Blood Road, a Red Bull Media House production, is a feature length documentary that highlights Rebecca Rusch’s 1,200-mile journey along the Ho Chi Minh trail in search of her father’s Vietnam War crash site. Rebecca, a seven-time world champion, four-time Leadville 100 winner, and three-time Dirty Kanza 200 winner, visited GU HQ to discuss the film and her experience on the trail. Read an introduction from Brian Vaughan, GU’s Chief Endurance Officer, and our informative Q&A.
Brian Vaughan (BV): Okay, so we’ve sponsored a lot of athletes over the years. I mean, countless numbers. And they’ve given us great feedback. They’ve represented GU well in the marketplace, and they’ve done everything from cycling, to triathlon, to adventure sports, mountaineering and rock climbing, paddling.
None of them have combined all the sports quite like Rebecca. She first started out as a rock climber. I’ve learned a lot of this through “Rusch to Glory,” which is her autobiography. Then, she transitioned to adventure racing, and that’s a crazy sport where you go out for multiple days with teams of four. And she has a number of exhilarating stories from those adventures. Then, she took up endurance cycling, and has now combined all of those skills and experiences into being, what I would call, an explorer.
Rebecca Rusch (RR): Oh, thanks.
BV: That’s a wonderful place to be, as we have this global community of endurance athletes. Her accolades include being a world-champion cyclist. She’s a multiple Leadville 100 winner and course record holder. However, it’s her ability to build this community and create real purpose in sport that sets her apart from her peers.
In a recent Pinnacle Podcast, hosted by Elden and Yuri, she made a pretty obvious statement, but one that really resounded with us and the listeners, in that it’s not the place or the time for these events, but it’s the places and the people you meet. So, I followed her pretty much all over the world. First, La Ruta, which was a jungle environment, a four-day slog across Costa Rica, which was an eye-opener for me. And then, to Transandes, which was a six-day stage race between Chile and Argentina. Around every turn, there was a new adventure. It was remarkable.
What’s even more remarkable is that she has time to give back to her community. She started with the Gold Rusch series to bring women into cycling. She now has a signature gravel-road race in her hometown of Sun Valley, Idaho, which we’ve sponsored each year, and a number of us have played and competed in those ourselves, which is amazing. She’s also an ambassador for World Bicycle Relief and NICA (National Interscholastic Cycling Association).
We’re fortunate today to hear about one of her more recent projects, which is the documentary film Blood Road, which chronicles her travel along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in search for her father’s crash site during the Vietnam War. I know it’s a very personal journey for you, and I know we’d like to hear more about it today.
She is a true pioneer in every sense of the word. And it is an honor and privilege to have her here and to have her spend some time talking about the things that excite her. Perhaps, we can figure out where she’s going to place the flag next.
RR: Earlier today, when we were getting the car out of the hotel, the guy said, “Have a great weekend.” I’m like, “Wait! What day is it?” Probably the hardest endurance event that I’ve ever done in my life, I’m in the middle of right now, which is a documentary film tour, and it’s pretty brutal. I’ve been traveling around the country, and the world, really trying to squeeze in rides everywhere I go and squeeze in visits to places like this.
I’m glad I was able to come over to GU today, because you guys have been a long-term partner. And I like to call my partners “partners,” instead of sponsors, because I really do choose carefully. I don’t want to work with people that I don’t believe in what they make or how they operate their business. GU definitely fits right in there. I mean, you guys work here, you know what it’s like. It’s a family, it started as a family business, and it still feels like a family. That’s really important to me. I’ve yet to be offered a paycheck that has made me want to stray from those goals of choosing people that I want to work with. It’s really important to me.
Thank you for the very nice introduction. Yeah, I’ve done a lot of things, jack of all trades, master of some. And kind of one of the most recent podcasts, somebody asked me, “Why do you keep changing sports? Normally, when somebody finds a sport, they’re competing at it, they’re racing at it, they stay with it, and they keep doing it.” I’d never been asked that question before, and it made me reflect at this point in my career. I’ve been an athlete all my life. Kind of made me reflect, “Well yeah, why have I done rock climbing and kayaking and adventure racing and biking? Why do I keep changing?”
“But what I was able to figure out through just kind of looking back and reflecting, is that the similarities between all of those things, and Brian touched on it, is that I’m an explorer and an adventurer. And the vehicle to go fill that core need in my soul, it can be running, it can be cycling, it can be kayaking, but it’s all really serving the same purpose for me which is to explore and see the world and explore also internally.” -Rebecca Rusch
Right now, it just happens to be cycling, and the really cool thing about cycling is that I can go further, and I can go more places, and it’s a really great vehicle to kind of achieve all of those things. What we’re going to talk about today is the most important ride and the most important work I’ve ever done in my life. And I feel like my career has been building toward that for a long time, to combine my adventure racing, my map skills, my expedition racing, and bike experience to allow me to go down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
It was a 1200-mile ride, and I went to Red Bull three years ago with the idea to do the biggest ride of my life but also a ride that nobody had ever pieced together, the history of that place. Just for a very brief history, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was the supply route that the North Vietnamese used during the Vietnam War to move supplies and people down through the south, and what a lot of people don’t know is that most of the trail, it started in the north in Hanoi, and most of it went through Laos and Cambodia across the border of Vietnam and then entered back into Vietnam. And that was to hide it from the Americans.
