Saturday, September 26, 2009

Owyhee Canyonlands: Eye On the Sky

Saturday September 26 2009

Day 1 of the Owyhee Canyonlands ride is 3 days away (Tuesday). As for the broken rib, that is not up for discussion here. Then there's the weather: a touchy subject.

It's going to be cooler, in the 60's and 50's, but if I do a yippee dance about the cold nights (down to 38* and 35*!) I'm going to get drop-kicked into Pickett Creek. What can I say, I'm a cold weather junkie. : )

What's slightly disconcerting is the "chance of showers". It was 20% chance of showers on Monday - which would have been perfect for our godawful dusty trails and ridecamp, but now it's changed to 50% chance, on Tuesday. That could mean anything from a hot, cloudless sky to a 2-day downpour.

Now, weather has rarely stopped endurance riders (unless it's thunderstorms and I'm riding, and that's because I'm a lightning wimp). Adverse weather sometimes just makes things a bit more challenging - an extra layer of clothing here, a butt blanket there. But I bet you that anybody who spends one day here in this dust bowl of a ridecamp will be happy for a day of good rain. The desert will drink it up, and the trails will be good for days afterwards. It might even wash away this smoke in the air from distant fires.

So, ignore the weather forecast, saddle up and come on down to the Owyhees to ride. For five days, ride the old trails, and some new ones: over the desert and through canyons, past some old homesteads, over the original Oregon Trail, along the Snake River.

Just ride!

More info here on on the Owyhee Canyonlands

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

42nd Virginia City 100

Saturday September 19 2009

When anybody asks me how rocky a particular ride is, I say, "Have you ridden in Nevada? Nothing's rocky compared to Nevada. You don't know Rocks until you've ridden in Nevada."

The Virginia City 100 was my first 100-mile ride in 2002, on a horse, Royal Raffiq, doing his first 100. We finished. I got my silver bracelet. : ) It is one tough, Rocky ride, with a lot of mountains to climb and descend. It is one very special tough ride, very like the Tevis in that it feeds an addiction for some people, who keep coming back to ride it, year after year, despite knowing how hard it is going to be.

I rode it in 2002 with Jackie Bumgardner and Nick Warhol, and Nick wrote a story about it - Virginia City: Tougher Than Tevis? This year's Virginia City was particularly tough, with 42 starting and only 18 finishing - their worst percentage ever. Ride manager (and rider and finisher) Connie Creech said, " The weather? Hard tough trail? All the rocks? I don't know why."

Every year lately, whether or not the VC 100 will even be held is up in the air. The basecamp has been moved around Virginia City and squeezed (and next year it will again have to be moved somewhere else). Basecamp was, in fact, part of a 'Stagecoach route' - a circular dirt track, inside of which everybody was camped - where a 4-pinto-horse drawn stagecoach carried tourists at a gallop around the circular road many times a day. Made for some excited endurance horses tied to trailers.

Just about every year, trails must be changed due to housing developments, or in this year's case, a new railroad track. Four new hard miles of trail had to be added to go around the new tracks, while 4 miles were taken off elsewhere. And there are always rocks. Lots of rocks. There's the infamous Bailey Canyon on loop one, that even the front runners have to walk - and it takes at least an hour to get through it. Dave Rabe, who marked much of the trail, said, "I hit EVERY ROCK on the quad marking trail." If you have trouble picturing all the rocks, just imagine all the mining that went on here, all the rock the miners had to deal with when they dug tunnels and holes in the ground. I think all of those rocks were deposited on the roads and trails of the VC ride.

Old hands, and new riders and horses alike tackled the trails this year for the 42nd annual VC 100. There were 3 loops: Loop one, 55 miles, with one out vet check and a 45-minute hold at 24 miles, a trot by and 15-minute hold after 14 more miles, and a vet check and hour hold back in camp after 16 more miles. Loop 2, 22 miles and a vet check and hour hold back in camp. Loop 3, 23 miles with an out vet check and 15 minute hold after 16 miles, then the finish, at the cemetery in Virginia City. Guaranteed to be after dark. : ) A time and place where some people refuse to spend any extra time. Tinker Hart, who's both ridden and volunteered at the VC 100 (and who was riding a first-time horse this year) said, "I won't sit there at the finish waiting for anybody, no way, uh uh!"

It really is a terrific ride, giving you the real flavor of the old Wild West: starting a ride on horseback in downtown Virginia City, a town founded in the 1950's after the discovery of gold at the head of Six-Mile Canyon in 1859 by two men. One story is that Henry Comstock jumped their claim, ending up rich and with the biggest Comstock mine named after himself. Reportedly, he later lost all his property and possessions and ended up broke, and later committed suicide. One of the men who found the gold at Six-Mile Canyon, Peter O'Riley, eventually got rich from mining, and from the Virginia House Hotel he built, and from dealing mining stocks. He eventually lost everything he had and ended up in an insane asylum. Or so the story goes. Don't forget to visit the Suicide Table in the Delta Saloon, where at least 3 gamblers purportedly shot themselves after losing at the Faro gaming table. At its peak in the 1860's, Virginia City had 30,000 residents, and produced over $400 million (the price in those days) of gold and silver. Virginia City has been a National Historic Landmark since 1961.

You'll ride past countless old abandoned mines (the whole town of Virginia City appears to be built on mine slag heaps!), and you'll pass many wild horses throughout the ride. You'll start in the dark, and you'll finish in the dark (if you make it that far). You might encounter some Virginia City ghosts along the way - a few crew members waiting at the cemetery in the wee hours of the morning saw one.

The VC 100 starts in front of the Delta Saloon (established 1863, and open 24 hours a day) at 5 AM, in the dark. (Difference from then to now is the paved streets!) Dave Rabe (13 VC buckles prior to this year) and Gina Hall (9 buckles prior to this year) led the controlled start, darkness swallowing the horses, sparks flying from horseshoes, as they walked out of the town. A mile or so later they hit a dirt road where they let everybody go. It was blustery overnight, not exactly cold - most people wore Tshirts or a light wind breaker to start; it was expected to reach the 90's today, an unseasonably hot temperature, tough to deal with on a 100-mile ride.

