Tuesday, August 11, 2009

2009 Tevis Cup: Phase III

Saturday August 1 2009

The final 'LD':
Foresthill to Francisco's - 17 miles - Gate and Go
Francisco's to River Crossing - 3.3 miles - No check
River Crossing to Lower Quarry - 6 miles - Gate and Go
Lower Quarry to No Hands Bridge - 2 miles - No Check
No Hands Bridge to the Finish - 4 miles - Last vet check

The last third of Tevis: CLIFFS and DUST. A few more words come to mind: Blackness, Hurtling, Insane, Enough Already, Disconnected, Fatigue, Intrigue, Thirst, Bliss, Misery, and (deserves mentioning again) Dust.

We left the Vet Check at Foresthill in the dark, at 8:52 PM. Refreshed, starting over, 8 more hours or so of riding to go - I felt we could actually do this! Quinn led the way in the dark onto the streets of Foresthill, under the streetlights, past honking cars, past bars and outdoor cafes with partying people who cheered us on our way. A man on a street corner holding his little boy on his shoulders said, "See those horses? Those aren't just endurance horses, those are Tevis horses!" Made you feel pretty special in your saddle.

We followed a few riders off the streets, onto the trail that is the start of the infamous California loop. We could see the lights of Auburn on the horizon, across the canyon of the American River, 32 miles by trail away. The almost-full moon was a spotlight reflection on the river far below, and it lit up the wide trail before us.

Nance and I had fallen in with Ernie Schrader on his paint horse Captain Calypso, and Cassandra Berube, riding Imasweetsteele. We trotted along the trail together, telling stories, slowly starting to chip away at the miles. Though Quinn had never flagged all day, he was pulling on the reins even harder now. I'd even had to put my gloves back on. Absolutely amazing.

And now is when I knew for certain that I would finish the Tevis with a sound horse. IF Quinn didn't trip and fall, IF he didn't hit that rock with his name on it, IF we didn't fall off a cliff, IF we made it to Auburn in time, by 5:15 AM, I would complete Tevis with a solid, strong, sound horse. A lot of IF's in there, but I knew Quinn wouldn't just go lame before we finished. It was a phenomenal feeling, to be on a horse that felt so unbelievably strong after 17 hours on the trail.

We eventually became a line of riders again when the trail started down into the forest, down switchbacks into the black hole of the canyon. With the single track downward came the thick dust churned up by hooves in front of and below us. The trail was quite steep (and I found out later how steep, something I was glad I didn't know), and even in the black you could sense this was a trail you didn't want to screw around on. It was very dusty - hard to breathe, and, unbelievably, I'd forgotten my breathing bandana. At times I'd try holding my shirt over my mouth, but this was a rugged trail and you'd better keep both hands on the reins. I gave up and choked down the dust. The red light on my helmet would often illuminate a thick red cloud; sometimes I'd shut it off and just hang on in the dark. Sometimes I'd shut my eyes the dust was so bad. It was starting to really aggravate my eyes. (What about those people wearing contacts who weren't complaining!)

Back and forth, Quinn would make the sharp switchback turns, forever going downward in a line of riders. A couple of times I turned on my light and looked down at the turn - eek! He stepped too close to the outside drop-off on that one and I corrected him! Was he doing this EVERY TIME?? Better, I think, not to watch what he's doing, let him pick his way. He did know what he was doing... didn't he? No point in worrying about it - sometimes you just have to trust your horse. Nothing you could do anyway but keep moving with the line of horses.

In the pitch dark as we descended, sometimes all I could see was a line of floating green glowsticks - most breastcollars had 3 glowsticks on them, and they floated eerily toward us, above and below us on the switchbacks. At times, Quinn would watch them, turning his head, fascinated, as he walked along - AHH! Please turn your head back to the trail! Don't trip or fall off here for watching the other horses!

When we came to a very tricky spot in the trail where the lead horse slowed to cross - a little spring over wet rocks, or a pile of rocks, or a branch at about human head level requiring you to duck over your horse's neck, we'd pass the information to the rider behind us - you could hear it going back down the line in the dark: "Rocks!" "Headache!" "Watch it here!"

