After completing Race the Wild Coast in Oct 2016, it was time to consider the next adventure. Sam Jones (Aus – Winner of Mongol Derby 2014 & 2nd Race the Wild Coast 2016) had ridden and completed the Tevis Cup in 2016. Hey! That’s in my own country! Maybe it’s time for a domestic adventure. I’ll ride Tevis! Tevis is 100 miles in one day with a total ascent of ~15,460 feet and total descent of ~21,400 feet.
But I needed a horse. December 4, 2016, I saw that a Derby friend of mine, Stephanie ‘Stevie’ Murray, was going to South Africa for a year and needed to find a situation for her promising young endurance mare.
And the Road to Tevis 2017 began.
Horse Acquisition & The Training
I flew to Pennsylvania to pick up the truck and visit my parents; drove to Virginia to visit my horse family, Foxhunt for Christmas, and pick up the trailer; drove to Michigan to pick up Stevie, Sparta, Gilbert, and all the tack and gear to go with both horses; and we drove across the country.
I had zero AERC miles. I had never trained an endurance horse. Sparta wasn’t backed until she was 8 years old and had done 3 rides in 2015 (25,25,50) and 2 in 2016 (30,50).
I reached out to my endurance Gurus as I would need their guidance. The main ones being Stevie, the mare’s owner of course as well as Amy Wallace-Whalen who had started the mare and Connie Burns-Caudill, a distance rider and vet.
I joined the AERC.
Bought a cot.
And racked up my first 50 on Jan 28th.
I started learning about training schedules, nutrition, metabolic functions, shoeing, and mares. Smart 1/2 Arab 1/2 saddle-bred mares. Our second ride was 65 miles at 20 Mule Team. The morning after a 5th place finish, we prepared to present for BC and Sparta wasn’t 100% sound. She was slightly stiff in her right hind.
I dropped her off at her ‘vacation home’ at Kingsway Farm in Temecula where I take her after a ride to go out in the big field with the mares and just be a horse for a few weeks. By the time we got to the farm, she was sound (of course). After Sparta’s break, I stepped up our flatwork to continue building the muscles for evenness and self-carriage. I also contacted a friend and horse chiropractor/masseuse who is based at Kingsway, Debra, to arrange a session and also for her to teach me. I wanted to know what I could do during a ride at holds to stretch, massage, check, and otherwise help Sparta.
One of the things Debra showed me was poll massage. I decided I could use this in my routine as a tool to help the mare relax in stressful situations. It became the first thing I did when I got to the barn and every time I entered her stall, the last thing I did when I left, and everywhere in between. Sparta soon began to anticipate and enjoy it. Now, as soon as I touch her poll, it’s her signal everything is ok, to relax, and she drops her head. It is useful for faster heart rate recovery walking into vet checks too!
My next ride (not Sparta’s) was in Florida! Amy, one of my Gurus, was there with her daughter Annie (who by the way has earned a place on the Young Riders team going to Italy this year!!) Amy arranged a ride for me and as it was also an FEI event weekend, I would have the chance to watch some of the best. The Olsen’s were kind enough to provide me with a great mare as well as a crew!! They had a lot of horses going, and I was just added to the mix! It was so amazing/weird to do be descended upon by a horsey pit crew at camp after each loop. My vast experience so far had been all ‘away’ vet checks where we weren’t even back at camp until the end; not to mention the different muscles I used cantering on flat sandy terrain for 50 miles vs. mountains. As a bonus, I got to meet Connie who had agreed to be a resource having never met me, and got to see Lynne (who I knew was there), and Kathy Broaddus (who I didn’t know was there).
In the week leading up to the next ride I’d planned to do at home, I bailed. I was really undecided because I logically couldn’t define something wrong. It was a long drive, I was feeling draggy, and Sparta seemed to feel the same way. I went out for a training ride that weekend and when we got back, she was sneezing. By the next morning she had a runny nose. Over the next 2 weeks, she never ran a temperature and kept eating. We spent a lot of time hand grazing (the farm close to my home doesn’t have turnout). The runny nose cleared up and for another week we just walked the trails as she was still sneezing a bit.
