100-Mile Musings

I don’t spend a ton of time on Facebook discussion groups, endurance-related or otherwise. I tend to “lurk” — I read and pay attention, but don’t often chime in, mostly because I’ve always tended to keep a fairly low public profile and social media, and use it more for direct interaction with friends and people I know. But I digress. Long story short, a thread on one of the endurance groups popped up in my newsfeed this afternoon and caught my attention.

The gist of the topic? What is stopping people from doing 100s?

Good question. Wish I knew the answer. Especially because I could probably be the poster child for a skeptical eyebrow raise of “Why do you keep doing this?” with all of the ups and downs I’ve experienced along the way. Maybe I’m just a slow learner, because I still have a love affair with wanting to try 100s. I got into endurance with the specific wish and desire to do 100s. Especially Tevis, but all of the 100s (particularly the “buckle” 100s) have appeal to me and are on my “I hope I don’t have to wait until the unforeseeable future to get to do them” list. With my current set-up as a catch-rider, the 100-mile goal becomes that much more elusive, but it doesn’t stop me from hoping/wishing/scheming.

Virginia City…my #1 “must return” 100-miler…because where else do you start in the dark in front of a saloon? And 76 miles gave me a serious taste of, “oh, so close.”

Both of my 100 attempts have just left me wanting a finish (at those rides, and at any 100, really) that much more. Pulls at 50s and LDs tend to bum me out, and yes, while I really  wanted finishes at the 100s, I feel like even starting those rides was an accomplishment.

Just like there’s a phrase about “horses who can do 100 miles” and “100-mile horses,” I think the same probably applies to people. There are people who can and will do 100s…and others who eat/sleep/breathe 100s. Although I haven’t completed one yet, I’m pretty sure I fall in the latter category. It’s difficult to describe why, or the personal appeal. I do this sport for fun, and there are elements of 100s that are most definitely not always fun. But I guess for me, those times when you think, “this is stupid” or “what was I thinking?” are outweighed by the satisfaction of conquering and accomplishing something supremely challenging.

IMG_4082

I got to see the start banner from more than just the window of the crew vehicle…so I at least got my “Tevis start” experience under my belt. Now I need the buckle ON my belt.

Besides, there is something magical that happens after 50 miles. I have absolutely loved starting in the dark, and being out riding in the dark. There’s a bit of a dichotomy that occurs…a desire to get as far down the trail as possible before losing the light…but also a part of me that wants to linger, to not be in too much of a rush and miss that opportunity to be out, watching as the stars appear.

Even when riding with other people, there’s a connection that happens between you and the horse in the dark. They can see — you can’t. You have to be willing to put a lot of faith and trust in their hooves to carry you through that trail safely…and I can tell you from experience, you feel pretty darn bonded to the horse after that.

IMG_0103

On the trail at dusk, racing the fading light.

I don’t really know where I was necessarily going with all of that, aside from my own random musings, and if it really had a point other than to illustrate that I really think those people who want to do 100s will find a way to make it happen (eventually, one way or another), and those that really don’t find it their particular cup of tea won’t. That is one of the benefits of endurance in that if does offer so many options…I just hope there are enough people that like and continue to like and support 100s to keep them around long enough for me to jump in and participate more as the opportunity arises.

My Favorite Things: Rides

My Favorite Things: A series of my favorite things of different categories, less formal than a review and more conversational musings. Everything from rides, to tack, to food, to apparel, all following a “Top Three” format. Also, because I’m me, and I’m known for changing my perspective and opinion of such things as favorites from year to year, some of these topics may end up revisited…more than once.

It was hard for me to narrow down my favorite rides, especially limiting myself to the Top Three. I can pretty easily narrow down two…but that third one I just may have to leave as a “rotating space” for now.

Virginia City 100 (Sept 2017)
It’s probably my favorite ride to date, even with not finishing. Yes, that’s how good everything else was to basically negate the Overtime pull. It’ll always be special because it was my first 100-miler attempt. It was a leap of faith, with an uncertain outcome, and I’m still proud of myself for attempting it and taking that chance, even if all the stars didn’t align for a finish.

(FWIW, 100-mile hallucinations are real. I saw land bridges and Easter Island heads.)

VC just has the best atmosphere. Given that it was the 50th anniversary ride when I rode it, it was larger that usual, with over 70 entries…but normal years has entries usually between 40-50 people, which makes for a very laid-back, more intimate type of ride. I love that it’s a 100 only, so everyone in camp to ride is there to do that ride and that distance. Kind of hard to describe, but it gives it a different feeling than other rides.

Yeah, the rocks suck. Coming from Arizona, I’m fairly used to rocks, and many claims of areas being rocky elicit merely an eyebrow raise from me. This one earned the double eyebrows and a few colorful words at opportune moments. That said, I also has the fortune (?) to ride it during “one of the worst footing years to date” thanks to some epic rain/snow earlier in the year that decided to rearrange most of the trail footing and rocks.

