Monday, August 10, 2009

2009 Tevis Cup: Phase II

Saturday August 1 2009

The middle third of the Tevis trail: CANYONS and DUST... and HURRY. If you weren't racing to win Tevis (we weren't!), you are not racing the other competitors. You are racing the clock.

Those cut off times: through this section they began to nag at us, eat away at our sense of comfort. I've never had to worry about cut-off times in rides, because I usually ride at a steady pace, which gets it done at rides. My theory has always been, "Trot when you can, walk when you have to." I thought this would apply to Tevis also, but, here it's more like, "Trot when you can, walk when you have to, and you better trot through a heck of a lot of that too, and fast."

You can add HEAT and CLIFFS here to this section too - stagnant, thick heat (my opinion), and cliffs inches from your horse's hooves. Add the DUST factor - pervasive, invasive, god-awful, torturous dust - one more time so you really comprehend that.

All of this to deal with as the clock is inexorably ticking.

The second 'LD':
Robinson Flat to Dusty Corners - 9 miles - Water stop
Dusty Corners to Last Chance - 5 miles - Gate and Go
Last Chance to Devil's Thumb - 4 miles - Water stop
Devil's Thumb to Deadwood - 1 mile - Gate and Go
Deadwood to Michigan Bluff - 7.5 miles - Water stop
Michigan Bluff to Chicken Hawk - 1.5 miles - Gate and Go
Chicken Hawk to Foresthill - 4 miles - 1 hour hold at 68 miles

I was feeling pretty jazzed as we left Robinson. Tired, unrested and a little disconcerted from the vet check, but elated. I'd completed a third of the Tevis trail - and, at times, as we were zooming along, still could not believe I was riding it! If Quinn had been pulled at Robinson, or before, I would have been very disappointed. Getting past Robinson had been my modest, unspeakable goal. I felt like I'd gotten my money's worth. Now, every vet check more that Quinn got under his girth, was icing on the cake, and I'd be happy with however much further we got. The next big goal was Foresthill, 8 or so hours from here.

We picked up a fast trot right out of Robinson, but slowed to a walk going down switchbacks through an old burn area, when Chandler was squirming in her saddle. She had shin splints, and had vet-wrapped them at the vet check, but now they were seriously bothering her. We didn't stop moving, but Laura put El Din in front at a walk; and behind, Chandler perched like a bird on a wire, first one leg then the other out of the stirrup and in front of her, as she peeled the wretched bandages off. (Did I say these were fairly steep switchbacks?) Then quickly her feet were back in her stirrups, and we were back at a fast trot, down and down the switchbacks.

Chandler never complained, not about her shin splints or sore muscles or being afraid, or anything. She always said she was "Fine!" when I asked, and she always had a big grin on her face to accompany that. What a unique adventure for a 13-year-old!

Onto single track trails, logging roads, and cliff trails, we trotted, and trotted incessantly, and fast. Just a few times Quinn broke into a canter, but almost always, we trotted. I automatically switch diagonals with curves in the trail, almost always posting because it's hard to two-point in a sports saddle that keeps your legs so far in front of you (good for my knee though!). I thought once, as Jasbo got a bit of a lead on us, that I'd urge Quinn to a canter, to use some different muscles, and Quinn opened up another two gears at a trot, like a Standardbred in a race. "Canter!" my legs were saying, and he upped the trot yet another gear, and we almost ran into Jasbo's butt! After that, I let Quinn decide what he wanted to do - he knew what he was doing with no help from me.

But there were the stumbles to deal with. He'd thrown in a few during the day - he's a 'daisy clipper', doesn't pick his feet up as he moves down the trail. Makes for efficient trotting, but sure throws in some disconcerting stumbles. One was so hard it slammed my lower abdomen into the saddle pommel, enough to make me gasp and curse out loud. I found myself missing much of the scenery for watching the trail - and I got to where at times I knew when a stumble was coming, and I was there to pick his head up before it went down too far. Every time he did it, I'd half yell at him, half pray: "ARGHHH! This isn't helpful for a finish at Auburn!"

Somewhere ahead was Dusty Corners and Last Chance. Kara, in the lead, had pulled out the card with the cutoff times and realized we were not even a half-hour ahead of schedule anymore. "Guys, we have to get moving!" (I thought we were!) "If I can average 10 mph, we'll get there with 45 minutes to spare..." and with that, all we saw was a line of dust from Kara and Jack on the narrow trail along the side of the mountain.

Not that there wasn't dust everywhere, all the time. I was still breathing through my bandana when it got thick, but my eyes were starting to smart from it. Boy, was I glad I'd cleverly packed my eyedrops for Foresthill, several hours down the trail.

