Sunday, May 3, 2009

Al Andalus Day 8: Montoro to Virgen de la Cabeza

2009 Al Andalus: Day 8


Fase 1 - Montoro - Cardena - 27.47 km

Fase 2 - Cardena - Lugar nuevo - 43.15 km

Fase 3 - Lugar Nuevo - Andujar (Virgen de la Cabeza) - 7.22 km

TOTAL: 77.84 km

I figured that with all the extra riders and rides going on, today's final day of Al Andalus would be just as hectic as yesterday, so I arranged to ride straight to the vet gates and then the finish with ride stewards Guillermo and Eugenia.

We left the hotel at 7:30 AM, driving straight to the starting line instead of the stables. It was a foggy day, damp, and cool - everybody but me was cold. I've really enjoyed the cooler weather this year, but this is not what the Andalucians had in mind for Springtime in Andalucia!

Trailers started arriving in the small parking lot at 8 AM. By 8:30, the 2* 80 km riders were sent on their way, followed by the 24 intrepid Al Andalus horses and riders, at 9 AM, on their last day of competition! The race for overall Binomios and Equipos winners were still up for grabs - it would likely come down to the final vet checks.

And the horses would have a strenuous workout: 530 meters (1750 feet) of climbing on the first 27-kilometer loop, 541 meters (1785 feet) on the second 43 kilometer loop, and 382 meters (1260 feet) on the last 7-kilometer loop.

The third start, the 1* 40 kilometer ride was sent down the trail at 9:30 AM. Eugenia had already gone on to the first vet check, and I was waiting for a ride from Guillermo, who started all the rides. Suddenly this loose horse comes trotting out of the parking lot with halter and lead rope attached.

Three of us I saw it happen, and ran after to help catch him. I thought one of them was the owner. The two men chased the horse around a house (the highway was down there somewhere - yikes!) and I went the other way, and fortunately the horse ran around the house and came trotting back towards me. "Whoa boy!" I said, and fortunately he slowed down, and he let me walk up to him and catch him.

I thought one of those guys would come take him, but they walked off - they were not the owners. I walked the horse toward the parking lot, expecting any moment for someone to come running out to get their horse.

Guillermo came up to me and asked in Spanish, "Whose horse is that!" I shrugged, "No se!" I walked him to the parking lot to hand him off to his owner - and nobody was there! Just a parking lot full of trucks and empty, closed-up horse vans. Apparently people were coming back to pick up their vans after the first vet gate - but there was no sign of where the horse came from! He was obviously an Al Andalus horse (they should put numbers on the horses' butts!), and he had a shaved patch on his neck where he'd been treated with an IV - obviously a horse retired from the competition and probably part of an Equipos team. Now what!?

Guillermo called somebody but they didn't have any answers. So, we picked a trailer at random, opened it up, and loaded the horse in. I made sure he had somebody's hay to eat, and we closed him up and left him. Poor horse! What was that about - who could forget a horse?? He couldn't have been in a trailer and escaped - but was he just tied to a trailer and got loose when the last horse left? Who would just leave a horse tied out there unattended for a few hours? We told the police who were still lingering there at the start, though they were probably leaving soon. Poor horse! I worried about him all day.

Guillermo drove us on to the first vet gate, the fog getting thicker as we drove ever upward along the highway. It was such a climb, my ears popped. The horses would be working today!

Up top, we drove out of the fog; the sun was out and it was a beautiful morning, dew on the grass and tree leaves which left the meadows and oak forests glistening. The vet gate was beside the visitor center of the Parque Natural Sierra de Cardena y Montoro. It's a park of typically Mediterranean landscape, of forests, woodlands, and pasture with a wealth of pine trees, shrubs and bushes. It lies in the heart of the Sierra Morena mountains, and is a refuge to the wolf and the critically endangered Iberian Lynx.

Riders from the 1* and 2* events were first to arrive at the vet gate; the first Al Andalus riders were a group of Equipos riders led by Santiago Perez on Marlboro Yac, Aurelie Le Gall on Lazou, and Emma Rosell on Al-Jatib. Carlos Escavias on Yaman V led the Binomios riders. It is interesting to note that every single horse pulsed down in less than 2 1/2 minutes. Three were eliminated on lameness, and one horse "did not arrive" at the vet gate.

