Wednesday, August 13, 2014

From Hip Tag to Tevis Buckle: Rescue Horse Completes Our Sport's Iconic Event

Just two years after I took my friend Barb’s advice to adopt a scared, starved Arabian gelding with no name from a Pennsylvania rescue, that little horse (renamed "Gryphon" after the mythological half lion/half eagle) has repaid me countless times over. We just completed what is perhaps the world’s most rugged 100-mile endurance competition in the experience of a lifetime!
Officially called the Western States Trail Ride but popularly known as Tevis, this grueling test of horse and rider fitness across the historic trails in California's Sierra Nevada mountains is held on varying dates each summer to coincide with a full moon that helps riders more safely cover trail after darkness falls. This year's event was Aug. 9, a bit later than usual but that may have contributed to daytime high temperatures staying below 100 degrees, a rare occurrence for this ride.

My partner in this adventure was Lisa Green, whose mare Amana had just completed the Old Dominion 100-Mile Endurance Ride in our home state of Virginia. Like many of our East Coast endurance friends, Tevis was on our "bucket list," but it wasn't until late June that we realized our chance would come much sooner than expected, THIS summer!
It's not easy to balance my full-time job with this demanding sport, since both involve a lot of travel. But Lisa's neighbor happens to be John Crandell, a world-famous horseman who has been on the U.S. Endurance team several times and won Tevis twice. John is also a top-notch farrier who was willing to take time away from home to help us make this happen. (For those who may be wondering, his accomplished horse Heraldic, who has a Reactor Panel saddle named for him, is perfectly sound, but John is taking a break from competing at top levels.)
Lisa and I fit in as many long, mountainous training rides as we could on Old Dominion trails near Star Tannery before John left Virginia on July 22 with both horses and his dirtbike, using my F350 truck and Lisa's 3-horse Sundowner to haul nearly 3,000 miles west along the 1-80 corridor.
Lisa flew out on July 26 and John picked her up in Reno before continuing on to the ranch near Auburn, CA where his friends, the Gerhards, had agreed to keep our horses. The horses would get nearly two weeks to recover and also pre-ride the last section of Tevis trail.
In late July, after shoeing both Amana and Gryphon with protective leather pads, John joined Lisa, Andrew, and the Gerhard's client Sophie from Austria on a 10-mile training ride out and back from the finish area at McCann stadium in nearby Auburn. This video shows John working to set Gryphon's head and my little horse certainly benefited from his training during that time.
As a precaution, Lisa had bloodwork done on both horses the week before Tevis. Gryphon's showed high levels of CK and AZT, meaning he'd experienced a mild tie-up (metabolic issue involving the processing of muscle metabolites) on the long trailer ride out. Lisa, who was carefully managing the horses' feedings, added Vitamin E/Selenium and Vitamin B supplements to Gryphon's diet. A second blood test done five days later showed he'd recovered to acceptable levels. Hurray!
Back at home, I'd been running a few miles every morning before work, doing my best to get in shape. After taking photos at one of our member co-op's annual meetings on the evening of Aug 7, I flew out west early the next morning. I was careful to drink as much water as I could during each of the three legs of that journey to offset the triple-whammy of flying, traveling to high altitude and also a much-needed massage the day before.

My brother Peter and his wife Patty picked me up in Reno at noon in their old Toyota Dolphin RV, aka  "Flipper," and we reached Robie Park, located near Lake Tahoe, just after 2 pm. The last six miles was on a steep and winding dirt road up the mountain as we listened to my Tevis theme song, "Estimated Prophet" by the Grateful Dead. With rigs tucked around basecamp's many trees, Robie didn't seem crowded despite nearly 200 horses being entered in the ride.
After introducing everyone (including John's son Yancey and Andrew Gerhardt's friends and family) to each other, Lisa and I walked our horses to the pre-ride veterinary inspection. While jogging Gryphon to warm him up, I first noticed the effect of the 9,000 feet of altitude - simply could not get my breath and could only manage about 30 yards at a time. Then John and I saddled up to pre-ride the first several miles of that end of the trail. By the time we returned, I was getting tired and opted to skip the ride meeting and dinner, instead chowing down some hot lentil soup and a tuna sandwich before tucking myself under Patty's down comforter around 8 pm California time.

Since my normal wake up time in Virginia is 5:30 am, I didn't need an alarm to be up by 3 am giving both horses their pre-ride meal, then dressing in my cool-weather Tevis clothes (long sleeved shirt) and eating a protein-filled breakfast.

