Thoughts on Tevis 2014

A Pithy List of Learnings and Reflections...

Rather than share a blow-by-blow account of the ride, which I’ve done a couple times before, I thought I’d do a pithy (yeah, right :)) list of key memories and learnings from Tevis 2014;

The weather was remarkable – mild and slightly humid. I didn’t even put a jacket on as I left the trailer I crashed in on Friday night to saddle up Stoner at 4:00 AM (near Truckee, CA – elevation nearly 6,000 ft.). It was a gift everywhere but in the canyons, which seemed their typical scorching, torturous selves. The finish rate and times are reflective of getting about a ten degree discount on race day.

Even on a sure-footed horse, you can wipe out. Stoner is a careful and nimble horse. I’ve ridden the other end of the spectrum and he really is good on his hooves. But about 10 miles into the ride, doing fast switchbacks on level but silty ground, he got his front legs tangled and we somersaulted forward. I remember waiting (it seemed eons) to see if he’d recover…if that head and neck would reappear in front of me. Then I just closed my eyes and heard the loud sound of my helmet making contact with the earth. I held my breath hoping he wouldn’t roll over me, but we didn’t collide.

Next thing I knew I was on my feet running up the trail after him, calling for riders in front to catch my horse. We’re all still pretty tightly packed that early in the ride and the woman riding directly in front of me had heard the wreck and stopped and dismounted. She was easily able to catch a clearly-bewildered Stoner. I ran up to him, re-mounted and off we went. I asked Kevin (Stoner’s owner, riding directly behind me) a couple of times if Stoner looked okay. Neither of us could detect any anomalies in the way the horse was moving so we just kept going.

At the Robinson Flat vet check my crew gave Stoner a thorough check and found a few scrapes – one on his face (:() – but nothing significant presented.

Ute applying Desitin to the somersault damage on Stoner’s right front

The next day told the tale for both of us, however. When I got out of the shower after the finish I saw that my right shoulder and part of my back were very scraped up. And both shoulders were too sore to sleep on. Stoner looked generally great the next morning, bright-eyed if a little stiff, but when trotted on a circle the leg that took the most impact wasn’t coming down as symmetrically as it should. So we didn’t show for best condition. Only five of the top ten horses did, Tevis can take the shine off of any apple.

Crew should be sainted. My crew – and I had basically the same dedicated bunch back again this year – had to navigate the daily changes in my ride plan. First I was riding Stella. Then I was maybe riding Tosca. Then I was definitely riding Stoner. It looked like Jenn and I were going to try to ride together (not knowing how our horses would go), but then Rusty – Kevin’s partner – dropped out of the race for family reasons and Kevin and I agreed to ride together. Jenn decided to see how things shook out. So crew had to re-stage the gear from vet check to vet check depending on which spot/trailer/area I was going to be leading Stoner to.

Between us – Kevin, me and Jenn – we must have had 20 crew members combined. Which does seem excessive but each of them brought their own talents and expertise to the mix. We had leaders and organizers and masseuses and horse whisperers and muscle and speed and stamina. Moms and dads and babies. Mostly other endurance riders, but a few future endurance riders, handy spouses and, of course, my parents. 

a chunk of my wonderful if slightly goofy crew – from the left Linda Upton, me, Robert Upton, Becky Mertens, Ute Frey, Jennifer Rader and in front, Cris Jones.

For crew, it’s a long day of waiting around. There is a good bit of effort in schlepping to the check, setting up and then cleaning up and schlepping out afterward. But in between there are big bouts of sitting about. When your rider is running fast, that time is minimized but it’s still significant. Or so they tell me. I haven’t crewed in a very long time and the debt is building…

I said “I need some help” and crew sprang into action – Robert (middle of shot) and Jennifer (left edge) are already in motion – amazing

You will worry the whole ride. Stoner began the ride a little less fit than Far, so I started off being on my guard to see how he went. At the top of Squaw, Kevin thought he looked a little tuckered out and I started worrying in earnest. At Red Star he was clearly trying to catch his next wind and I worked hard to get him cooled down and to pulse. But by Robinson he was beginning to bounce back and he ate and drank like a champ – with intent – the whole time we were at the check, so I began to relax.