Horses got a 30 minute rest, snacking on hay and grain and grass in the crew area, and riders got the best sandwiches we'd had at Al Andalus! They were made fresh by a crew on the steps of the visitor center.

Then I hitched a ride with Antonio Castano to the next vet gate. It was only 43 kilometers by horseback through the park, but we drove about double that, having to backtrack past our starting point, and make our way around, through the Andujar valley, and back up into the mountains. It was smoky/smoggy much of the way, probably from controlled burns in olive orchards.

The vet gate was a lovely meadow of spring yellow flowers beside a river and below the Virgen de la Cabeza, high on a cliff in the distance - the finish. What do the Andalucians do in a place like this? (Besides siesta, which I was really leaning towards) - picnic! Many of them had a spread of food out and were enjoying the afternoon eating and waiting for their riders. But man was that meadow inviting enough for me to lay in the grass and pass out. So much so that i didn't dare even sit down!

Another Al Andalus celebrity present today was Jose Leon, winner of the Binomios in 2007 (and Steph's Equipos partner in 2008), minus his equine partner Buleria. She'd injured an ankle before the ride, and though she was fine, she wasn't able to compete this year.

Another rider watching from the sidelines today was Argentinian Miguel Pavlovsky. His mount Oriflamme Larzac was lame at the finish yesterday. He had enjoyed his ride in Al Andalus, and was sorry he missed today's scenic stage. "It's very hard for one horse to do all the days!" he observed. Joelle Sauvage and Leonard Liesens were still riding Joelle's other two horses.

Florencio Augustin and Artesana led the Binomios riders into Vet Gate 2. Twenty-two minutes behind him came overall Binomios leader Eduardo Sanchez and the ever-steady Hermes, followed a minute later by overall second place Otto Velez, and his ever-steady Pal Partenon.

Coming into today's final race, the team of Emma Rosell and Maria Capdevila still had a chance to catch the overall team leaders Inigo Del Solar and Teresa Lozano, if they made up 1 hour and 7 minutes. But Inigo and his horse Zafia were in third place at this vet gate, just 8 minutes behind Emma and Al-Jatib. And they had only 7 kilometers left on the third fase to the finish: not enough distance to make up the time. The overall Equipos winner would be determined by the soundness of the horses at the finish.

Aurelie Le Gall led the Al Andalus riders out onto Fase 3 at a swift canter, followed 2 minutes later by Emma Rosell. Antonio and I left the sunny meadow and drove to the finish - another many slow kilometers of winding mountain roads, up to the top, where the Virgen de la Cabeza sat on a cliff overlooking the valley below and the Meta on the flat behind it.

Construction of this church began in 1287 AD, as a small chapel that the Andujar people had built in the middle of the Sierra Morena. It reached its peak in the 16th century when it became a real sanctuary.

We had already missed the first two riders to come under the Meta line - Aurelie Le Gall finished first, two minutes ahead of Emma Rosell - they averaged 23 and 22 km/h over the final 7 kilometers, a 382 meter (1260 feet) climb! Arriving 16 minutes later was Inigo Del Solar and Zafia - enough time to keep his Equipos team in overall first place if Zafia passed the vet check.

A crowd followed him to the finish line... applause and cheers broke out before the horse even finished trotting out to the end of the lane - he was sound! The vet did his final check and gave the nod - Inigo and Teresa had won the Equipos of Al Andalus 2009! Following were big laughs and hugs and a big barrel of ice water poured over Inigo and Teresa! Emma Rosell and Maria Capdevila had finished second overall.

Florencio Augustin was the first Binomios rider to arrive followed by Christine Hubin; finishing 3rd an hour and ten minutes behind Aurelie, were Otto Velez on Pal Partenon, cantering across the line with a big grin on his face, followed a few seconds later by Eduardo Sanchez and Hermes, carrying a Spanish flag to the cheers of a crowd who had gathered to watch them come in. Eduardo and Otto had ridden together the last 7 kilometers, carefully, at 10.6 km/h.