But the scenery is gorgeous, and I love how different the Nevada high desert is from my own. The multiple, but not excessive, loop format (50, 26, 24) isn’t as intimidating (or hard to coordinate) as a point-to-point trail, but the loops aren’t so short/frequent that you feel like you’re just doing a merry-go-round of repeat loops around camp. There’s also very little shared trail (and you’re usually in the dark most of the times you’re on it, so does that even count?), and the sections that are shared are the ones you’re happy with because they’re of the “back to camp” variety that makes for happy horses who know where they’re going.

Plus, they feed you well (steak for breakfast, cookies at one of the water stops), and you can get finisher’s buckles. I really want one of those pretty buckles, darn it. One of these years…

Strawberry Fields Forever (June 2018)
Well, Flash, for starters. Hard not to enjoy any ride I’ve done on him. The Strawberry ride had been on my “must do” ride bucket list since I started endurance, so I was super excited to finally get to experience it. The scenery is out of this world amazing. Think “Sound of music” minus the singing nuns. Grass, aspens, an amazing array of micro-climates and vegetation. It’s so different from everything I know that I felt like I was living in a small slice of high elevation, green tree paradise for a few days.

It was also a really good ride experience for me. Flash put me and my horsemanship to the test, since he was feeling very strong and forward on day one. He has his Opinions and doesn’t like to be micro-managed, so he appreciates a certain level of tact and picking one’s battles. I must have done right by him, in his mind at least, since he rewarded me with being sensible and mindful in the technical, tricky stuff.

It was also interesting to experience a pull on day one for thumps, but to be able to work through it, solve the problem, and be cleared to go out again on day two…and then finish that day with a super-strong horse (who probably would have been happy to go day three).

The day two scenery was also gorgeous, and Flash was even more settled, so we had a really enjoyable ride right from the start. He’s also a fun horse to travel with on the road. I also enjoy my road trips, so the scenic, two-day drive up there also doesn’t hurt my feelings. The weekend also involved some of my amazing endurance mentors and friends, and just a ton of fun overall.

The Third Ride
I’m having a tough time narrowing this one down. I look back at my rides and think, “Oh, that one was really fun,” or “That was a major accomplishment,” but I’m not sure one stands out above the rest. Currently in the running are:
Lead-Follow @ Bumble Bee 50 (2018)
Tahoe Rim Ride 50 (2016)
Man Against Horse 50 (2009)
Lead-Follow @ McDowell 75 (2017)

Bumble Bee was excellent because 1) Flash and 2) broke the seeming curse I had in regards to finishing, or even riding, this ride. Had some phenomenal “connected” moments with Flash, and I will never forget how he danced his way up the Black Canyon Trail, with nothing more than a whispered “go get ’em” encouragement to let him know there were horses ahead of us. It was also my first real top ten in a 50, and first time to stand for Best Condition. The only real negative of this ride was figuring out my shoes I was riding in were pretty well shot for padding, and I spent the last 10 miles or so of the ride wanting to cut my feet off at the ankles. But Flash gets a gold star for putting with with several miles of my probably-crappy riding. And the shoes got permanently retired.

Tahoe Rim was a beautiful ride, probably the prettiest I’ve done. It’s also a very challenging ride, so definitely a feather in the cap to finish with a sound, happy horse. It also followed a string of very disappointing pulls at rides, and a badly-needed confidence booster. Roo did really well for me and gave me an excellent ride overall, even if he was being a spooky snot when it came to leading, and we almost parted ways a couple times.

Man Against Horse…probably one of my proudest accomplishments with Mimi. She proved what a tough, game, big-hearted war mare she is when she finished that particular 50. Funny thing is, there were definitely things that didn’t make it an entirely wonderful ride, such as the vet thinking he “might” have seen something in her trot-out at the top of the mountain, and having to re-trot her a couple times. Heart in throat for sure. And my stirrup leathers decide to declare war on my shins, so by the time we were down to the last third of the ride, my shins felt like I had hit knives stabbing into them. But it was one of those “worth any crap along the way” rides in order to get that finisher’s buckle.

McDowell 75 last year was pretty awesome. Not only to be entrusted with a friend’s special horse, but to have it be both his and my first 75, and to finish…and finish well. I fully anticipated needing to take the full time, so to finish mid-pack, with several hours of buffer, was a very pleasant surprise. It was a day that went really smoothly, and I was really pleased with how horse management and pacing went. It was definitely a ride that helped build my own confidence in the “yes, I am a competent endurance rider” department.

So between those four rides, I have a really hard time narrowing it down. I guess I just have to wait for another outstanding ride to come along that tops those four to round out my ultimate Top Three…at least for now.

