Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Gryphon's 100-Mile Reprise

     After his candidly unexpected completion of the Tevis 100-mile ride, I was eager to reunite with my little rescue horse for another endurance adventure. Gryphon had been back from California for a week, grazing on the Crandell's front pasture, when I drove up to Star Tannery on Aug. 23 after competing Siena at the Iron Mountain Ride, where she'd finished 3rd and earned high vet score thanks to her lighting-fast recoveries.
     Unfortunately, that Saturday morning was a rainy mess even for die-hard riders. After spending a few minutes with Gryphon, who looked super-fit and proud of himself, I treated Lisa and John Crandell to lunch in Wardensville, where we agreed to buy John a plane ticket to France in time for the World Endurance Championships that week. Soggy terrain was also a major issue for that event - just 22% completed, with Jeremy Olson on my friend Amy Whelan's Wallace Hill Shade as the lone U.S finisher . Sigh.
    Shaking off disappointment about the U.S team and international level of our sport,  I began training Gryphon for the AERC National Championship (NC), which this year would be in Mount Pleasant, Texas on Oct. 30. Almost every weekend in September and early October, I drove 3 hours each way to meet Lisa and work our horses. Unlike the mountain training we did for Tevis, this time we took the horses to the State Arboretum at Blandy, or nearby training track, for fast, flat workouts.
   With Lisa's mare Amana dragging him along, Gryphon managed to gallop 10 straight laps on the 1/2 mile track (5 times each direction, 5 miles total) in just 21 minutes. But as the NC date approached, my plans shifted - I'd been willing to take a whole week off work and use my F-350 again to haul our horses to Texas, but then learned John Crandell and his friend Shannon were willing to haul Amana (who'd been bred by John's parents) using John's gas truck with Lisa's rig.  
    This meant I was off the hook. The first thoughts that jumped in my mind were that now I wouldn't need to miss two important work meetings early that week and could instead go to a Tennessee ride I'd been wanting to try for years, which was half as far as going to TX. This was going to be Lisa's last last big endurance competition with her mare and I knew they'd do well, but didn't have crew of my own and wasn't excited about taking unclipped Gryphon on a hot, flat trail - twisty trail is where he excels.   
   I sadly informed the NC ride manager (who was low on entries) of my change in plans and quickly mailed in registration for Ike Nelson's Skymont Ride in Altamont, TN on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.   
   On Oct. 24, I hauled my other two horses to the Fort Valley Ride, where my friend Cat Carter from Md. and Lisa's youngest son Ridge borrowed Shiloh and Siena for the 30-miler. Lily Kuhn, my young neighbor who's been riding Shiloh for the past two months, helped me crew, then with my horses nicely tired out, took a short mid-afternoon ride before packing up, dropping off Siena at my friend Barb's and picking up Gryphon on the way home. (Barb had agreed to help Siena get farrier and chiropractic work before we hauled to the Mustang Ride in NJ in early Nov.)  
   The following Wednesday after work, I had just enough daylight to finish packing for several days of cold weather - the forecast called for temps to fall well below freezing all three nights I'd be in TN. After about 4 hours of sleep, I fed G a soggy beet pulp mash, then loaded up and headed out in the dark of night, hoping to arrive in the warmest part of the day to bathe Gryphon and give him some grazing time. But just 90 minutes later, on the west side of Charlottesville, all of us on westbound I-64 were held up for 2 and a half hours by a bad accident. Unable to completely remove the wreckage even in that timeframe, they finally used a police-only crossover to turn us back eastbound. Using GPS to figure out a hilly 25-mile detour, I was back on route by 4 am, reaching Altamont just after 1 pm with the Central Zone time difference.  
   With Ike's help I found a great parking spot next to Susan Kain and just in front of Angie McGhee and the Buttrams, less than 50 yards from the vetting area. Gryphon was nervous but got some grazing in on a nearby green field and quickly attached to his neighbor, Susan's big gelding.It had been more than 6 months since I'd had daily care of my little rescue horse, who'd had popped a hemorrhoid a year earlier. He hadn't had any issues with it earlier in the year while in California, but the durn thing decided to make a brief appearance just before the vet-in that Thursday. I disclosed and discussed my concern with head vet Otis Schmidt, then as darkness rapidly approached heated up some dinner in the Running Bear microwave (thanks Teddy!) before walking the half mile over the dam to the ride briefing, following glowsticks put up by Eric Reuter.  
    The Skymont ride is held on a 2,400 acre Boy Scout reservation perched on the Cumberland Plateau, with basecamp adjacent to a long-fingered lake. Ike's friend Wendy, who singlehandedly cleaned up  and marked the four loops of the trail, did a great job explaining the course for us first-timers. After barely any sleep the night before, I slept soundly and was in the saddle 20 minutes before the start of Friday's ride, with Gryphon both calm and eager. There were only about two dozen of us in the 50-mile ride and I ended up in the front third of the pack, behind a tall bay mare. Within the first 10 miles of riding together, the bay mare Jazz's owner Kathy Torgeson and I figured out that we'd BOTH just finished Tevis, on the same horses we were riding that day.   
   Despite Jazz being a full hand taller than Gryphon, he managed to keep up, cantering in some of the places to keep up with her long trot. The trail was a great mix of single-track trail and wide forest roads, with lots of creek crossings and some big hills along the gas lines. Sudi Leinhardt also rode with us all day, and with the two of them doing most of the leading, three loops flew by. Everyone got a kick out of how Gryphon seemed to want to drink at EVERY water opportunity - one of the greatest attributes for a multiday endurance horse.
   We were halfway through the final loop, having barely gotten rained on all day, when the sky grew ominously dark and the wind began to blow violently. We completed in 6th, 7th and 8th place around 3:30 pm, and I just had time to buckle Gryphon into a waterproof blanket before the truly nasty weather began. Luckily my trailer created a wind block from blasts coming off the lake, and I quickly set up and staked down a pop-up tent for Gryphon to stand under as icy sleet began to fall.

