Monday, June 30, 2008

Italy: Faula Arabs Gubbio

Friday June 27 2008

Two gold medals, four sliver, one bronze in European and World Endurance Championships. Once Italian Champion (1997), once European team Champion (2001), once Individual European Champion (2001). One otherworldly horse - Faris Jabar. And this, after Fausto Fiorucci only began riding horses about 15 years ago, in the early 1990's. He'd been a runner, and biker, and a champion fisherman, but it wasn't till his friends said to him one day, "Come ride a 30 km ride with us," that he got on an endurance horse for the first time in his 40's. He won. And he was hooked.

Whether it was beginner's luck, or skill, or both, Fausto came across perfection early - he liked the young 3-year-old Faris Jabar ("brave rider") the first time he saw him, but it wasn't until 2 years later that he got him. He was a stallion at the time, and, Fausto shakes his head, "He was impossible." Once gelded, Faris eventually blossomed into a terrific endurance horse - nothing like him in the world, Fausto will tell you. He may be biased (who isn't about their own horse), but all those medals and the Italian championship came with Faris Jabar. When Fausto speaks of Faris, he is still, after 15 years of competing on him, amazed at what the horse can do - at his mind, at his heart, at his will, at his turn of foot. Fausto runs out of words, and it's not just because he can't find the English word, or I can't understand the Italian word. It's because Faris Jabar still leaves him speechless, shaking his head. "He has.... not just heart... but..." he gestured inside and whirling up to the heavens. "Soul," I offered. "Yes. Soul." Later he came up with another description: "He is like poetry. He is my endurance poem fantasy." When he rides Faris, he controls him with just his voice, not his legs, "OK Faris, let's go!" - although sometimes he admits he does have to use his arms to pull back on him and slow him down.

Fausto and Faris just won a 120 km race a few weeks ago - Fausto clocked the last loop at over 50 km/h - and were going to compete in the Gubbio CEIO Nations Cup on Saturday (of which Fausto is Organizer), but Fausto broke his ribs while riding another horse recently. It isn't the first time Fausto has ridden injured - he's ridden shortly after surgery on a busted ankle, and once with a torn shoulder ligament (both times, he had to be lifted on and off the horse), but this time he's a bit concerned about puncturing a lung if anything else happens.

He and his wife Laura Ombretta founded Faula Arabs in 1992, shortly after Fausto began riding endurance. Through the years, with his steady success, and his dedicated observation and careful studying of the horse, Fausto developed his own approach to endurance, which he offers in an endurance school, with emphasis on not one particular thing, but all the details in the whole picture. "You can have 1000 things, and if one thing is wrong, the whole thing is no good." If a horse has a problem, you have to think ahead to possible consequences, not just look at the one little problem. In his endurance school, he shares his experiences in conditioning, balanced riding, proper equipment, feeding, and shoeing. Nine years ago he developed his own patented Horsetec horseshoes, (Faris was his first guinea pig), which all the horses in his stable now use.

Fausto seems to some horsemen to have the secret to fixing lameness and soreness problems; but his secret is: "There is no secret." It's common sense. You look at the horse, you think about what is going on with the horse. "If you have one small problem with the foot and you try to correct it this way, you affect the horse here (the knee), or maybe here (the shoulder). You have to think about everything."

Fausto currently has 9 horses ("That's enough!") to ride, several brothers to Faris Jabar, and an able young horseman, Matteo, to assist. "He's my future!" says Fausto.

You can see Fausto's obvious appreciation for not only his horses, but for animals in general - his barn is full of cats, who come running like dogs when they hear his voice, guineas, chickens, a swan and a duck. And then there's Du Du William de Villa Fiorucci (or some such title), fierce Lord of the Fiorucci manor, ferocious protector of Fausto and Ombretta, who doesn't know he's the size of a teacup.

He's the apple of the Fioruccis' eyes... just like a certain gray 20 year old gelding in one of the Faula Arabs paddocks.

Trapped I

Thursday June 26 2008

I was headed by train from Milan to Gubbio, where Italian endurance rider Fausto Fiorucci was picking me up at the statzione.