Ride Story: Grand Canyon XP 2018 Day 1 55

IMG_4311

OT Raemone RSI, Grand Canyon XP Steve Bradley photo

I’ve wanted to attend the Grand Canyon XP ride for years, so when I was offered a catch ride for one of the days this past weekend, I really didn’t have to think too hard about that decision. Held near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, the current ride format is 6 days long — two 3-day pioneer rides with one rest day in-between.

This time, my catch ride offer came from Crockett Dumas — he had a 9-year-old mare who was ready to do her first ride and would I be available and interested in riding her? Ooo, yes, please. It’s been several years since I’ve taken a greenie on their first ride, but the few times I’ve done it, I’ve enjoyed it.

It’s a 6-hour drive up to the North Rim for me, so I left out at o’dark thirty on Saturday morning. That is the best time to travel — I’ve never seen I-17 so emtpy — and I made it up to Flagstaff in near-record time. Flagstaff always means a stop at Macy’s, a truly excellent coffee shop that has probably some of the best coffee in the state. Grabbed coffee and breakfast to go, topped off with gas, then hit the road again.

This was the longest road trip I’ve done on the suburban again since probably…2010? The older she got, the shorter and shorter I kept the trips…then the “cascading system failures” of the past 3 years happened, to the point now I think every major component has been replaced (reman engine, rebuilt transmission, new catalytic, a/c repairs, front end work) and it’s like driving a new vehicle again. This would be the ultimate acid test of making sure all those repairs had been work it. Spoiler alert: They were, and I am more than delighted to have that level of road trip freedom at my disposal again.

IMG_4256

As I put on Facebook: “In the words of JRR Tolkien, ‘the road goes ever on.’ Who knew he was talking about road-tripping through Arizona?”

Northern AZ finally got monsoon activity this summer, so the drive up was actually fairly green and pretty, and several fires that had put the status of the ride and trails into question were out (up until a couple days before the ride, the fire crews were camped out in the spot that is normally the ride basecamp). I can’t say I would be overly enamored of taking a rig up through 89-A to get up to the Rim, but in a passenger vehicle, it’s quite a fun drive. I might have grown up in the city, but I love a good twisty, turning mountain road. Not to mention the fact that the temperature was a good 40* cooler than it was back home, and pleasant enough to drive with the windows down. Ah, fresh mountain air…nothing like it.

The current basecamp for the ride is easy enough to get to — only a few miles off the main road, on well-maintained forest service roads, in the spot that serves as the snowmobile play area in the winter, which means solid parking and rigs don’t sink when it rains. (Which it often can…this is AZ high country, which means monsoon season…fortunately, although the clouds built up every day, it didn’t ever rain on us.)

As soon as I pulled in to camp, I got introduced to my ride — OT Raemone RSI, a 9-year-old chestnut mare from Crockett’s long-time Outlaw Trail breeding program. She’d been a broodmare with one 3-yr-old filly on the ground, and Crockett had broken her to saddle earlier in the summer. She was still green, but so far had proven to have good trail sense and a solid nature. There were a lot of firsts for her this weekend…first ride, first camping trip, first time with that many other horses around, first time riding among groups of horses.

IMG_4264

Meeting Nene. All saddled up and ready to go for a pre-ride.

Right from the get-go, I got along well with her. Crockett insists his horses stand politely for mounting, which always goes a really long way towards boosting my confidence — really starts the ride off on the right foot, so to speak, if they’re calm enough to stand quietly. I figured out pretty quickly that “power steering” wasn’t exactly installed, but she was responsive to leg, so I got a great reminder of “soft hands, strong leg” that would continue through the weekend. (Which, face it, I needed that anyway…I can always stand to use less hand and more leg.)

We rode out in a big loop around camp for about an hour, just getting a feel for each other, and getting “Nene” used to being in a group…front, middle, back…as Crockett, Terry, and I all rotated and lepfrogged back and forth. Once back in camp, we wandered through camp and did some horseback socializing. Great exercise in standing politely for the green horse, but as it turned out, she loves people, so she though socializing her way through camp was the best thing ever.

IMG_4267

Getting socialized. She also falls into the Magnificent Mare Ears category.

Vetting in later that afternoon, her trot-out was a bit…erm…inglorious. But given that it was her first time trotting in hand…she gets a pass. Fortunately The Duck was tolerant/understanding of “green horse, first ride,” and I promised to do better the next day. Worked her a little bit on the concept on the way back to the trailer, and she started getting the idea.

At ride briefing, I was super-excited to learn we would be doing part of the Rim Trail the next day. Not every day goes to the canyon, and I was really, really hoping for one of the iconic ride photos taken with the canyon in the background, the same photos I’ve drooled over as I’ve edited them for work promos and displays. If I could only ride one day, at least I would get that wished-for photo!

