The motto of the Western States Trail Ride (aka Tevis) is “To finish is to win.”? It is truly apt.? Even this year, with a significantly different route that took out a majority (in my opinion) of the more challenging trail, the completion rate only climbed to 60%.? When the ride follows its typical course, that rate typically hovers around 50%.? Which ever way you slice it, this is a tough stinkin’ ride.
That said – we finished!? And it definitely feels like a win – for us, for our horses, for all the careful preparation, time and monies spent.? Whoo hoo!
Jenn and I got to McCann Stadium (in the Auburn fairgrounds), did our victory lap around the arena, and passed under the official finish line just after 10 PM Saturday evening.? Definitely the earliest time I will ever finish the ride, by a margin of at least two hours.? Bear and I finished in 16th and Jenn and Stella were?18th (another rider named Pam Bailie on a cute paint mare named Macy did the last four mile stretch with us and finished 17th).
The amazing thing is that the winner – Jeremy Reynolds – finished threehours ahead of us.? He did the entire course in 10 1/2 hours.? Amazing.? We came into the first vet check just behind him and were maybe 10 minutes behind him by the mid-point of the ride.? It’s a testimony to an amazing horse and a fit rider (he runs quite a bit with his horses) that he could pick up the pace so much in the second half of a very tough?ride.
Even though the course was largely different, I still thought of this as three rides sewn together – here are their stories;
FIRST LEG – AUBURN TO FORESTHILL (38.6 miles)
The start was something to behold.? They had all of the horses muster in one open field at 6 AM (start was at 6:30) and asked us to keep moving them around in a large circle – both for safety (fewer dust-ups) and to give them opportunity to warm up.? Jenn and I malingered near the start line?because we wanted to get out in the first part of the herd (again for safety – we knew our horses capable of a pretty fast pace and the fewer horses you have to pass the less chance for wrecks).? Then a lead rider walked us some distance in a controlled start (much like a car race, my SO pointed out).? As we wound down a hillside on an asphalt one-lane road, Jenn called out to look back and it was just a sea of horses winding up the hill?in the early morning light.? So wished I had a camera with me.
When the lead horse stepped aside, the pace exploded.? Jenn had been concerned about Stella in this setting – she’s young yet, a little inexperienced, and has a tendency to lash out with her heels at other horses.? But she was good – only aimed two retaliations at horses that crowded her from behind and didn’t cause any damage (it does help that she isn’t wearing steel shoes).? There was some jostling and Jenn and I had to make an effort to stay together in the low light as we sped down a dirt fire road, headed?toward the Tevis trail to Foresthill.? But things shook out pretty quickly and we landed in a good space.
Bear has his own ideas about what speed we should be traveling at at the beginning of a ride.? And he’s not terribly concerned about the relative safety of the trail he’s on.? So we had some arguments and I have the sore trapezoids and a couple of small blisters (to give him credit, I do blister easily) to prove that I was serious in making my points.? He was a handful for perhaps the first 20 miles (=2 1/2 hours) and then settled in nicely. ?I love Aleve.???But during that first leg he fully lived up to his locomotive tendencies and spend down trail at a great pace, with typically four to six other horses drafting off his rear end (including Stella, of course).? It was not for the faint of heart, but it was really a blast.
As we neared Foresthill we got hung up behind a long line of horses who were walking up the hill.? We were incensed – walking during the first leg of Tevis!?!? So as soon as we had opportunity I asked Bear to pass them and boy did he, sucking Stella along in his wake.? After that we? moved them out really well, knowing we were only a few miles out of Foresthill.?
I have the habit of checking for fresh hoof prints on trail when I’m racing – mainly to make sure I’m still going the right way.? At this point, I noticed there weren’t many in evidence.? I asked Jenn how many horses she thought were in front of us and she guessed maybe 15 or 20.? I told her I thought that it was far fewer, maybe five at the most based on the prints I was seeing.? I could even pick out the types of footwear the horses were wearing – clearly not a ton of traffic (remember it had just rained that week, so the trail was a clean slate).? She doubted me, it didn’t seem possible.? But sure enough, as we climbed the last hill into town we saw Jeremy Reynolds and Rachel Shackelford just ahead and we knew they would be front-runners.? So largely to our shock and amazement, we cruised into Foresthill in fourthand fifth position.
