|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 : )