Gryphon had the quivers as Peter and John helped me tack in the dark.  Lisa & Amana were eligible to join the 60 fastest horses that had pre-qualified for Pen 1, and the other three horses in our group had also left for the starting area by the time I was ready to mount up, which added to his anxiety.

We couldn't locate my running martingale, but John reassured me that  if Gryphon started bucking or acting up, I could always do a one-rein stop. I focused my breathing to relax as John clipped a leadline and helpfully led my horse to the back of the starting area. I could see faint outlines of the other horses around me. Magically, Gryphon remained calm even when a nearby horse started acting up. We continued walked slowly forward, reaching the starting line just a few minutes after the official start time, and were off! If there was ever a time I came face to face with what "courage" feels like, that morning was IT.

The next three hours were a blur - I tucked in behind big bay mare ridden by a distinguished looking older man whom I later found out was Danny Grant from British Columbia, on his way to earning a 10th Tevis buckle. His experience showed as he slowly but surely began passing slower riders. By the time we reached the Highway 89 crossing at full light, I could tell we'd even passed some of the Pen 1 riders, but didn't realize Lisa was one of them until after I'd arrived at the first three checkpoints just ahead of her.

The trail through Squaw Valley and long, steep grade into the Granite Chief Wilderness gave me a good idea of the gorgeous views that lay ahead. The  single-track trail was very technical and when the line of horses abruptly stopped on a rocky climb interspersed with muddy "bogs," Gryphon ended up on a slippery rock and slid sideways, knocking me off. I was able to quickly remount, and he drank twice on this section, taking his first pee of the day coming into the Hodgson's Cabin checkpoint at 8 am.

Around 9 am and leading a group of three other riders, I saw a 'cowboy' (no helmet and big western saddle on his horse) blocking the trail to Cougar Rock, so decided not to tackle it and took the  much faster go-around instead, with everyone following me. Lisa and our friend Gene from Vermont both had sure-footed, hill-climbing horses to tackle that landmark and have the iconic photos to show for it. Maybe next time!

Gryphon took a few minutes longer than usual to pulse in at Red Star, but we still passed a lot of horses and riders that were having difficulty meeting the 60 heart rate criteria. I enjoyed sharing this part of the trail with Vicki Roden, another "flatlander" from east Texas, as we chatted about the AERC National Championship she was helping host in October.

Coming into Robinson Flat (our first of two hour-long holds) slightly ahead of schedule at 10:29 am, I was delighted when Gryphon vetted through in great shape and also passed the required bloodwork check. My friend Laura Horst had driven over from Cool to crew for me and greeted us with a baggie of carrots & apples that Gryphon devoured on the way to vets, plus a big bowl of soaked mash that he downed afterwards. Meanwhile, I opened Laura's cooler to find all kinds of goodies - gobbled quiche Lorraine, a hard boiled egg, potato chips, fresh plums from the tree in her back yard and some weird but yummy protein drink before turning my attention to packing my saddlebags for the demanding trail ahead. I changed into a short-sleeved quick-dry shirt and swapped my riding boots for sneakers, adding a fanny pack I planned to load with food for Gryphon before we entered the canyons.

The next section was among the fastest of that day. A group of about five of us, including AERC board member Tom Bache, swept through the site of the old gold rush town, "Dusty Corners," descending to about 4,000 feet altitude. Lisa caught up and passed our group just before we reached Pucker Point, with that area looking a bit dark and crispy following last year's devastating fire. I knew Gryphon couldn't keep up with Amana when we got to the canyons, but we hung out together for 10 minutes at Last Chance, making the volunteers laugh when Lisa asked if she had accidentally squirted chocolate almond butter all over her face and I licked it off to help clean her up!

The first canyon went on forever, even though most of the downhill and all of the uphill was in the shade. I steadily fed Gryphon carrot pieces and used up most of my fanny back's contents by the time we finally reached the blessedly cold creek at the bottom. I soaked my shirt before remounting for the long climb, managing to keep up with two French riders on gorgeously turned out horses with red and white ribbons intricately braided into their tales.

Resupplying at Deadwood while Gryphon ate a pan of mash, I was able to go a bit faster on the second canyon, which was not as steep but took even longer to cover.

I only took a few minutes at the next aid station, trotting into Michigan Bluff just before 5 pm, where Peter and Patty surprised me with carrots and lots of help! 