Ride start was a super-civilized 7am, so I crawled off to bed sometime around 9, and managed a fairly solid 8 hours until the alarm went off around 5. It was a very, very bright full moon that night, and with the large expanses of windows in the suburban, I was woken up a few times by that bright moon shining right into my face. As much as I hate my sleep being disturbed, it’s hard to grumble (too much) about that beautiful of a sight.

My “two hours ahead of ride start” wake-up gives me plenty of time to dress, braid my hair, make coffee, and down some breakfast before it was time to saddle and boot Nene. About 10 minutes before the start, we headed to the perimeter of camp, mounted, and quietly made our way around camp, winding through the trees and giving her things to focus on such as stepping over legs and around trees, taking her mind off of things like the ride start.

We made it over to the ride start after the main pack had left, so just eased onto the trail and headed out at a nice walk, Nene comfortably sandwiched between Crockett and Terry’s horses. We made it probably a good mile of calm walking before horses started to come up on us, and I could feel Nene getting wound up as the other horses went bouncing by, so we headed up into the trees and paralleled the trail, weaving through trees and over logs as groups of riders passed by. That really helped, and we did that several times for the first couple of miles. By the time we hit about 3 miles in, we were in our own little pocket, and Nene was once again mentally focused.

We did a lot of walk-trot-walk-trot for the next several miles,…small bites, letting Nene ease into the day. It was a super low-key way of starting a green horse at a ride, and definitely something I will keep in mind for the future, because it kept the whole experience very positive and no-drama. The trail was lovely — winding through tons of trees, crossing small grassy meadows, mostly-good footing, alternating between some forest roads, then back onto trails.

Nene quickly got the memo about all the grass available on the trail for grazing purposes, and in short order, was picking up on the “grab and go” concept of stuffing her mouth on the fly when directed. At the first water tank we reached, she snorkeled right in and tanked up, and she had no qualms about stopping to pee along the way. And everything that was being stuffed into her mouth was exiting the other end.

The cardinal rule of endurance horse function is EDPP  (Eating, Drinking, Peeing, and Pooping) and she nailed all of them. She was also politely following along behind Crockett’s mare, and I could tell she was doing some “watch and learn” from the experienced horse…but she was also attentive to me and my requests, such as “you wait to trot until I cue you, not go just because the other horse did.” Very smart, very “thinky” mare.

About 13 or 14 miles in, we reached the rim, and our first sighting of the canyon. This was only my second time at the North Rim, and third time to the canyon, and I’d not been this far west before. If you haven’t seen the canyon…it’s hard to put into words. The scope and grandeur of it is just breathtaking, and no photograph can ever do it full justice or capture the feeling of actually being there.

IMG_4281

For several miles, the trail follows the rim, sometimes right along it, other times veering in to skirt around and follow some of the tiny side canyons. And along the way, photographer Steve Bradley was set up to get our photos right along the rim. And we managed to get some excellent “greenie’s first ride photos.”

IMG_4309

Steve Bradley photo

Lunch wasn’t until about 33 miles in, so we really took our time…set a very easy pace, with lots of short walk/trot segments, and plenty of pauses along the way for grass. The open meadow with the lunch hold was a very welcome nice…we walked in and pulsed right down, then settled the horses in front of hay. Nene thought lunch was the best thing ever…she tucked her head right now into my crew bag with the hay into, and barely came up for air. The ride provided lunch for riders, and that tuna sandwich tasted absolutely delicious (I like tuna on a normal basis, but for some reason, it tastes just beyond delightful when I’ve had it at rides). I scarfed my food almost as fast as Nene was hoovering hers (we were a good match, we ate our way through the ride), then took care of my “vet hold chores” like refilling water bottles and replenishing my snack supply on the saddle.

IMG_4284

Along part of the Rim Trail

Nene did great on her vet check, and nailed her trot-out that time. And if she thought it was strange to be pulled away from her hay, made to run back-n-forth, then plopped back in front of her hay, she didn’t show it. Total professional, that one. By this time, I was having a hard time remembering it was her first ride, and even the power steering was coming along to the point that she was even starting to neck rein. (Did I mention ‘smart’?)

The hour hold was more than sufficient, and we were mounted up and ready to go as soon as they waved us out of the check. Leaving lunch, we passed through the old basecamp at Dry Park (which became not-so-dry when it would rain, and rigs had a tendency to then get stuck) and continued along, gradually making our way up a several-mile-long climb up a sort of rocky dirt rock. The trail might not have been particularly fascinating, but I got some impromptu botany lessons in high mountain flora, which kept things a lot more interesting.

IMG_4287

Our conga line of climbing chestnuts

As we wound our way back to camp, we passed through some beautiful aspen groves…dappled shade, with perfect single-track winding through the trees. For a desert rat, this is my idea of a little slice of paradise. (Never mind that Nov-Apr would be a “hard pass” on the snow levels they would get there at 8000′.)