It was really fun, trotting down the mainstreet of Foresthill (a great Gold Country town with an old-time saloon?facing onto the street) to applause and encouragement and arriving at the Mill Site (where the vet check is staged) to a pretty-decent crowd of cheering onlookers.??Endurance is not a great spectator sport and – let’s face it – kind of obscure.? So we rarely get that kind of response.?
Our crew was a little surprised to see us – we were about 45 minutes ahead of our guessed-at schedule.? My parents come to Tevis every year and we actually beat them to Foresthill – they showed up a few minutes after we arrived.? Barry (Jenn’s SO), Kyle (mine), Kristan (Jenn’s best friend) and her SO Jerry were already in position.? They jumped into action and pulled our tack to begin cooling the horses with hoses and sponges.? As soon as their pulses dropped to criteria (60 bpm), we ran them through the gauntlet of pulse check and vet exam.? Both got flying colors and we parked them in front of a horsey smorgasbord (hay, grain, carrots, water) to stuff themselves silly for the rest of the hour.
We did have one hair-raising experience during the first leg.? At the bottom of a ravine, a small drinking hole occurred where the trail crossed a stream, I took Bear across the stream and tried to turn him around on the trail so that he and Stella could drink at the same time (she was on the other side still).? Unfortunately, as he turned around, the edge of the trail (maybe 30 inches wide at that spot) where it overhung the drop-off to the stream below crumbled beneath his hind legs.? It scared him, and in an amazingly-athletic maneuver he?leapt up the side of the hill above the trail, clearing perhaps a three-foot tall berm as he did and then clambering up a very steep hillside.? Somehow I got him turned around so that he was standing parallel to the trail below but perhaps 20 feet above it.? We had to get back down, so I plotted an angled approach.? Unfortunately we had to cross a mossy boulder which was slippery.? Bear fell to his shoulder against it and essentially slid (with a good bit of hillside – I saw the damage when we returned to Auburn)?back down onto the trail.
Fortunately he was fine, other than a small scrape on his back leg.? I can’t tell you how I stayed on, either during the ascent or the decent.? There was definitely one point where I thought “Oh crap, I’m coming off!” and then?right after that “Well, maybe I can just stay on then.”? I even kept one of my stirrups, but the one on the side he fell on was so twisted so badly I had to stop and untangle it.? A friend (Shellie Hatfield) was riding behind us and witnessed the whole event.? She shouted out from the other side of the ravine “Nice riding, Jenni!”? Criminy.
SECOND LEG – FORESTHILL TO MOSQUITO RIDGE ROAD AND BACK AGAIN (22.8 miles)
This leg sucked.? I’m sorry, but it was hard and long and hard.? Yes, it was shorter than the other two, but it involved a long out and back on a gravel road that dropped down to Mosquito Ride Road.? We trotted all the way down, the decline was gradual enough that we felt okay about the speed (not great, but we’d purposefully trained at downhill trotting for this kind of trail), then turned around and asked the horses to go back up.? Horses are somewhat logical creatures, and there was definitely a general response of “What?? Back up?? Why?”? And then we started crossing paths with horses who were behind us and on their way down.? So our mounts started asking “Why don’t we go with them?? Down better than up.”? Very frustrating.
Once we got off the road, we returned to single-track trail and the cross-traffic became a true challenge.? Bear and I had full-body contact with at least a dozen other horses and riders.? Fortunately, by that time everyone had worn their edges off and we didn’t have any incidents, even with little kicky Stella.? There was one treacherous section of trail that they had to set up traffic controls on, holding riders at each end and letting us go in small groups.
Four miles from Foresthill(remember, end of this leg is back there again), there was a ‘gate & go’ check called Chicken Hawk.? This means that you come in, pulse down your horse and get it checked by a vet but there is no hold time.? However quickly you can execute that sequence (and anything else you need to do) is how quickly you can leave the stop.? Chicken Hawk slowed us down a bit.? The horses did get a good drink and both hoovered down some grain and carrots which was great.? But it was a confusing stop because horses headed out were supposed to go through a trot-by (vet just watching you trot by to check for lameness) and horses headed in were doing the gate & go.? We got tangled in the melee and spent longer there than intended while a handful of riders slipped past us.? Consequently we arrived at Foresthill in 12th and 13th position.
Our crew was staged along the road leading into Foresthill, we pulled the tack on the road and started getting water on the horses as quickly as possible.? Again they sailed through the pulse check and vet exam and were re-parked at the smorgasbord.? Both were looking great at this point.