Dust, and more thick dust. We came up on a crossroads that had water troughs and a cloud of dust - our horses drank a bit and we were quickly zooming back down the dusty trails. "That must have been Dusty Corners," Laura called. "Why'd they pick THIS spot to call Dusty Corners? It's ALL dusty!"

Kara kept up the fast pace, I kept my eyes on the narrow trail, and realized that I really hadn't been taking in much of the scenery. All this beautiful Sierra Nevada terrain "THE MOST BEAUTIFUL RIDE EVER!" Dick Dawson had said, and most of what I had seen so far was 40 miles of trail and rock, ever watchful of where my horse might stumble next.

I picked up my eyes and saw, to my right, an awesome canyon far across the way and - gasp - a wide, bottomless pit below me. 30 degree bare slope, with nothing for 500 feet down, then a forest another oh, 500 feet or so down to the bottom, which you could not see.

Okay, forget that, go back to watching where my horse is putting his feet on this foot-wide-trail-with-nowhere-to-go-but-forward-or-GONE, and be sure he avoids that big round stone, or that slick rock coming up that cants toward the edge of nothingness! I fleetingly wondered if this was maybe "Pucker Point", or where Lucy had said gave her the Heebie Jeebies, but I was glad I hadn't read up on it. If I'd had sense, I might have been a little scared here - this really was one of those wrong-step-and-you-die stretches of trail - but there was nothing to do but fly along. Which we did. (Besides, walking wouldn't have made it better - you'd have just spent more time going along the drop-offs!)

We arrived at Last Chance 33 minutes ahead of the cut-off. It was rather mind-blowing - I didn't see how we could have been going much faster. And yet the leaders were probably some 2 hours ahead of us already. (In fact, Melissa Ribley, who finished second, was 2 hours 10 minutes ahead of us at this check.)

For once, there wasn't a big cluster of horses with us at the vet check. Quinn drank deeply - MUCH to my relief, and we stood in the shade a while. The horses chowed down on hay, and one volunteer sponged Quinn down. "Do me too!" I said. "Really?" "Yes!" He squeezed a spongeful down my neck and back, a blessed cool refresher for my Cool vest - the hot canyons were coming up next. We went to the vet line, and as the vet listened to Quinn's heartrate, he mumbled something before moving back on him to palpate his butt muscles and listen to his gut.

I said, "What!?" The vet turned to look at me. "44." "Forty-four!" That was Quinn's heartrate - a very low 44. I was floored. "Wow!" He checked everything else - all good - and the vet scribe handed me back my vet card.

The vet said, "Wait!" The scribe grabbed the card back. Uh oh! The vet was listening to Quinn's heart again. Oh no, what if something was wrong! I held my breath. The vet looked up at me and grinned. "44. I just had to make sure I was hearing right." : )))

This was a bit of a pivotal point for me: I wouldn't be worrying about Quinn's pulse rate anymore. We were exactly halfway done with the ride, (halfway done!!); despite the cracking pace we were going, my horse was pulling harder on me now than he was this morning - with a pulse of 44 here; and Nance had said, "Quinn will perk up after sunset." Well - he hadn't ever UNperked! Quinn had plenty of gas left in the tank.

Next: down into the first infamous canyon. This was the one where Clydea had told me it was 114* at the bottom one year she did Tevis. Not looking forward to that! Down we went, switchbacking, into the heat, further down, and steeper.

Nance and I got off our horses and led them. We had ended up again in a long line of people, in front of and behind us. You had to pay attention to the footing - very rocky, steep, tricky steps, big steps - a long line of people behind us that you didn't want to fall in front of and hold up the line. Had to just keep moving. It was terribly dusty. Hard to breathe, cloyingly hot (for me), no breeze, (this side was in the sun), this was not fun, I didn't really want to be here, dust so thick I had tears pouring down my face - and you had to keep moving, watching so your horse wouldn't jump on you at some of those big, tricky steps, down and down, quad muscles getting shaky, 1726' and almost 2 miles of down. The guy behind me had been off and running a lot of the Tevis trail - something like 17 miles already. We asked him if he had done the Western States 100 mile run - over this same trail - a month before. "No, and after this, I don't want to!"

Zig-zagging forever downward, impossibly down, concentrating on the trail, too hot and dusty to converse. Just the plopping of hooves in dust, and clopping and slipping of hooves on rock. And then, finally, the temperature dropped slightly and a new sound... we were getting close to the North fork of the Middle fork of the American River, the bottom, yahoo!