It was Eileen Bissmeyer, riding Ace, a two-time Virginia City finisher, and Tevis Cup finisher this year in his last ride, leading the pack into the first vet check after 24 miles. They had an 8 minute lead over Kristine Hartman ("Kristine with a 'K'!") and Klassy Sam ("Klassy with a 'K'!"). Klassy Sam has been with the Hartman family since 2007, completing all but one of his 25 starts, finishing 2nd in the VC 100 in 2007, and 4th in 2008. Kristine was one of those who had a Perma-Grin on her face all day.

There were two pulls at the first vet check, one of whom was Helen Mooney and BR George De Soi (Georgie)(sometimes Georgie Porgie, because he's one of those Good Keepers), attempting their first 100. They were also going for the NASTR Triple Crown, having already completed the 50-mile Nevada Derby in April, and the 75-mile NASTR in June. Georgie is 10 years old, and came from Jerry Zebrak. "He is an off-the-track horse, but he's very good. He's my Steady Eddie." I think it was lameness that got them at this vet check - Georgie's only pull for lameness over his 24 starts - though Helen had already packed up and hauled for home (30 minutes away) by the time I'd gotten back to camp.

The 15 miles from vet check 1 to the trot-by and hold at Washoe Lake State Park involves the trek through Bailey Canyon. At last night's ride meeting, Connie Creech got some laughter when she said, "If you don't know Bailey Canyon, you're in for a treat!" It is a treat in that it's picturesque - and very rocky. "Bailey Canyon is a WHOLE LOTTA ROCKS!" More laughter, from those in the know, and those about to be.

Bailey Canyon might be what got Ace and Eileen Bissmeyer. She wasn't the first one into the next trot-by and hold at the lake; she wasn't anywhere in front. We asked some riders if they'd seen her; they said she was walking in, because Ace was lame. That left Kristine and Klassy Sam in front by 10 minutes, ahead of Nanci Gabri and Maveric, and Leigh Bacco on EZ Silver Dollar. They'd been riding together since the start.

Nanci's been riding Maveric for 3 seasons; they last finished Tevis in August. Leigh's horse arrived as a Christmas present from her partner Matt in 2008 wrapped in a bow. He actually came from right down my own Bates Creek Road in southern Idaho. Leigh's ridden endurance for 13 years, and says that EZ Silver Dollar is "the most steady horse I've ever had." This was only the horse's fifth ride; in his previous ride he finished the Tevis with Matt.

Andrew Gerhart and MP Martini followed them 4 minutes later; he's finished the Virginia City 100 twice, the last time in 2008 on MP Martini.

Just a minute behind Andy were the father-son duo of Matt and Colton Madeiros, riding Rushcreek Oladom and Rushcreek Lance. You may remember them from the AERC National Championships where they finished 10th and 11th in the 100-mile ride, just 8 days ago - on the same horses. There were some raised eyebrows at this back-to-back 100 so close in timing, but time (about 18 hours) would tell about their decision today. There were in fact 5 Rushcreek horses entered in the ride; they are known to be pretty tough endurance horses.

Instead of the 90+ degrees that was predicted, a blessed cloud cover had blown over, and it stayed quite windy. People later wondered if this dehydrating wind contributed to some of the pulls of the ride, because a few riders noted how dehydrated they were themselves at the end of the day (or night).

Many riders coming into the Washoe Lake vet check had big smiles on their faces. One was Karen Chaton riding her horse Ravenwood Mosham (Tigger), for the first time in over a year. She'd given him to Dave Rabe to ride last year after he bucked her off. Since then, Dave's ridden him on a number of rides, including 3 hundreds (one of them Virginia City last year). Karen wasn't sure, however, if she'd be riding Tigger - it depended on if, when Dave woke up in the morning, his horse White Cloud was okay. If White Cloud was OK to go, Dave would ride him, and Karen would ride her own horse. She was trying not to get too excited about it, because she really did want to ride. Turns out she did get to ride, and was having a great time. It was her first VC ride since 1998.

Another having a great time was Anne George from New Mexico. It was a big decision to haul all this way to ride in her horse's second 100. Chance G7 is a pinto National Show horse - quite a looker. Anne said "The ladies in my barn back home are taking bets as to if I'll finish or not." I asked Anne if Chance was a calm horse to ride... because I've ridden a few National Show horses who are not. Anne guffawed, "Oh heck no!" She fell off him at the finish of their last 50 when he spooked from a man and dog at the trailer. She was excited about the VC, but a bit worried about the start, because she didn't know how Chance would behave. She kept asking how far it was on pavement with the controlled start before they could move out. "I don't know about that first 30 minutes..."

A couple of horses were pulled here at the lake, both for metabolics. Eileen Bissmeyer still hadn't arrived when the last horse had; veterinarian Michele Roush drove off in her truck to look for her. She found Eileen and Ace along East Lake Road where the trail crossed it; Eileen had already called for her crew to come pick her up in her trailer and take her home. Michele looked the horse over and he was alright except for being lame.

The 16 miles back to camp included the SOBs: a set of three tough very steep and rocky SonsOfBitches hills to negotiate. They are especially aggravating when it is very hot, though today at least the temperature was agreeable. Kristine, a marathon runner with her husband Mike, was at least one person hiking the SOBs on foot to give Klassy Sam horse a break. I had hiked the first SOB hill when I rode VC, and almost passed out. I got back on for the other two.

Kristine's lead had increased on this loop, but Klassy Sam was eating so well at the reservoir stop a couple of miles later, she hung out there for 20 minutes and let him eat. Besides, she wanted to ride with Nanci and Leigh. The three girls rode the last several miles of loop 2 together, arriving in basecamp for the hour vet check at 6:43 PM.

And that's when it happened: Klassy Sam, being led by Kristine, suddenly started to collapse right at the in timer's table. He went from looking like a normal horse to a very stressed one in an instant - it was as if he knew he was back in camp and he could let go. Kristine later said she'd had absolutely no indication from Sam that anything was wrong. He'd been doing everything normally all day - EDPP (eating, drinking, peeing, pooping) - his heartrate was normal, and they were going slower than their usual Virginia City pace. The other two girls agreed he seemed fine, forward and eager on the trail.