I missed the first train at 9 AM, because it was full, so I got on the next one 2 hours later. I called Fausto to let him know. Six hours later, I was almost at Gubbio... but the train stopped in the station just before Gubbio, and it just sat there, for 20 minutes, doing nothing. So after coming two hours later than planned, now I'm 20 minutes late.

We finally got moving, and in 15 minutes were coming into Gubbio. I have a habit I follow when riding trains - get off the train the same door you that got on. I gathered my bags, and headed back to the door from which I entered the train, and there waited with another Italian couple for the train to come to a stop. I saw Fausto on a bench waiting, talking on his cell phone.

The train stops. We push the door button. Nothing happens. We push it again. Nothing. We start pounding on the button in a panic - nothing! We look at each other in bewildered panic. Bloody hell! We grab our bags and run through the train car to the next exit door, and push the button. The door starts to open - just as the whistle sounds and all the train doors slam shut and the train starts moving! Oh no! I see Fausto get up, frowning, starting to walk away, because I didn't get off the train. I start slamming on the window and yelling, "FAUSTO!" but he doesn't hear me. AHHH! The three of us look at each other - we are stuck on the train! This is like the start of a Stephen King novel!

I called Fausto on my phone, but could only leave a message, "I was on the train! I saw you! But we couldn't get off! I guess I will get off at the next station and hop the next train back to Gubbio." The couple decided the same thing - and that is when we noticed that one of the doors had a sticker with a slash across the picture of a person stepping off the train. "No uscita" - no exit. On the other side, no such picture; you can exit through that door. The only problem with that is, unless you are familiar with the local station stops, you don't know which side of the train you must exit from! "Ay, Mama Mia!" they exclaimed. Mama indeed!

We start to get worried as, 6 minutes later, the train starts slowing down for the next station. If our exit is on the left side of the train (which Gubbio was not), we are OK. If our exit is on the right side of the train, we can't get out this end of the car; it would have to be out a door at the other end - we won't make it again. We are at both door windows, craning our necks to try to see which side the platform is on... and we luck out. The platform is on our left, and we can exit the left door.

We stumble out at a tiny, abandoned station. You can't even buy a ticket here if you need one. And the next train back to Gubbio is not for another hour. Where is Steph, to fall on the floor laughing with? This IS funny, right?

Well? What can you do. I called Fausto - who had to leave and go to his office for a patient (he's a dentist) - and told him I'd be back in Gubbio in an hour.

I eventually made it back there, and I think Fausto saw the humor in the story when I explained it later. I wasn't quite sure yet that I did, since I inconvenienced someone else.

But of course, the Raven found the whole adventure amusing.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Show Time

Saturday June 21 2008


Today's the day. No more rehearsing. Half Hour call at 8:30 PM, show starts at 9 PM.

We sound people do have the stage from 3 PM until then for sound, and we use all of that, getting the last choir microphones in place, dressing the cables, checking the channels on the board. We run through all of the wireless microphones again, and the band comes in at 6:00 for a thorough sound check - as thorough as we can get at the last minutes. The sound system is rocking, it really sounds good in there, crisp and clean. Then one by one the speakers and singers take their turns on their microphones. So far, everything is working, everything sounds good, though we just haven't had enough time to find all the problems that can happen. The choir gets on stage in their positions, and belts out a song. They sound magnificent!

The stage is cleared and the house opens at 8 PM, and people begin to trickle in. Andreas and I stay up by the sound board... and wait. Nothing to do but wait now. I always get a little nervous at the first preview of the show - my only shot to get things right: am I going to hit all the cues right? Are all the microphones going to work? (One show in Russia, seven, count them, SEVEN microphones got turned off at the top of Act 2) And then the next night, Opening Night, I am fine. But I haven't had a real preview. This is it. But so far tonight, I'm not nervous. And if anything goes wrong, Andreas is right beside me wearing a headset to communicate with the sound guys on stage. Ron will be there too; I'll be mainly working with the vocals, and he'll be mixing the band (guitar, bass, drums, piano, organ).

I'm not superstitious or anything, but the Raven (who is good luck himself) is wearing a necklace made of the blue eye beads prevalent here to ward off the Evil Eye. Doesn't hurt.

Backstage, Reverend Earl says a prayer with everybody in a circle... "God has blessed us again to come together... ("Yes, yes!")... And through the YEARS! - it's been a long time now... ("Yes, yes!") ... I pray that Everybody will be blessed; but not only that, I pray that Somebody will be saved. Thank you for the opportunity again." Amen!

