When you spend your life as a professional athlete, you learn early on, that to be successful and actually make a living, you have to be prepared. You not only have to be prepared physically and mentally for competition, you have to be prepared to be dropped by a sponsor, to not know how you’ll fund your next season or even know where your next paycheck is coming from.
So, you learn to be prepared. You learn to check the boxes. Because if you don’t, you’ve learned, you’ll fail. Your expedition will fall apart due to poor planning. You’ll lose competitions because you haven’t trained. Your livelihood will fall apart because you were too nonchalant about a meeting with your sponsors. Soon, the life you’ve laid out for yourself will come unglued.
So, when you take a project that you’re passionate about to Red Bull, one of your major sponsors, and say, “Hey, I think this is a great idea. No one has ever done this before. Will you support it?” And, in the end, they say “Yes,” you get excited and the planner in you starts to go to work.
Until the project you care about, the project you’ve thought about for years, the project that reaches in and touches you emotionally in ways you don’t even understand, starts to feel like someone else’s project.
You’ve lived your life without a father. You’ve always wondered about him. Since you were a small child, you’ve known his plane was shot down, but his remains were never discovered. And then, as an adult, they were. In 2007, an official government document informs you that his crash site had been excavated and that two of his teeth were found. You attend his funeral. There is closure of sorts, but not. You want to know more.
The adventurer in you decides that “knowing more” means going on an expedition. An expedition along the entire Ho Chi Minh Trail – the very same trail where your father’s plane went down while he was on a bombing run. The idea and project begin to form in your mind. You pitch it. It gets turned down. You pitch it again. It gets turned down again. You hone your pitch and go in one more time, and it’s approved. It’s going to happen. It’s time to prepare.
Meetings happen. Crew members are assigned. The wheels are in motion. There’s a sense of relief and excitement. And then you’re told you can’t be a part of the planning. You ask, “What do you mean, I can’t be a part of the planning? This is my project, my idea.”
In taking your idea to Red Bull, you were aware that some sort of documentation would happen via video and photography. That’s Red Bull’s standard operating procedure. But, what you weren’t aware of was how it would all work. And so, when a director gets assigned to your project, it comes with a few requirements, like, you have to be kept in the dark in regards to the planning so that the filming is authentic. If you know too much, things won’t happen naturally and if things don’t happen naturally, the film won’t resonate with the audience. It will come off forced and scripted and its impact will be minimized.
All of this makes sense, you tell yourself. But, you’re a planner. You’ve spent your life being prepared. And now, on the biggest expedition of your life, you’re kept in the dark. And it drives you crazy. The anxiety and the frustration build.
In talking to Rebecca Rusch, a self-described type-A control freak, about this experience she said, “I was kept in the dark from the beginning. This trip was the least planned I’ve been on anything. I wasn’t really allowed to dive into the maps. I wasn’t allowed to get to know my teammate very well. I wasn’t able to get to know the terrain that well. And that’s why I pushed hard to bring my own mechanic and crew member?”
Variables abound when you plan an expedition of any sort. Some you can’t control or predict: the weather, the terrain, the local customs. But some of them you can control, like your gear, like who your teammates are on the expedition, like your fitness and your mental preparation. And that’s what you hone in on and that’s just what Rusch did.
She spoke with her husband, Greg Martin, her support on countless expeditions. He was completely on board. She contacted her bike mechanic, Jason Bauer of Bauerhaus Bikes, who she’d known for 25 years. He agreed to go. (Side note: During the entire trip, through the jungle, through a cave, on rough terrain, across water crossings, etc, Rusch and Nguyen only had one flat tire and no mechanicals. Taking Jason along was the right thing to do…)
She carefully chose her gear and made sure there were redundancies on anything electronic that could fail. Two Garmins on her handlebars, maps on her phone, extra batteries for everything, tents she knew she could handle and brand new bikes for the team from a bike brand that Jason recommended, and that several of her friends and acquaintances had nothing but good to say about. “You can never plan enough, especially when you plan an expedition, but you can control the controllables,” Rusch said.
RULES OF PLAY
With the rest of the planning left up to director, Nicholas Schrunk and his team, Rebecca had to learn to trust, and trust people she didn’t really know. She struggled. “I felt as if I’d become a player or actor in someone else’s expedition. It didn’t feel like it was my ride. In the end, I had to look at it and figure out what the rules of play were. And once I figured them out, I had to accept them or I wasn’t going to go.”