The contingent of crew and fans and onlookers followed them in a crowd to the finish line. Both horses took only 4 minutes to pulse down. Otto's son Andres trotted out Pal Partenon - big cheers for his completion! Now the overall winner of Binomios hung on the trot-out of 16-year-old Hermes. Not a word was spoken as the vet did his preliminary exam, and there were plenty of held breaths as he trotted out. The applause started as he got to the end of the lane - Hermes was sound! When the vets gave the OK the cheers and whistles erupted - Hermes and Eduardo Sanchez - Binomios winners of 2009 Al Andalus!

In fact there were plenty of reasons to celebrate today's finale: 3 Equipos (teams) had finished all 8 days; 3rd place overall was Santiago Perez Dorao who rode two horses, Marlboro Yac and Trebol. And there were 5 Binomios (1 horse, 1 rider) riders that finished all 8 days on their horses! Joelle Suavage and Mandchour du Barthas - with their steady pace every day - finished overall 3rd, Christine Hubin was 4th on Leo de la Grilletiere, and Miguel Conradi Arias finished 5th on Halamin. Four more riders finished 7 of the days, including the big boy on the little stallion - Carlos Escavias on Yaman V, and Leonard Liesens on his borrowed Spanish horse, CC Blanco. It was a testament to the hardiness of the horses, the trails of the Al Andalus organizing committee, and the hard and dedicated work of the crews - the hardest workers of them all.

Groups of Al Andalus riders, crews, and friends partied at the finish one last time this year, enjoying the Kaliber beer and Cruzcampo sin (without) alcohol beer, posing for photos, and cheering the finishers as they came across the line and vetted through.

The day's awards were given out from the Al Andalus stage that was parked at the foot of the entrance to the Virgen de la Cabeza, in a little town square by a busy outdoor cafe. It drew quite a crowd, of locals and tourists - Al Andalus organizers tossed out Tshirts and other prizes; Andalucia tourism had a booth with posters and travel information as they did almost every day for the provinces we travelled through.

Jose Manuel Soto had lost his voice (darn! No singing tonight!) and he handed the microphone over to Javier Gutierrez to announce the day's finishers and hand out the giant bottles of olive oil. The overall prizes would be given tonight at the awards dinner.

And what a grand awards party/dinner it was. It didn't start until around 9 PM - the visiting, the beginning of the goodbyes - and it wasn't till around 10 PM or later that the food started coming. Really, it was something like a 15-course meal. I lost count after the sixth dish and third glass of Andalucian wine. Or maybe it was the other way around. The main course arrived at almost 1 AM. The awards started around 12:30 AM, but by then I couldn't concentrate on Spanish anymore so I missed much of the speeches. I just clapped and cheered.

There were many sponsors to thank, many officials to recognize, many awards to hand out. Perhaps none happier or prouder was Eduardo Sanchez - father of rider Eduardo: of his son, his family and most of all Hermes the amazing 16-year-old horse who looked like he could go down the trail another 8 days.

Despite the challenging economic times this year - for organizers putting the ride on, and for riders and crews coming here - IV Raid Kaliber Tierras de al-Andalus was a resounding success. The riders and crews come for the same reason Jose Manuel Soto and Antonio Castano go to the trouble of putting it on: it is an extraordinary multi-day horse adventure across Andalucia, equal parts fun and exhaustion, and demanding for humans and horses; it is a unique challenge of trying your horsemanship skills, a chance to teach and to learn from others, "you learn things to do, and things not to do!" said one rider. It's a rich experience of Andalucian culture and hospitality, extraordinary scenery and lessons in history, all in a rich setting of esprit de corps with riders from all around Europe (and one from Argentina this year!).

Plans are already being made for the V Raid Kaliber Tierras de al-Andalus... and keep an eye out for the new SpanAmericano team : )


P.S. Another happy conclusion: A girl came up to me as the awards/dinner was dispersing in the wee hours of the morning: it was the girl who owned the loose horse I caught. I didn't get her name, nor did I ask where he had been for him to get loose, but she thanked me graciously and I was relieved to hear the horse was eventually picked up, and he was fine!


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