The theatre starts filling. It's not sold out (there were rumors), but there's a good crowd here. Usually when we do a week run somewhere, by the end of the week the show is packed because the word gets out. Here, it's only one shot, so if word gets around - and it will - it's too late.

At "5 minutes to places," I'm checking the microphones via my headphones, one by one. At "Places, please," okay, I'm a little nervous. All of my mics sound like they are working, but then with sound, you never really know for sure until you bring the mic up and the actor speaks on stage.

The lights dim... the show begins. Ohmigod, this is it. Butch comes onto stage and sits down at his organ - this is my first bundle of nerves - and starts playing... and, yes! The organ is coming out of the speakers. That means that yes, the sound system board and house speakers are really working. So far so good. The choir members in their bright colored choir robes begin coming in the house, moving to the stage; the actors, singers move onto the stage, greeting each other and the audience as if they were part of the congregation of the church. Then Reverend Earl enters - this is where my second bundle of nerves attacks... I bring up his microphone, and...

"Think no longer that you are in command here."

Yeahoo, it works!

"But rather think how when you were, you served your own destruction. Good evening, and welcome brothers and sisters..."

Okay, my nerves are gone for the evening. So far things are working and I just have to remember all the cues in the show, but that's on autopilot now.

And The Gospel at Colonus goes on, brilliantly. I think the show has never sounded better, and I don't know that it's ever been performed better. Jimmy is exceptional his first time as Oedipus tonight, as is Ben Moore - his first time to do the show. Everybody is just brilliant. The music is deeply moving, the harmonies spot on. Half the cast was in tears on the stage during half the show - but they were still able to sing gloriously. By the end of the show, the entire audience is up on their feet, dancing and clapping with the singers on stage - none of them want it to end and none of them want to sit down.

My only regret is that I never really see the show. I'm concentrating so hard on the sound - I don't really see anything other than the sound. Which is a shame, because Jason's lights and the video projections on the old stone walls are terrific.

For over two thousand four hundred years the Acropolis has stood sentinel over the thousands of plays in the theatres beneath it, as actors and singers have entertained, educated, provoked and moved crowds - rage, joy, enlightenment, love, dispair. Tonight we took our place in this honored and honorable procession.

We were afraid we might offend the Greeks with our interpretation of their play. I don't think we did. Many Greeks in the audience were in tears at the end of the show. "Showers of joy," said one patron. While the cast was in tears during much of the show, I was too, at the end, clapping for it all - Colonus, Athens, my friends, my family with such talent and power to move people, my being blessed at being a part of this.

"Now let the weeping cease - let no one mourn again - for these things are in the hands of God."

We didn't bring down the Acropolis, but its stones and its Gods will remember us.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Gospel Captions of the Week

Friday June 20 2008

Does it get any better than this? Standing right in front of Bern (or anybody) when she is (or they are) singing.

The Raven is pretty excited about having the show in this ancient theatre.

The Raven helps Andreas at the sound board.

The Raven tests the wireless microphones.

It is punishingly hot in the theatre mid-afternoons.

How many men does it take to lift a grand piano up onto a riser? In this case, at least 7.

"Oh, sure, everybody else gets to eat hors d'oeuvres with the Ambassador, and all I get is this lousy stale sandwich."

Think No Longer...

Friday June 20 2008

Think No Longer...

"Think No Longer That You Are In Command Here" (spoken by the Reverend)

We can put a man on the moon, but we can't make wireless microphones work flawlessly just anywhere, like here in the Herodus Atticus theatre in Athens. All of the handheld mics, all 13 of them, are getting RF interference - either buzzing when they are spoken into, or dropping out all together. Not what you can have happen during a show. Different possible solutions are tried, but none of them are working. We will try to get a new system with new wireless mics by this evening's runthrough. Maybe they will arrive here, maybe they won't. The wireless headsets are their own problems - they are not the omnidirectional mics we asked for (meaning if they slightly get moved out of position away from the mouth, the volume changes drastically), and gold colored instead of black, which will stand out on dark skin! We try to get them ready to use, just in case we are stuck with them.