There was a small crowd of people down off the trail going into the river to drink, and a little line of people waiting to cross the bridge. The sign said no more than three horses at a time. Nance said if you get two on there the bridge will start to swing - no thanks! She waited till the horse in front of her had crossed. Quinn and I followed when she was almost across, as did the person behind me. When the bridge started to sway a bit, Quinn was unbothered, and we just kept walking, and made it onto solid ground on the other side.

Then - mount right back up and keep right on going. What trail goes down must come back up - 1565' out of the canyon. This side was several degrees cooler - but just as steep. Steeper in some places. Quinn was panting like a dog as we switchbacked, climbing higher and higher, dirt and sweat coating him from ear tips to hooves, dripping sweat, straining muscles, pushing hard with the hind end, digging in and pulling himself up with his front end, step after hard-fought upward step, me leaning forward in my saddle, willing him the help he needed. I worried about it... what if this was too much, should I stop him? What if his heart just beats so fast he stops and keels over? If I stop him, would it be too hard to get going again? You don't want to stagger sideways on this trail because sideways is a drop-off. Is he smart enough to stop himself if he needs to?

And once did he stop on his own and pause... one, two, three, four, five seconds - and that was it; he pushed onward and upward. That was the only time all day and all night my amazing gray horse ever stopped to catch his breath - those five seconds climbing up that steep canyon.

We were back in a line of horses, putting one foot in front of the other. Nothing to do but keep moving. One guy's paint horse in front of us had stopped. He wouldn't move. Too tired. It happened to be on a switchback where there was a tiny bit of extra room, and he was able to pull over, and several of us rode past, our line of horses straining upward past him, noses to tails. The guy got off to lead his horse.

The trail made a bend around a steep ravine... something caught my eye to the steep downhill side that was not right. I glanced over my left shoulder and saw something brown and white at the bottom. Not right, not right. That was a horse, and it should not be there - could not be there. Holy S***. I looked again, at the brown and white body down in the green, the head turned oddly, and it was not moving. We all saw it at the same time, and realized what it was. Gasps and sobs came from our line of riders.

I didn't dare look - is it wrong to stare?? - but I couldn't help looking back. Big mistake. I saw a man, sitting on his dead horse, cutting something - bridle, lock of mane, I didn't know, then looking upward. It grabs at your throat and chokes off your air. Some man just lost his horse, his partner, his friend.

One bad step, a freak instant where it all goes wrong. Sometimes you find that rock with your horse's name on it that makes him lame; sometimes you find a bad step with your horse's name on it - or your name - where it's all over. It was over for them.

There was no place to pull over to help - though there was nothing to rescue - and the line just kept moving upward, onward - and for god's sake, keep paying attention to the trail, because this could happen to any one of us. It had happened to one of us.

The silence and sobs and the tear-streaked black faces from our line of riders were a pitiful tribute to the shocking loss we just passed.

The climb went on. We all moved on and up, thinking, as our horses' panting filled the silence. Several volunteers who were hiking down to the dead horse and his rider pulled off the trail - hanging onto trees so as not to slip down - to let us march past. "It's alright. We're going to help him." They had a long hike down.

We finally spilled out at the top of Devil's Thumb. Quinn was drenched in sweat, and I jumped off to sponge him and Jasbo (and myself) off as they dove into a water tub for a drink. We didn't have much to say. We mounted up and kept moving the last mile to Deadwood.

We were about 40 minutes before cut-off - and in a cluster of horses again. Our horses were starved and dove into the hay near the water troughs. By the time Nance and I got in line to vet, it was a long one. We held hay for them to eat as we waited, volunteers ran to fill our water bottles and hand us cups of watermelon chunks. We finally got to the vets, trotted out and back, passed with flying colors, and pulled over to wait for Kara, Laura and Chandler in the mild chaos. Kara was held by the vets (!) and told to go back and let her horse eat a while, because either his CRI was a bit high, or his gut sounds were low. What!? We didn't have time for this.

We didn't see Laura and Chandler in the maelstrom anywhere. Had they left? Jack was eating, over by the water troughs again, there was still a long vet line - that Kara and Jack weren't in - and the clock was ticking.

That old Cut-Off Time: haunting us, pressing us, stalking us, taking away from some of the experience of the ride. How long were we going to be here?? Should we wait? Do we have to wait? Are we obligated to stick together? Was it selfish to want to leave Kara behind, after we'd all travelled 55 miles of hard trail together, our horses buddied up well? Do I ride my ride, or do I ride someone else's ride? And anyway I was riding Nance's horse, so it wasn't even completely my ride to ride. Where were Laura and Chandler? Is it all about having fun and experiencing this Tevis ride together, or is it about me myself, and finishing my ride myself? I had pictured Nance getting pulled, and me having to go on without her (yikes!). I'd pictured me getting pulled, and Nance going on without me. I hadn't planned on Kara or Laura or Chandler getting pulled, even when, before the ride, Chandler had asked all of us if we'd be her sponsor if her mom got pulled.

