Tevis 2018 – Not your average horseback ride

Cressy Drummond's horse, SE Redhill Saga, at Robie Park  Photo by Cressy Drummond

Cressy Drummond’s SE Redhill Saga at Robie Park * Photo by Cressy Drummond

Tevis 2018 has come and gone.  But its effects are profound and lasting.

Friday July 27 2018

Tomorrow I’ll be following Tevis, the granddaddy of 100 mile endurance races, online.  One of the horses we bred, SE Redhill Saga, now owned and ridden by Cressy Drummond will be on the trail (team #150).  Cressy also took Saga’s 3/4 brother Legs (SE Redhill Legend) across the finish line in 2007.

I’ve completed twice and still dream of doing it again, even though it’s arguably the hardest 100 mile endurance horse race in the world and I haven’t been on a horse in years.  Gotta dream big, though, or you get nowhere in life.

 

Saturday 7:29 AM ride time

Two photos of Cressy & Saga at the vet-in yesterday.  They are on the trail now, but that’s all I know.  I’m not finding her in the standings yet (other than that she started) but that’s not unusual.  Tevis is a tough ride to monitor because the trail is out in rugged back country of the Sierras and I don’t think she’s got a tracker.

Cressy and Saga vetting in at Robie Park * Photo by Keisha Wood

Cressy and Saga vetting in at Robie Park * Photos by Keisha Wood

Saturday 10:13 AM ride time

The fascinating thing about Tevis is rider strategy.  Some go into the ride with no strategy and, IMO, they are likely to get pulled.  Some go in with the wrong strategy — these include riders who overestimate their horses’ condition, or underestimate the toughness of terrain and ride conditions, or get “Tevis fever” and ride to keep up with other horses.

The riders with good strategy that they stick to (adjusting for the unforeseeable, of course) are the fascinating ones.  Some enter the ride aiming for top ten, or for a win.  They might ride their race around the front edge of the middle of the pack and steadily pass other horse/rider teams as they get closer to the finish line.  Or they might start out in front and fight for the front all the way.  Depends on so many factors that unless you know the history of that horse/rider team, you just won’t know what’s going on inside their heads on ride day.

Others plan to simply complete to the best of their ability — but they have a clear understanding of what their capabilities are.  They have to.  The trail is tough.  They climb a total of something like 17,000 feet and descending around 23,000 feet by the time they’re done.  They have a river to ford, bridges to cross, narrow trails with sharp switchbacks and scary drops to negotiate.

Some of the trails are rocky, some are muddy, and some are so dusty you can’t see the riders in front of you.  Some are steep and you don’t dare stop once you start up or down.  Passing other horses can be difficult or impossible (there’s a true tale about a mule who stopped on the trail and refused to move — holding up the rest of the riders for long enough that the ride management had to waive cut-off times for them at the next vet check).  Riders have to make time on forest roads, even on the little bit of pavement.  They are blinded by dust, they ride in the blazing sun, and later under a nearly full moon.

All of this means training for the conditions, and having a horse that can deal with the obstacles.  Rider and horse alike have to be able to dig down deep in body and mind, and keep going when the going has gone from tough to barely possible.

Tevis riders are a breed unto themselves.  There aren’t that many of them — of us, I am proud to say — and no wonder.

 

Saturday 1:35 PM ride time

There seems to be some communication confusion between those of us who crew from our computers at home and the crew out there sweating on the actual trail, so while it’s possible that Cressy & Saga left Robinson Flat when I thought they did, that might not be correct.  At any rate, they are on their way now.

Their next checkpoint will be Last Chance, 50 miles into the ride and 14 miles down the trail from Robinson Flat.  The cut-off for that is 3:00.  They will have to maintain a good working trot the whole way to make their cut-off.  There can be no dawdling anywhere on this trail; there just isn’t time for it.  Time-wise, Cressy and Saga should make it just fine, though of course with Tevis, anything is possible.

For one thing, the longer a rider’s in the saddle, the easier it is to get lost.  Even if you’ve ridden that trail before.  Tired riders make for poor decisions.

You’d think that it would be easy to keep on the course but it isn’t.  If you lose sight of the rider ahead of you, you have to suddenly pay attention to the trail markers which you probably haven’t been doing.  Although best practice is to ride one’s own rides, in fact, aside from the leaders most everybody else follows the team ahead instead of ignoring them and focusing on what we’re doing.

So what happens when a rider needs to pee and turns off the trail?  You guessed it.  Sure, they figure out pretty quickly that they shouldn’t have followed.

Oops!  Sorry!