Nance was in front for a while, trying to feel her way in the dark. The red light on her helmet helped, but only just penetrated the blackness. Some horses are sensible enough to slow down over rocks, and trot when it gets better; Jasbo would trot over anything, so Nance was just guessing when it was safest to trot.

I'd been talking to the guy behind me for a while before I realized it was Bruce Weary and his Tennessee Walker, John Henry. I glanced back, noticed his hat, and his clean white shirt (still!). He offered to go in front, because he knew the trail, and his horse had a great walk, and was very sure-footed. Bruce took over, and became our Trail Master of the Dark for a while; John Henry kept up a good pace for all of us.

I kept waiting for that first little water stop/trot by, whatever it was, coming up fairly soon. I'd checked my card twice upon leaving Foresthill; the stop/check was 4 miles from Foresthill. I was going to fill my water bottles, because I'd already used half of my supply, some to douse my head, which was uncomfortably hot under my helmet, and some to wash down the peanut butter crackers I'd brought along and was trying to choke down. Maybe I could rinse my eyes out too, because they were killing me.

The trail kept going and going - surely we'd gone 4 miles by now - and Bruce kept talking about the vet check at Francisco's which was 17 miles. It took me a while - like hours - to comprehend that there WAS no water stop/vet check before Francisco's. We were ON the long 17 mile loop to Francisco's, the next vet check. There was no drinking water to be had between now and then. I pulled out my card and looked once more, and indeed there was no stop before Francisco's listed on there. Whatthehell?

Oh, that was a crushing blow. Now that I had a couple more hours of slow miles to go till I could get more water I started obsessing over it. I needed water - I was terribly hot, lightheaded - my head felt like a sauna - I was hungry (but couldn't eat because I didn't have water to wash anything down), very thirsty (but now had to ration my water), my eyes were hurting badly from the dust, this was one Long-A** ride, and whose bloody idea was this, anyway.

That trail to Francisco's was the longest 17 miles. Ever. On and on it went. And though it felt that the time ticked by slowly, the ride time still ticked mercilessly on, and we could not let up. And still the rocky trail and tricky footing was unforgiving. We flew through the dark, trotting on, a stumble here, sparks from hooves flying there, on and on. I found myself zoning out when I trotted, the pace unchanging for so long in the dark with no solid visual reference to anything around me. I wasn't really riding, I wasn't really on a horse. I was somewhere off to the side (to the right, to be exact), in the ether as we flew down the trail, and a few times I had to physically shake myself to get me to come back onto my horse, to hold onto those reins and pay attention, be ready for a stumble, or a duck to the left or right on the trail.

For we seemed to be going impossibly fast in the black void. A wild rollercoaster in the darkness - flat ground (with rocks, of course), up, flat, down, up (oof! your stomach gets jammed), zip left, zip right, horse stumbles, pick his head up, zip right, up, left, down. Sometimes I leaned left for a turn, but Quinn went right. So much dust the red light from my helmet just showed a thick red cloud of what is going into your eyes and down your lungs - better to shut it off and be in the dark and stay very centered on your horse to follow whichever way he zips with the trail you can't see.

I'd find myself disconnecting again... I wasn't hallucinating, I wasn't hearing voices, but I was seeing a few extra things... lights... outlines of things... (that weren't there)... just... things... before I'd pull myself back to the present. Was it really 20 hours ago I climbed on this horse, 80 miles from here? Or was that another century I did that?

For some long stretches we were on a narrow trail above the American River - the river far, far below - straight down below. Ah, so these were the cliffs I'd heard (but purposely not read) about. I was glad I hadn't known about these cliffs. Though the moon was hidden behind one of the walls of the canyon, the sky was bright enough to illuminate the drop-off of the white cliffs on our left. One star was a bright beacon reflected in the water. It was hard to gauge exactly how far the river was at the bottom - 500 feet? A thousand? - but if you went over the edge, there was nothing to stop you reaching it. You might bounce once... but you might not.

If I had any sense, this is where I'd be scared... but I really was too tired to care, and nothing to do anyway, but keep moving over this trail, to eat up those miles as the clock kept ticking.

