Ride Story: Lead-Follow @ McDowell 75

Now that is how to wrap up a ride season. In the words of one of my high school ROTC teachers, “Finish strong.” In a season that was all over the place with changes of plans, lots of unexpected happenings, and numerous highs and lows, it felt good to wrap up the year on a high note.

The cliffnotes version: Cristina asked me to ride Atti in the 75 at McDowell. It was his first 75 (mine, too) and we finished with a strong horse who was still pulling on me at the end, in 5th place with a ride time of 12:49, and a finish CRI of 52/48. He was a blast to ride, and was a total rockstar all day long.

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photo: Sue Kordish/Cowgirl Photography

The full-length novel version: Where do I even begin? After Virginia City, the plan was to go for the 75 at McDowell with Beeba — after all, we did 76 miles at VC, so McDowell should be doable, right? The pull at man Against Horse put the kibosh on that plan, and future endurance endeavors for her, and I went back to the drawing board. Not for very long, though, because the Monday after MAH, Cristina texted me to find out my availability for McDowell and if I wanted to take the younger horse she’s training, Cosmo, in the LD, while she took Atti, her more experienced horse, on their first 75.

Since I had nothing set in stone, she claimed first dibs on me, and I was happy to have offered what would likely be a fun, easy ride.

And then a couple weeks out from the ride, she asked if I might consider riding Atti in the 75 instead. Some of her personal plans had changed, and it worked better for her schedule to ride the LD…but she really wanted Atti to do the longer distance, especially given that 75s and 100s are in  short supply around here, so we have to take advantage of them when they’re offered.

Just to establish the significance of this offer: Atti is to Cristina what Mimi is to me. Super-special heart horses that we’ve poured our hearts and souls into. The level of trust and confidence she had in me to make that offer…I have a hard time putting into words just how much that meant to me.

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This adorable face was still perky and earnest 24+ hours later.

Friday afternoon, I stuffed the back of my suburban full of food, clothes, and camping gear, and made the quick, 45-minute drive up to McDowell. It’s currently my most local ride, and it’s really convenient. I got my little camp set up, and a space saved for Cristina to arrive with her rig and the ponies later that afternoon, then wandered around camp and socialized for the rest of the afternoon.

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Nasty little hitchhiker that was hanging out in my rolled up air mattress. Welcome to Arizona desert life.

Once Cristina arrived, we whisked the ponies off the trailer and immediately over to vet in  while it was still light and before dinner started.

Ride dinner was done Friday night before briefing…I’ve waffled back and forth on how I feel about this, since I do like a good ride awards dinner afterwards, and not having to cook after I’ve just been riding. But in this case, it was kind of nice to not have to meal plan, since dinner was provided Friday, and I would be riding through the dinner hour and living on a steady diet of pre-made sandwiches on Saturday.

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Ride day food: a selection of turkey/cheese, pb&j, and tuna. A wide variety for whatever my taste buds wanted at the time.

I’ve ridden the McDowell trails for so long (one of my home training grounds), and done the ride multiple times, so knowing the trails was a major strength for me going into the ride. The park itself has all of the trails marked/signed incredibly well, and the ride maps/directions are very thorough. Not only a makred map, but written turn-by-turn directions, plus ribbons, laminated signs, chalk lines, and glow sticks out on the trails.

After briefing I did some last minute tack fiddling, switching out stirrups and adding a mini cantle pack to be able to carry electrolytes and carrots, and mixing up a bottle of said electrolytes.

Sleep didn’t come easy for me Friday night. As always, first night camping/staying anywhere is always more restless, and the back of the suburban is surprisingly not particularly soundproof, so I was hearing every noise and sound. Plus, being surrounded by windows makes it way too easy to always be looking out to see if the horse is still attached to the trailer, etc. I know I got some sleep, but woke up before my alarm was set to go ff, so used the time to just slowly start getting dressed and nibbling on some breakfast. My camp stove also picked this trip to stop working, so I had to suffer through the indignity of cold coffee to start my morning. (Which, funny enough, actually sat better than hot coffee does sometimes…)

This was probably the least nervous I’ve been at a ride start in a really long time. Atti reminds me so much of riding Mimi that I had the same comfort level with him as I do with her, and the same level of trust that a laundry list of shenanigans would not be forthcoming. He has the same kind of complete non-explosiveness/non-reactivity that Mimi does and I felt really relaxed and settled with him.