I’ve seen half a dozen riders coming off a side trail then gallop off on the correct one, too embarrassed to want to be identified.  They weren’t all peeing, I betcha.

So then what happens?  The next riders come along and maybe they aren’t following anyone at that point.  If they haven’t seen what went on and they come to a spot where the trail seems to divide, what do they do?  There won’t be any signs or ribbons saying “Trail thataway” and “Potty break thisaway”, there will just be a mess of hoof prints going every which way in the dust.

Believe me, it seems to happen every ride, no matter which ride it is.  There are amazing stories of people who wandered off the trail for one reason or another, even from riders you’d think would know better.

I speak from experience when I say that we’re all friends on the trail.  If you have to pee, just get off and do it.  Nobody cares, trust me.

Cressy & Saga waiting to leave Robinson Flat * Photo by Michelle Wood Thomas

 

Saturday 7:40 PM ride time

Cressy & Saga are moving along, not breaking the sound barrier, but eating up the miles.  They’ve passed through the hamlet of Michigan Bluff, and are headed for the town of Foresthill — the first paved roads they’ve seen in, oh, sixty some-odd miles.

They’ve been working hard since 5:15 this morning and they’ve got around 35 miles to go and 9 hours to do it in, though one of those precious hours will be taken up by a mandatory 1 hour hold in Foresthill.

This is the phase of the race where how deep your bottom is makes all the difference.  This is when you can’t stop, but you are desperate to stop.  This is where, if you have ever learned what it means to do endurance races, you use everything you know to keep you and your horse going.

The worst of the canyons have been dealt with, along with the worst of the heat.  Blessed cool is coming, but so is the night.

Horses have excellent night vision, but humans don’t.  Humans want to use flashlights to see where they’re going, but that messes up not only their own horse’s night vision, but all the horses around.

You can make a few riders pretty darn grumpy using a flashlight.  Worse, you can endanger your horse and others by using a flashlight.

But riding in the dark — yes, it’s dark, even just a day after the full moon because you’re riding under trees — riding in the dark means fully trusting your horse.  Your partner.  You trust your partner with your life, just as your horse has trusted you all along.  It’s humbling, but more than that, it’s awesome.  Two blended into one.  Exhausted, but One…

So you go on, down the trail under the trees in the black night, and you head for that finish line.

The average non-completion for Tevis is 50%.  That’s how hard the ride is.  The veterinarians are really, really good, though, and so are the riders.  The horses are pulled before trouble can really develop.  Most will recover and be happily trotting down the trail another day.

So Cressy and Saga and the teams ahead and behind are still out there.  Still!  They all had to qualify to enter.  They all had lots of miles under the saddle before this day.  This is it, the biggie.  Not that horses know it.  It’s just another trail for them, except it’s not.  This is another chance to see what’s around the next corner, over the next hill.  This is what horses are meant to do, what they love to do — go far, far, climb, descend, fly down the path, trudge up another.  No horse gets to Tevis that doesn’t love the trail.

Nine more hours left to cover the rest of the hundred miles.  Everything before — all the sweating, the breathing dust, the exhaustion, the pain, the doubts, even fears — all of it was just the prelude.

This part of the ride, in the dark, after so many miles, with so many more to go — THIS part is what endurance riding is really about.

 

Saturday 9:40 PM ride time

Imagine this: The winning contenders for this year’s Tevis are now four miles from the finish line.  There aren’t a lot of places in those last miles to pass.  What will the ride strategy be?

First, stay the course.  Don’t get lost in the dark.  Don’t trip, don’t slack off, don’t stop giving it your all.

Um… that’s pretty much it.

Lindsay Fisher and Heather Reynolds are ten minutes ahead of the next riders, so the race will be between them.  They’ll jockey for position or maybe they won’t.  Likely they’ll just ride on, one leading, the other nose-to-tail, getting through the last miles.

Once they cross No Hands Bridge they’ll be on an old train track bed.  Where there used to be trestles bridging the many creeks that cross the trail, now there are black holes, where the horses have to step off of the flat trail and negotiate rocks and gullies until they can get back on the train bed.  If it was dark before, those black holes are the pitch black of blindness, filled with mosquitoes.  The two will negotiate them carefully, but quickly.  Their trackers say they’re moving out at 7.5 mph.  That’s a good working trot.  But they’ve got to move out.

Because the end is near.

The trail has changed some since I last rode Tevis, but I’m pretty sure that the trail up out of the American River Canyon up to Auburn hits a road.  A dirt road that is wider than a trail – a road suitable for racing.

There won’t be anything necessary to say between the leaders.  They know and their horses know that the final race begins there.  They didn’t work this hard to be in front for nothing.  They’ll hit that road and they will race.  Full out race.  After 99 1/2 miles of the hardest miles imaginable, their horses will stretch out, put their ears back, and go for it.