I looked at my watch for the thousandth time today, and said to Nance, "We have to go, we can't wait!" We'd now lost about 30 minutes (at least our horses had been eating all of that time), and if kept up our same pace, we'd now be 10 minutes ahead of cut-offs. Ugh!

Nance was on the fence, I know she didn't want to abandon Kara, but... bottom line was, that clock was ticking. I held Jasbo and Quinn while she went to talk to Kara. Nance came back and said Let's go. I looked at my watch once more.

I don't remember the next 7.5 miles of the trail to Michigan Bluff - Into the next canyon, and 2665' of descent total over the next 7.5 miles - and I don't remember the trail, though I know we were rushing along it, and it was rocky, and it was dusty. Probably a combination of tiredness, hunger, time worries and a dead horse to think about. And heck, I probably couldn't see anything anyway because of the dust! My aching eyes were starting to give me a bit of a headache.

This Last Chance to Michigan Bluff trail was built in 1850, and used to be a maintained toll trail. Our horses' feet were following the footsteps of hundreds of years of mining history. The trails were just as steep and rocky - and treacherous - for them as it was for us now.

I do remember popping out on the top at Michigan Bluff. Once a tent city in the 1840's with the discovery of gold, then a permanent mining settlement, now it's a small ghost town (the city had to be moved from its canyon precipice in 1859, as mining activities threatened to erode the town off the cliff). $100,000 worth of gold was shipped out from the mines at Michigan Bluff during its heyday.

A few dozen people still live here - and many of them were out enjoying the horse race passing through, out in the streets and on their lawns, waving and cheering us on, still rooting for the back-of-the-pack riders. Quinn avoided the water troughs and trotted on down the road as if he were in a parade... onward for the 1.5 miles to the next Gate and Go vet check at Chicken Hawk; onward against the clock.

A mile-and-a-half of nice soft (dusty) logging road - we caught up with Laura and Chandler - dropped us into Chickenhawk vet check at around 30 minutes before Cut-off time - and a nice surprise, our friends Jackie and Gretchen there to help us crew.
Gretchen and Jackie jumped in to sponge our horses, while volunteers jumped in to ply us with food ("What can I get you?!?") and fill our water bottles and take our horses' pulses.

By now, I'd finally figured it out: get into a vet check, immediately water your horse and sponge him down, grab some hay while you move on, go straight to the pulse takers, and if you're down, go straight to the vet. If you linger anywhere, you lose time. The horses can eat afterwards. A little late in the day to get that one figured out, but something to practice the rest of the night.

It also helped that there weren't many horses here. Quinn took about three minutes to pulse down - he was quite hot to the touch, and it was warm/muggy here, but we kept moving closer to the vets, and as soon as he hit 64, we vetted through. Jackie and Gretchen held our horses at piles of hay while we used the Honey buckets, and then grabbed one more slice of watermelon to eat before we mounted back up. I don't like watermelon, and I must have eaten a half of a whole watermelon throughout the day. It was delicious today. I ate the pulp, Quinn finished the peels.

The day had flown by, we had flown over the trails, and now, unbelievably - we were 4 miles from the hour vet check at Foresthill - Foresthill: clean clothes, EYEDROPS, food, Dr Pepper, a face wash (I hadn't washed my face till now, because the dirt was a good extra layer for the sunscreen shielding my face), a little rest (oh, PLEASE, let me be able to rest, just a little) - and, if we passed the vet check, 2/3 of the ride completed!!

The last half-mile into Foresthill is an uphill climb on a paved road. We came off the trail onto the road, and there were a few people clapping for us as we rode by. Then, as we moved up the road, more people. Many were crewmembers waiting for their horses, but many were just observers, people out to take in the spectacle, to cheer you on. I was very amused at the people who were very amused at my blackened face and once-yellow-now-black shirt. They cheered, "Good job!" which made you feel pretty good, and added a bit more straightness to your seat on your horse, and a bit more spring in your step when you got off to lead him in - much more energy than you felt a half hour ago.