There were 12 starters in the 75, and since it was still dark for our 6AM start, we got a controlled start through the first couple of miles. There was a group of 5 of us that were sort of starting out together, but ended up spread out within the first few miles, and Atti and I found ourselves a nice little space bubble with Andrea and Lilly.

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Just before sunrise.

The first loop has the rockiest parts of the whole trail, but overall the course is practically a groomed racetrack, especially compared to the last two rides. Andrea also did Virginia City and Man Against Horse, so we were laughing at the “rocky” sections this time, and reveling in the luxury of being able to “walk the rocks.”

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A beautiful desert sunrise.

Part of the first loop trail is an out-and-back with a water stop and checkpoint about 10 miles in. We took a very quick break here — drink, electrolyte, duck behind a bush to offload coffee (and discover Atti believes in the tandem peeing phenomenon). The front-runnign 50s and caught us during this stretch, and heading back to the main trail is a lot of two-way traffic was people are heading to the water, and back out. It’s a fun section because you do get to see people behind you, and it’s always fun to say hi to friends along the way.

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Obligatory, “oh, look, rocks!” photo.

Aside from being passed by the first half-dozen 50 milers, we had the most perfect space bubble for most of this loop, and we made really good time, taking advantage of the cooler weather while we had it.

The next water stop was at the maintenance shed, 21 miles in. It’s a great stop because volunteers can drive right up to it, so they are able to bring hay, plenty of water buckets and sponge buckets, and have a hose hooked up and available to spray the horses off. It was quite congested when we got to the stop, a conglomeration of all of the distances meeting at one place. We let the horses drink, grab some hay, electrolyted, and I gave Atti a quick sponging before hopping back on and scuttling out of there, trying to keep our space bubble.

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Just after leaving the maintenance shed. Photo: John Kordish/Cowgirl Photography

I love this section of trail after the maintenance shed. It’s smooth single-track, just slightly down hill, and it’s a really fun ride. Atti and I were leading through here, and he just cruised through on light contact, effortlessly ticking off between an 8-9mph trot.

At the road crossing and water troughs just a couple miles from camp, we caught up with Cristina on Cosmo, coming in off her first loop on the LD, so we ended up riding back in with her, which made for perfect timing as Atti and Cosmo could spend their hold time together.

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Wagon train heading back in to camp from loop one.

I took a few minutes puttering around at the water buckets (trying to find one that didn’t have bees in it, always a challenge at this ride…), but Atti had taken a huge drink just a couple miles before camp, so wasn’t particularly interested in drinking again so soon.

He was at 56 as soon as his pulse as taken (criteria was 64), and I took him right over to vet. Mostly As, and even a fairly cheerful trot-out, which he normally doesn’t really see the point in doing. We headed back to the trailer and I set him up with a buffet offering of different foods to appease his somewhat picky appetite.

Cristina helped crew me and Atti — gave him a sponge-down and wrapped his legs while I sat down and browsed through my food cooler. Got my hydration pack re-filled with water and snacks, tacked up, met back up with Andrea, and was at the out-timer 10 seconds before my out-time.

Both Lilly and Atti headed out of camp doing a bit of “drunken sailor” weaving down the trailer…trotting, but in such a manner that suggested they would be perfectly happy to turn around and go back to camp now, thankyouverymuch. It was about 11AM at this point, and starting to warm up. This second loop is always the warmest, with most of the trail being very exposed, and some sections with very little breeze or air movement.

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The Scenic Trail trudge. That’s okay, Atti, no one likes this climb.

Shortly after leaving camp, the trail climbs to the top of a ridgeline on the appropriately-named Scenic Trail. It is very scenic, and you can see for miles around in all directions. It’s also exposed, has some rocky sections, and tends to be rather warm. So it can be a bit of a trudge-climb, but Atti handled it with really good humor and just kept marching along.

There’s a tendency to think of McDowell as a “flat” ride, because there appear to be very few visible climbs of any significance. But the GPS stats after the fact tell a different story.

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While they aren’t huge elevation gains, there are several long, sustained, constant uphills that are 5-8 miles of steady climbing up. It doesn’t look that way from the ground — it looks really flat and very speed-friendly, and there aren’t many obvious spots to go “oh, great time for a walk break.” So we  utilized a “trot for x number of minutes, then walk for x number of minutes” strategy, combined with bit of a “trot to the next ribbon” approach. It worked, and we ended up with a pretty consistent pace and minimal sulking from the ponies.