Sometimes we'd go through a little strip through the trees, then we'd be back on the cliff trail. Rarely we'd end up on a logging road for a bit, a blessed change, and we'd really let fly, though we couldn't really see anything more here. It was easier to stay focused and in the present here because of the pine tree branches that would suddenly appear in my red light at the last second and slap me in the face. Luckily they were polite, small branches. Most of them. One ripped Nance's headlamp off her helmet... but no time to stop, go back and look for it - you just keep trotting down the trail.

Then, in the dark, flying at a trot, it happens - The Big Stumble. Not one stumble and recover, but three - SLAM SLAM SLAM! This is it, we're going down. A picture flashes in my head: Quinn plows into the ground, flips over, I'm underneath.

I instinctively brace my feet in the stirrups and hands on the reins as it happens, so fast, but in slow motion - the third stride Quinn catches himself - or I catch his head - from going all the way down (at the next vet check, I find a cut on his nose where it hit the ground) and he leaps forward into another trot gear - almost as if embarrassed at the stumble and now he has to catch up quickly.

Now I have adrenaline shooting throughout my body and out my fingertips, now I'm very awake and aware that we almost lost it there, and that hurtling through the darkness where I can't see anything like this is sheer insanity... but there is nothing to do but keep careening, because the time clock is always ticking. I'm not quite scared now, just very... aware, alert. We are a looooooong way from help if anything happens - (somewhere in here is where in 2007, Nance passed a place in the trail where someone was waiting at the edge, with a man and horse who'd fallen over the cliff and was awaiting evacuation) - and besides, there is no time for an accident, because it would waste time, and we have no time to waste! Must keep going, must keep pushing.

And my horse is going. Quinn is pulling even harder on me. If I let up on the reins at all, he's right on Jasbo's butt. We're back to the discussion we had with each other at the beginning of the ride. Do I hold him back more as he pulls harder, so he can see where he's putting his feet, or trust him and let him go as fast and as close to Jasbo as he wants, risk clipping heels?

It's midnight: my eyes are killing me, (I wonder - can I damage my eyes with this much dust?), one more stumble like that and this horse is going to kill me, if he stumbles like that on this narrow trail... well, don't even think about that, my head is very hot, I'm thirsty, fatigued, why am I doing this, I am ready for this ride to be over. Get the end of the trail here, or pull me, I'm ready for this to be done one way or the other. I got my money's worth, enough already. But I have at least four more hours in the saddle.

And then someone says, "Look, see the lights? That's Francisco's!" It is still a mile or two away, but the lights are like a magnet, drawing us in - this godawful long loop is over!

We jumped off and walked down in to Francisco's, went right to the pulse takers - our horses were below the 68 criteria, went straight to the vets - passed no problems - and took our horses back to the hay. Time cut-offs be damned, the horses were hungry, and, "If I don't eat something, NOW, I'm going to die!" Nance said, "Ohmigod so am I!"

I looked over the pile of delicious treats baked by the volunteers (oh, how I wish I could eat those desserts, but I can't, because I'd get nauseous while riding), debated over sandwiches, and picked a peanut butter and honey one that I split with Nance. I have NEVER eaten PB & H, because I don't like them, and this one went down so good and so fast, Nance and I split another as we collapsed on the ground by our chowing horses. We guzzled cold water and gatorade, and volunteers filled our bottles for the trail.

Wow, we both felt SO much better - and now we had only 15 miles to go - 15 more miles to the finish! Now a glance at our watches - 12:40 AM, recommended time-in here was 1 AM (cut-off 1:45 AM) - time to mount up and get going! Just as we were about to climb aboard, in came Kara - she'd caught up with us! "I pushed Jack harder than I should have, but, well... I'm here." She wanted to stay with us, so she went straight to the vets, vetted Jack through, and without grabbing any food or drink for herself, she mounted up, and we took off down the trail.

