Sunday, April 13, 2008

Al-Andalus Day 3: Stuck - to Montenmedio

Monday March 31 2008

DAY 3 - Stuck: to Montenmedio

2 Fases:
1 - Puerta Real to Medina-Sidonia, 28.4 km
2 - Medina-Sidonia to Dehesa de Montenmedio Golf & Country Club, 33.7 km

Some nights, you just don't sleep. This was one of them - maybe 3 hours total if I was lucky - but, you just go on about things. Some days, you just can't get good photos, no matter how much you hope. This was just one of those non-photo days. What can you do, but not worry about it, accept it as part of Al-Andalus, and enjoy the day - which was not a hard thing to do. And today, our car got stuck in the mud. What can you do, but not worry about it, accept it as part of Al-Andalus, do the best you can with what you've got, and enjoy the day!

Steph and I got up too early, at 5:15 AM, and downed a quick coffee-and-breakfast, before jumping in cars to leave the hotel. In é s was stuck taking our heavy bags (I sure hope she got someone to help her lift them in her car!), while Nacho drove us in his car, racing through the dark before dawn, back to the stables in Sanlucar de Barrameda. Steph wasn't riding today, but she would travel in the caravan with Fernando. Paco's stallion Ibor finished his ride yesterday, but really needed a day off. In order to receive a lesser time penalty than if he didn't start at all, Paco would start his horse this morning and turn around and retire immediately.

That was one special aspect of Al-Andalus that allowed horses to keep competing, even if they missed one or more days of riding. Each day is treated as a separate ride, and each fase is treated as a time-credited stage, with time penalties given to horses finishing under the pre-calculated time (at 11 km/h) over the stages. If you chose not to start at all, you received a greater time penalty than if you started then retired your horse (even if you rode 5 meters across the starting line, which two riders, Paco and Elise Rivero on Nebia chose to do this morning). If, perhaps, you chose to ride only the morning fase (and completed), you received a lesser time penalty than if you'd started and retired, which was a lesser penalty than if you'd not started at all.

Since the winners would be determined by their accumulative times (and time penalties), some studying of the time penalties might help shape your strategy over the 8 days. For example, if you have a tired horse after one day, you might choose, over the next two days, to ride the first fases each morning then retire, and receive less of a time penalty than if you took one whole day off. In that case your horse would get his kinks out with a 20-30 km of exercise then have the rest of the day to rest and recuperate.

Today's start was at the Club Jinetes de la Bahia stables near Puerto Real, a 30-minute drive again. Well, 30 minutes if you didn't get lost. We did a couple of times trying to get out of Sanlucar in the right direction, as did a number of other drivers, crew cars and horse vans. We kept crossing their paths as we doubled roundabouts and raced through town both directions, tires squealing on the narrow twisty streets.

The directions written out for the crews were sometimes good and sometimes not quite accurate; sometimes the maps weren't all that easy to follow either. Today's start was delayed by a half hour because not everybody had found their way there by 9 AM (Official start time for each day's ride was targeted for 8 AM... but that was usually adjusted for circumstances, such as getting lost.) But this, too, was part of Al-Andalus! While we waited for everybody to arrive, we had coffee and a second pastry breakfast supplied by the riding club at the stables.

Twenty-four horses and riders took off along a two-track in the olive orchards, and the assistance crews packed up to leave, as did the vans carrying horses (every day, those horses as part of the equipos teams had to be transported to the next day's end, and sometimes, the horses spent a tiring day following the ride and not going straight to the stables). Nacho, Luís, Carmen and I sped off in wild pursuit of the riders. We'd honk the riders over and speed by, while passing acres of rolling hills covered by wheat fields, an amazing amount of prickly pear cactus, and the fields of huge wind turbines taking advantage of the sea breezes. Nacho stopped for me to jump out for pictures at a few places, but we never found quite the perfect spot. We got onto a very twisty, hilly dirt 2-track punctuated by little muddy creeks that seemed to grow more menacing - car-sized - as we went along. We bounced and flew through them, putting the 4-wheel drive low gear to the maximum test. I was amazed at what we made it through, and then, finally, we got no further - the front end planted itself headfirst in a deep ditch in protest, and the front wheels spun helplessly. I do believe Nacho was quite shocked!