It’s a very remote part of the world, and the trail system was a really intricate, braided network. Some of it’s there, some of it’s not. The logistics and the planning to actually try to piece together a historically accurate route was really pretty intense, and then going over there and trying to document it and trying to ride it in the middle of the jungle was also quite intense.
Like I said, the hardest part really is right now, traveling all around and being on all the time. Meeting all these people, which is amazing, but if any of you know anything about me, I like to be alone in the woods a lot. I’m not getting to do that very often.
The reason I say it’s the most important work of my life is because not only did I get to do a really great ride, but I came home with the newfound knowledge that there’s still a lot of unexploded ordnance, unexploded bombs left in Laos and Cambodia and Vietnam, leftover from the war. A war that ended 45 years ago is still killing people. I came home shocked and appalled and feeling like I needed to do something about that. My dad brought me there to show me that and give me a new purpose for my riding.
A lot of this film tour and this education, and a lot of the fundraising I’m doing is to specifically clean up the bombs in Laos in my dad’s name and to let people know the devastation of war. It’s still there, and there’s still plenty of opportunity to heal and recover, and while it’s a sad story, I also came home really excited knowing that I could do something about it. In some small way, if I clean up one village in Laos, then I feel like that bike ride is a huge success. That’s the second part, the unexpected part of the story that happened.
We also have, on the website, bracelets that are made from the bombs cleared up in Laos. The money that I raise from those goes back to clear up more bombs in Laos. It’s a nice circle.
You guys understand how sports bring people together and how a simple bike ride can heal communities and heal countries. Really, I feel like if everybody went outside and ran or rode a bike, the world would be a better place. That’s part of the message of this film, and I’m honored to work with you guys.
I will tell you people, a lot of people ask me when they see the film, “What did you eat over there?” A lot of rice and eggs, and you eat what you are served, and some of it you don’t know, and yes, a lot of us came home sick. I also did take a big pile of GU over there with me, because I at least wanted to have something that I could rely on each day. And I rode with a Vietnamese riding partner, Huyen (Nguyen), and she had never tried Chews, and she was very excited about those.
At the time, I still had some Lemon Chews left over, and it was sort of like she only wanted the Lemon flavor, and I was really bummed, because that was my favorite flavor. I knew it was coming to the end of its lifespan, so I was like… I had brought the Lemon because I just really loved them, and turns out… She was my teammate. I had to take care of her and help her, and that was the only thing she wanted to eat. So, I hoarded a couple packets and hid them. I’m like, “No, no. They’re all gone. Sorry.”
BV: On that point, you’ve done a lot of pairs racing, multiple day stage-race formats. This is essentially a stage-race format with a riding partner.
RR: Absolutely, with a stranger, a total stranger, who doesn’t speak English.
BV: So language is a barrier. Can you tell us what it was like? A number of folks here have done these longer races or longer adventures where both the body and the mind are breaking down to the point where, when you finish, it’s a complete relief. There’s an epiphany, there’s an awareness that you have after going through that journey that is unlike your mindset when you start. Can you explain what it was like to go through the journey and ultimately end up at your father’s crash site?
RR: Yeah, that’s a really good point because people, a lot of people, ask me, “Well, why did you have to ride 1200 miles to go to this spot in the jungle?” We had map coordinates from the military documents, so we knew where the plane went down. It took 30 years for the government to actually find any remains from my dad so we never knew, for 30 years, whether he died in the crash or was a prisoner of war. We didn’t really know until 30 years later. Then in 2007, they found two teeth. That’s all they found. Then, we knew he died in a crash.
We had these map coordinates, and that’s kind of where the idea started coming from. “Huh, I wonder what’s there? I love maps. Could I go there?” It took a long time for the trip to marinate and come together, but really people asked me, “Why did you have to ride that far? Why didn’t you just go there?” The reason that you touched on is that I needed to peel away all those defense layers.
As an athlete or as a person, we’re trained to be strong and resilient and confident and not show any weakness. I learned in really long adventures and rides that who I am at the start is very different than who I am in the middle and at the end. So, I needed to ride that far to be ready to experience such an emotional journey, to be open and vulnerable enough to accept the lessons that were given to me along the trail.