It was distressing to watch, as several people jumped in to quickly help untack the horse and keep him on his feet and moving toward the veterinarians. The vets quickly jumped in to set up an IV fluid on him, sending someone to warm up the fluids in a microwave (the breeze was strong, and slightly cool), with many other people jumping in to dry the horse off, cover him with blankets, take the blankets back off, and help move him to their trailer (he'd been given a sedative, so was a bit unsteady on his feet.)

Kristine was overwhelmed by the help from everybody, many of them strangers to her. She held it together for a while - rather being in shock, as she'd only had one metabolic pull in her 14 years of endurance riding, and Kristine and Sam had never had a pull together; but then she fell apart. Eventually Sam was stabilized enough to be hauled off to the Comstock Large Animal Clinic.

Meanwhile, at 7:43 PM Nanci Gabri and Leigh Bacco left on their 3rd and final 23 mile loop as darkness was descending over the old mining town. There wouldn't be any moonlight tonight - not even a sliver, to help riders on their way. Matt and Colton Madeiros were the next two, following them over 30 minutes later, the Rushcreek horses still going strong.

There were several Rider Option pulls at the vet check as the evening progressed. Gloria and Hugh Vanderford withdrew; their horses looked good, but Hugh didn't feel good. Didn't want to risk another 4 (at least) hours out on the trail.

Steve Thompson and Beat's Walkin had finished Virginia City in 2005, but it wouldn't happen this year. They started out on loop 3 but turned around because Beat's Walkin was lame. Jerry Zebrack had done the same thing earlier starting out on loop 2 but turned around when his horse BR Flotiki de Soi was sore.

Tinker Hart pulled her mare RTR Thunder's Hat Trick (Hattie) after loop 2, who was just too tired. She'd gotten off Hattie and walked her in the last several miles. "She's lost her enthusiasm. I risk losing her mentally if I push her." After a final vet inspection, the vets congratulated her on her decision of putting the welfare of her horse first. "Good job Tinker."

As the chilly night wore on, and we started thinking about looking for some finishers soon, we were still waiting for 5 more people to come off loop 2. The clock ticked on, well past an expected arrival time of finishers, and well past the cut-off time for horses coming off loop 2.

Finally night ride manager Scott Dutcher got a call from the finish timer at the (spooky) cemetery that the first riders had come in: Nanci Gabri on Maveric, and Leigh Bacco on EZ Silver Dollar, had ridden the entire 100 miles together, with Nanci putting Maveric's head in front on the finish line. They finished in a ride time of 15 hours and 10 minutes. Shortly afterward, 2 riders came in off loop 2. They would be given a choice, after their hour hold, of going out on loop 3 and trying to complete the ride by 5 AM. The other 3 riders would be too late to try. Two of those were riding mules; Rose Bishop on a big part Standardbred mule Cougar's Folly, sponsoring a friend's daughter riding a small Arabian mule, Jani Motto on Randy Nelson. Rose and Cougar last completed the Tevis in 18th place; junior rider Jani and Randy Nelson was riding in their first 100. Tough to be pulled for Overtime after such an effort, but that's the way the Virginia City is.

I heard the next three finishers - Matt and Colton Medeiros, and Dyke Kauffman - had come in to the cemetery when I went and crawled into bed. It's a 20 minute walk from the finish line at the cemetery, through the streets of Virginia City, to basecamp. So I missed the drama of the trot out: all three horses were off! The vets sent them away, giving them the AERC hour to see if they could work out of it. When they came back, Matt's horse trotted out soundly, but both Colton's horse Rushcreek Lance, and Dyke Kauffman's horse Sutter were pulled lame at the finish. A tough blow! Dyke had been pitched off his horse coming in off loop 2, right where the railroad tracks crossed the dirt road into camp. The horse had tripped over the crossing, and luckily Dyke's right eyebrow caught his fall. (Nope, no helmet on.) His wife Beth said, "He was bleeding like a stuck pig!" In the morning he had a big lump over the eye.

The remaining riders slowly trickled in throughout the night, or morning. If you were gunning for Top Ten in this year's ride, you could finish at 4:01 AM and still do it. Connie Creech and her mare LS Steele Breeze finished 9th, Connie earning her 19th Virginia City buckle (Yes - that's NINETEEN; only 2 other riders have earned their 2000 mile buckle at Virginia City), and Karen Chaton and Tigger finished 10th.

Karen had a blast in the entire ride. She's a person who really does enjoy every ride she does, even if they aren't going her way. She did have a scare when Tigger choked while leaving the final out vet check after midnight, with seven miles to go. She turned around and headed back to the vet check, where Dr Susan McCartney massaged his throat, which got things moving again. Karen stayed an extra 45 minutes there, with Tigger eating bran mash, and returning to normal. "It was a bit scary going out with him again, but I figured I'd just turn right back around to the vet check if anything happened." Tigger was just fine the last 7 miles and the next morning.

Karen's crew Amy Bray enjoyed the ride also also... with the possible exception of the final couple hours waiting for Karen to arrive at the Virginia City cemetery finish. She and Dave Cootware both saw a ghost there. I think most ghosts don't bother you, but, still, it makes you wonder a bit. You don't know who the ghosts are, or what they have been through in a place like Virginia City. Perhaps the ghost was one of an old gambler, still betting on a horse race, waiting for his horse to cross the finish line.

The last two riders - the two that had left after cut-off time on the last loop - arrived at the finish at 4:55 AM in 17th and 18th place, with 5 minutes to spare.

That left just 18 horses standing after the dust (or, rather, rocks) settled. Why was the VC so difficult this year? "The ride was harder this year, I don't know why. It seemed rockier, humid. It beat me up!" said Leigh Bacco, who earned her 4th VC buckle. Steve Thompson said, "The four miles added were harder miles, the 4 they took out were easier. It seemed rockier this year." One rider suggested it was the wind, that really dried himself out. Maybe it prevented the horses from sweating so much.

The next morning, six horses showed for Best Condition. They all looked pretty darn good trotting out. A lot of the riders looked pretty sore.