Now, the ride was different. Now the end was in sight and in our grasp. Now, this was all we had left, and I memorized it: 3 miles, then 6 miles, then 2 miles, then 4 miles - and the Finish! "What's the first thing you're going to do when we get back?" Nance asked. Now that we were close, we could think about it. "Sleep? Eat? Brush your teeth? Shower?" All good choices, but - "EYEDROPS!" It felt like my eyeballs were bleeding, but now they'd only have to do it for another couple of hours!

On the dark three miles to the River Crossing - along more cliffs, trotting fast all the way - we'd picked up Cassandra again. Ernie had been pulled at Francisco's. Cassandra got us all talking a bit, then Kara and Nance and I started singing songs from the Sound of Music. "Favorite Things" to take our mind off this looooooong tiring journey, and, of course, "Climb Every Mountain," because that's what we had done today! Though we sounded weak and out of tune with voices choked and scratchy with dust, several people joined in. Kara made up a second verse having to do with the final Auburn mountain to climb and fording the American River.

We descended to the river, where our passage was lined with glowsticks floating on lines. Volunteers were down there - their tents set up to grab a snooze after the last riders passed - taking our numbers. Our horses plowed into the water. Cool and refreshing, it came to above my ankles. Jasbo and Quinn seemed to linger in it instead of going straight across.

Across the river, out of the river, a good shake off, and starting up the other side, we gave a whoop - 6 miles more, then 2 miles, then 4 miles! The horses picked up the fast pace though the trail led uphill. Quinn knew where he was. Jasbo sensed the excitement. We zipped along, and the six miles to the Quarry - which took over an hour - disappeared under fast flying hooves. It all seemed to be happening more quickly now.

We pulled into the Lower Quarry - the last vet check at 94 miles - at 3:31 AM - cut-off time was 3:45 AM. 14 minutes ahead of the clock. They gave you 15 extra minutes to linger here before going out - Cut-off out-time was 4 AM - but we didn't linger. Volunteers threw blankets over our horses butts as we arrived - it was a little cooler here (thank goodness! I was no longer feeling so heat-stroked). They offered us anything, "Food? Water? Hold your horse?" No, thanks, gotta keep moving! We vetted through, pulled our starving horses away from the hay, and we climbed aboard one more time, and we were off into the dark once more.

Two more miles to No Hands Bridge, then 4 more miles to the finish. Our horses got a bit confused leaving the Quarry: Kara took off first, I trotted after, and Jasbo was last... but he thought he was leaving Quinn behind. Big whinny, and he stopped. Nance couldn't get him to move. Louder whinny. Quinn, trotting up ahead, answered, turned himself around, and we flew back to Jasbo. Whinny-cry-snuffle-Oh there you are, I thought I left you! No I'm here! Nicker nicker. We turned them back up the road and took off after Kara.

We were helped across the highway out of Francisco's by volunteers. "Thank you guys for being here!" we hollered over our shoulders as our horses pulled us fast up the hill. The clock ticked, the two miles flew by, and we were crossing No Hands Bridge. It was wider than I thought, and had rails - no big deal. I guess there was a high drop to the river but I didn't notice - we were already across it, and moving onward.


I knew we would probably make it. Keep flying along, it would be close, but we were almost there. We trotted when we could, walked when we had to. Nance was in the lead, though she had no light and was going blindly. Should she gamble trotting over this stretch? Walk here? How's the time? Check the watch. Doesn't really matter anyway, because I have no idea how far we have to go. Cat and mouse game with the clock. Will we make it? Will we get there too late? It was suspenseful, it was exciting, it was fun. If we made it on time - OHMIGOD - there was a silver buckle at the end, handed to me by Julie Suhr... if we didn't make it on time, then we weren't meant to make it, and I didn't get a buckle from Julie, but my amazing horse had gone a hundred miles anyway and we had done it.

We caught up with a line of people. Now we couldn't go our own pace, but had to go at the pace of those in front of us. Now the factors varied more, and the exciting tension went up a notch. Would we make it? Would this line slow us down? Were we walking too much? If we trotted here, would a horse slip and go down? If anything happened to anybody on this trail, we would all be held up.