Cressyand Saga leaving Foresthill * Photo by Lisa Mittler Bradford

Cressy and Saga leaving Foresthill * Photo by Lisa Mittler Bradford

 

Sunday 12:25 AM ride time

My last post for tonight, though Cressy and Saga are still on the trail, moving through the night.

They have just left the Cal2 checkpoint.  They’ve got 22 miles to go.  My memory of this part of the trail is… perhaps shaky.  It has been, after all, almost 30 years.  Besides, even though back in the day I pre-rode the section quite a few times, during the actual race it’s not nearly the same.

For one thing, the difference between riding during the day vs. the night is… like night and day.

During the day you enjoy the seeming security of group.  You can see riders ahead, hear them behind.  You see the dust hanging in the air, the fresh poop in the trail.  There are ribbons, there are hoof prints.  You can see for miles from the tops of mountains and ridges.  The canyons are deep, the climbs unending.  Your world is big, and on the Tevis trail big can be huge.

Even when there isn’t a rider in sight you know there are lots of riders on the trail.  You saw them start; you know they’re out there.

You know you aren’t alone.

In the night things are different.  Sound is damped, vision is limited.  What was sharp and clear is now vague, unidentifiable.  The world closes in and suddenly you are the only rider on the trail.  Even if there are riders all around you.

Nighttime is not human time.  Normally at night you’re tucked away behind walls that keep the dark out, or you’re safely encased in a vehicle with lights that stab into the night.  Or maybe you’re huddled close to a campfire, the flames of which warm your front and leave your back chilled and vulnerable.

In the night you don’t want to think about the things that can see in the dark.  Things that can see you, that can know you, when you can’t see or know a damn thing.

Riding at night is a whole new ballgame.  At night you ride as a passenger, at the mercy of the things of darkness.  You thought your horse was your partner before, but now your horse is ascendant and you are the dependent one.  As you leave the well-lit vet check and head out into impenetrable wall of night you have to accept that at this point your horse knows more about the real world than you do, and it’s too late to pretend you are in control.

Night time is dream time in the normal course of events.  Just because you aren’t tucked under the covers doesn’t mean you can’t dream.  I tell you from personal experience that exhaustion leads to hallucination.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s seen weirdness on the trail.  Moonlight, which should help you see, in fact only encourages illusion.

That lump over there must be a bear — it’s moving, isn’t it?

But when your horse assures you that nothing is there, if you are wise you defer to the one with better eyesight and fewer delusions.  And yes, when you pass it by, you can see that it’s a clump of blackberries.  Really, it is.

Dream time on the trail is a whole new challenge.  Now the energy is used up and the emergency stash is being tapped.  Now the body is ready to call it a day but the brain — the will — is saying no.  Now you are wondering if it will ever end, because time passes differently in the dark.  Now, more than ever, you are living in the moment, except that the moment is nothing you recognize or have any control over.

Nighttime changes everything.  For some who can give it over to their horses, the dark encourages passage from the mundane to the ineffable.  This is where the horse/human bond leaves the ordinary, where you step onto a path that no one else can follow.  This is the heart of it, the place where the magic takes over and takes you away.

If you can let it happen.

By now you understand this whole ride, the Tevis, is more than getting from point A to point B in 24 hours.  It is a test of what you’re made of.  It chews at your weaknesses and it challenges your strengths.  But the thing about endurance is that it is realer than real.  There you are, in the middle of nowhere, maybe in the dark, maybe in the glare of high noon, and you and your horse are all there is that will get you where you need to go.

Nobody can get you to the finish line but you and your horse.  Nobody’s going to save you from the boogeyman.  Nobody’s going to protect you from real risks.  Nobody’s going to get you out of trouble.  Nobody is doing this but you and your horse.

It’s all about you.

It’s real.  It’s about survival.

It’s about strength of will and triumph.

It’s about knowing you can do whatever you must do.

And when you get to the finish line, it’s about knowing you’ve done something amazing that will change you forever.

Tevis is a rite, not just a ride.

 

Sunday 10:13 AM post-ride time

“To finish is to win” is the American Endurance Ride Conference motto (AERC is the sanctioning and record-keeping organization for endurance racing).  It’s not a cutesy way to make everybody but the first place team feel better.  It is an acknowledgement that endurance is a horse of a different color, so to speak.

For endurance races, the AERC motto means a horse/rider team that is capable of completing the miles and be fit enough at the end to continue on a bit more truly is a winner.