Before awards were handed out for the 18 finishers, Connie Creech first presented the perpetual trophy that the NASTR club made in honor of Al Beaupre, the "Al Beaupre 1000 Mile Challenge Cup." Al was a long-time rider, runner, and supporter of the Nevada trails. He started riding endurance in 1973, completed 11,361 AERC miles, 8 Tevis Cups, the National Ride N' Tie Championships 10 times, a Western States 100-Mile Run once at the age of 51, and he was one of only 2 riders (Phil Gardner being the other) to complete the Virginia City 100 twenty times. (Yes, TWENTY times.) He passed away in July. Al touched the hearts of so many riders, in evidence by the statements made by the twelve 1000 mile VC riders present on Sunday (12 of 30 whose names are engraved on the trophy), and by the sniffs and tears and wiping of eyes and breaking of voices. Notably present was Donnna Fitzgerald, rider of the great Witezarif, a horse who finished Virginia City 11 times, won it 5 times, and who won Tevis 6 times. The Virginia City 100 is a modern day aspect of Virginia City history, one that still fits in with the old west: some incredible horses and riders, with a passion for conquering tough trails in the West.

Connie then presented the awards to the finishers. Several riders earned their first buckle, some of them on their first try.

Special mention not only goes to Gina Hall, finishing in 12th place, who earned her 10th buckle - she'll be the newest addition to the Al Beaupre trophy - but to her horse Fire Mt Destiny, who earned his 500 mile halter. He's one of 51 horses (YES, that's FIFTY-ONE) to finish the ride five times. (And 4 of those horses finished VC at least 10 times!) Fire Mt Destiny has completed all 63 of his rides with Gina (an 11,000+ mile rider), including 10 hundred-milers! It should probably be mentioned that I believe I was the first rider to climb on Destiny's back when Jackie Bumgardner was breaking him as a youngster. (That has nothing to do with anything, but I thought I'd slip that in there. : )

Deborah Breshears, finishing 8th on Solar Flame (their first VC buckle, Flame's first 100), won the NASTR Triple Crown.

Four of the five Rushcreek horses finished the ride, including Matt Medeiros' Rushcreek Oledom. "It was a tough decision to come here a week after the National Championships... I wish I could have finished with my son Coleton." There was a hitch in his voice this morning too.

Head veterinarian Jaime Kerr gave us an update on Kristine's horse, Klassy Sam. He'd been given 60 liters of fluid overnight, and he hadn't really improved much, though he was stable. Blood tests indicated he had a latent bacterial infection, that the stress of the ride had brought out. "This is a sport that sometimes pushes horses to the edge," Jaime said "and, well, sometimes, Shit Happens."

Best Condition went to 6th place (at 2:42 AM) Erasmo Sauceda and his mare JC Charisma. This was only the mare's fourth ride, and her first 100. It was Erasmo's 2nd VC buckle. The pair last finished in first place in the Camp Far West 50 on September 6th.

Erasmo said a while back, he bought a mare who accidentally got pregnant. Charisma was the product. She is 8 years old now, half Arab, half something else (likely some appaloosa in there). "I had her for sale for $1000 for a long time, and nobody wanted her, so I kept her." Someone in the crowd yelled, "Is she still for sale for $1000?" Erasmo laughed. "I was impressed by her. And now I'm going to have nightmares for 2 weeks about rocks!"

The Virginia City 100 is what Real Endurance Riding is all about. It's not whose horse can gallop for 100 miles in 6 hours and 30 minutes; it's not about winning every ride and it's not about being a flash in the pan for one season then disappearing.

It's about the the horses who go ride after ride, year after year, multi-days and 100-milers; it's about the returning riders who enjoy every step of the trail that beats them up; it's about the riders who take care of their horses, those who turn back or stop when their horse is lame and walk back 5 miles to camp; it's about the endurance people who jump in to help a stranger when a horse is in distress.

It's about riders who remember one of their own with a special honor every year, and will never let his memory fade.

But make no mistake, the Virginia City 100 is a tough ride. Tough on volunteers and riders and horses, tough on horse feet and horseshoes and boots, tough on the old ghosts who wait for their horses to finish.

Is the Virginia City 100 tougher than Tevis? Come ride it next year and you decide.

P.S. Kristine's horse Klassy Sam is not out of the woods yet. He'd improved somewhat by Monday, with his pulse returning to 44 from 68, indicating his pain had decreased. He was still, however, on IV fluids and had a stomach tube. But by Wednesday noon, he'd taken a backwards step. He was still eating and drinking well, but temperature and heart rate were elevated again.

Kristine is wrecked by this. She has said she can never get on a horse again. Absolutely nothing had indicated to her anything was wrong during the ride, and tests show it was likely started by a bacterial infection, picked up either at the ride or earlier. Keep sending good thoughts their way. It could happen to your horse one day, too, endurance rider or not.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

2009 AERC National Championship 50

Sunday September 13 2009

Phase 1 - 13 miles
30 min hold
Phase 2 - 24 miles
1 hr hold
Phase 3 - 13 miles

A record number of starters - 91 - hit the trail at 6 AM for the start of the AERC National Championship 50-miler.

From the outset, riders were setting a cracking pace. The 13 mile first phase - the one with the 2500' climb - was covered in less than the predicted 1 hour and 20 minutes based on last year's pace.

The first riders arrived at the vet check around 7:15, skirting Mountain Meadows Reservoir as the sun crept over the hills and across the water in the cool, clear morning. The first four horses cantering together in a group included Ken Keele on Ravenwood Shahbar, and April Cyrek on DB Air Alamahn.

Dr Rob Lydon zoomed by on the dirt road headed further out along the trail, followed by a truck and trailer. A horse had tied up out there on the trail; he was hauled back in to camp and treated.

It was 45 minute drive back to basecamp for the second vet check, and 24 miles by trail for the riders, and the leaders were absolutely flying. April Cyrek and her stallion DB Air Alamahn arrived in camp one minute ahead of Ken Keele and Ravenwood Shabar and Dennis Tracy on San Ffrancisco, with Chuck Centers and Evenstar Bint Solszar 2 minutes behind them.