At the end of May, we completed another 50. And again, there was a slight stiffness in the right hind after the finish that again disappeared almost immediately.. Knowing Tevis was coming fast and twice the distance, I had a full lameness workup done by Mark Silverman, a former farrier and lameness vet. We decided to tweak some shoeing issues and also start a preventative maintenance regime of a daily supplement, Platinum, and monthly Adequan injections.
At the invitation of another Mongol Derby friend you all know, Sarah, I flew up to Ontario and Ashley was kind enough to let me ride Splash. It was my first incomplete ride due to excessive Bonus Miles. I apparently have a problem following a marked trail and this was a reminder that I’d want my GPS for Tevis.
The last pre-Tevis event was the Educational Weekend (The Horse is Fine, The Rider Is Crazy) where I would have the opportunity to ride sections of the Tevis (Western States) Trail with a mentor. It was well worth it for the people I met as well as a better understanding of the logistics involved in this 100 mile ride. I talked with a lot of people and the typical responses I got along with skeptical looks were, ‘You chose Tevis as your first 100?’, ‘You know only ~50% of riders complete this every year?’, ‘It’s your horse’s first 100? And your first 100?’, ‘You know many horses don’t complete their first time, especially Tevis’, and lastly, ‘You don’t have any crew!?! You need crew!’ My response was that we’d give it a try and see, but I also knew I had good advisers and was putting everything in place, for the things I could control, to be successful. None of this prevented me from contacting my gurus with a variety of last minute worries that got progressively stranger as the ride got closer…
I put out a call for crew. And Rosie Campbell, owner of Freedom Fields Farm in Virginia, MFH of Bull Run Hunt, card carrying badass, and my horse mom, answered the call. Her husband Chris (horse dad), took Friday and Monday off work to watch the farm and Rosie booked a flight across the country to Reno and would meet up with me at start camp Friday, the day before the Ride!
Two weeks out I had arranged to have the farrier out. He came…but didn’t put on the Impak pads in the front that I needed, nor did he do the hind shoes. I begged him to come back and he came and put the pads on the front, but still didn’t do the hinds. Her toe was long and catching the fronts a bit. I called but the farrier didn’t come. The interference was intermittent, the front shoes were tight, and I decided to leave it.
Monday evening I was all packed, loaded the mare, and pulled out of the farm at 7 pm for the 11 hour haul to Auburn, CA (speed limit with a trailer in California is 55 mph). At 5:30 AM Sparta and I arrived at Eve’s Tux Hill.
Sparta immediately fell in love with Tux (as usual, hoebag). And I could barely believe my luck that my mentor Eve, who had only met me on one weekend, during which I had a screaming meltdown, had invited me to stay with her. In the short 3 days before heading up to start camp in Soda Springs, I got to learn more from Eve about nutrition, the trail, my ride plan, the logistics, and a million other details including what was going into her kit (as she was also riding Tevis on her friend’s horse).
Friday I loaded up and we caravaned up to start camp. Space was non-existent, we were on gravel, and got parked in. I checked in. Rosie arrived, looked at the mare, and asked if I knew she was missing a shoe. WHAT?!??! She was in fact, missing a HIND shoe. A HIND SHOE. Her foot wasn’t torn up, it was just gone. She had it that morning. It wasn’t in the trailer. But a HIND shoe? Seriously?
There were 4 farriers across the street and even after some very kind people brought their horses over to where Sparta could see them, it took all four of them to get back shoes on her. She wasn’t really handled until she was 8 and had come a long way with the farrier…at home. As I watched horrified, I saw my ride ending before it even started.
The farriers were so kind and did an amazing job so if you know who they are, thank them. I was a little to frazzled at the time to get names. Miraculously, we left the farrier station with only a few cuts and scrapes to go with the new hind shoes (and the shorter toe I’d wanted). I checked the schedule and it said I had until 6 pm to vet in but it was a 2.5 mile walk. We squeezed between a giant RV, a pen, and some horses butts to get over to the trail to the vet area. At 5:15 when we got there, they were packing up to leave having been told they were finished. Interesting. I tried not to look annoyed in the mug shot they took.