A third canyon prefaced our second hour-long hold at Foresthill, where we arrived at  6:30pm. Even though Gryphon had covered nearly 70 miles, he was fresh enough to be agitated by the commotion at this site, which had many spectators from the nearby town. He even reared slightly when a loudspeaker went off as the poor volunteer was trying to check his pulse. Laura sang "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" to quiet him down. After a much-needed shower and cup of spaghetti O's, I talked with Lisa's mom Susan and Becky Supinger, one of my first endurance pals, before heading out into the fast-approaching darkness.

The 10 blocks of Foresthill were lined with cheering locals as a small group of us trotted by. Will never forget the last yard filled with partying folks calling out good wishes - I felt like a celbrity! The trail now took us through the edge of hills that lined the South Fork of the American River, which glittered like silver below as the golden moon rose brightly to our left. Never have I so enjoyed riding at night - no headlamp or glowsticks needed.

For the first part of this 17 mile section, I rode with Lori Stewart, who'd loaned her horse to my friend Amanda Taylor the previous year. We caught up to a dejected Andrew Gerhard, whose horse had lost a shoe. Lori fortunately had the right size Easy Boot to loan him. Gryphon must have sensed he was getting closer to the end, because he picked up speed, leaving Lori and Andrew behind and we enjoyed several miles alone in the dark before catching back up to Ann Hall, Christoph Schork and several others.

Just before 11 pm, I glimpsed the bright lights of Francisco's twinkling in the distance. It's well trained posse of volunteers did a fantastic job feeding both me and Gryphon to tackle the final 14 miles. Can't say enough good things about those patient, pink shirted follks, whose expertise seemed to increase as we got further into the ride. Gryphon even got a courtesy massage of his hard-working hind end.

When we crossed the American River just after midnight, I had to lift my feet high to keep from getting soaked. After that, the trail was fairly flat and we picked up speed.
Our group had swelled to seven riders whose positions changed frequently, and I tried to stay ahead of a rider whose two glowsticks tied to the BACK of her saddle were making me dizzy. I'm relieved that despite some icky moments in the canyons when I downed some beef jerky to settle my stomach, I never felt sick enough to throw up, always a risk on a demanding 100-mile ride!

None other than 30-time Tevis finisher Barbara White cautioned me not to take to much time at Lower Quarry, which was near the river and quite chilly. We crossed No Hands Bridge together, and recognizing trail he'd been on just the week before, Gryphon enthusiastically covered the last 4 miles, finishing in 33rd place at 2:24 am, the last in a group of 4 horses.

Laura was blessedly there to greet me (I was starting to get overwhelmed by the miracle of finishing that was about to happen) and patiently led me down an asphalt road, across railroad tracks and into McCann Stadium, which was blazing with light. She helped me untack and cover him with a much-needed warm blanket. Laura's personal vet, Larry Goss, happened to be the one who did Gryphon's completion exam and he was so kind during the whole process, gaving my little guy a thumbs up. We did it!!!

Patty heated me some chicken noodle soup, Peter gave me a much-needed back massage and Gryphon munched hay while  we all waited out the rest of the hour before the mandatory second post-ride check. Gryphon continued to be doing just fine.

Lisa and Amana waited with us - they'd completed about a half-hour earlier in 23rd place at 1:58 am. I also learned our friend Gene Limlaw from Vermont and his mare Gracie  had come in 11th - WOW! Libby from New York sadly got pulled for lameness at the first check, and Cat Carter from Maryland rider optioned at the 80 mile mark, but hurray for we five East Coasters!

With Peter and Patty following in Flipper, it was around 4 am when Laura hauled Gryphon to her place down the road in Cool, turning him out into the miracle of a small grass-filled pasture! We later learned that of the record 109 horses who completed (the weather was about 10 degrees cooler than most years), 40 came in during the last hour before the 5:15 am cutoff. I'm so grateful Laura was able to provide a quiet place for Gryphon to rest after his tremendous effort rather than overnighting him in the crowded, hectic atmosphere of McCann Stadium.

The next morning was glorious. I woke up around 9 am and immediately ran outside to take off Gryphon's blanket and make sure he was OK. My wonderful little horse was looking bright-eyed and content! We all took our time getting ready to go back to McCann for the 2 pm awards and ate a leisurely lunch at a Mexican Restaurant before heading to the 2-hour long program. What a memorable experience, especially when the Top Ten horses paraded by, and the Tevis and Haggin cup winners each enjoyed oats out of their silver-plated trophies!

I'm filled with the desire to return as crew next year and help other East Coasters have the great experience I did. I also want to contribute in some way to helping this incredible event stay viable for future generations. There's nothing more reflective of our great nation and Americans' ability to prevail despite formidable obstacles than this historic and amazing trail and all those who work to keep this heritage event running smoothly!