He had inadvertently taken the wrong branch of the road - the official cars that eventually followed took the correct branch and stopped to chuckle at us. Javier said he thought I must have been driving - couldn't have been Nacho! Meanwhile the ability of the 4-wheelers - drivers and machines - to go through anything was truly amazing. Carlos' video camera, and Carlos, were covered in a fine layer of thin dust, accentuated with a coating of mud - not so good for the equipment! All but Nacho piled out of our car, and I ran off to catch the horses popping up around the corner. Carmen had to direct riders across a scary ditch, detouring around the stuck car.

One of the four wheelers hooked a tow chain to the SUV and tried to pull it out backwards with Nacho at the wheel, but it wasn't budging. A second 4-wheeler attached another tow chain, and between the two of them, spinning their wheels and skidding all over the place, and Nacho spinning the SUV's wheels, they finally got our car out of the hole. Nacho got the car turned around and onto the right track, and off we went racing after the field again, Nacho making up for lost time communing in a mud hole. I got my scenic shots out the window on the fly, as I did a large number of rider photos today.

Just before the 1st vet gate outside the town of Medina-Sidonia, we passed Xavier Serra and his buff palomino Al Jaraf, who'd been near the front of the pack, but lost a shoe. The shoer had been paged (I believe all riders but Steph carried cell phones), and he was working on the horse. Unfortunately, Al Jaraf ended up vetting out at lunch.

Most of the riders were already in the 1st vet gate by the time we arrived, our once-white Nissan now character-fully decorated with Andalucian mud.

The 33-km fase after lunch took riders on dusty packed dirt roads and a fair amount of asphalto roads - pavement - through a broad valley of wheat fields, and on softer dirt roads through planted pine forests. We did stop at one sweet photo spot overlooking the valley, alongside fields of yellow flowers, in which the Raven frolicked while waiting for horses. Some of the horses trotted on up this incline, while a few others took a breather during this climb. One stunning sight of the day was, high up on a green hill above a dirt road where the endurance riders cantered, a chestnut horse standing on his hind legs, rearing, rearing, pawing the sky! When he came down to earth, he went straight back up and stayed up. I couldn't even get the words "NACHO - PARE AQUI!" stop here! out that I'd been using all day, nor could I get my big camera out (I often kept it in its case while driving, to keep it padded and protected from wild bumps!) by the time we'd rocketed past the sight. I think the horse's front legs were hobbled, so his protest against not being able to run with the endurance horses was to stand on his hind legs and wave!

Some of the trail wound through olive orchards, fields of flowers, and paddocks of bulls. Some of the youngsters, which looked to be under a year old, were horning each other in play. I expect many were destined for the bullring - Andalucia (Ronda, in fact, our destination for Day 5) is the birthplace of bullfighting.

After the sweet photo spot, our afternoon consisted of directing the last of the horses over a highway, and backtracking on roads to help Patricia Rios and her horse Capri CP - he was off behind and she had called for her horse van to come pick her up. He certainly wasn't stressed, and he looked fine, and one of the vets looked at his hind foot before he loaded on the van, and didn't find anything obvious.

By the time Nacho dropped us off at the finish in Montenmedio, most of the horses were already in. I'd pretty much missed out on photo opportunities today, but that's the way it goes. Had I been brave enough (or wanted to sacrifice my equipment enough) I could have ridden on a quad, but, I preferred to remain a big chicken and take my chances in a car.

Dehesa de Montenmedio Golf and Country Club is a beautiful spread with a world class horse facility, with 1500 stables, 8 grass competition show rings, 8 sand warm-up show rings, 3 full-sized dressage show rings, and a cross-country circuit for 3-day eventing. It hosts regional, national and international competitions throughout the summers.

