Man Against Horse will always hold a special place in my heart. It was my first AERC ride, the LD back in 2005. It’s also a tough, challenging ride, especially the 50-miler. Historically, I’ve gone up against the 50 three times…and finished once. Perversely, I still love this ride, and the challenge makes me all the more determined to conquer it.
So I was pleased to be offered a ride for the 50-miler this year when Cristina reached out to me to see if I was available and interested in riding Atti. I did the 75 at McDowell on him two years ago and had a great ride — he’s a safe, fun, go-getter little guy, and as a bonus, trains regularly on many of the Man Against Horse trails, so this would be his home turf.
Friday late morning saw me chucking my gear and some food into my truck, then zipping up the highway a couple hours north to Prescott Valley to pick up Cristina’s trailer and Atti. Now, I haven’t had a trailer since 2011, and prior to that, we had the big truck, so my suburban hasn’t had to do any trailer hauling duty for probably at least a decade, so there were more than a few muttered “please let me make it to camp” prayers after I hitched up and headed down the road. (Pleased that I have lost none of my vehicle aligning/trailer hitching skills, even if it was a comedy of errors to get the right hitch dialed in.) I only had a 20-minute, mostly flat and easy drive in which to contemplate brewing an ulcer though, and we made it into camp with no issues.
Troy and Claire had saved me a parking spot in camp, so I didn’t have to do the typical avoidance run of “don’t park in the middle of a rock pile or cactus patch” that someones comes with the territory of camping in the middle of a cow pasture. This was probably the most “on my own” I’ve been at a ride since retiring Mimi, and selling the truck and trailer, but I quickly fell back into doing my thing.
One thing catch riding has definitely done has been to knock off a lot of my uptight, control freak rough edges, and I feel like I’ve actually gotten pretty laid back and settled about the whole production, especially Friday afternoons before the ride. I used to be ridiculously neurotic about “OMG EVERYTHING HAS TO GET DONE AND THIS HAS TO HAPPEN AND…AND…AND…” and if I wasn’t right on top of things, or I didn’t check in right away or didn’t vet as soon as vetting started, it was grounds for a nervous meltdown. I recognize a lot of that for the nerves and inexperience that it was, but with catch riding, and operating more off of so many other people’s schedules, it’s really taught me some valuable flexibility, going with the flow, and that the world doesn’t end if things don’t fall 100% in accordance with The Schedule of Ashley.
So I got Atti settled and my little camp set up, socialized and blew off some mental steam (I love my endurance family, just putting that out there), checked in, socialized a bit more, got Atti’s saddle all set up, vetted in with no drama (all As, and a smart little trot-out), then tacked up and headed out for a short pre-ride. Had to fuss with the stirrup length at one point, but other than that, we were ready to roll the next morning. Back at camp, I tucked Atti in front of his dinner, then rounded up my homemade blueberry crisp and headed over to a potluck dinner gathering before ride briefing.
I’ve done this ride half a dozen times prior…3 years of the LD, 3 years of the 50. The trail doesn’t change, vet checks are the same, pink ribbons on your right. 6:30am start for the 50, 30 minute hold at vet check 1, 45 minute hold at vet check 2, pulse-n-go at vet check 3. Pulse parameters of 60 all day. One thing I should mention for anyone not familiar with this ride — it’s called Man Against Horse for a reason — riders and their horses are sharing the trail and competing with runners. Just like the ride, there is a 12/25/50 mile run distance offered. It’s a super-unique thing, with only a couple of rides in the world offering it that I’m aware of (the Vermont 100/Moonlight in Vermont on the east coast, and a Man Against Horse in the UK). Because of my handful of years of dabbling in trail running, I have friends both riding and running, so it’s a fun merging of two of my worlds.
Post-briefing, I checked Atti, settled him in with a warmer blanket and more hay, packed the last few things in my crew bag — all I needed to add was my food/lunch in the morning — then retired to the comfy sofa bed Claire had offered. (My endurance family spoils me.)
As typical for pre-ride nights, sleep was a little bit elusive, and I felt like I drifted in and out all night, but at some point, I must have fallen asleep, because I was rudely awoken by my 4am “get up and feed Atti” alarm. Crawled out of bed, loaded him up with some more hay and a dose of electrolytes, put my riding clothes on…and then crawled back into bed for another hour. By 5:15, I was fully up, mainlining my precious cup of coffee (ride mornings, I reluctantly limit my caffeine-addicted self to one cup) and stuffing in some breakfast before doing my final crew bag last-minute packing and hauling it over to the truck that would take it to the vet checks. This ride is one of the few remaining “single loop” courses, so all the vet checks are out along the trail and you don’t come back to camp until the finish.