Maybe the piano will arrive here this afternoon... and maybe it won't arrive until Saturday. And when it does arrive, it will need tuning, which will take two hours. Maybe it will get done before tonight's sound checks begin at 8 and the dress rehearsal begins at 9 PM. Maybe it won't.

I finally have all the microphones for the choir ready to go at 5 PM after 2 hours of work, and then Lee the director decides he wants everything changed. So we'll change it. Maybe we'll get the extra mics for the choir we need tomorrow afternoon, maybe we won't.

A lot of this is out of our hands. We don't know if Apollo (Greek God of Music and Poetry - and by the way, the Crow was his bird) or Dionysus (God of festivals) have any say in this matter, but we hope they are on our side.


"Should I Weep For My Own Misfortune or For Yours?" (spoken by Polyneices)

I can't take the heat, and it is excruciatingly white-hot in the theatre in the afternoon. Even the Raven feels the heat.

The marble steps in the house are very steep (and if I slip and fall, it will be very painful), and I seem to be going up them to the sound board and down them to the stage a LOT. In the heat. The first day, full of energy, I ran up the steps. Now it's a slog.

There's no time to eat anything after 2 PM when we get to the theatre, until we get home at 3-4 AM. At 11:30 PM, Ron comes up to the sound board and says, "Hey, they brought you a sandwich! It's backstage." Oh, excellent! My evening brightened and my energy level rose in anticipation. When Ron came up to the soundboard a half hour later, he said, "They threw your sandwich away." Very sad.

Sleep is at a minimum.

Not complaining or anything (right?), just pointing out some of the obvious suffering and misfortunes that always go with the Gospel, which I am happy to be here experiencing.

On the other hand, I really have no cause to weep in Athens, because I've had it far worse. In Athens I am fortunate to have my sound designer Ron here (he could not make it to our show in Moscow - a near-disaster still painful to contemplate), and I am fortunate to have good and pleasant local sound guys to work with (which was not the case at a famous theatre which shall not be named - and which is still an ulcerous memory). Andreas here knows his sound board like I know my horse, and if there are any problems during the show, he'll be right here to help.

"Gods, I pray you, be compassionate!" (spoken by Antigone)
"God, help us all!" (spoken by Oedipus)

Our one full dress rehearsal begins around 9 PM.

We are only using about half the microphones that we will be using for the show, (hoping to get the rest in tomorrow afternoon) which means things are nowhere near full volume; and even so, one of the festival guys comes up to the sound board and says, "The archaeologist who is here says we can only be at 100 decibels. We are at 104 right now." I can only widen my eyes as a response. I know how loud this show can get during certain numbers. Maybe what Bern said in jest, "We're going to bring down the Acropolis!" is not far from the truth. Indeed, this one show may be our only show here! (Tomorrow's headlines around the world: "Colonus Brings Down Acropolis!")

We only barely make it through Act I by midnight, and though we rehearse till 3 AM again, we can't use the sound system because of the midnight noise ordinance. Which means, more or less, I will be winging everything for all of Act II tomorrow night during our only show.

Gods, let everything somehow come together, like it always does, by 9 PM tomorrow evening!

Monday, June 23, 2008



Thursday June 19 2008

A rehearsal space has been rented - a gym that is 45 minutes away. It is too hot in the outdoor theatre during the day to rehearse the show, and besides, every spare moment there is taken up with setting up and testing lighting and sound gear.

The most important thing for me as the sound mixer is to re-learn the show (with the new singer Ben, and with Jimmy taking the lead as Oedipus, and, every time we do the show, it changes a little bit), so I go along with the cast to the rehearsal space in a special bus.

Even though the acoustics in the gym are terrible, oh my lord the SOUND those singers make in there! It bounces around and shakes the rafters, and of course I run around on 'stage' and put my ears right in front of everybody who sings - the Abyssinian choir (20 voices - LORDY!), the Steeles, the Blind Boys, the Soul Stirrers - I get waves and waves of huge goose bumps all afternoon. Even Bern has goosebumps - "Ohmigod! Ohmigod! Somebody's going to have to hold me down at the theatre because I'm just going to run around screaming! We're going to bring down the walls of the Acropolis!"