But the teeter totter went toward Kevin. Far didn’t touch any food at Robinson, he just stood and looked into the distance. For some horses (my previous ride, BA Bearcat for example) that is normal. But not for Far, so Kevin started to worry as did the entire crew.

a gathering of worried people contemplate Far

Far’s gut sounds and general vet scores were good, though. And he did drink. So we headed into the canyons and by Last Chance he was chowing down with the best of them.

Then coming out of the second canyon with Kevin up, Far dropped his rear end off the edge of the trail. Super-horse effort got him back up to safety, but when we got to Foresthill he was exhibiting a little stiffness in his hindquarters. Becky (our masseuse) and a couple of others worked on him for a good 20 minutes and he was cleared to leave the vet check but Kevin was back to worrying.

About four or five miles down the California Loop, Kevin made the call to back off the pace. He felt that Far just wasn’t comfortable trotting the long downhills and he decided to dismount and walk those portions of the trail. From Foresthill to Auburn, downhill constitutes a large part of the trail. He waved me and Stoner on without them, insisting that we ride our own ride and finish. I reluctantly stuck Stoner to another horse to make the break and headed toward Francisco’s.

My horse is always more fit than I, dammit. For the first time in a long time, this year I ran down and tailed up (most of) the first canyon and ran down the better part of the third canyon. The running down I was ready for – I’d done a half marathon in San Francisco two weeks prior and beaten my goal time (yay!). So I was feeling pretty fit.

The tailing kicked my rear end. I think it’s about a two mile haul up out of El Dorado – the first of the three canyons. It’s steep, yes. Hot, yes a thousand times yes even in this relatively-cool year. And I was wearing riding clothes, including my helmet. But still I would have thought I could knuckle down and do two miles – it’s not that far! But I was really tapped and felt it the next day along with soreness from the somersault.

the stare of a tired and underfed rider

Cram in as much food and drink as you can stand. I’ve never been a good drinker. That sounds funny but you know what I mean. Stoner was way better than I. But this year I did make a point of taking my electrolyte pills and downing as much water as they would bring me at the vet checks. And I got my water bottle (I only carried one, which isn’t ideal but I made it work) refilled at each stop with cold water cut with whatever else they had on hand.

However, despite enjoining my mom to jam food into me at each stop, I was depleted by Foresthill. I ate a little there, but nowhere near the calories I needed to consume. As I was mounting up to leave, my friend Jennifer got my attention – and I can distinctly remember looking down at her as she spoke – and said to me “Eat. You must eat something.” I told her I had a bar in my pack and promised to gag it down.

my parents coaxing me to eat at Robinson Flat

All that said, I lost five or six pounds that I didn’t need to lose and it took a good 36 hours before I really felt that I had my gas tank full again.

Tevis and I, we’re friends by now. This was my 11th attempt at the Western States Trail Ride and my 9th finish. I’m abundantly aware that I’m bucking the statistics (generally less than half of starters finish the ride each year). And I began those 11 rides on 9 different horses, none of them mine.

I’d tell you those nine complete rides (on seven of the horses) were more similar than you would think. I’ve ridden horses that were stoic and continued on despite being palpably exhausted and horses that were self-preserving and told me they were more tired than they actually were. I’ve ridden really comfortably-gaited horses and horses that could jar the teeth clean out of your skull. Horses that pulled my arms out of my sockets and horses that went on the lightest hand. Tall horses and short horses. Geldings and mares. Older horses and young horses.

But the trail remains the same. The taste I get in my mouth at the start is reliably awful. The view from Watson’s Monument is always breath-taking. The teeth-clenching I do around Pucker Point is a constant. The fun of trotting down the main street of Foresthill to cheering crowds never dims. The feeling of blissful exhaustion and abiding inner peace on No Hands Bridge in the moonlight is exactly the same. And crossing the finish line on a horse that could actually go a bit farther always feels as awesome.

Love this ride.

both of us ready to ride

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