Atti was saddled, and my butt was in the saddle a good 20 minutes before the start, checking in with ride management, and giving Atti some warm-up time. He was really “up” for him — this ride is very high energy at the start, with an en masse shotgun start of horses and runners all taking off, in and out of a rocky wash and then up a wide, gentle uphill grade. “Wild” is often the kindest way to describe the annual start line antics, and it can set off even the best-behaved horses. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise to see Atti transform into a bit of a “I’m Superman, let me fly” attitude.
My friend Taylor and I had made plans to at least start together for some moral support and “don’t let me die” safety in numbers. We ended up going out a couple minutes after everyone else, dealt with some shenanigans for the first half-mile or so, and then it was smooth sailing, and by the time we hit a few miles in, both boys were cruising along.
The first 9 miles is a pretty smooth cruise — a few miles of sand wash, some gentle rolling hills, mostly double-track road through grassy plains. At mile 9, the trail changes to single-track, and more of the climbing starts. “The Grapevine” dips in and out of a sandy/rocky streambed at the bottom of a canyon, and it’s one of my favorite sections of trail, especially on a handy little mountain goat. We traded off leading for a bit, then put Atti in the lead, and he scampered through this section. He’s surefooted and nimble, and flies over narrow single-track without batting an eye. After a few miles, the trail turns out of the streambed and starts climbing, up through stands of manzanita and scrub oak, and opens up to views out towards Prescott Valley and Prescott beyond.
On the way up to the vet check, we saw photographers Susan and John Kordish, who got fantastic pics as always.
In to vet check 1 right about 9, which was absolutely perfect and right on track with my rough internal timeclock I had in mind for ride times/goals. Atti took a big drink when we got in, and was pulsed down by the time he finished drinking. I had an absolutely lovely surprise coming into the check — Claire was waiting to crew for me! Troy had already come in to the check, and left just before I came in, and Claire stayed to give me a hand. Like I said, I’m so spoiled, and very thankful…I was not expecting crew at all, and it was delightful to have an extra set of hands, or to be able to hand his reins over and briefly sit down and take care of myself for a few minutes.
Atti’s vet scores were good — a couple of Bs on hydration parameters, but everything else As, and he’d been drinking well so far. Before heading out, I switched him over to his hackamore, electrolyted him, mounted up and we were out of there right on time. The next section of the ride is a lot of forest roads. A couple miles of some interesting quasi-cross-country and some zippy little single-track bits, but for the most part, lots of lots of dirt road. The longest stretch is about a 9-mile section. It’s very rocky, tends to be slow-going, and a very good section of trail to share with a buddy. Atti and Taylor’s gelding Mouss were still pacing well together, so our plan was to stick together as long as the boys were happy, and it really took the potential doldrums out of this section. Sure, we whined about the rocks, but did a lot of laughing, and I’m pretty sure we chatted non-stop for a solid 48 out of 50 miles.
The “highlight” of the 50 is the climb up Mingus Mountain to vet check 2 — a roughly 1800′ elevation gain in about 3 miles, on single-rack that can have some steep, technical, or steep and technical sections. Before starting the climb, we paused for a few minutes at the checkpoint and water stop strategically placed just before it. There was some fresh green mountain grass growing, enough for some good grazing time and fortification before tackling the climb.
It starts innocuous enough. Narrow singletrack, but a gradual grade. And then it turns interesting real quick, with some sharp turns and steep step-ups. I hopped off Atti on a couple of sections to give him a break — at 13.3, he’s not a big guy, and I’m about 20 pounds more than what he’s used to carrying, so I was doing everything I could to make it easier for him. We were also at about 6000′ elevation at that point, so that’s always super-fun for this flatlander desert rat to try to breathe and hike up a climb at the same time.
Fortunately the climb levels out partway through, so there’s a chance for some easy walking recovery before the second part of the climb, and a ton of grass growing along the trail, so Atti worked diligently on perfecting his grab-n-go grazing skills. The second part of the climb also has some interesting “rock stairstep” sections that are a little technical, so I hopped off again, lead through a couple of them, then let Atti go ahead and tailed off of him for some of the steeper uphill climbing portions. Finally, after a few more switchbacks, we reached the top of the mountain. It was about a mile of easy forest road into the check, and after walking/climbing that much, it felt really good to let him out and easy trot down the road.