Where DO these voices come from? Where DO these musicians get their talent? During the 10-minute breaks, composer Bob on the piano and drummer Leroy start jamming. Everybody grooves to it and wants the breaks to continue. Stage manager Babette announces, "We are back, everybody," and the guys keep jamming. If Joey's on his guitar and Ben's on his bass, they will sometimes join in and play along too, and they could all play for days, improvising as they go along. They can even hold a conversation while they are playing. How can they do that?? It's just in their bones. They compose pieces of terrific aural art, notes, phrases, tunes, created in an instant, existing for the moment, and then they are gone, never to be heard or re-created the same way again, and I am lucky to be right there to hear them. These people just blow me away. And it's not just me and Bern who feel the magic and force behind the music - everybody is running around like giddy groupies with their cameras taking pictures of everybody.

When Ben Moore sings his verse of Lift Me Up, it blows your hat off your head. Then for the first time, Jimmy sings all of A Voice Foretold in the lead roll, with Jevetta and with the other Blind Boys as backup. Everybody gets goosebumps during and after the song, and it's such a stunning rendition, and dead on the first time, that afterwards people are high fiving each other and laughing - I mean, what else can you do but laugh, that you get to be here with your family for this. It almost brings me to tears - and this is just for practice, in a smelly basketball gym! Bern says, "I hope I don't start bawling during the show, because I can't sing when I cry!" And the show gets so emotional, that she does cry every time. But this one is in Greece!

We limp through the first act - it's impossible to re-create a 3-dimensional stage on a 1-dimensional gym floor. Jimmy will have to be negotiating steps by himself (everybody is terrified he will fall), and Lee is desperate to get the cast on stage for a real rehearsal. There's a special dinner for everybody at the Ambassador's residence tonight at 8:30 PM, which can't be blown off; then the day would have been over. But that all gets changed.

The cast will go to the dinner, then come to the theatre for a rehearsal starting at 11 PM until 3 AM, with the band coming in for a partial sound check at 10:30 PM. The schedule sounds dreadful, but it has to be done, because we simply have no other time to do this. The run-through won't help me much, because all our sound equipment won't be ready, and besides, there is a midnight curfew on loud music, festival or no. I can only watch the rehearsal, and mix in my head.

I skip the fancy reception and instead go back to work at the theatre as soon as the bus brings us all back to the hotel. I grab a stale sandwich from a little stand outside the theatre, and that has to do me till tomorrow's breakfast. The cast comes in from their soiree with the Ambassador. They all got goodie bags, like Goodie bags the Oscar attendees get. Hmmm. Well, I don't wear perfume anyway. I look in Butch's bag to see if he brought an extra sandwich along, but he said there were only hors d'oeuvres at the party.

The cast rehearses till 3:15 AM. The actors get through the play, with little chances to do many things a second time. Jason is not finished writing all the light cues. We're still days away from having all the sound equipment in place (or even at the theatre) and working correctly.

I still don't see how all this is going to come together in less than 40 hours. You have a lot of control over art, but sometimes you have no choice with technology - especially when you just don't have time to work with it. This has to be a perfect show, but I just don't see how that is going to happen.


Wednesday June 18 2008

OMGOMGOMGOMGOMG: That was the subject of my email to actress/singer Bernardine in April when it was definite we were coming to Athens with our Gospel at Colonus show.

"OhMyGod OhMyGod OhMyGod OhMyGod OhMyGod!" is all Bern can say when she first steps on the stage of the Herodus Atticus Theatre Tuesday evening, the white marble seats rising up to meet the walls of the Acropolis, the roof of the Parthenon peeking over the ledge. "Somebody pinch me, this isn't going to hit me till I get home, OhMyGod OhMyGod OhMyGod OhMyGod, I've got goosebumps, I can't take it all in!"

All of the actors/singers walk around the stage and theatre for the first time, as if in a daze, everybody taking pictures. I don't think anybody can believe we are really here. Lee the director walks a few of them through some of the blocking on stage and has the Blind Boys sing one of the songs. There are no microphones or instruments, it's all a cappella for now. Being the sound engineer whose job it is to know the voices well, I sit right between four of the Blind Boys of Alabama on stage, while they, along with Jevetta, sing one of the marvelous songs. (Well, okay, I already know their voices well - the real reason I sit there right between them is - BECAUSE I CAN!)