If I went there on day one, it wouldn’t have been the same experience. So, I needed to peel away all those layers and kind of go there with a totally open heart. You see that in the film. Me at the beginning is the racer person, who’s got an agenda and a schedule and what I’ve trained to do. What I’m not trained to do is slow down, slow down and look around.
That’s what Huyen was really great for. She was a total stranger. She was probably the part of the trip that I was most nervous and concerned about, because I’ve never done an expedition, let alone the most important one of my life, with a stranger, and this was part of the deal. There was, honestly, part of me that thought, “Okay, she’ll make it a few days, and then I’ll just ride on my own. That’s fine. That’s what I’ll do,” but she kept going and kept going and kept going.
Huyen was a cross-country racer, and she retired 10 years early. A mom with two kids, she had never raced further than an hour and a half, had never used a CamelBak, had never used disk brakes, had never ridden a 29er or a carbon bike. She was learning expedition riding on the fly, and so I had to teach her a lot.
“At the same time, she was able to teach me. She was definitely more emotionally open than I was and more intuitive in that way. You see in some of the subtitles that she was understanding what I was going through better than I was. While I was teaching her physically how to take care of her body, how to hydrate, proper nutrition, what I didn’t know was that she was showing me how to open up and be myself and experience a really emotional ride.” -Rebecca Rusch
So it was a really cool partnership with Huyen. That in the beginning, I was the most nervous about, but it ended up offering the most gifts. It required a lot of patience from me as a teammate, “Okay. We’re waiting for the film crew, I’m waiting for Huyen. Okay, she doesn’t know how to put up a tent. Okay, I’ll put up the tent.”
I had to learn some patience and had to see the gifts in that. That’s not what I expected to learn along the way, and I think that’s what’s really cool about endurance sports is there is always a trophy. It may not be the physical, shiny, gold kind. It’s of another form often, and this trip was absolutely like that.
After showing the Blood Road trailer, GU employees had the opportunity to ask Rusch questions.
GU Energy Labs (GU): How did you find a teammate?
RR: That was through Red Bull Media House, the creative director, Nick Schrunk. They really felt like being able to tell this story would be more powerful if I was riding with somebody from Southeast Asia, somebody from that part of the world to be a window. I mean, honestly, we started online research and looking for riders in the area, and Huyen’s name came up. She’s the most decorated mountain-bike athlete that we could find.
I definitely liked the fact that she is female, but it was really sort of a blind date kind of thing. I didn’t get to meet her. The film crew kept a lot of the planning secret from me, because they wanted me to experience it in the moment, as it was. Nick was over there four times to meet people and figure it out, before I ever went. They got to interview and meet Huyen, but I meet her in the film for the first time. Just, “Alright, what’s this going to be like? Okay, you don’t speak English, I don’t really know you, I don’t know your experience.”
GU: Do you still talk to her?
RR: We are in touch, it’s pretty awesome. I’m going back to Laos next month, and she got to come to the United States, for the first time in her life, to the Los Angeles premier and the New York City premiere. In New York, she rented a city bike and rode around for five hours. When she came back, we were like, “Huyen, we have to go to the screening, get dressed.” She’s like, “Oh, I rode for five hours.”
GU: Did you have a translator, or did you figure out how to communicate?
RR: We had a translator, yes. We’d sit down and try to communicate. She’d explain something really long in Vietnamese to our translator, who was super nice, Mr. Long. And then he’d say one sentence, like, “Oh, she says she’s having a great time with you.”
“We just had to communicate non-verbally a lot. A look, a hug. Honestly, seeing the first edits of the film, which was a year later, the first time that I was understanding the translations of her interviews, understanding the depth of her feelings, I thought, ‘Wow, she really did understand me.'” -Rebecca Rusch
GU: What was the trail like?
RR: The trail was awesome. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city are massive cities, and a lot of people travel on scooters and bikes and two wheels. I was most scared in the cities. You’re a fish going through and I thought, “Oh, God, I survived the jungle and now I’m going to die in the city of Ho Chi Minh.”
The journey was everything from an urban environment to machete through the jungle where there’s no trail. There are also sections that are still original cobblestones, which were hand laid during the Vietnam War.
So, it was a huge variety of everything from really sweet single-track mountain biking, to city riding, to jungle and machete, to boat trips, and travel through a cave in one long section that included a lot of hike-a-bike stuff. It really was a mixed bag of everything.
GU: How many days, end-to-end, did it take you? Did it rain a lot?
RR: We were on the trail for about a month. Three and a half weeks on the trail. Honestly, we could have used another two weeks. And with a film crew, as you can imagine, it’s slow, but, a lot of the things, like the important moments were not do-overs, those were one shot.
It didn’t rain a lot, which was amazing. We were there in February and there were just a couple of light rains. We tried to time it during the dry season. We’d go through sections where you would see a riverbed that we’d crossed and you could see the high-water mark 40 feet up in the trees, where there was brown. You’re like, “Why is that?” They would say, “Oh, that’s the water mark from the rainy season.”