Ravenwood Shabar was the first to pulse down, giving Ken a two minute lead over April and Alamahn going out onto the final 13 mile loop over DB Air Alamahn. Both San Ffrancisco and Evenstar Bint Solszar were pulled for lameness, leaving Becky Spencer and Alchemy LR in third, and Cheryl Dell and TR Reason to Believe in fourth, going her own pace, with her goal for Reason being a final tune-up ride for the World Equestrian Games Endurance Pre-ride in Kentucky in October.

Heading toward the out-timer, someone mentioned to April how fast the pace was today. "I know - this is the craziest thing I've ever done!" The leaders had cantered most of the way back from the out vet check. The day was a good 20* cooler than Friday's 100, much more conducive to speed. April later said she'd trained all year with the AERC National Championship in mind; Ken Keele's horse was very fit and he had set his mind on going for a win.

Some riders in the top twenty who stood out were Michelle Roush on Awna Flame - the horse looking splendid and carrying himself well; and riders who'd also ridden in and finished the hundred on Friday: Dian Woodward on Halyva Night, Gail Jewell on KD Colonel, and Christoph Schork on Stars Aflame.

Far in the back of the pack, but having a great time and enjoying the wonderful trails, were, among many others, Shel and Lisa Schneider on Barney and Drew, Trail Marking God Dave Rabe riding Rushcreek OK (Dave left soon after he crossed the finish line, to head down to Virginia City, Nevada, to start marking trails for next weekend's Virginia City 100), and 69-year-old Rosalee Bradley, a veteran of endurance riding, on SF Lottie Brown, an appaloosa "with a tad bit of Arab."

The excitement was building around the finish line; with April and Ken sticking together and racing all day we expected a close finish. April's stallion Alamahn had been doing great all day, pulsing down, eating and drinking well, and she'd decided to go for it. It was a decision she would regret later, though hindsight is 20/20. We had a spotter a mile down the trail - Brad Green, who'd jumped in to help crew for April, sent us a text that he could see the two riders getting close.

And suddenly we saw dust, and here they came, turning the bend in the road at a gallop, flattening out in a run the 50 yards to the finish line. The riders were leaning, the horses straining, the watchers yelling (the photographer snapping). They thundered across the line in a thrilling finish, April's horse a head in front.

While our hearts pounded at the finish line, the horses and riders swept on to the vet ring. We were hoping for more racing finishes, but the closest we got was Heather and Jeremy Reynolds holding hands as they cantered across the finish in a tie for 4th across the line.

It wasn't till over an hour later I'd heard that April's horse was pulled at the finish - he hadn't come down to the 64 bpm criteria, which left Ken Keele and Ravenwood Shahbar the winners of the AERC National Championship 50. Ken had 11-year-old Ravenwood Shabar as a youngster and started him. He sold him, and the horse ended up being "too much for the rider," so Ken took him back in 2005. Ken took him on his first endurance ride in 2006. The horse hasn't had any luck in 100-milers, but he's placed first, second, or third in over half his 21 rides, and gotten 2 Best Conditions. Ken likes this horse so much he went and bought his 3/4 brother also.

DB Air Alahman ended up in the treatment barn - not what April had planned. What followed over the next few days was a healthy - or not - dose of criticism of April's ride from many people, after she wrote her account of the ride - one in which she fessed up to mistakes and lessons she'd learned, and this after she "pretty much curled up into a self loathing ball," blaming herself for being unprepared and selfish. "He was treated in front of everybody, IV fluids dripping into his neck for a couple of hours."

It's a mistake many people have made, though what the mistake was is not quite clear. Many people have raced for a finish and end up with their horses being treated. Many people ride their horses carefully and slowly and end up with the horses being treated. I rode with Jackie Bumgardner's great 13,000+ mile horse Zayante on his last 50, at a conservative pace, on his home territory, with a lightweight rider, and for the first time ever, he colicked on us at the farthest point from help and almost died on us. Any given day, something can happen to any of these athletes. Endurance, as one veterinarian has pointed out, is a sport that tends to push horses to their physical limits, but even then, $h*t happens.

April's horse recovered - as did all the horses that were treated this weekend, and although April may take a while to recover, they will all live to ride another day.

Not to be shorted, a group of us waited a while (as in, almost 5 1/2 more hours) to cheer the Turtle across the finish line, Charlie Williams and Bouree of Colorado. They were escorted in by three Sweep riders, who also got a cheer. The SOS riders - Sweep Riders Of the Sierras - covered every mile of the trails on Friday and Sunday, behind the last rider, using amateur radio operator equestrian teams. They are an all-volunteer riding group established to provide safety and on-trail communications for endurance events on the Tevis trail, among other rides, assuring that nobody is lost or injured.

To show just how fast this Championship ride was, finishing in 5 hrs 13 minutes only got you 20th place. To show how successful this Championship ride was, 73 of 89 riders completed for an 80% completion rate.

Everybody has a story to tell about endurance, and one we all got to this weekend listen to was the tale of the late great Bezetal, told by his owner Kathy Johnson Thiele.

A couple of riders this weekend had their own special stories.

In June of last year, Luanne Holmsen, a mounted policewoman from Cool, California, was severely injured when her police horse reared up and fell over backwards on her, crushing her hips and exploding her bladder. The doctor told her she'd never do endurance again because she'd never be able to trot.

Three months later, she was on a horse. Five months later, she did her first 50. Friday, the AERC Championship, was her first 100, finishing 19th on SVR Flambeau. It has been said that endurance riders are crazy. Crazy, determined... I think it's all the same thing.

Another crazy, determined, tough endurance rider is Dian Woodward. Her partner Christoph Schork told us her story. Diagnosed with ovarian and uterine cancer in June of 2007, Dian went through the rough treatment for that. Five months later she did a 50 mile ride, and then she had a bad horse accident, puncturing a lung and breaking ribs and her spine and she was life-flighted out. This weekend was her first 100-mile ride since all of that, and she finished 18th on Salty.