They start to sing, and even at less than full show volume and energy, their perfectly blended beautiful voices shake my insides like thunder and I get goosebumps as big as Mt Olympos, because I am SITTING BETWEEN THE SINGING BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA ON STAGE UNDERNEATH THE ACROPOLIS. It is, simply, stunning, one of those moments that will stay with me forever. Such powerful, moving, intense music should not be possible with voices alone, but it is.

OhMyGod OhMyGod OhMyGod - we are really here.

All Roads Lead to Athens

Tuesday June 17 2008

Switching from horses to theatre this week...

The Gospel at Colonus is coming home: to Athens, to the Herodus Atticus Theatre, an outdoor amphitheatre, underneath the Acropolis.

This play is a black gospel musical version of Sophocles' tragedy, Oedipus at Colonus, that premiered 2408 years ago in the Theatre of Dionysos - the ruins of which are 100 yards away. Sophocles was in the chorus. He walked, right where we are walking, and did this play, as we will do.

Once every two or three years, the Gospel calls, and we all - about 35 of us regulars - drop everything that we are doing, and we come - to Russia or Brazil or Vienna or Michigan or Harlem or Salt Lake City or Athens. And we have come from all over the US: this time about 55 of us in total (including the choir), from New York, California, Minnesota, Georgia, Delaware, Chicago, and Idaho (that's me).

And it's the 25th anniversary of our show. And it will be a full moon while we are here. And it's the summer solstice. All signs point to us being right where we should be.

It's not just the way the story is presented that is good, and unique - as preached in a black church - and it's not just the music that is astonishingly good; it's the Colonus family that is the essence of this event. I've been a privileged part of this family for twelve years, joining them in Seattle in 1995 as the sound engineer. The talent in the show is extraordinary: different gospel choirs have performed in it (the Abyssinian choir from Harlem being the featured choir the last few years); there's the Steele family from Minneapolis; the Soul Stirrers from Chicago; and members of the Blind Boys of Alabama; not to mention other amazingly gifted solo singers.

It's going to be crazy - a tight set up and tech and rehearsal schedule - for a one night show. One of the Blind Boys, who has done the show since the beginning, Clarence, is not coming, due to poor health and the rigors of travel and rehearsal. Taking his part is the other main Blind Boy, Jimmy. Filling other actors' and singers' and musicians' parts is nothing for this cast - everybody pretty much knows everybody's lines and instruments. Heck, even I can quote the entire show. Saying and singing Clarence's lines will be the easy part; but literally stepping into Clarence's shoes will be difficult, because Jimmy is (as Clarence is), blind. He's never seen where Oedipus stands or walks during the show. He'll have to learn that in a very short time. Not to mention we have stairs on half of this stage. Moreover, a completely new singer is joining the show. Ben Moore has been with the Blind Boys for 2 years, but he's never done the Gospel. He steps into Jimmy's shoes... and since he's blind also, this will be another gigantic literal leap.

And, this is the biggest stage we have EVER been on. It's at least double in size. There are not just 2 entrances to the stage to work with, but 5 (or 13, if you count the entrances from the house, and I bet you the director will use them). Which means all the blocking (positioning) on stage must be re-created, (and reproduced consistently by all, including the Blind Boys); all the light cues rewritten; and every new space presents new problems with wireless microphone systems, and there are at least 30 wireless mics on this show.

And there's just no time to get everything set up - there is never enough time, but somehow, it all comes together in the end. But this one show is particularly important - every time we get together and do the show, we think it really might be our last. And if this is our last one, and since it is coming home where it belongs, it's so important that it is perfect. We feel we must honor not only the Greeks with their own play, but the Gods that let us come here.

How will we get it all done in time for the Saturday night performance?

At our tech meeting, there are many furrowed brows, much frowning and rubbing of foreheads. We just don't have the time we need. Lights needs... Sound needs... Stage managers need... The director needs... I need to see a runthrough, to see who is singing and saying what parts. It always changes a little bit every show anyway, and now I'll have new microphones to bring up in different places, and new voices to try to balance.

