The Sun Valley area has always been known for its athletes from Olympic skiers to world-renowned rock climbers. Rebecca Rusch, originally from Chicago, has called Sun Valley her home and training grounds for the last 15 years. The ultra endurance pro athlete and world champion’s career has included numerous adventure sports including rock climbing, expedition racing, whitewater rafting, cross-country skiing and most recently, mountain biking. Though other towns may have better gyms or access to elite training facilities, Rusch chooses to call Sun Valley home.
“It’s the people and the place that initially attracted me to Sun Valley and that keeps me here,” Rusch said. “I travel all over the world and I still always want to come back here; it feels like home. I appreciate that it’s off the beaten path, it keeps it special.”
A story similar to many who put down roots in Sun Valley, Rusch was a self-described “outdoor sports nomad” in her mid-30s, looking for a place to call home while living out of her car. One of her adventure racing teammates, Patrick Harper, was born and raised in Ketchum (his dad, Butch Harper worked for the Forest Service for 30 years; Harper’s Trail is named for him). Harper invited Rusch to come train for the summer in Ketchum and essentially never left.
Rusch was taken in by the beautiful terrain, unspoiled landscapes and the people. Her first day in town, local Muffy Ritz invited Rusch to go on a bike ride despite having never met her.
“I was embraced by the people but also inspired by the scenery. I hadn’t felt that in any of the other towns I’d been surfing around and staying in. It always felt like it took a while to feel like I belonged but I felt like I belonged here right away.”
Before Rusch came to Ketchum, she has been primarily doing kayaking, trail running, and adventure racing, a multi-disciplinary team sport navigated over unmarked wilderness that last anywhere from two hours up to two weeks.
“I wasn’t even really a cyclist when I came to Ketchum,” Rusch said. “And then the discovery that we have so many trails here was kind of a blessing. It really is one of the best places for me to train for cycling.”
And cycle she did. Rusch was nominated to the international Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in 2019 and has won numerous state and national bike races as well as world races and championships. She also started the biking event Rebecca’s Private Idaho in 2013, a gravel grinder, stage race and outdoor festival in Idaho’s backcountry that supports several local, national, and global charities.
Not content to rest on her laurels, Rusch’s newest passion is fat biking—off-road biking on oversized tires—for which she also started a racing event, the Snowball Special. As a cyclist, Rusch must put away her bike each year during the winter season and either cycle indoors—something she hates—or get her exercise outdoors doing Nordic and backcountry skiing. But when she heard about Fat Bikes four years ago, it peaked her interest.
“I still love to ski but it was always a little sad to put away my bike for six months our of the year,” Rusch said. “I like being outside so it was always really hard in winter to put in bike time, specifically inside my basement starting at a TV. When fat biking got on my radar, I got really excited about it.”
The sport allowed the professional cyclist to keep her cycling fitness while being able to enjoy Ketchum’s beautiful outdoors.
“It’s totally different than mountain biking on dirt; it’s a lot slower than regular mountain biking or cycling but I actually really like that because it’s just as hard but you get to look around a little more. You don’t need 50 miles to get a great fat bike workout, it’s just fun.”
In an attempt to share that fun with no people, Rusch started the Snowball Special Fat Bike Race three years ago which races on the Sun Valley Nordic Trails. After experiencing the great terrain in Ketchum and attending fat bike races in other towns, Rusch felt Ketchum needed its own. After launching it, Elephant’s Perch took it over last year with assistance from Rusch and this year, the event is trying to find its home, most likely with the Wood River Trails Coalition.
“They just have a great time,” Rusch said of the roughly 100 people who participate in the race each year. “It’s also a fun weekend, local races get you out there and trying hard. We should be having fun outdoors. If it’s not fun, what’s the point?”