Endurance horses were completing their vet exams for the day on one of the grass fields, then retiring to the adjacent stables, while onlookers lounged in the grass, sipping cold water, cokes, and Aquarius drinks. I was greatly feeling the lack of sleep, and the Raven and I passed out in the grass, at about the same point that Steph had fallen asleep drooling in the sun an hour earlier, missing the finishers. Nacho apparently didn't get in enough time driving his SUV today, so he commandeered a 4-wheel drive little jeep and rode around the stables with Javier, ostensibly checking on things, but I suspect to really have a little more fun with rubber on pavement.

The Al-Andalus presentation stage - the unfolded truck - hosted the awards for today's winners: finishing first was young Marta Hidalgo on Urbe, who came in a nose ahead of Gerard Rabal on Faise de Masferrer. Finishing 8th, and first in Binomios, was Jose Baquerizo on his little gelding Campanera. They'd kept up their same steady pace that they had started off with on day 1.

Just next door in a building full of tableclothed tables and chairs and a serving line of food, all were fed a fancy 3-course, or 3-glass late lunch/early dinner: salad, paella, vegetables, and exotic dessert - chocolate mousse personally decorated with chocolate, cherry, or caramel topping. Water, wine, and champagne filled the 3 glasses on our large tables.

Even better than the food was the company. There were probably 200 people in the room, up to a dozen per table. We 2 Americans were joined by Paco and his friends and crew Fernando and Tejano, Paul and Madonna from New Zealand, Dr Elke Pepperkorn, German FEI veterinarian (living near Granada), and of course the Raven. These sit-down meals seemed to be the only time to really visit with people - and even then, it was usually limited to who you ate with - not enough time to visit with the other 180 people in the room! But what a great opportunity, having lunch at a horse/country club on a great spring day in Spain with Americans, Spanish, Germans and New Zealanders after a day of playing with horses.

Now, fully satiated, we were REALLY tired! Steph and I found a ride with Luis Lopez to our Hotel Porfirio, another half-hour drive away, in a lovely little beach town, Zahara de los Atunes. When we checked in and the man asked for our passports, Steph and I gasped - we'd left them at the last hotel! (I learned my lesson - this was the last time I've ever done something as silly as surrender my passport to someone). Luis said, "It is no problem, we will send for your passports; they will meet you at the next hotel. Or, it is no problem. You will have to stay in Spain!" Well, now - stuck in Andalucía - I didn't see that as much of a problem, either way!

Our abode for the night was a lovely, unpretentious, extremely comfortable affair with sunny balcony just 200 m from the Atlantic ocean beach, 'only' a 3-star with a nice cafe for our now-evening-habit of cappuchinos, salad and dessert while we worked on photos. It turned out to be our favorite stay of the whole trip. There was a bullfight on TV in the cafe, but we were too busy to glance at it. We did take time to be 30-minute tourists - a quick walk to and along the beach barefoot, and a brief stroll in the village, and then it was right back to work. That, for us, ended up being about the extent of our tourism during Al-Andalus. There just wasn't enough time to do everything every evening - shower and clean up, work, go back to the rider briefings (usually not at the hotel), eat a light quick dinner, get more photo work done, and sleep. Usually, the sleep was the first thing sacrificed.

The view of many people was that it would have been nice to have a real day off, to rest and to sight-see, (or wash clothes! I was already taking to handwashing my socks and blow-drying them in desperation) but one problem with this is that people don't really get any rest, and the other is that TV crews lose focus and interest. With television coverage being an important part of the ride, it's best not to let them wander away from the race and focus on something else. But things must be sacrificed in a ride of such magnitude, and sleep is one thing you can do without for a week or so, as long as you're in good company, right? Never enough time - this was also an essential ingredient of Al-Andalus.

Full day's results at:

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