One of those rules of play was not getting to meet her teammate ahead of time. They had a few interactions from a distance in regards to teammate, Huyen Nguyen’s bike, but their first, face-to-face meeting happened at Nguyen’s house, a scene which takes place in the movie. “I met Huyen for the first time in the film. I was super stressed out. You can’t really see it but I was a pool of sweat. My hands were sweaty, my arms pits were all pitted out, when I got up from my chair, I was sweaty. And, sure, it’s really hot over there, but I was really nervous. I’ve spent a lifetime looking athletes up and down and assessing them. And as strong as a rider as she was, she’d been retired for 10 years. And there was the language barrier and then I found out she didn’t know what a Camelbak was, and she’d never ridden a 29er and she’d never ridden with disc brakes.”
Another rule of play was working with the film crew. As someone accustomed to charting her route, figuring out how many miles needed to be covered in one day and how they would get the trip done, Rusch didn’t realize how much the film crew would slow them down. On top of that, for the first week, things weren’t smooth. She said, “We were all strangers, except for Jason and Greg. I felt like the film crew was doing their thing, Huyen was caught in the middle because she didn’t speak English, Greg and Jason and I had this mission to finish the ride and get to the crash site, and…we weren’t connected. The first week was super hard and very frustrating for me. Then, and you see it in the film, I played my dad’s song and we started to gel as a team. The camera crew started talking about their children and their families and I started to understand that it wasn’t just my expedition, it was not just about me, and so I was able to let go. And they were able to come in and understand how important this was to me. I think both of those things happened about the same time. This was a different type of project for all of us. I was used to competitions and they were used to filming athletes doing crazy stuff from a distance. We all had to come in and get cozy. In the end, they took really good care of me and the telling of this story. ”
LEARNING TO SLOW DOWN
Rusch knew, after meeting Nguyen, that she would have to look after her well-being. They were teammates after all. She’d have to gauge how tired she was. She’d have to help her understand her new bike and the gear she would be using. She’d have to make sure she was safe. But, she still had her doubts about whether Nguyen would even finish the ride. She wasn’t an expedition rider. She wasn’t as fast as Rusch. But in the end, being slower on the ride, as well as waiting for the crew, turned out to be a blessing.
During down times, when they were waiting for the film crew, Rusch and Nguyen, as a requirement of Schrunk, had to keep diaries. They would often chat with each other along the side of the road and get to know each other as well as sit in the shade and write in their journals.
Rusch explained, “The physical part of the trip wasn’t hard for me. That was the familiar part. Going long, suffering, taking care of myself. That was easy. And what I taught Huyen about being physical, she taught me about being more open, and how to be more vulnerable. She did so much more than she thought she could. There were a few times when I looked at her and thought, “Well, this is it”, but she kept on. And she kept on talking with me and getting me to open up. Being vulnerable is something I’m not comfortable with. But the slowing down really turned into a gift. When we weren’t talking and writing, we met kids from the villages. We walked around people’s yards. We saw and learned a lot. It was such an expanding trip in so many ways.”
One piece of the trip that took Rusch by surprise was seeing the craters left from the U.S. bombing runs. They were everywhere in Laos, the most bombed country in history. And as she inquired about the craters, she learned that danger was still present. An estimated 1/3 of the bombs that were dropped during the Vietnam War didn’t explode. People in these villages, even though the war had ended over 40 years ago, were still at risk and were still being injured, or even worse dying, when these old bombs would detonate. Upon her return, Rusch sold her Niner and donated the funds to organizations whose sole purpose is to go in, find UXOs and clear the area of them.
Rusch stands in one of the many bomb craters.But her efforts didn’t stop when she sold her bike. Raising awareness and funds to eliminate UXOs in Laos has become part of her life’s work. “We have already raised a bunch of money and helped clear some areas. A big part of this film tour is helping people understand the dangers that still exist and raising funds to help”. Rusch even returned to Laos last year with a group of cyclists. Together they enjoyed some amazing scenery and trails, but they also learned about UXOs helping Rusch raise additional awareness and funds. She believes, based on her dad’s letters as well as his crash site being found, that he wanted her to see this. “I believe my dad brought me over there to teach me about UXOs (unexploded ordnance)”.
THE FINISH LINE
As Rusch reflects on the trip, on finding her dad’s crash and the tree where he was buried, she said, “I feel like I’d been preparing my whole life for this trip. You know, I have expedition experience. I have navigation experience. I know how to fix my bike enough. I have medical skills. I was ready to be on the trail and take care of Huyen and myself. What I wasn’t prepared for, was how much this trip would force me out of my comfort zone and how much I would grow and learn. I feel like I finally understand myself for the first time in my life. I feel like I had been searching for that half (her father) of me and I didn’t know it was there. There’s been a lot of accepting myself and telling myself I can finally slow down. The tree, that spot, was like the finish line. I feel like I found myself.”