And the whole thing is an acute tease. All this work for ONE SHOW. One exquisite, perhaps last performance, perhaps the last time this family ever gets together; and here, in this monumental, sacred place. It is like taking one bite of Ben and Jerry's Coffee Toffee Crunch ice cream, and putting the pint back. It is like taking one small sip of the perfect cappuchino, and giving the rest of the cup back.

But still it is a gift from the Gods, this small gift we offer back, and we all feel privileged to be here.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

2008 Dackeritten: Swedish Championships

2008 Dackeritten: the Swedish Championships

Saturday June 14 2008

Getting up at 3:50 AM is just cruel, but, when it's already light outside, you can kind of fool yourself into thinking that you got that long, good night's sleep.

It was quite chilly for a summer morning in Sweden as riders saddled their horses and warmed them up in a damp cold that penetrated the layers you had on. At a quarter till 5, horses and riders headed 2 km down the road to the official starting line, where two little Norwegian ponies watched the big Arabians and one big Norwegian fjord gathering together with great interest.

At 5 AM, off they went down a paved road, 14 starters on the 160 km ride. I jumped in the car with Michael, Maria, and Alam as we headed down the road to crew for Yvonne. She and Ingrid and youngster Anneli Schultz set a cracking pace right away, cantering down the two tracks through the forests and alongside lakes. Ingrid had won many of her races this way, setting a fast pace and getting a good lead in the first loop, then being able to back off later, still maintaining her lead. Whether she could do that on this young horse on his first 160 km would remain to be seen during the day.

It remained cold enough the first loop that the horses didn't sweat much despite their exertion, and they didn't need much, or any, water poured on them at the first crew points. The sun had actually risen at 5 AM, but it was stingy with its warmth till after 7 AM. None of the horses drank on the first loop, and the three riders hardly paused at the crewing points we met them at.

They finished the first 33 km loop in 2 hours, and had a 30 minute hold. Then we were back in the car, speeding down the road (though not so fast and crazy as at other rides I've been to), waiting at the designated crewing areas. There were some places we could only watch and not crew, and these rules were pretty strictly adhered to. While much of the forest that the ride went through is privately owned, in Sweden everybody still has a right of way anywhere - you don't need permission to pass through, or even camp in for a day. However, hoping to keep this ride going and keep landowners happy, the ride organizers always ask permission for a herd of horses to pass through, or to have a crewing area. Where some owners had said no, we'd park our cars on the shoulder of the road and wait for the horses to pass by, then drive on to the next crew point to get out and set up our water supplies.

On the 2nd loop of 35 km, the Suhrs were pulling in right behind us and Matts and Anneli's crew, as Ellen Suhr was now riding close behind the first three, whose pace had slowed somewhat. At the crew points, grooms had their water bottles ready, and fresh hand-picked grass that almost every horse took a bite of as they passed through. There was an abundance of it on the trails, and at the vet gates, to keep any of the horses happy.

Coming into the second vet gate, the top 4 were close together, with Maria Hagman-Eriksson on Pikaboo not far behind. The horses all trotted out well, and took their 40 minute break. Yvonne sat and rested and ate while her crew kept food and water in front of Karmenzita's face. There was a represent to the vets before going back out on loop 2. We all followed the horse up, with Michael carrying the saddle and bridle, and we waited for Karmenzita to trot out. Wait - was she off? Yvonne was asked to trot out again for the vets gathered around. Yes, Karmenzita was lame, she was out!

And that made two - Maria had gotten a call from her brother Mattias while we were out on loop 2: Maja was having trouble making her stallion go forward. She had to get off and lead him part of the way, and when she did get him into the vet gate, he then vetted out lame. Early disappointments!

I rode around loop 3 with Eva Borg, coach of the Swedish Young Riders since 1992. She came here from north of Stockholm, so far north it wasn't even on the map she showed me. An 11 or 12 hour drive, just to watch the race. Eva will sometimes step in to coach the senior riders, but she prefers the juniors. Besides, it's a volunteer position, and she still does have to work.

Eva fought for starting a Swedish Young Rider training program in 1996. "If we don't do something, we won't have any young riders!" Eva's approach is a sort of all-around educational program - not just on how to ride, but how to crew; how to feed your horse; how to behave; how to develop the knowledge and poise to know what is best for your horse at a particular moment, and to insist on it; how to properly represent yourself and your country on an international trip.