As you got closer to the in-time gate, and the crowd grew, and the cheers increased, you started to feel pretty darn good. Friends' faces were popping out the crowd, calling your name. "Hey Merri - I'm so glad you're riding!" "Great job!" "You go girl!" You got more cheers, you started to get hugs. Sue Hedgecock, there crewing for someone else, jumped in to unsaddle my horse. A little girl with a water hose jumped in to spray off Quinn and Jasbo. Dick and Carolyn Dawson were there by the number takers and hugged me, even though I was pretty much black from head to toe from dust. Another surprise, a friend Mickey was there, and she followed us to help us crew.

We moved into the vetting area, got our horses' pulses taken (they were below the 64 criteria) and we moved straight on to the vet, holding hay for our famished horses to eat. Bruce said he'd trot Quinn out for me. I said - surprised that I wasn't hurting at all - "I think I can do it!" And I did. Quinn looked just terrific, alert and not tired, as he stood in the twilight for the vet who took his pulse, and when we turned to trot out down the sandy lane and back, we both jogged as if we were vetting in on Friday, light and easy. The vet finished his check and smiled at me: "Good job!"

Nance had finished her trot out with Jasbo, (the two neighed as we trotted past each other) and we left the ring together - and we high-fived each other. We had finished two-thirds of the Tevis trail - 68 miles down, only 32 more miles to go! It hardly seemed possible that I - who 5 days before had no idea I'd be here - really had a chance to finish my first Tevis ride! What an awesome horse I was riding!

Following Bruce to the crewing area that he and Chris and Gentry had set up for us, I passed Julie Suhr on the way. She gave me a big hug and when she said, "See you at the finish," I choked up. She said it matter-of-factly, and, coming from Julie, a finish really did seem possible.

First thing I did, once Quinn was set up with grain and hay (he and Jasbo STILL weren't much interested in their grain, dang it!), was a CHANGE OF CLOTHES! I was wet from head to toe - from sweat, and my cool vest - so I pulled out a new set of clothes, ran between the trees, and peeled everything off. Wow - a clean and dry set of clothes - even though I was still dirty - gave me a whole new perspective on life. Then - I washed my face. WOW! Now I could face another 8 hours of riding! One more thing: EYEDROPS!

Uh oh. The eyedrops were missing. I frantically dug through crew bags and in the emergency kit in my saddlebag - no eyedrops. Oh man, this was going to haunt me down the trail, I knew.

But nothing to do about it, must keep moving on: must EAT, fill water bottles, fetch more horse water because Jasbo just knocked the bucket over, sit a few minutes, (ooh, maybe that wasn't a good idea, because now I realized how really tired I was becoming), find some peanut butter crackers to stuff in my pocket for the ride to the next vet stop, find a headlamp and put that on my helmet, worry a little about Quinn because he looked like he had to pee, but I swear he hadn't peed at ALL today. I scattered some hay underneath him, because horses don't usually like to pee on hard ground, and they love to pee on hay... but he wouldn't go. I dumped my buttpack with two extra bottles of water, because I figured I'd come across plenty again at the vet checks on the way; and anyway I'd be carrying 3 on my saddle.

Kara and Jack arrived, about 20 minutes behind us. Gretchen and Jackie showed up at our spot. Along with Mickey, they helped tape glowsticks to our horses' breastcollars. I really wanted to lay down a minute... but I knew that wasn't a good idea..

Time to resaddle anyway. We needed to leave on time because, still we were only 40 minutes ahead of Cut-off. Equipment on, Quinn and I started following Nance and Bruce and Jasbo across the parking lot to the out-timer (Laura and Chandler had already gone). Suddenly Quinn pulled me to a stop. What - reluctant to go on? He had never once shown any sign of reluctance. I asked him again, but he wouldn't come... then I realized he'd stopped over hay - and he started to pee! Yeahoo, and the color looked good - a relief! Now he followed me at a trot to catch up with Nance and Jasbo.

I was just about to climb on, as Nance was doing, then, "Crap! I forgot my chaps!" Have to ride with chaps, or my legs get rubbed, or pinched by the stirrup strap. I couldn't stand that for 8 more hours. Argh! I threw Quinn's reins at Bruce, and ran back (ugh!)across the parking lot to our spot - couldn't find the chaps. Gentry brought his light over - it was now dark - and we found them. I ran back across the parking lot with my chaps in hand - now out of breath and hot - found Bruce and Nance and the horses, sat in the spotlight by the out-timer and fumbled to get my chaps on. I finally got them zipped up, mounted up on Quinn, and we were out, only a minute behind our out-time.

We were off, onto our last third of the Tevis trail, the California loop, a lady holding traffic for us as we rode out into the darkness. 8 hours or so ahead lay our destination: Auburn and the finish line.

Next: the final Part III

Pictures, results, more stories on the Tevis page on

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