The last 6 or 7 miles was roughly paralleling some small powerlines along a primitive double-track road, and we just kept to the same trot/walk pattern we had been doing, with plenty of grazing stops along the way (Nene was now doing her best “hungry hungry hippo” impression). We also did quite a bit of alternating who was leading/following…Nene truly loves being in the lead, and she’s super-bold and not spooky. She also has a fast walk, and I believe is naturally inclined to have a slightly faster trot speed, although for the sake of both her mental and physical conditioning, I was working on keeping her at a slower, “multi-day” pace while she’s learning.

There was much celebrating when the trail connected back to the same trail we had headed out in the morning…only a couple miles to go! And with a mile to go, we slipped Nene into the lead again, and she proudly marched into camp, all sparkling eyes and flagged tail, still wanting to trot up the hill to the finish. We vetted through right away, with flying colors, acting like she had just been out for a casual stroll versus 55 miles in just under 10 hours ride time.

IMG_4305

55 miles and finished!

I was pleasantly surprised we finished when we did — I was fully expecting to be out there longer, but we still had plenty of time to untack, groom, take care of legs, and make sure they were all settled and tucked in before moseying over to the ride meeting.

Despite some impressive cloud build-up, especially out over the canyon, and some thunder booming and echoing all around, it never did materialize into anything other than a spectacular sunset….for which I’m grateful. I’m still not fond of getting rained on at rides.

It was super-easy to crawl into bed that night, and I stayed pretty much unconscious, bright moon and all, until about 6 the next morning when I staggered out of bed (oooo, sore legs…) and immediately set to mainlining coffee. I did, unfortunately, have to head home that day, so got my little camp all packed up, spent a bit more time socializing with some friends, then reluctantly headed down the road to home.

thumbnail_IMG_4330

I’ve been hoping for a completion mug for a while…I use coffee mugs the most out of just about everything out there.

One stop on the outskirts of Flagstaff to fuel up, and then I was pulling up to my house mid-afternoon…6 hours up, 6 hours back. Quick trip, but well worth it! Nene was a super-fun ride, and I feel very flattered and honored to have been entrusted with her first ride. It went as well as could have ever been hoped for, and Nene got herself a great introduction into the sport. Watch out for this mare in the future…I think she’s going to be one of the good ones.

Thank you to The Duck and Annie for putting on a wonderful ride…I will definitely stay longer next time!!

PS — Still working on my Tevis write-up. If you’re friends with me on Facebook, you know we didn’t finish, but we had one heck of a good time anyway.

Following Me at Tevis

5 days and counting.

2 days until I leave.

I should probably finish packing. :)))

But before I do that, I just wanted to put up some info for how to follow along on Tevis ride day. There’s quite a bit of coverage via the webcast, as well as Facebook.

I’m rider #47. And I do have one of the GPS SPOT trackers (http://trackleaders.com/teviscup18i.php?name=Ashley_Wingert). 

Sharing this from the Tevis Facebook post, since they already did such a good job of laying everything out and explaining it.

~~~

“The Western States Trail Foundation has a loyal group of volunteers that will be working hard to bring you up to date information during the ride weekend. When the ride starts, there will be a link on the main website http://www.teviscup.org/ to the LIVE WEBCAST. That link will allow you to search the progress of a specific rider, information status by checkpoint, current leaders, and a list of pulled riders. New this year, you can even save a list of Favorites to make checking on their progress throughout the day more streamlined!

You can also find updates, live streaming videos and photos during the course of the ride on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TevisCup/ We have webcast photographers and crew at MORE checkpoints than ever this year. We will be doing our best to provide continual coverage, upload pictures and video live during the event. Live streaming was a big hit last year. We plan to have even more if possible this year!

Additionally, this year we have a totally new feature of optional live GPS tracking for riders! For an additional fee, riders can elect to carry a live tracker, which will send pings to update the riders’ status on the trail every 5 minutes. There may be locations on the trail where GPS signal is too weak to successfully send a ping, the unit will try three times before waiting for the next 5 minute interval. You can follow along with those riders who have elected this service here: http://trackleaders.com/teviscup18 Individual riders GPS units should also be linked to their “Where’s My Rider” webcast page.

All of the people helping to man our EIGHTEEN various checkpoints are volunteers, typically working long hours for nothing more than the love of the event and a spiffy Tshirt. They do their best. Several new innovations have been introduced to provide updates as quickly and error-free as possible. Most stops are either direct internet uploading from the check point or through technology called Winlink which enables emails to be sent over short wave radio. These two things allow us to be more accurate than in the past. We will do our best to keep everyone up to date on their rider.

You can imagine how hard it is to not transpose numbers, either verbally when reading/calling them out (especially for tired riders), or while writing them down/typing them in (think of 3-4 people having to hear/write the number for each instance), especially when you’ve been awake 20+ hours. Keep in mind it’s possible to miss a rider # if they all come in in a big group. If your rider shows up pulled or in a strange place – check again later and don’t automatically take it as gospel. There are automated tools to help the webcast volunteers find and correct a mistake at the next update. With the batch uploading process, and some of the remote locations, they may take up to an hour to fully upload.

Also just because your rider stops at a particular location for longer than usual/planned, it’s not necessarily significant. It could be that the spotters missed their number going out, or perhaps they stayed longer than planned to let their horse eat or rest for the upcoming trail segment. There will be volunteers in Foresthill with computers if you need assistance in looking up a rider.

Summary of how to follow us online:

Main Tevis Website:
http://www.teviscup.org/

Official Tevis Facebook page:
https://www.facebook.com/TevisCup

Event GPS tracking:
http://trackleaders.com/teviscup18

Twitter Account:
https://twitter.com/tevisnews

Flickr Photos:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/teviscup/albums

Instagram:
https://www.instagram.com/tevisfeed/