It wasn't an easy ride, however - the last 7 miles of it anyway. She'd been fine, riding alone in the pitch dark, until she came to the last checkpoint 7 miles out from camp. There were two bright lights that seemed to just hit her, making her instantly dizzy and sick. "It's never happened to me before! I threw up all the way into camp. I felt bad, sometimes that I didn't miss my horse!" She even stopped and laid down in the trail for 15 minutes until her horse jerked on the reins telling her it was time to move on. Dian recovered enough, however, by Sunday to ride the 50-miler - and finish 11th (and first Heavyweight) on Halyva Night, a mare she bred, raised, and trained.

Congratulations to both of you crazy, obsessed, determined endurance riders, and to the rest of you out there who have your own comeback stories, and to all of you who finished the National Championships this year.

The same goes to all of the volunteers who helped put on this ride and make it run smoothly, and to the ride manager Kassandra Dimaggio and Centella Tucker. They made everything look so easy.


Monday, September 21, 2009

2009 AERC National Championship 100: Any Given Day

Friday September 11 2009

Phase 1 - 13 miles
Vet Check 1 - 30 min hold
Phase 2 - 24 miles
Vet Check 2 - 1 hr hold
Phase 3 - 13 miles
Vet Check 3 - 40 min hold
Phase 4 - 15 miles
Vet Check 4 - 1 hr hold (out)
Phase 5 - 22 miles
Vet Check 5 - 50 min hold (out)
Phase 6 - 13 miles

Any given day in endurance riding, anything can happen. What happens with you and your horse may not be what you carefully planned ahead of time. You might come to try and win, and you might only get a completion instead, or you might get pulled. You might come for a completion and you might win instead. You might come just to complete, and your horse may end up in the treatment barn. You just never know.

It was quite dark as 63 riders gathered along the road to await the controlled walking start of the 100. A little bit of moonlight filtered down through the tall pine trees in camp, but it would be very dark on the trail till the dawn began lightening things up a bit.

Most of the horses were either efficiently warming up by trotting up and down the road; other horses were standing quietly; but a few were wound up. One horse was spinning in circles with the rider saying WHOA! WHOA! and trying to hang on. Brad Green's horse, Pawnee, the "sweetheart," a ghostly gray in the darkness, skittered his way through horses, bulling his way to near the front of the line, plunging and whirling his way into a small meadow near the front, standing and trembling when he wasn't plunging his head anxiously to the ground.

The first phase of 13 miles was not an easy one: a climb of 2500 feet to the first out vet check near Mountain Meadows Reservoir and a 30 minute hold. It would still be too dark for pictures out there, so instead I headed up some logging roads and found a spot at about 32 miles and waited there as the sun came up over the mountains. I heard cantering hoofbeats across the broad valley long before I saw anything - first around the corner kicking up dust was Tamara Nute on her two-time Tevis cup finisher Crossing Jordan and Caroline Williams on Perpetual Bliss. Within the next 8 minutes came Rachel Shackelford on BR Cody de Soi (a 3500 mile horse, and Tevis Cup finisher in August), Lori Oleson and Ms Roze Grey, Suzanne Ford-Huff on Chase the Wind AH, Ron Belknap on Sussman, Brad Green and Pawnee, and Lindsay Graham and Monk.

The leader coming into the first vet check had been the first to fall out, having been pulled. Charisse Glenn, riding FX Zuma Rose was another one pulled at the first vet check - certainly not what she'd planned for the day. Rose ("She can be sweet, or thorny!") was attempting her first 100. "It's a shame, because that horse is so fit," Carl Merganthaler - Charisse's other half and her crew - commented. Rose was lame, but one consolation was that her CRI was 56-44. "That's how it goes," Charisse said optimistically. She was adhering to her policy of always wearing a smile - during the ride, in the vet checks - and having fun, despite her pull.

The front-running group that passed me on phase two was the same group going out from vet check two onto the 13-mile phase three, within 11 minutes of each other.

At vet check two in camp, Carolyn Dawson found herself 1 hour and 20 minutes behind the leaders - much closer to the front on Orzo than she wanted: "He was just full of it out there!" Carolyn and Luanne Holmsen had come cantering by me awfully fast down that logging road - they were both sitting back in their saddle, hauling back on the reins of their over-enthusiastic horses, saying, "Whoa!" trying to slow their momentum. Carolyn's crew and husband (and my adopted uncle) Dick said Carolyn was already tired from Orzo pulling so hard - that Carolyn had to switch to a stronger bit going out on loop 3.

It was a tight race between the same leaders coming off of phase three, with 50 miles completed already, and not yet noon. Brad Green and Pawnee were the first to enter the pulse box. But Pawnee was not down to 64. They had to exit and try again. Rachel Shackelford and BR Cody de Soi were in first, passed their vet check, and would be first out after the 40 minute hold. Tammy Nute and Crossing Jordan were a minute behind, after they were asked for a second trot-out, which Crossing Jordan passed. Three minutes later were Brad and Pawnee; 4 minutes later Lindsay Graham and Monk; 2 minutes later Ron Belknap and Sussman.

It was getting warm now, the temperature reaching the 90's. Phase 4 would be a 15 mile loop to an out vet check and a 1 hour hold.

Forty minutes behind the leaders at this point were Canadians Elroy Karius on Apache Eclypse and Gail Jewell on A Salisbury Rose. Next were Californians Joyce Sousa on LV Integrity and Jennifer Niehaus on NH Copper Blaze, focused on their goal of maintaining their 10 mph pace.

Ten minutes behind that pair were the father-son duo of Matt and Colton Medeiros. Matt and Colton were riding the Patriot's Day 100 for the third year on two Rushcreek horses, Oladom and Lance. What's a bit unique about Colton is that he is only ten years old! Matt and Colton were also clipping along at the steady pace that was keeping them in in the top 15 riders.

The Patriot's Day 100's are not the only hundred mile rides Coltan - who started endurance riding when he was 7 - has ridden in; he's done so many he's lost exact count! "This is my fifth or sixth one." (This was his fifth 100, having also completed the 2008 Swanton Pacific on Rushcreek Lance, in 11th place). Colton prefers 100 milers to 50 milers, "because they don't rub me and because we don't go as fast!" Dad Matt says "It doesn't feel much different to me!" Colton has already ridden almost 1000 miles on Rushcreek Lance. Colton always had a smile on his face throughout the day, and he never looked tired!