Coming into the check, I hopped off and walked the last little bit in, let him drink (and drink, and drink) and by the time he was done, he was pulsed down. We were in a little before 1, so still right within the time frame I had expected, especially given how rocky the trail was this year. Claire and Taylor’s mom Luci had set up our crew bags for us in a nice spot, and after getting Atti settled in front of his hay and pan of grain, I just plopped myself right down on the ground next to him and proceeded to tuck into my own lunch.
There had been a line for the vet when we first came in and pulsed down, so I gave Atti some time to eat first, and once the vet line cleared up, headed over for our check. Again, some Bs on hydration parameters, but all As everywhere else and vet said he looked great. We still had a bit of time before our out-time, so back in front of the food for both of us for a few more minutes before wrapping up the crew bag, electrolyting, and mounting up.
Heading out from the check, the first couple miles of trail is lovely — single track, weaving through the pine trees. I even ended up flushing a flock of wild hen turkeys out — came around a corner and started up a climb and saw about half a dozen of them on the trail ahead of me. As soon as they saw us, they headed up the hill further, and wow, can they move fast. But that was super cool, as it was my first time seeing turkeys in the wild here in AZ.
Shortly thereafter, the trail kind of degenerated into a bit of a singletrack rock pile. What used to be this smooth-flowing, slightly downhill trail that you could just fly down has gotten super-rocky, to where it’s impossible to really make time on. At that point, I hopped off and started hiking, with Atti trucking along cheerfully behind me. (Cristina runs and hike with him all the time, so on singletrack trails, you can clip your reins to the saddle and take off in the lead, and he’ll follow right along behind.) I know it was probably only a couple of miles, but it felt longer, and it was a major relief to pop back out to one of the checkpoints we had gone through earlier, back out onto forest road. It may be road, but we could finally move out again! Both boys were more than happy to make up some time here and kicked into a trot, then canter. We were able to make pretty short work of the several miles of road between checkpoints before hopping onto another singletrack trail. Fortunately, this one was in better shape, and aside from slowing for a few sections of rocks early on, we were able to make much better time.
That singletrack spit us back out onto another forest road, right before the last vet check — a pulse and go style of check. We brought them in nice and easy, let them drink, both pulsed down and trotted out for the vet, and then they sent us on our way — only 7 miles to the finish, and literally all downhill from here. Another rocky section of trail put from the check, and then we were on one of my favorite trail sections. It’s smooth singletrack, and it switchbacks down the side of a canyon, all the way down to the bottom. It’s really trottable, and super fun on a nimble horse. Atti knows this trail really well, and he flew down it. By the time we reached the bottom, both boys were firmly in “going home” mode, and it took absolutely no encouragement to keep them moving. There’s another bit of road section, and then the last two miles from camp heads across open pasture, into a wash, and then back into open pasture, following cow paths right back into camp. I’m pretty sure Atti would have galloped in if I let him, but I kept him to a smart trot the whole way in, and we crossed the finish line right at 5:15 pm.
After he tanked up at the finish line water trough, we vetted through right away, my heart in my throat the whole time after my finish line pull at this ride in 2017. But no worries this time — Atti trotted out beautifully, good scores, and we were officially finished! Took him back to the trailer and got him untacked, wrapped legs, tucked into a fleecy cooler, and settled him in front of a huge pile of hay.
I had perfect timing — once Atti was all taken care of, it was just in time for ride dinner and awards. For all 50-mile finishers, they hand out beautiful buckles. I earned my first buckle at this ride in 2009 on Mimi, and now my second one a decade later.
By the time awards wrapped up, it was getting late enough I decided to stay in camp for the night rather than tackle the 2-hour drive home…and I had the sofa bed and a hot shower on offer again, so I spent the rest of the evening talking horses, ride strategy, AERC politics, and more horses with Troy and Claire.
Atti was bright-eyed and still talking to me the following morning, and looked good when I took him for a leg stretch first thing. He was also quite happy to be clean-up crew for the extra grain as I worked on cleaning out my crew bag and getting camp packed up. It didn’t take too long to get everything in order, load up, say good-byes, and head down the road. Dropped off Atti and the trailer, got him settled, then headed back down to the Valley.
This year has been light on the ride happenings for me, with a lot of ups and downs in regards to plans and horses, so it felt really good to get this one on the books and have it be so successful, and I’m grateful to Cristina for once again entrusting me with her special pony.