~~~

Ride Story: Strawberry Fields Ride 2018

With the countdown at less than 10 days til T-Day, and less than a week until D-for-T (Departure-for-Tevis) Day, I figured I’d better get a move on and get this story out before too much time goes by.

The Strawberry Field Forever ride has been on my bucket list since I started distance riding. Back in 2002, when I had been doing about half a season of NATRC, I went to Mimi’s and my last POA show…the POA Worlds, up in Spanish Fork, UT. It was an almost week-long gig, with only so much for someone who is not showing (aka, “one’s show parents”) to do…so my dad took a couple of days to go up to the Strawberry NATRC ride. Originally his plan was to hang out and visit, but he got drafted as ride photographer. Long story short, he fell in love with the area and the amazing scenery, and we talked for years about how we needed to get up there again and do the ride.

So imagine my delight when I found out there was also an endurance ride up there. Ir’s been on my ride radar for forever, so I was quite ecstatic when Troy contacted me to see if I would be interested in riding Flash for a couple of days at Strawberry this year.

Let’s see…ride I’m dying to do? On a horse I love to ride? Yeeesssssssssssss!!!

YKJT0671

I love this smoochable mug

It’s a two-day drive up to Strawberry from the Phoenix area, so we headed out of the Valley Tuesday afternoon, overnighted at the Mt Carmel basecamp, then drove the rest of the way to camp on Wednesday, arriving in the early afternoon with plenty of time to set up camp and take the boys out for a pre-ride.

Flash is a horse who does best on pretty much daily exercise in some form or another, either on the exerciser or being ridden. He’d just been cooped up in the trailer for the past two days, and was happy to express his opinion about that. That opinion amounted to a couple of half-hearted crowhops and some attempts at jigging, but overall, more of a source of eyerolling and bemused chuckles than anything. Opinions…he’s got ’em.

IMG_3629

Just one pre-ride was enough to make me fall in love with the area.

IMG_3630.JPG

Riding through aspen groves…I felt like I was in the middle of a fantasy setting.

Friend Dayna was the absolute best Queen Bee and camp mom for the weekend. She had food, drinks, and more food made for us riders whenever we possibly needed it, made dinner every night, and was a lot of fun to hang out with for the weekend. I’ve long-admired her as a rider, her ability to be competitive, but always with her horses’ best interest at the forefront. I got to pick her brain during some of the weekend downtimes, and got some great riding tips and advice, plus other relatable life stories.

The plan on Thursday was to get another pre-ride in…7-8 miles this time, just to take that final edge off. 15 miles later…the edge was sufficiently off. We were on ribbons the whole time, but just had no frame of reference for exactly where said ribbons went, and ended up going a lot further than intended. Oops?

So, yeah, that was fun…the worst part of it was I had anticipated about a 1-1/2-hour ride, not 3+ hours, so was a little short in the water and especially the food department. But a good free object lesson in being more prepared than you think you need to be, even for a “quick little ride.”

The Strawberry Fields ride is part of the XP Rides, aka the “Duck” rides, put on by Dave “The Duck” Nicholson and his wife Annie. They’re all multi-day rides, with many of them taking place on or near locations that were a part of the original Pony Express route. They tend to be more casual, laid-back type of rides, with a certain degree of self-sufficiency. There’s often only one vet check (which isn’t an uncommon thing for rides here in the SW region anyway), and the trails usually go into more remote areas. More info on their website: XP Rides.

This was actually my first XP ride, and I loved it. I also love the frills rides, though, too. I guess rides are still enough of a novelty to me, even after 14 years, that it takes a lot for me to not enjoy a ride. Check-in and vet-in was super quick, and ride meeting was brief. The only snag was a fire in the close vicinity had closed access to some of the usual trails, so they had to do some last-minute scrambling to pull the trails together.