Making a (nice) spectacle of themselves, on the trail and in the vet check, were the quadruple team of Montanans Doug Swingley on Pal of Mine, wife Melanie Shirilla on Iamsamm, Suzy Hayes of Montana on RS Silverado, and Tennessee Mahoney of Colorado on JV Laredo, owned by Doug Swingley. For those of you who don't know Doug, previous to his start in riding endurance in 2006, he was a dog sled racer. He won a race called the Iditarod 4 times. Heard of it?

You couldn't miss this group, as they were all riding together, strong and steady, and they were all riding greys wearing black tack. It was time to bridle up and go out on Phase 4: "Which one is my grey horse?" "I don't know, which one is your grey horse?"

Tennessee had planned - and followed through - on qualifying her mare DWA Pearl for the 2010 World Equestrian Games: the FEI Fun In The Sun 50 in March, the FEI 75 miler at the Git R Done in April, the FEI 100 miler at the Owyhee Fandango in May (11th place) - and then found out her mare was pregnant and due to foal this Halloween! It was a shocker (having been told she was NOT in foal, otherwise Tennessee would not have ridden her in these rides), so she was riding Doug's horse today.

The next two vet checks were out of camp, in a meadow at the front of a local's property. He was hanging out at the out-timer's table enjoying the day with everybody.

Coming in first off the fourth 15-mile phase was Brad Green on Pawnee, followed closely by Rachel Shackelford on BR Cody de Soi, and Tammy Nute on Crossing Jordan. Brad went into the pulse box first. Once again, Pawnee was not down to 64, and he had to exit. Rachel's horse was the first down, and the first to see the veterinarians: she was asked for a second trot-out. Cody passed. Tammy and Crossing Jordan were next in the pulse box. The horse was down to 64. They went to the vets: Crossing Jordan was lame! He was pulled.

Lindsay Graham and Monk were next in. They passed the vet check with flying colors - Monk's CRI was 52/48, and Monk looking like he'd just been saddled up for the first time today. The vet said, "Your horse is looking pretty spiffy!"

Monk, only 7 years old and owned by Chris Martin and campaigned by Lindsay ("She's more experienced in FEI, and I wanted a good rider for Monk"), came just to get his COC - Certificate of Completion - a finish in a time for the 100 miles of 12:20 or less. The team had come with a game plan of going this speed if possible - and now found themselves in the front of the pack, with Monk going along so easily.

Monk was a "backyard horse," Chris says. "I had him a couple years, then I threw a saddle on him at 4 and messed around with him. He was that easy." Chris has had some good horses, but nothing like Monk. "His attitude was great from the beginning, all business, and Lindsay really likes riding him - they get along great."

Monk has trouble holding weight, but I noticed he'd put some on since the May Owyhee Fandango ride, where he finished second in the 75 miler. In fact, he had put on about 30 pounds. "And that's because he was at the Fat Farm, at Lindsay's mom's house, where he got spoiled with three meals a day."

Pawnee finally pulsed down for Brad and passed the vet check, which left Rachel leaving in the lead on the fifth phase, 22-mile loop 5, by 6 minutes, followed by Lindsay and Brad.

Rachel was riding for the first time this year as a senior. Cody is a 15-year-old, 3500-mile gelding who started endurance with the Shackelford family in 1999. Rachel started riding him in endurance 2 years ago. Cody and Rachel finished Tevis this August in their most recent ride.

By now the first and last riders were separated by several hours. All day I had not seen the last two riders, Gail Hought on her big, gorgeous, Arabian-Quarter horse CC Maverick, and Ted Goppert on APL Savannah. Horses were coming in and out of the vet check from every which way: horses just arriving off phase 4, horses going out on phase 5, and the leaders coming in from phase 5 for their last hold.

Christoph Schork of Utah, riding Double Zell, was further back than he'd planned today. "My horse didn't take a drink, or eat one blade of grass for 37 miles this morning. I realized I wouldn't win today. I wouldn't Top Ten today. So, I changed my plans, slowed down, and lived to ride another day." Since he'd slowed down, his horse was feeling better and going stronger on every phase.

Connie Creech and LS Shardonney Bey were about 5 hours behind the leaders as they went out on their long 5th phase. Shardonney was doing well, though she was feeling "a little sad" about going out on this phase by herself. Carolyn Dawson and Orzo were just arriving off of phase 4, with Orzo doing well and Carolyn looking a bit peaked. It was a hot day.

Cynthia LeDoux-Bloom and her horse SJ Kerensky - a 1700-mile rider and 1600-mile horse team - were going along in mid-pack and having a good day. "He'd been doing everything right all day - EDPP (eating, drinking, peeing, pooping). At the vet check, as he was eating, I saw this cramp go through him. Jerry Gillespie (a retired veterinarian, and father of Cheryl Dell - there crewing with Cheryl for Becky Hart) saw it too, and told me to walk him around. I did, and he seemed fine, and went back to eating. Then this really bizarre cramp went through him. Jerry didn't say anything but he looked right at me, and pointed straight at the horse van, as in, 'Go - NOW!' It was just something wrong he saw, and with all the knowledge he had, he knew that was a sign of early metabolic problems. We hauled straight in to camp and went straight to the treatment barn, where my horse got a couple of liters of fluid."

Cynthia says she is a "die-hard Middle-of-the-Pack" rider. She and SJ Kerensky have 6 seasons, over 1000 AERC miles, and 4 out of 4 100's (including Tevis) together, and he'd never had a problem. "And I would have gone out on that 22-mile loop, thinking my horse was fine, and then run into trouble. It just makes you think: Any given day, anything can happen. You just never know." (SJ Kerensky was fine later after treatment, alert and looking for his trailer buddy.)

Meanwhile, coming off of phase 5: Brad and Pawnee, Rachel and Cody, Lindsay and Monk arrive together. Their crews - and many other volunteers - jump in to strip the tack, offer water to drink, and cool the horses down with hoses and buckets of water as they make their way toward the pulse box. Within just a few minutes, Monk is down, and goes in. He vets through. Cody takes about 10 minutes to pulse down, and Rachel takes him into the pulse box. They go to the vets and trot out - Cody is lame! He is pulled. That leaves Pawnee - whose pulse is still not down. It takes him nearly 20 minutes to pulse down to 64 (the limit is 20 minutes for FEI); Brad takes him in, and he is down. They go to the vets and trot out sound.