I was filthy, had a bath, and settled in to attempt to get some rest before The Big Day.
The Big Day
At 3:30 AM I gave Sparta breakfast & got dressed. At 4 AM I tacked up. There was barely any space to get out, so Rosie and I walked Sparta around toward the wood-lined strip of dirt road that was the start ‘pens’ for the 170 horses entered. To say the mare was wound up, with 170 horses converging in the dark on a small area, is an understatement. With a reluctant bystander sort of holding Sparta, Rosie managed to give me a leg up as the mare was leaping about. We walked into the woods on the dirt road in the dark through a mass of milling, fit, wound up horses to check in. Our placings in the rides we had completed already bought us a ticket into Pen 1. It was slightly less chaotic with most of the 60 or so horses in pen one making a long skinny loop walking up and down the stretch of road.
After what seemed like forever (45 minutes or so), Pen 1 was finally released for the ‘controlled’ start; where all 170 horses would walk, staying on the road, for about 3 miles where we would cross a wooden bridge single file before being released. Immediately, a horse near the front reared and the rider came off. The horse flew backwards and we scattered. She remounted and barged through to get back near the front (obviously crucial placing for a 100 mile race that would take us most of 24 hours). I noticed the horse in front of me dancing around swinging it’s butt, and noticed that it wasn’t getting bumped and crowded…so I gathered the reins, put my leg on, and proceeded to put our flatwork to good use appearing to have sketchy control and buying us some breathing room.
With the bridge in sight, I noticed a woman working hard to keep her horse from charging ahead. I said something like, ‘You can run into our butt if you need to!’ We were instantly friends. She was glad to have someone to tuck behind and I was glad to have a friend for Sparta. We crossed the bridge and were set loose! It didn’t take long for me and my new best friend Melissa to realize we had a similar riding style and sense of humor. It was beneficial and a good fit for both horses too.
We ate dust on the first leg and riders were still bunched up. We’d spread out enough by the time we came to Cougar Rock that there were only two people ahead of me and I decided to go over to get the iconic photo. I was told to wait until the horse ahead went over the top. Instead, Sparta reared, I yelled some profanity, and up we went! No problem. Then on to the first vet check, Red Star, at Mile 20. Both horses came into the check pulsed down, drank, and passed the vet check. We let them eat hay for a few minutes, then picked up handfuls of hay for the horses to nibble as we walked out of the check. We had to keep moving.
Sparta doesn’t stand well for me to get on. It’s a work in progress. There was some regression and rearing before I was mounted up to move out again. This next piece would take us down through Duncan Canyon to Mile 36 at Robinson Flat, the first (of two) 1 hour holds. It also included, in the last 6 miles coming into Robinson, an elevation gain of ~1300 feet.
As we approached Robinson, I told Melissa I didn’t know if I’d have a person, but that my stuff (courtesy of Eve’s coordination) would be there (grain and electrolytes for Sparta, Anti-Monkey Butt Powder for both of us). She had lots of crew and offered their help. I was SO grateful to have a hand to help pull my tack off, hold it while I vetted, and then help me find my stuff amid the chaos of crews for 169 riders (not including me here). It was drizzling and a bit chilly so while Sparta ate, I put her saddle pad over her back and butt to keep her muscles warm as best I could. A typical Tevis year, it’s really hot and dry. It was 112 deg F the weekend of the Ed Ride. I didn’t have a cooler or sheet. I guess I looked pretty pathetic crouched by Sparta nibbling my granola bar because Melissa came and asked if I had anything to eat (apparently the bar didn’t count) then had one of her crew hold Sparta and sent me over to her area with a shout to her crew of, “Feed this rider!”
With 20 minutes until I could head out, I tacked up and started walking around making frequent passes at the water tanks. At 10 minutes I got on with little fuss. At 5 minutes, I still didn’t see Melissa even though our out times were only 1 minute apart. The timers released me and I set off alone hoping Melissa and her horse were ok. We got water at Dusty Corners and cruised through the vet check and halfway point (50 miles!) at Last Chance before dropping into the next canyon, then climbing out gaining ~1400 feet in about 1.5 miles.