It’s insane, but, no, it didn’t rain a lot when we were there. It was hot, we were definitely dealing with a jungle environment. Your clothes don’t dry, your skin is wet, everything is wet.
GU: Were you ever sick, while riding the Ho Chi Minh trail?
RR: Yeah, I mean everybody was sort of gurgly stomach at some point, and you’re like, “Hmm, hope that’s okay.” I mean we had a really extensive medical kit. My husband and I are both EMTs and we had IV kits with us. We had a lot of antibiotics. We didn’t have to really use any of that.
I did come home with parasites, but it took me almost a year to figure that out. I actually came back from the trip, and I spent a few months being really run down, emotionally spent, and wondering what was wrong with me.
I tried to get back into riding and normal life, but I kept going to the doctor thinking, “Something’s not right.” We kept asking for more tests, more tests, more tests. I was in a depression, wondering, “What is wrong with me?”
“At least six months later, I remember one experience. I couldn’t lift my bike over a downed tree, and I had to have my husband help me. I thought, ‘Something is wrong.’ I’m not just tired now or emotionally drained. I went to a naturopath and he said, ‘I think you have parasites.'” -Rebecca Rusch
Sure enough, I had parasites for a year without knowing. I was really emotionally beating myself up and trying to get back into training. It did really take over my whole life. Once I found out, I thought, “Okay, thank you. I’m not going crazy.” Then, it probably took another full year to feel normal again. Basically, I had to clean my gut out and start over again.
GU: My favorite food is Vietnamese noodle soup. Was that common there? Did you have different foods for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?
RR: Noodles and rice were the mainstay. Noodle soup, rice, and eggs, in different variations. Obviously, tropical fruits. Yeah, you couldn’t be picky. It’s like we’re at a guest house, there’s one place in a 50-mile radius, this is where we’re going to eat. There’s no convenience stores, there’s really no grocery stores, and so you are living as the locals do.
Almost every village, you have to go meet the village chief, you have to sit in and drink some mystery alcohol and appease the spirits. There’s usually some sort of offering of a dead pig or something like that. Or it depends on how important. If it’s a cow, it’s super important. For one village chief we met near where I found the crash site, they sacrificed a chicken and he said, “I’m sorry we didn’t have a cow, we really hope you know that you’re worth a cow, but we just didn’t have one.” Through the translator, I’m like, “This is the biggest chicken… This is a chicken the size of a cow. It’s perfect. I love it.”
GU: Throughout the journey, how often did you camp versus stay in a village?
RR: We were in a shelter, of some sort, more than half the time, whether it’s what they would call a guest house that maybe had running water or maybe it didn’t. It might just be a roof over your head. Then, probably a third of the time, we had little tents and stuff with us.
Sometimes, there was one place. It’s a whole crew of people. We all crammed into a barn together and it was a shelter. Trying to charge camera equipment and stuff there was very interesting. We had a shelter most nights.
GU: How many showers did you take?
RR: Every few days. Plenty of river crossings, so we got wet all the time.
I had two kits with me, that was it. I had to wear the same thing every day. I rinsed it out at night and tried to hang it out. It never dried by the morning, and, then, you put it on wet again. Lots of showers that were just with washcloths.
GU: After all the preparation you did before conquering the Ho Chi Minh trail, the emotions that you went through, how did you feel when you finally reached the crash site?
RR: You have to see the movie. That’s the highlight of the film, right? I didn’t expect to feel the way that I felt.
Coming home from the trip, I kind of already touched on it, people have asked me my whole life, “Why do you do such long sports? Why do you like to suffer? Why do you go solo? What are you looking for?” I was never really able to answer that question. I feel like now I am, and I understand why I’m going long and I still want to do that. I have a better understanding of it’s not just flogging myself, that there’s actually growth. I’m not just wanting to suffer for the act of suffering. It’s actually a means to an end, and I’m finally, after 30 years of being an athlete, starting to figure some of those things out.
I think it’s really important for us, as people, to look backward instead of forward. We’re always looking forward, especially as athletes. “Okay you won Leadville.” I’d always hate that, “Well, what are you doing next? Are you going to come back next year?” I’m thinking, “I just won the race five minutes ago. Can I just enjoy it for a little bit?”
We’re always looking, “What’s next? What’s next? What’s better? What’s bigger? What’s faster? What are we doing? What project are we working on? What’s the next thing?” So, it’s been a really great exercise for me to look backward, pat myself on the back and think, “Wow. Cool. I’ve done some great stuff.”
Then, that does help you go forward. Maybe, it’s a little bit of the Buddhist mentality that rubbed off on me over there. Being in the moment and appreciating that, “Hey, we’re doing this today. I’m not going to worry about what I’m doing tomorrow yet.” That was a big part of this trip.