By the fourth loop, Ellen and Anneli were about 15 minutes ahead of Ingrid. Their horses both looked really good, and they'd decided to keep riding together. Ellen hadn't planned on going this fast today - Elcapero's first 160 km, but he was doing so well, she was letting him move on out. Elcapero usually pulsed down first at the vet gates, and therefore had a 2-4 minute lead going out on their next loops, but Ellen always left on the trail at a walk, waiting for Anneli to catch up with her.

Although I can't generalize about all of Swedish endurance riding just going to one ride, one thing that stood out this weekend was the camaraderie apparent between people in Scandinavia. People clapped and cheered for the locals and the visitors. People helped each other out. There were of course those riders who rode with great concentration, but even then there were smiles - people enjoying themselves, no flared tempers, no sense of frantic urgency about the racing and the crewing. It is a rather small riding community, so most everybody knows each other, and while, sure, one would like to beat the other, they still had a certain amount of respect for each other and could still work together and have a good time doing it. People really were having a good time here.

Lena finished the 80 km ride on Ingrid's horse Sambal Oelek. While Lena started riding endurance for fun in 1997, she'd only begun competing 4 years ago. She just won the recent 160 km ride in Denmark on her own horse. She had a big smile on her face as she crossed the finish line with Marina Olesen and Miss Pasadena.

All day it had been the typical Swedish summer weather: hot - jacket off, cold - jacket back on, off, on. Hot penetrating sun, cool wind when the clouds blew over. And always little rain showers passing all around, but not hitting us yet... until that one dark, dark cloud started heading our way. That one, I knew, we wouldn't be escaping. I gathered my things from our crew tent, which was being emptied and dismantled now that we weren't using it anymore, and I went and stood near the barn by the vet ring. I wanted a roof when the rain shower came over.

And it did, right when the first riders - Ellen and Anneli - came in for their 5th vet check. It started to sprinkle, then rain, and then, it DUMPED rain, bucketloads of rain, for a solid twenty minutes. Wow. Very impressive. Deafening under the metal barn. A few of the riders got caught in their Tshirts trotting out their horses - which wanted to turn their butts to the big heavy drops - but a raincoat wouldn't have helped in that soaking rain anyway. It kept dumping even while the sun came out, and finally, the shower passed on, leaving everything glistening and dripping, little rivers flowing over the grounds.

Before leaving on their last loop, Ellen's horse Elcapero need a new set of hind shoes - his were worn paper thin. Alam put them on for her. Ellen had 4 minutes' lead over Anneli going out on the last loop - it would be easy to take off and whip through the last 16 km loop - which they'd be familiar with, as it was a repeat of the 5th loop - but, Ellen and Elcapero walked out. They walked along the trail until Anneli and Nowator caught up; they'd decided to continue riding together to the finish.

I jumped in the car with Maria and Alam; and with Mattias and Beata and Maja in the other car, we waited to follow the Suhrs out to the crew points. As we set up and waited for Ellen and Anneli to pass, we cheered on the two Finns and three Norwegian riders (including Olaug and her Norwegian fjord) who were working on their 5th loop. When Ellen and Anneli came along, it didn't matter who did what, everybody just helped everybody else. Anneli's boyfriend handed off the water to Ellen, Alam handed off water to Anneli. Nowator wanted to drink from Elcapero's water bucket (his water tasted better). Elcapero took a handful of Nowator's grass. They arrived together at the crew points together and they took off again together to our cheers.

And so it continued on back to the finish, where a number of spectators lined up waiting for them, cheering both the riders on, who joined hands coming to the finish line, crossing together, both horses looking as fresh as they had this morning.

Norwegian Ellen Suhr was awarded first with Elcapero, and Swedish Anneli Schultz and Nowator second - and 2009 Swedish Champions.

Here in Sweden - if this ride is any indication - it's not just all about the sport of endurance racing, but also the fellowship of the sport. It can be competitive, and it can be fun. We're all a little part of a small world, and we're all (even me, as a first-time guest) a big part of a little community within that world. You may as well enjoy it, and here in Sweden, they do. I was honored to be a part of it.

Thanks to Yvonne Ekelund and Michael Thitz for their hospitality to a stranger, and to everybody else who offered it. Next time, I'm told, there might be a horse or two for me to ride : )