THIRD LEG – FORESTHILL TO AUBURN
This is the one “true” piece of Tevis trail we rode, and we’ve both?ridden it many times.? It includes the infamous (for being scary and horses and riders falling off trail to the river below) California Loop section.? I’ve never actually been bothered by the California Loop, but I can see why people don’t like it.? It’s a steep hill on one side and a cliff on the other with about 18 inches of trail in between for much of the distance.? And you are very likely to hit it in the dark.? The Tevis trail committee has been funding work on this section and there are now portions that have been widened to three feet and the difference is really significant.
Jenn and I pulled out of Foresthill at about 3:30 – with several hours of decent sunlight left to us.? We weren’t sure we could pick off any riders and scramble into the top ten, but we thought we’d just see what happened – depending on how the horses felt as we went.
We motored down the California Loop and arrived at Francisco’s (another gate & go) at 6:00 PM on the button.? As I jumped off Bear’s back it hit me that I didn’t feel well at all – lightheaded and kind of nautious.? The volunteers were really great – they immediately asked me what they could do to help.? I gave them Bear and asked them to sponge him off and let him drink to drop his pulse.? Of all the options they presented, I took a cup of ginger tea (for motion sickness), a ginger pill, and a handful of tortilla chips.? My main problem was that I’d not eaten nearly enough during the ride.?
This is an issue for me – I can’t eat and I don’t drink at a reasonable level when I’m competing.? The eating is an appetite thing – I don’t have one and food makes my stomach turn to look at.? The drinking is more of a forgetfulness issue – I don’t think to do it.? My ride partners are great, actually, and will browbeat me into drinking more when we compete together.? I need?to figure out the eating thing – especially for Tevis.? When I do 50s, it’s over quickly enough that I can recover by just having a decent meal when I’m done.
Unfortunately, Stella was having similar issues.? When we took the horses to vet in (again, a volunteer stepped in to trot Bear out for me while I stuffed tortilla chips in my mouth), she came up with no gut sounds.? Remember the previous point about gut motility – highly important for horses because their system is one-way (they cannot vomit) and when things stop it can be catastrophic.? So we camped her in front of some enticing food and waited it out.? Both she and I felt significantly better (she got an A- on gut sounds) a half-hour later, so we swung our legs over and headed out into the waning light.?
We got across the American River (second pass, this time they had neat little buoys out with glow sticks attached to plot the safest course) while the sun was disappearing from the sky and headed down trail toward Lower Quarry (gate & go 10 miles from the finish).
It became clear that Stella was out of gas despite recovering her gut sounds, so we slowed way down -?walking for long stretches with Jenn dismounted.? It seemed to take forever to get to Quarry.? It’s a weird phenomenon that I’ve noted before – you can ride that six-and-a-half mile stretch from the river during training and it seems to go by in a quick and easy?blur.? But when you’re doing it at night after 80+ miles are under your belt you can’t believe it takes so long to get there.
Finally the lights came into view.? Jenn dropped Stella’s bit on the way in and let her tuck into food immediately.? She took her to the vets and told them what was going on, how the horse felt, what our plan was (to walk as much of the rest of the trail as Stella wanted to).? The vets checked her over thoroughly and watched her trot out.? They agreed that she looked tired, but encouraged us to take her the last few miles into the finish with care.
Bear’s pulse was already at criteria (his heart must be the size of a cantalope) when we arrived, so his check was largely ceremonial.? It was interesting for me to watch Bear’s behavior during this time, he was very tuned into what Stella wanted to do.? I don’t want to say that he was taking care of her, necessarily, because theirs is not that kind of relationship.? But he knew when she wanted to walk and would drop from the trot, and as soon as she’d take a trot step he’d immediately pick it up as well without me asking.
We left Quarry and headed out into the darkness, walking up to the Highway 49 crossing.? Once we got past the highway, we were on trail that we’d pre-ridden on Friday.? Stella perked up – she knew where she was and now trusted us that there would be an end to this interminable ride.? Bear was able to pull her at a trot for a good bit of those last few miles.? We walked all of the downhills, though – we’d realized earlier that both horses were showing signs of being sore in their shoulders after that punishing ride to Mosquito Ridge Road.? Along the way we picked up a little Pinto mare named Macy and her rider Pam who seemed happy to slip into Bear’s wake.
Arriving to more unaccustomed pomp and circumstance, we passed under the finish line at 10:06 PM.? Happy to complete.
[More thoughts and pictures – have to get them sent to me! – later…]