Basecamp was at ~8000′ elevation, so the weather was decidedly cooler than back down in Phoenix. Friday morning was a bit chilly, and I scuttled around in three layers, finally (reluctantly) shedding my puffy jacket just before mounting up. Flash is such an interesting horse at ride starts. He’s really business-like, so no funny games or shenanigans, but he is so eager to get going that he literally quivers in anticipation any time you stop.

We headed out on the same trail we had pre-ridden the past two days, the single-track trail helping to space out the pack, and we were soon in a small bubble of four or five riders, just easily motoring along. There was a definitely a technical element to some of the trails — rocks, or downed aspen “cavaletti” to step over — so it kept both horse and rider paying attention.

It didn’t take too long before we started climbing. Eventually we would top out at 10,000′, but in the meantime, there was still plenty of trail along the way. Up single-track, along forest roads through a campsite, up more single-track, through some boggy stuff, up more single-track, and finally out to the road that would take us up to 10,000′.

For two mostly flatland horses from Yuma, those boys tackled the climb with good humor, and Flash kept offering to show me just how he could trot all the way to the top. (I declined his offer, numerous times.)

We dropped back down off the top of the peak, wound around on some more forest road, through some more single-track, and back up to another 10,000′ point.

IMG_3725

Can’t argue with those views

We had a couple moments at this point where the trail markings got a bit…sketchy…and we made a couple of overshoots/alternate routes before finally getting on the right track.

This first loop was every bit of 30 miles, so we took time along the way to let the boys stop and graze, and there was enough grass along the way that they both got pretty good at the grab-n-go maneuver.

Flash was on fire the entire loop…he just wanted to go, and we had quite a few discussions about keeping the pace to a dull roar. I knew he was strong — at Bumble Bee, it took until about halfway through the first loop for him to really settled into an agreeable pace — but this was 30 miles in and he was still cranking along like a freight train.

The way in and out of camp, at least for this loop, crossed a creek, which made for a nice place to stop and sponge them before walking in to the vet check. Rather unusually, it took several minutes for Flash to pulse down, even after more sponging and eventually pulling tack, but he did get there.

At the Duck rides, he doesn’t want to see you vet in immediately — you’re asked to wait for at least 30 minutes before vetting, the rationale behind it being that adrenaline from just coming off a loop can mask any potential issues, both lameness or metabolic. Although I’ve always preferred to vet right away and have the rest of the hold uninterrupted, I can understand this particular practice.

I got all of my stuff squared away with what I would need for loop 2 — refill my hydration pack and snacks — and settled in for some delicious lunch offerings from Dayna. (Iced cranberry juice is super refreshing. Need to file that one away for future reference.) Taking care of the boys and grabbing lunch pretty much took up the 30 minutes, so we gathered the boys up and went over to vet.

Flash vetted through well initially…appropriately low pulse, good gut sounds and hydration parameters, trotted great…but after we trotted, the vet looked him over again and said he was thumping. Sure enough, you could see the telltale fluttering back on his flank. So that was our day done, though I left the vet with instructions to give him some electrolytes, extra alfalfa and extra calcium (Tums were suggested as a good source), and bring him back in a few hours — if all was cleared up, we could still ride the next day.

So that was a new one for me…I’ve never directly dealt with thumps before, but after dealing with it, I can say that if I have to deal with any sort of metabolic incident, thumps would be the preferable one, because it’s straightforward enough, fairly easy to clear up, and as long as it’s corrected, doesn’t leave any lingering issues. Basically, it’s caused by an electrolyte imbalance that leads to an irregular spasming of the diaphragm. He’d been on a more minimalist electrolyte protocol, but he’s one of those horses who really benefits from a more aggressive electrolyte regimen.

So Troy and Rymoni went out on loop two, and Flash and I got to play battle of the syringes. But I haven’t battled with the pony on this very same issues for years for nothing, and eventually I got a couple doses of crushed Tums down his gullet. It took maybe an hour and half to totally clear up (by which time Flash was thoroughly sick of me hovering, and giving me the disgusted stink-eye “bug off, lady, and leave me alone” look), so after Troy finished, we gathered up both the boys to go over to the vet. Rymoni was good to go, both for his day’s completion as well as to start the next day, and Flash was thoroughly checked over and declared good to go for day two.

Saturday morning rolled around even chillier, with some wind and cloud cover, with more clouds trying to move in. All that meant I actually left my outer layer windbreaker on, since we would be climbing up to 10,000′ again fairly early on, and it was bound to be even chillier at the top.

The plan was to take it really easy on this day — ease Flash into the day, make sure all systems were go, and regularly electrolyte him. He was strong from the start, but much more biddable than day one when it came to requests to ease off or not incessantly tailgate Rymoni. Fortunate, because I definitely had a few protesting muscles, and it took me several miles to settle in. It’s been almost 5 years since I last did back-to-back days, and I was feeling it for a little bit there.