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“Granite Tank” water stop. This is the furthest point away from camp on this loop, and the horses are usually so sulky/pouty by this point. And then you make a turn and are directly pointed towards camp and they magically recover and get all perky again.

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Classy dude. Decorations left over from the last couple weeks of trail races that had been held at the park.

Both Atti and Lilly drank really well here. I hopped off and electrolyted them both, as well as sponged their necks. The next section of trail was a really fun, slightly downhill single-track they just begs to be trotted, and would take us right back to the maintenance shed checkpoint again.

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Trotting through a section of staghorn cholla “forest”

This section of trail used to be this long slog through a deep sand wash, but McDowell put in several new trails a couple years ago — beautiful, rolling singletrack that paralleled some of the old washes. These new trails make for so much better going and greatly enhanced my outlook on this particular ride.

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Eating, drinking, and getting hosed off at the maintenance shed.

Back at the maintenance shed, we had a space bubble of just the two of us, and the volunteers that were running the check were friends of ours, so we stayed for several minutes letting the horses eat and taking some time to  hose them off and let them cool down a bit.

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Leaving the maintenance shed on the second loop. photo: Sue Kordish/Cowgirl Photography

On this loop, instead of getting to go directly back to camp from the maintenance shed, you have to turn around and go back out in the opposite direction away from camp, go a ways down the trail, then pick up another trail that takes you back to camp. Most horses consider this cruel and unusual punishment. Not sure how much the riders love it, either.

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Eastern side of the McDowells — I call it the “rock giants’ playground”

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Snack break along the way

This ride only has two vet holds, so as a rider, it was really on me to take the time along the trail to stop and let Atti get some recovery breaks along the way, especially to eat. It’s really easy to get caught up in the nice trail and just cruise through the loops, so I was trying to be really conscious of looking for good areas to pause for a “grazing opportunity,” such as it was, since the whole desert is dry, brown, and crunchy right now.

Once we turned back for camp, it was a “all downhill from here” kind of trail, so we made some good time, although it was really getting warm out there. (Apparently parts of the trail hit 95°.) The horses drank well again at the road crossing water troughs, then boogied the last two miles into camp.

A significant milestone for me: this ride put me over my 500 endurance miles. That only took 12 years. Hopefully the next 500 don’t take that long. I feel like everything finally “came together” for me as a rider at this ride. In the past, I think I’ve been apt to not give myself enough credit, or just follow the lead of a more experienced rider. But this time, it was really on me to make sure I was making smart pacing decisions, really listening to the horse, and using my own judgment. It was a huge confidence boost to have everything go well and to finish so well, and while McDowell is a great “step-up” ride, it’s not an “easy” ride.

Atti was down at 52 for his pulse, and a couple more Bs on his vet card — apparently all completely within his “normal.” I repeated the same process as the first check: yank tack back at the trailer, set him in front of his buffet of goodies, wrap his legs, then sit down for a few minutes to eat/drink. Refill water pack, tack up, administer BCAAs.

I made a slight strategy error here. I was supposed to electrolyte him, but I was rushing to tack up and make my out-time, and my brain interpreted the syringing of his BCAAs as me having given electrolytes.

When I swung by Andrea’s trailer on the way to the out-timer, she told me to go ahead — she wasn’t feeling great after the heat on the second loop, so was going to stay back a little bit longer to recover.

Every ride, you have to go in with the mentality of being prepared to ride your own ride — riding partners get pulled, horses don’t pace well together, etc. Atti is used to training by himself, so I wasn’t concerned about that part. But given the drunken sailor routine at leaving on the second loop, I wasn’t sure what I was going to end up with when we went out a third time.

I opted to try for the “forward” strategy. I asked him for a nice trot up to the out-timer, and since we were right on our out-time, we got waved through and out onto the trail. Atti quite cheerfully trotted out of camp onto the trail, and not 100′ from camp, willing broke into a canter on his own and cantered the next 1/4-mile out of camp before slowing to his relaxed, 8 mph trot.

Okay, then. Guess he’s happy to be going out.

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Out on loop three by ourselves.