But I wasn't worried, even though I didn't know exactly how much more we had to go, because I'd seen the sweep rider at the Quarry, mounted up and preparing to leave. When Nance and Chris finished together in 2007 they'd been just ahead of the sweep riders, who'd said, "Don't worry, we'll get you there in time." If we were going too slow now, they'd catch up with us. No worries. Just anticipation, exciting uncertainty. Whether or not we finished in time, there's nowhere else I wanted to be than right here right now.

And then: the damper on the whole final few miles. Someone had come up behind me, someone in a panic. "Guys, we have to move here. We have to trot! OHMIGOD they aren't trotting ahead of us!" We couldn't move any faster, we were in a line. Wailing: "We aren't going to make it! OH MY GOD! You have to TROT! PLEASE! OHMIGOD!!" On the switchbacks, the leader must have heard the hysteria below him, but on the straight lines, I got it. All of it. Miles of it. Totally ruined the atmosphere. Now I, who had been relaxed and enjoying the hunt, was starting to get a little worried. What if we didn't make it, what if we were overtime, oh no! On and on the hysteria went in my ear. I was ready to jump off my horse and sit on that voice in the dark.

Another line of riders came upon us, and one or two voices from there were in a tizzy also. "We need to move faster!"

At which point I was able to realize - so WHAT if we don't make it! It's all part of the Tevis luck. You spend too long at a vet check and you lose minutes. You lose a shoe, you lose minutes. You stop to help someone, you walk too long over a stretch, you get caught behind a wall of riders on a single track and you have to walk, you get behind a rider and horse that helps pull your weary butt and your tired horse along, you fall off a cliff, you get a clear stretch on your own, you are given a horse to ride 5 days before Tevis, you get to ride with 4 friends who are also probably going to make it to the finish, you find or miss that rock with your horse's name on it that lames him, you get stuck with a hysterical rider behind you - it's all Tevis luck that the indifferent Tevis Gods dole out at random with amusement, and sometimes it has nothing to do with you personally.

And I was at peace once again with the outcome - either we finished in time and I got a buckle, or we didn't finish in time, and I didn't get a buckle, (heck - I don't even wear belts!), but I had an awesome sound horse that got me 100 miles on an absolutely amazing ride across the Sierra Nevada mountains to Auburn, in more or less 24 hours. It was all good. : ))

Kara had slipped around someone and was outta there ahead of us. She'd had enough. We caught up with our pal Max Merlich and his mule Junior. The verbal panic was irritating Max enough - and you all know you can NOT get a mule to trot, if a mule does not want to trot - that Max risked limbs pulling over on a switchback to let a few of us go by. Nance and I had no room to pull over also to let anybody by us, so Nance flew along - in the pitch black, leading the way, stalked by the distraught rider.

We came to a wider spot in the trail. We pulled over. "Go by - PLEASE!" I said, "GO!" The rider would not pass. So we flew onward along the dark, twisting trail. We popped out at Robie point where there were water troughs. Jasbo and Quinn chose to stop and drink. The hysterical rider was almost sobbing, "We don't have time to drink! OHMIGOD!" as she let her horse drink. The volunteer tried to soothe her: "You have plenty of time! Even if you walk in all the way from here, you'll make it!" "No we won't! OHMIGOD!" One or two riders trotted past on down the trail. "JUST GO!" I said, gesturing down the open trail - "PLEASE! GO!" and she would not go.

Nerves taut now, the last final bit. Hysteria behind me, absolute irritation inside me: exasperation at overwrought riders who maybe should have left at least one vet check all day five minutes sooner, vexation that I'm bothered by it when all was so peaceful and exciting, aggravation that the Tevis Gods had planted a rider like this behind me this last bit. The luck of the draw indeed!

One more small narrow spot in the trail to pass, Nance and I pulled over in desperation. A number of riders went past. Hallelujah!!

Now we rejoined the line, now it was back to trotting madly in the dark, back to the exciting hunt, silent but for fluttering nerves and trotting hooves over the dark, twisting single-track trail. I didn't look at my watch. The time didn't matter anymore. My horse knew where we were. He pulled, and pulled, following Jasbo's butt.