The trail took us through some of the sagebrush flats (watch out for badger holes!) before starting to climb. Up, up, up, into the aspens, making time and trotting where we could, walking all the climbs.

IMG_3762

We were working around and behind those red cliffs

This was our “climb to 10,000′” part of the day, and the views from the top were beyond breathtaking.

IMG_3772

cameras just can’t even come close to doing it justice

I was glad for the jacket — it was definitely chilly as we made our way across the ridgeline for a bit before dropping down into the bowl on the backside and cross-countrying our way down to the drainage/trail.

IMG_3783

we came from up there where those trees are

The next section was about 4 miles of pretty much downhill, hardpack, rocky road. We took it easy and walked a lot of it, with intermittent jog-jog sections when it was decent enough footing for the first couple miles, then in smoothed and leveled out enough to pick up the pace again. We eventually made one big loop, and came out on the sage brush from earlier in the morning.

IMG_3786

more sage brush, more badger holes to avoid

This morning’s loop wasn’t as long as day one — I think it was about 25 miles by the time we got back in to camp. Both boys were down right away (yay! That hanging pulse of Flash’s on day one had been the first red flag), so we repeated the same routine — give them food, sit down and eat our own lunches, go vet. Vet check was an all clear this time, so we headed back to the trailer to wrap up the last few vet-check niceties (bathroom, last bit of food, bridle, and go…).

We were out on loop two right on our out time, and Flash cheerfully took up leading, heading out one more time on the familiar creek-crossing trail in/out of camp. And I had my favorite version of Flash — relaxed and happy, easy trotting in the lead on a loose rein.

On this loop, we would follow part of the first loop from day one, so we were on super-familiar turf. Along the way, we picked up Miriam, who had gotten a bit turned around, and she ended up hanging out with us for the rest of the ride. She was super fun to ride with, and I always enjoy meeting and befriending another person in the sport within my own age bracket.

IMG_3792

up in the “Norwegian Forest” on loop two; one of my favorite sections with singletrack trail looping through the aspens

IMG_3798

Troy & Rymoni; Miriam & Mighty

The “Norwegian Forest” section of this loop basically cut off the whole “climb to 10,000′” part of the previous day, and connected over to the same last 7 or 8 miles in to camp from day one/loop one. As soon as the trail connected, Flash knew exactly where we were, and his homing pigeon radar kicked in. He was more than keen to go, but we just kept to the same strategy we’d been doing all day of a nice steady pace. Plus, there was so much grass along the way, and all three boys were more than happy to stop and graze their way into the finish.

Of course, we couldn’t end the ride without a bit of humor and hilarity. We stopped in the larger creek crossing just a mile or so out from camp for one last sponging…and I managed to lose my hold on the sponge string and send it straight into the water. Water that was over knee-deep on Flash. I’m 5’4″. Flash is 15.3. There was no way I was going to manage the “lean over and retrieve an object” trick, so I was resigned to hopping off into the creek for sponge retrieval. Fortunately Miriam came to my rescue — she’s tall, and adorable Mighty is a tiny little power pony, so she was able to lean over and snag the errant sponge for me. Crisis averted! (And I didn’t have to get my feet wet.)

It was a pleasant surprise to find out when we crossed the finish line we were in 5th/6th/7th…we had really taken it easy through the whole day, and rode the ride that the boys needed, and just stayed consistent. Completion awards for the day were really cool insulated stainless steel water bottles — I can never have too many water bottles.

Sunday morning, we wrapped up camp and hit the road…back down to Mt Carmel for the night again, and then home again Monday. Dad volunteered to drive up to Troy and Claire’s place outside of Prescott to pick me up, so that was fun for him to get to meet Flash in person (since I’ve been talking about this horse since April), and I had someone to rehash the weekend to on the drive back home.

IMG_3816

Flash enjoying one last roll at Mt Carmel before hitting the road again

So, Flash and I both go to Tevis in a little over a week…although not together. Flash will be taking a rider from Australia through, and I will be riding my favorite “summer camp pony,” Roo, who has shown up on this blog numerous times (I’ve crewed for him and Lucy at Tevis twice, ridden him in the Tahoe Rim 50, and pre-ridden parts of the Tevis trail on half a dozen occasions).

I would definitely keep the Strawberry ride on my “must do rides” list…the scenery is amazing, and it’s a good, challenging, true endurance ride. Great pre-Tevis prep, and a great ride to teach a horse to take care of themselves.

And after Tevis? Who knows. The thing about catch riding is I rarely have plans set in stone. I’ve learned to be very flexible, and take opportunities as they come up. But I know I’ll happily ride Flash again any time he’s offered!