Being out there by ourselves, I finally let myself get a little bit emotional/happy teary. He reminds me so much of riding Mimi that this felt almost like I was out there again with her. I thought it might make me kind of sad and remind me of all the ride goals I had for her that we never go to do before her retirement, but instead it was a reminder of how much fun I’ve had with her along the way, how much I’ve learned from her, and how much we were able to accomplish. I’m just glad she doesn’t have Facebook or the ability to read a blog, since she would be very jealous about all of my catch riding and “cheating” on her.

Atti maintained his good cheer for probably the first third of the loop. Then we hit one of those long, slow, uphill slogs away from camp, and some of the enthusiasm deflated. Cristina had told me he is a very honest horse, and that when he wants to walk, it’s because he needs it. So we walked a good part of the uphill trail section. I hopped off and did part of the trail on foot as well, a mix of running and hiking. I had done some of the second loop on foot, and it felt really good to get out of the saddle and stretch.

Once we hit the next trail section that was vaguely in the “homeward” direction, Atti perked right back up again and gave me his lovely, loose-rein trot.

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Making it through the “trail hazards” section before dark.

Being out at dusk is an interesting time. I’ve noticed horses tend to be on higher alert as the sun goes down, since it’s often the predator dinner hour. Atti was definitely paying attention to things — he has a tendency to “peek” at dead logs and barrel cactus — but he was still forward and never spooked at anything.  It was also cooling down as the sun went down, and it was just breathtakingly beautiful to be out there that time of evening.

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I love my desert.

We went to the maintenance shed one final time, and I ended up staying here for probably a good 15 minutes because Atti wasn’t eating/drinking the way I wanted to see. I don’t know if he was getting physically tired or more mentally tired/pouty because he was out there by himself and it was the longest he’d ever been, distance-wise. So I walked him from bucket to bucket, waiting for him to find one that met his approval, and hand-fed him bits of hay. After about 5 minutes of this, he finally decided to take a good drink, and started more actively munching at hay, so I spent another 10 minutes hanging out letting him eat.

It was full dark by this point, and once he indicated he was done with eating, we headed back out — another “head in the opposite direction of camp” trail, the same one we had come in to the maintenance shed on during loop two. Not two minutes out from the stop, we ended up crossing paths with Andrea, riding with Jill and Stephanie, on their way in to the minatenance shed. I didn’t feel like backtracking, so I told them I was going to keep on moving along, albeit probably slowly, and they would likely catch up with me.

So we trucked on through the dark. The qucik rest stop had perked Atti right up again, especially when I realized “duh, he drank, better electrolyte” and hopped off and quickly stuffed a syringe in his mouth. We alternated walking and trotting along — it was another long uphill grade, so we just took it easy. I also knew that once his buddies caught up, he would probably perk right up from the herd mentality, so I wanted to give him a couple more miles of letting him pick whatever pace he wanted.

It was so dark out there, and I gave up trying to determine what exactly was trail and what was just reflective glowing desert ground. Atti knew, though, and he never strayed off the path. So I sat back and let him do his thing. We actually made it the couple miles up to the Granite Tank water stop and were diving into the water there before the other three caught up with us. Atti had been drinking fine when we got there, but once he buddies showed up, he dove back into the water buckets with renewed enthusiasm. So there as definitely a bit of “all by myself out here, so I’m going to pout/sulk” mental stuff going on. Which, eh…for a first go at a longer distance, I think that was the only “wall” he really hit.

From there, it was only about 8 miles to the finish, so I joined up with the merry band of ladies, much to Atti’s happiness, and Stephanie and Hadji lead us home. I love riding at night…who needs Disneyland and Mr Toad’s Wild Ride? It’s seriously a fun rush, and so exhilarating. I hadn’t bothered with glowsticks, and had a headlamp as backup but didn’t ever turn it on.

The closer we got to camp, the stronger Atti got, until he was pulling on me as much in the last 5 miles has he was in the first 5. We all walked the last quarter mile or so in, and crossed the finish line in a ride time of 12:49. I think we ended up 5th out of 12? We were in 5th at the maintenance shed, then there was a finish line pull ahead of us, but Stephanie came in ahead of us at the finish. So I think 5th? Will have to confirm that when results come out, but either 5th or 6th. Pulsed down and vetted through immediately, with a finish CRI of 52/48. He thought trotting out was dumb, but he was still perky and talking to me even at the end, and he dove into his food when I took him back to the trailer.