It leaves Lindsay and Monk with a 16 minute lead going out on the last 13 mile phase back to camp. Brad decided not to race after them because he wanted to make sure he got his completion. Lindsay and Monk got a big cheer as they left the last vet check headed for home.

Back at basecamp, an excited crowd gathered around the finish to wait for Lindsay and Monk. Someone saw dust down the trail "Here they come!" Everybody pressed close to the finish line. But it was only Dave Rabe! Out on the ATV, hanging glowsticks for the coming darkness. (Dave had planned to ride the 100 today, but when he woke up early this morning, his horse White Cloud was mysteriously sweating, so he decided not to go, and instead helped out during the day, crewing for people and hanging glowsticks on the trail.)

Finally, here they came, just as the sun was setting, Lindsay and Monk, both of them smiling, cantering across the finish line - Monk spooking a bit at the white line - ears pricked, still looking fresh. If I hadn't seen it all day, I would not have believed he'd just finished a hundred miles.

As darkness settled, the other riders trickled in, the next seven within 9 minutes of each other: Elroy Karius and Apache Eclypse, Gail Jewell on A Salisbury Rose, Joyce Sousa and LV Integrity, Jennifer Niehaus and NH Copper Blaze, Deanna Guinasso and RGR FlashFire, Crockettt Dumas and OT Gunplay RSI, and Suzanne Ford Huff on Chase the Wind AH.

A half hour later, Matt and Colton Madeiros finish on their Rushcreek horses, with Colton still smiling, and still not looking tired.

Connie Creech and LS Shardonney Bey finished in 23rd place at 12:21 AM, with Canadian Terre O'Brenan on Koszaar. "Shardonney was dragging going out on that long phase 5 by herself, but then she got company, and she turned into a maniac! Coming back to camp in the dark on the last 13 mile phase, we were doing a 5 mph walk!" You can still see the big bony lump underneath Shardonney's chin from her broken jaw accident, but she's obviously back to her old self.

At 1:09 AM Carolyn Dawson and Orzo crossed the finish line. Carolyn was leaning slightly back and to the right in her saddle - uh oh, she must be worn out! She didn't spring right off Orzo (imagine that!), and when another horse that finished with her bumped into Orzo, it freaked him out a bit, and he started to spin. Carolyn started to lean further out - like one of those bucking bull riders about to get flung across the arena. Uh oh! A gal jumped in and grabbed Orzo, and I jumped in and grabbed Carolyn. I helped her off Orzo, and helped her stay on her feet - "I lost my equilibrium out there the last few miles!"

She had to sit down a minute - the other gal had taken Orzo on to the vet ring 5 minutes' walk away - before we tackled the hill (which got longer and steeper every time I walked it that evening; by this time of morning it was a mini-mountain). Carolyn was quite exhausted but she insisted on walking by herself ("Come on feet! - one after the other") with no help all the way to the vet ring.

Orzo passed everything well except for his back - Dr Hounsel gave him a C because of his sore back. The vet sent them away without a completion: "Come back before your hour is up - work on that back." The vet thought it was the water bottles in the saddle pack bouncing on Orzo's back that made it sore, but Carolyn said "Oh, no, I know it was me. I couldn't sit up straight on him. I needed to eat and drink, but I couldn't let go of the saddle to get anything or else I'd fall off!" And Orzo was jumpy in the woods in the dark, too. "He was getting funny at night here - he spun a 360 once, and I almost got flung off, but I hung on and stayed on." The thick woods are quite different than the open desert, especially at night.

Dick and Sherry and the other gal brought Orzo back later after massaging and stretching him, (Carolyn was already in bed), and he passed his vet check, to finish in 26th place. Hooray!

I managed to stay at the finish until the next-to-next-to-last riders came in at 2:45 AM, but hearing Gail Hought and Ted Goppert still had another hour to hour-and-a-half to go, I hit the hay. They ended up completing at 4:52 AM. Gail later said "It was pitch black out there. My horse did great - when I let him pick his own way in the dark. The few times I tried guiding him, I got him off trail. So I just let him alone!"

The following day, Elroy Karius - third place finisher, with his wife Gail in fourth (riding only for miles, so got a completion, not a placement) was wearing a knee brace. Elroy had a total knee replacement in January, and got back on a horse after 40 days, and did his first 100 in July. Nothing like a new knee to keep you riding in hundred milers. The ride went great for him and Gail: "The stars have to align - and they did yesterday for us."

Naomi Preston had a great ride on Karlady - "she only bucked me off once!" That was on the first loop, though she'd been shying all day. Lee Pearce insisted Karlady gained weight during the day. "Everytime I put the saddle on and cinched it up, I lost a hole!"

I happened to be standing in the dinner line, before the awards presentation, by Roger Yohe. He finished 14th the 100 on Red Sans Legend. Roger and Red Sans Legend happened to finish Tevis this year. They also happen to be the pair that fell off the Tevis trail in 2007, off the cliffs along the California loop in the dark. The horse managed to scramble to safety, but Roger laid down there for hours broken and battered (help was above, on the trail) waiting to be helicoptered out till 5 in the morning. He was in intensive care for a while, but obviously recovered enough to ride Tevis this year again, and finish quite successfully at the AERC NC. (I also happened to be standing beside Shel Schneider - another person who fell off the Tevis trail with Drew - the lovely horse I rode - on the California loop one year - but they escaped injury.)

Most ecstatic group of the day were the Monk crew - not just for winning the ride in the outstanding ride time of 9 hours and 58 minutes, but for Monk also winning AERC and FEI Best Condition. The horse did look absolutely amazing, all during the 100, and at the Best Condition judging the next morning. The best thing of all: Lindsay never let him go. They have yet to ask him for his best.

With 61 starters, 42 finishers, it was an excellent completion rate of 69% for any ride, much less a Championship 100-mile ride.