Despite passing active volcanoes and walking near arctic tundras, Rusch says the prospect of braving sub-zero temperatures was what captivated her.
“I was really scared of the environment,” she told CNN Sport. “The cold was really the last frontier for me.”
Before setting his sights on pristine landscapes, Rusch remembers running through the woods of the sprawling Chicago suburbs. “There was always that aspect of explorer’s curiosity in what I did, even as a kid,” she says. “I was born with this.”
His first entry into endurance sports was through his high school cross country team. “I really felt out of place somewhere for the first time.”
She gained self-confidence and then moved west, combining her degree in business marketing with her love of indoor sports to open a chain of climbing gyms in California.
“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.”
Rusch’s career as a professional athlete was changing. She eventually made the decision to move to Idaho and got a part-time job as a volunteer firefighter, which she still does to this day.
But his journey was far from over.
Almost 15 years later, she is just as attached to her sense of adventure. “Being an ultra-endurance athlete? This is my life.”
In 2015, Rusch took her quest for self-discovery to a new level when she set out to hike 1,200 miles on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
“Growing up, it was hard to cry for someone I didn’t know,” she says. “It wasn’t until I really hiked the Ho Chi Minh Trail and went to where he died that I really felt it for the first time.”
Since then, she has inherited her father’s memories from meeting people who knew him, including the son of the man who buried his father all those years ago. “We were extremely connected,” she says.
Rusch also forged a close relationship with his Vietnamese riding partner Huyen Nguyen, a decorated cross-country cyclist whose father faced American resistance during the war.
“We didn’t need language to communicate,” she says. “We both came together to heal and forgive, and using the bike as a tool has been a really special journey.”
She uses the foundation to create opportunities for outdoor exploration, personal discovery, and humanitarian service locally, nationally and globally.
“I distinctly feel he got me to allow ourselves this trip… to show me that I can use my bike for more than podiums and awards,” she says. “I feel like he’s teaching me, he’s my dad, even though he’s not physically sitting here with me right now.”
“No one will ever know what we went through”
“I find in teams, often your actions, instead of words […] are the most powerful tools. “
“I knew where they were coming from as people, what I didn’t know was how they would react in times of stress.”
Ultimately, their shared memories of triumph will outlive their moments of crisis. “No one will ever know what we went through crossing Iceland in winter except Chris, Angus and myself,” she says. “No picture could really tell the whole story.”
A life of preparation
Rusch is living proof that midlife can be a time when a woman can hit her stride.
She may have worn an amethyst as a lucky charm in Iceland, but she recognizes that achieving “the best performances” of her career requires years of physical resilience and emotional intelligence.
“You don’t deteriorate as you get older, you actually grow taller,” she says. “Alaska and Iceland could not have existed without decades of experience in knowing myself, knowing my body.”
“It’s doing something hard with a goal that you don’t know what the reward is on the other side, but yet you keep going.”
“We share this land together”
Going on grueling expeditions and spending time away from home requires a balance.
Over the past year, she has had the opportunity to reassess her relationship with nature. “I really, really understood the importance of having my feet on the ground, on the ground.”
“Nature is therapy for people,” she says. “Part of my responsibility is to show people these beautiful places in the hope that they will fall in love and understand the importance of protecting them.”
“The one thing we all share around the world is that we are on the ground […] and we share this land together. “