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Cristina’s parents had come to help pack up camp, and then take the horses to overnight at their place where they would have grass pasture turnout, so I wrapped Atti’s legs while they packed things up, and once he was settled and had some recovery time, loaded him and Cosmo up and they headed out. I retrieved my completion award (a fun color-changing clock) and top ten award (collapsible bucket), then headed home myself — my own bed was so worth the 45-minute drive versus staying in camp overnight.

That’s about the best way I can think to wrap up what’s been a very interesting 2017 ride season. This completion finally put me over 500 endurance miles…that only took 12 years. Hopefully it doesn’t take another 12 to get the next 500. Guess we’ll see what 2018 brings.

9 thoughts on “Ride Story: Lead-Follow @ McDowell 75

  1. I was over the moon to see that you completed – and in the top 10 to boot! – on FB. Huge congratulations lady. You earned this. You deserved this. Can’t wait to see what next season holds for you. <3

  2. Your blog is one of my absolute favorite endurance blogs. I love your writing style and your insights and the differences between your region and my own. The photos are always stunning as well.

    I am so thrilled you got a good end to your ride season. You deserve it! I so relate to riding a horse you can trust, especially on a longer distance. My season with Moniet last year left me spoiled for the future. I got teary when you talked about Cristina trusting you with her heart horse. What an honor! Y ou deserve that too.

    It’s so nice that you got to do this at a local venue with familiar trails. Knowing the trails helps so much, especially when you’re going all day. Our closest ride is an hour and a half away, and the trails are all sand and pine trees and look identical.

    I shuddered when I saw the scorpion. I think that would be a deal breaker for me. I do love the cacti though! They look especially cool silhouetted at dusk. Wow!

    Your elevation map made my eyes pop out of my head. So different from the east coast!

    Also, what do you have that monitors temperature? I love ride stats, and I thought that was so cool! It would probably be fairly useless out here since our temperatures don’t vary much during the course of a day.

    I *hate* the feeling of passing near camp and then having to turn away. Steel’s first 50 was like that and I had a heck of a time convincing her that I hadn’t lost my mind and we weren’t going to die alone in the forest. It was miserable.

    I am blown away by the fact that there were only 2 vet holds at a ride this long. That is so different from what we see here. I think you’d probably have four or five at any given ride out east.

    I grinned reading about you just letting Atti pick his way in the dark. There is no better feeling than being able to trust your horse that much, and knowing they’ll carry you when you can’t find the way for yourself. It’s my favorite part of endurance riding, though I’ve only experienced it a handful of times.

    And I nodded along when you got to your 500 miles taking 12 years. I’ve been doing endurance for ten, and I am just shy of my 1000 miles. I only got my 250 patch in 2015. The next 500 miles went really quickly and my goal was to get that 1k this year… only to find myself getting pulled at the only 50 I managed to enter this season! I feel like I’m constantly at endurance rides and as of last year, I finally feel like a true-blue endurance rider… but my record doesn’t seem to reflect it!! Here’s hoping your next 500 come quickly and bring many smiles and good memories along the way! I look forward to reading about your next adventure :)

    • “Your blog is one of my absolute favorite endurance blogs.”
      Oh my goodness, thank you so much!! Although I don’t comment very often (trying to do better on that…), yours is one of my “always read” blogs and I love following all of your adventures!

      I’ve got a Garmin Fenix 2 GPS that I was able to snag as a refurbished model on eBay earlier in the year. Picked it because of the relatively long battery life (made it almost 15 hours before it started giving me a “low battery” warning) and because it’s a good option for both riding and running. I’m a major geek when it comes to data and stats…not so much during, but more for after-the-fact.

      The small number of vet holds is definitely different for that long of a ride. Fortunately they have a good number of water stops along the way, and put hay out, so it really puts the responsibility on the rider to pause and say, “hey, my horse needs a 10-15 minute break” — sort of a “make your own hold” approach. I attended a ride down in Florida earlier this year for work, and that was a huge change from out here — loved seeing the differences between regions.

      And cheers to the next mileage patches for both of us! Totally relate to being pulled at the one and only ride you do for the season…it so sucks, but it’s nice to know that many of us have been there and can commiserate.

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