   Joni Buttram and I kept the McGhee's fire bowl going strong despite the precipitation, then helped Angie untack and bundle up her horse when she came in off her final loop. The nasty weather took a break during the dinner and awards, but snow began falling around midnight, along with more winds, which both continued until almost dawn.
   Nine of us die-hards started the 50 on Saturday, all wearing multiple layers (for me, this meant rain pants over my breeches, duck boots with two layers of socks instead of sneakers and rump rugs on our horses.) To my pleasant surprise the trails were less slippery and soggy than I thought they'd be. Here's some video from Josie McGhee, Angie's daughter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c6XTy3GSsuA&feature=youtu.be
   Kathy and I again rode together, with her mare setting a steady pace that was just a bit slower than the day before. The sun never came out, but the snow quickly melted and the wind subsided by noon.  We finished at 3:39 pm and I offered to present Kathy's horse for best condition, since she'd hurt her hip when her horse slipped and fell on the Granite Chief section of Tevis (G had also slipped and fell on that part, but I'd been luckier not to get injured.)

With my little horse resting and surrounded by several food options, I was getting ready for the long walk to the dining hall and showers when Ike kindly lent me his mule (gator) to drive instead. The hot shower felt wonderful, and I enjoyed hanging out with the four radio guys while waiting for dinner, who until then had only known me by my ride number, 316, which I'd called out at every checkpoint over the past two days. The significance of my number - the wonderful Bible verse 3:16 from the Gospel of John, finally dawned on me. I reflected how fortunate I was to have an eager horse like Gryphon and was deeply grateful that his hemorrhoid, despite making a few more appearances, didn't keep him from completing. And Kathy's mare Jazz did earn both high vet score and best condition!!! 
   After one more night tucked under the comforters in my comfy trailer bed, I began final packup around 5:30 am on Sunday. Ike happened to be out and about trying to find his little old dog, who hadn't returned when let out to pee a few minutes earlier, so helped me load my metal fence panels.
   I enjoyed watching the sun slowly rise as I headed east along 80 miles of back roads before hitting the interstate. What wonderful memories me and Gryphon made that weekend! And how good it felt to make it safely home just before dark. Endurance helps you discover the rewards of perseverance, while elevating the simplest comforts of food, warmth and companionship to become like finding lost treasure.

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