I jogged down leading Sparta, took a quick dip in a fork of the American river, crossed the Swinging Bridge, and tailed (held her tail to pull me up as I walked behind) up as it gives the horse a break and is much easier for them to pull a bit than carry a rider up a mountain. We passed Devil’s Thumb and vetted through at Deadwood. The volunteers at all these places with limited access and no crews were amazing offering food and water to both horses and riders. Michigan Bluff is a little tiny town and we ride through on the main street. There were people out to watch, crews, and I dismounted to let Sparta drink and have a bite to eat…but she wanted no part of any of it and dragged me through town. A mile or so out of town, I had just finished having a little chat with Sparta about standing next to stuff so I could get on (I was running out of holes to tighten her girth) when along came Melissa!! Boy was I glad to see her. It turned out her horse had a scary but short choking incident delaying her departure from Robinson Flat. He was recovered and quite perky as we joined up again.
At mile 68, Foresthill, we had our second 1 hour hold. I was excited coming up the road to see all the crews and spectators as I looked for, and found, Rosie! My Crew!! A face I knew! After passing the vet check, she led me to where she had set up my things along with Eve and her camp. The ice boots went on and both Sparta and I dug into the food! All too soon, it was again time to tack up and ride out into the quickly fading light of the evening. Again, Melissa and I had come into together, but she wasn’t to be found as I left. The trail was marked by glowsticks and I also had the GPS track.
I puttered along in the dark, sometimes in the company of another rider, but mostly alone, trusting Sparta to see and pick her way and pace. It was an almost full moon, but still very dark in the canyons. I sang, and talked to Sparta, and may have howled at the moon. At Francisco’s the 85 mile vet check, Sparta was ravenous and devouring the mash a volunteer brought to us. I was so excited she was eating, I forgot to go directly to the vet to trot out in case she stiffened up at all. Someone I’d met before came over and reminded me. Sparta was less than enthusiastic to leave the food. Our trot out was lacking impulsion and we trotted a second time. The vet saw a little something intermittent, possibly her right front? I suspected it was her right hind and massaged and stretched her before heading out. I slowed her down, put my leg on, and did trail dressage to keep her supple and to work different parts. I stopped posting when we trotted and stood in the stirrups to be as even as possible. I got off to jog down the small canyons. And I worried. But she felt good. At the river crossing we got a lead at the steep entry. Normally it would have been no issue, but Sparta was clearly questioning my sanity departing yet another place with lights and people to go into a river.
I could see the lights of the Lower Quarry vet check at mile 94 for what seemed like forever as we wound our way toward it. She trotted out totally sound (whew!) and we were in and out quickly and on to the last 6 miles!
The trail wiggled all OVER those last little canyons and those 6 miles felt like another 100. When we came to a good area to trot, Sparta still volunteered most of the time and I may have groaned as I stood up. When she didn’t volunteer, I clucked and then she’d groan and trot. At one point she stopped and spun, but she was right, I’d missed a water tank that didn’t have any glow stick on it. We passed some kids at the end of a dirt road making out in a car. Then FINALLY came to the timed finish!! It was totally anticlimactic. I dismounted, loosened the girth, dropped the bit and collected a small scrap of paper with my number and time. 3:54 AM
The ‘photo’ finish line was in the stadium and I could see the lights…but there was no indication which way to go to get down to it. Seriously? I picked a way and walked down the hill to the stadium looking for Rosie. Someone told me I had to get back on to do a victory lap and go under the stadium finish. I may have been less than totally polite inquiring if I’d still have my completion if I walked as there was no way in hell I was going to tighten the girth, get back on, and ask that amazing mare to carry me one step further (she could have, but seriously.) So I stalked around the area vaguely hearing the announcer announce something about me to the 3 or 4 people in the stands. My finish photos are pretty lame, but we did it!! Almost. We vetted out and then were officially complete!
Against all odds, we tackled The Tevis Cup, and with a combination of hard work, good advice, and some luck, completed in 22 hours and 39 minutes!