A glow up ahead. A whoop from far ahead along the line of horses - whoops, whistles from the line of riders working its way down to us - we took up the whooping and hollering and passed it on down the line - and we spill out over the top - the finish line under the lights at Auburn - and it was suddenly over. OHMIGOD - we'd arrived at Auburn!

I still hadn't looked at my watch, but from the cheers of the anxious crews and friends, I knew we'd made it in time. Nance and I were in the middle of a long line of riders - all 18 of us arriving at the same time, I found out later, at 4:56 AM. Plenty of time - 19 minutes! - to finish! Ten more arrived after us - two of them at 5:15 cut-off, and one man who was lost the last few miles was overtime. Connie Creech finished with 7 minutes to spare, and she said she was never worried, because she knew she'd make it.

It was a whirlwind from here. I lost Nance, yelled for her, pushed through the crush to follow her and Jasbo; we were rushed right away over the little bridge to the vet area; didn't see any water for Quinn to drink, none to sponge him off with; hugged some people; Quinn was starved, diving for dried grass as a volunteer came to take his pulse; "68" - criteria is 68... maybe I should sponge him off before we go to the vet?... that's a little too close for comfort for me...

A vet waves us over. It's Ray Randall. He gives me a smile. I must look shell-shocked. He takes Quinn's pulse. "68." Yikes! Still too close for me. What if his CRI is high, when we trot back? "Trot out to cone 3," Ray points. Ready Quinn? Our fnal trot-out of the day/night/morning. We trot to cone 3. I don't look, but I know Quinn is sound behind me. We turn around. We start trotting back. I look up, and - OH NO! The vet is gesturing to another vet - Come here quickly, watch this horse trot! My heart sinks - Quinn is LAME and they are going to ask me to trot again, with 2 vets watching! This can't be! Then I realize I am trotting toward the wrong vet, that Ray is over to my left. He is waving at me - "Yoohoo, this way," and laughing. I say, "Oops!" as I zigzag back toward him. "You want me to trot out again?" But he isn't even watching the final steps of Quinn's trot out, because Quinn is sound as a dollar. Nance has already vetted through and completed with Jasbo, and even before Ray takes Quinn's pulse once more, we are hugging each other.

Ray gives me the nod, and the congratulations - OHMIGOD - WE JUST FINISHED THE TEVIS!!!

I am suddenly whooped. I stagger after Bruce, who's leading us to the stadium, where we are now supposed to get back on our horses and ride their 'victory lap' - poor horses just want to eat, they are grabbing at anybody who walks by with hay and yanking it out of their arms - and oh god, I just want to lay down. We get on our horses once more, and trot the lap around the track together, the announcer not quite getting Nance's stats right, and not even getting to my name. There are only 3 people in the stands anyway, and one is my friend Carolyn Dawson, who's waited up all night and morning, and is clapping and cheering me on, and she calls out my name - "Alright Merri! Way to go!" and we are all laughing as Nance and I pass out of the stadium. We jump off our horses and they grab mouthfuls of hay from Bruce, and we cheer for Bruce Weary, who finished in our group at the same time, as he takes his victory lap, his first Tevis finish, on his big Tennessee Walker John Henry. Laura and Chandler have finished (way to go Chandler! one of the 4 juniors who finished) 8 minutes ahead of us, and Kara finished in our group. Three minutes behind us, Max Merlich and Junior finished - that made the Idahoans 6 for 6 this Tevis.

But we weren't thinking of any of that. We staggered after Bruce to the horse trailer and pen he'd set up for the horses in one of the parking lots. Quinn and Jasbo dove into their hay and grain. Nance and I couldn't quite figure out what to do and how to do it, but we managed to think to put blankets on the horses and wrap the their legs as the sky was starting to lighten - dawn over Auburn.

Staggered into the trailer and fell into bed. Eyedrops - ohmigod.

Can't remember if I took any clothes or shoes off or not. Passed out.

Finished Tevis. OHMIGOD, I finished Tevis.

Next: Tevis Conclusion

Pictures, results, more stories on the Tevis page on Endurance.net

and note: the photos aren't from Tevis! I hung onto the reins in the dark. : )
They are just to get you thinking along the lines of flying in the dark. Put on your sunglasses while you look at them.

No comments: