’s really about pushing yourself through those pain tunnels, pain portals, because on the other side is a stronger, more resilient you.
Steve Shallenberger: Rebecca, about a year ago, I have really a terrific podcast guest who had played professional basketball for nine years. I loved one of his comments. He said, “Discipline leads to confidence, and confidence leads to success.” And I’ve loved that connection of words, really. But for him—at least, and I think maybe for you, and many others who have been able to achieve at a high level—they’ve had to discipline themselves. How have you found the best way to discipline yourself? Or what can you recommend to us, in the listeners, that can help them discipline to get through those harder times?
Rebecca Rusch: Honestly, it’s small steps. And you’re right discipline, to achieve anything, a college education, whatever; it’s all in small steps, daily habits, that eventually, over years and decades, and a lifetime, make up who you are. There’s someone to say, “Be the person that your dog thinks you are.” Or really, it’s almost like fake it till you make it, and the discipline of simply getting up early, or focusing on your sleep and hydration, and some simple things that we do as athletes. You don’t climb a mountain by getting to the summit first; you plan, you train, and you take one step up, over and over again. So, I think often high achievers, we look at something we want to attain that’s really big, and it seems too big. So often, we simplify and take it back down a level, and be like, “Okay, what will I do today?” And that really is kind of an athlete mindset to training and discipline.
Steve Shallenberger: You are a big proponent of people living an athletic lifestyle and embracing an athletic mindset to achieve high performance. So, how do you do that, take that, and apply that in other areas of life?
Rebecca Rusch: I mean, we already talked about how physical challenges are a great training ground for life and leadership skills—to go practice failure and getting up again. But there’s a bigger picture in the athlete lifestyle that I think is really critical for high performance in any endeavor. People are catching on to this, or science is catching on, but you simply can’t perform at your best in any career if you neglect your physical health. And working harder, working more hours—that is not the key to actually being your best. And you talk about that in your book, about balance—the brain and the body simply won’t function better if you stop moving. We have a bit of a mental health and physical health crisis in our world; people have stopped moving, and they’ve stopped going outside. We’re seeing the effects on the brain and body. You just simply function better when you move. And I have a phrase that I like to use: that’s “Movement is medicine.” It’s preventative medicine, and it’s also emergency medicine. And we’re all looking for this magic pill for performance. And honestly, it comes from the body and moving your body. So when you move, you get blood flow, you get circulation of the lymph system, you get improved sleep and concentration, you get mood enhancement, better creativity. There are all sorts of amazing neurochemicals that are released. So, for high-performing humans, I really try to communicate that the body thrives when you live an athletic lifestyle; the whole machine just works better when you move. And so, taking on an athletic lifestyle, you don’t have to go bike up and down Kilimanjaro, but putting movement into your daily life really is the key to unlocking your absolute best performance.
Steve Shallenberger: I love that answer. I just read an article based on some pretty significant research, adding to your list of things that come from movement: reduced inflammation.
Rebecca Rusch: Yes. Science is catching up. We all kind of know, “Okay, I should do more exercise.” But science is now really proving that you have to do it if you want to perform well.
Steve Shallenberger: So, how have you navigated, Rebecca, your career in sports, and in leadership, and doing other things? How do you bring balance in important areas of your life?
Rebecca Rusch: I will say my career was really circuitous. It wasn’t planned; I didn’t have a 10-year or 20-year plan or anything like that. And after I rode the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 2013, I did the biggest, most important ride of my life. And I came back from that trip actually feeling kind of lost, like, “Well, what do I do now?” I looked backward at my history, in order to move forward. I was in a pretty dark place, like, “I don’t really know what’s next.” What I did is I looked back at all the pivotal moments in my life where I felt like I was winning or was really thriving, and I looked for common themes, and looked for things that like, “Okay, when things were going well, I felt good; these things were happening.” And so, I looked for common themes, and I developed what I call now my navigational handrails; my compass bearing is “Be good,” from that ride, and the navigational handrails, they’re really themes that I already knew but I hadn’t articulated them. So, I’ll share those with you and then I’ll give a little, maybe homework for people who are maybe looking to develop their own navigational tools for life. When I looked backward, I came up with a few navigational tools, and one is “Risk equals reward,” when I’m doing something that’s a little scary, it usually pays off for me; “Passion equals payoff,” I have to love what I’m doing and want to be doing it; “Give equals get.” And that’s where it’s not just about me—I get more out of it if I’m bringing other people in, I’m giving back to the world; “Less equals more.” That’s about focus, not taking on too many things, saying no to some things; and the final one is “Movement equals medicine.” I have to be moving in order to feel and perform at my best. So those are the navigational tools that I developed. Again, looking backward in order to go forward. So, for people who are wanting to develop their own navigational handrails, you can look back at pivotal moments in your life, look for the themes. And really, the answers are already in you. And we often, in business, we make our vision statement and all that. But we don’t do it for ourselves—our own human operating system. So, that was how I developed my navigational tools. And now, when I’m stuck, or not sure about something, I go back to those and say, “Okay, am I checking these navigational tools that I developed for myself?”
Steve Shallenberger: That’s good. I’ve just been thinking of something you can help us with, I think, Rebecca. For us mere mortals that may not be at the ultra-performance, high performance like you, and maybe some others, what are some recommendations of how we can have this, if you will, athletic mindset and skillset to just maintain good health? Obviously, something you’ve thought a lot about. What do you think?
Rebecca Rusch: I love that you asked this because oftentimes, people get intimidated by me, and they’re like, “Well, I can’t do what you do. So I’m just not going to do any of it.” And it’s really quite simple. So, you don’t have to ride up and down Kilimanjaro, or you don’t have to do the Ho Chi Minh Trail. You simply start—this is what every athlete does—three things: You start by prioritizing sleep, you start by prioritizing nutrition, and hydration. So that’s where you start. Simple. Those three things. The fourth thing that you add is movement—movement is medicine. And this can be doing a walking meeting, this can be doing ten push-ups between each Zoom call, this can be joining a local 5k and getting your neighbors to do it with you. Having family hiking outings for a picnic, instead of going out to dinner, walk out and take a picnic out in nature, take the stairs instead of the escalator. So, there are really simple ways. If you look at your day, “Where can I put a little movement in?” And then also prioritizing sleep, nutrition, and hydration. And that is going to catapult your performance into—you’ll be living like an athlete, really. And so hopefully that will lead to more; you might take on some bigger adventures, but you really start there. It’s that simple.
Steve Shallenberger: Oh, great. Thanks. I love your perspective on things. That’s a great approach. And doing that alone has a very big impact on our lives, right?
C: Huge. Sleep, hydration, nutrition, and movement—that’s it. Check those boxes every day, and you’re going to be performing at your best.
Steve Shallenberger: All right, now, I think we have enough time for you to share with us: what are some of the most fun things you’ve ever done, Rebecca, in your adventures?
Rebecca Rusch: Fun adventures — well, some highlight ones. One was biking up and down Mount Kilimanjaro, and I also did that as a fundraising trip. So, 19,000 feet and chained, and so we raised that amount of money for bikes for students in Africa, and that was enough to give some bikes to some kids there after we climbed the mountain. So, that was a really exciting adventure. I have ridden the human-powered version of the Iditarod Trail—which everyone knows is a dog sled race—but I’ve ridden that three times on my bike in the snow, self-supported. So, you put all your stuff on your bike, a sleeping bag, lights, and food. Those were pretty amazing expeditions in the winter; very remote, very committing. And then the Ho Chi Minh Trail that we talked about—I mean, riding in Southeast Asia and seeing the villages, riding through villages where no cars go, no running water, people living in huts. That was a really beautiful, exploratory ride. And as we talked about, if anyone can look up the film, Blood Road, and it does show that journey. It’s an Emmy Award-winning film, but it’ll take you on the trail with me. So, if you want to go down the Ho Chi Minh Trail with me, you can do that by watching Blood Road.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, you just provided us with a great date. A good date night, right there — watching Blood Trail. Well, worth the end of our interview. It’s gone so fast, been so fun. I know our listeners have picked up some ideas; I have, for sure. Any final tip that you could leave with our listeners today, Rebecca?
Rebecca Rusch: I guess the final tip, we’ve talked about a lot of things to do. But really, just start; honestly, take that first step of whatever mountain you’re going to climb. Take the first step.
Steve Shallenberger: How can people find out about you?
Rebecca Rusch: You can find me on my website; it’s RebeccaRusch.com. On social media, the same. So, I’d love to connect with people and maybe join me on an adventure.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, thank you, Rebecca Rusch, for being part of this show today. You’re having a huge impact in the world for good. Thank you so much.
Rebecca Rusch: Thank you, Steve. Be good.
Steve Shallenberger: We’ll do that. I’m working on that one. And to all of our listeners, thanks for joining us today. Thanks for you working on doing good, being good, and making a difference in your life. This is Steve Shallenberger, signing off. Talk to you later.
CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, and Community Leader
Adventure Athlete, 7x World Champion, Public Speaker, Emmy Award Winner