That’s because endurance events aren’t really competitions between entrants, though maybe for the front runners it is.  Endurance for everyone else is about challenging the self that is the human/horse team.  It’s about achieving personal goals and conquering personal limitations.

It is a lonely sport.

That’s why endurance riders have to ride their own ride.  Instead of you vs. the other horse/rider teams, it’s really about the you vs. the obstacles, of which there are many.

You vs. yellow jackets, mosquitoes, black flies, rattlesnakes.  Trotting through a cloud of angry yellow jackets after a bunch of other horses have stomped over their nest in the ground is always a challenge.

You vs. smoke, heat, thirst, and dust — or rain, mud, fog, and chill.  One year the trail was partially hidden by snow.  In July.

You vs. physical obstacles, such as boulders, downed trees, congestion on the trail, congestion at vet checks.  The trail traverses the Sierras, and often consists of a two foot wide track cut into mountainsides.  No passing except in switchbacks means there will be traffic jams.

You vs. the limitations of your physical condition — your horse’s and yours — the amount of energy you’ve got access to that came from all the conditioning you did, the natural ability (or lack of) that you were born with, and your riding skill.

You vs. the limitations of your mind.  You and your horse’s willingness to go on, to endure, to push through the fear, the pain, the doubt, in spite of what comes at you.  To sustain the physical and mental pace for mile after mile.

Ultimately it comes down to you and your horse vs. the clock.

The clock doesn’t care about you.  It dispassionately divides your life into the past (which you cannot change) and the future (which you cannot know).  All you have is the moment you are in, the only moment that can alter your odds of completion.

Let’s not bandy words: This is the toughest 100 mile horse race in the world.  It is a race that traverses a mountain range from east to west.  The Donner party got stalled not that far north of the early part of the race trail.  They had to eat their livestock and then each other to survive and they hadn’t even gotten very far.

Tevis was the first official endurance race ever organized (based on a bet!) and while the course has changed somewhat over the years, the Sierra Mountains haven’t gotten any lower.  The trail hasn’t gotten any easier.

Tevis is the real deal.

This year 150 horses set out from Robie Park but 86 of them didn’t reach the finish line.  That’s more than half.  Cressy and Saga were one of the teams that got pulled.  They arrived at the Francisco checkpoint 14 minutes after the cutoff.  What they endured to get there is Cressy’s story to tell, but I can say this: Cressy is a winner.

To finish may be to win, but 85 miles of Tevis trail is like 100 miles of any other trail.  That should be worth something, too.  And it is.

Cressy Drummond & SE Redhill Saga

Cressy Drummond & SE Redhill Saga

These thoughts on Tevis were first posted on Facebook.  They have been lightly edited for this blog post.  The original posts can be found at https://www.facebook.com/lif.strand/  or by clicking on the date/times at the beginning of each section.

If you liked this post, please consider supporting me via Patreon.  Thanks!

Do what you love and love what you do

“You’ll do what you have to do to be able to do what you want to do.”

This is what a friend of mine said to me in an email this morning. Not only is it catchy but it’s true.  Except that it’s kind of grim.  Happily, for me what I have to do to be able to do what I want to do is already what I want to do.

Too convoluted? Well, let me give an example.  This morning, for instance…

This morning my eyes opened before the sun popped over the horizon. I have no idea why so early, but it was OK.  The room was chilly but I was toasty under oh, five or six layers of flannel blankets and quilts.  If I didn’t go back to sleep I could just laze around and let my mind wander.  I very much enjoy that luxury, because I’m not a morning person.  Oh, I get up at what seems like the crack of dawn, but a real morning person would sneer at the thought.

So I let some writing and art issues bubble up through the murk of sleep, not trying to guide them or even capture them. What came up might or might not be useful, but the luxury part of what I was doing involved just letting my subconscious do whatever it wanted. Of course, because I was half asleep I forgot most of it, but I figure that if the ideas got that far they really want to come out. Eventually they’ll pop to the surface while I’m awake and and I will capture them.

It wasn’t all that long, though, before my bladder and the cats demanded that I roll out of bed.  First thing after that was to shuck my PJs and get dressed. Why no lounging around with a cup of coffee? Well, for one thing, this morning it was 38°. Inside the house.

Obviously my immediate concern was to get the fire going in the wood stove. That meant clearing out ashes, and that means an ash bucket had to be nearby, so that I don’t have to go outside to get one. It might have been cold inside, but outside it was in single digits. It’s December in the high country, after all.

Once the ashes were removed I piled up the glowing embers and stacked wood around them so they’d ignite. That means that there had to be wood available, mind you, and there was (see ash bucket, above).

OK, fire going, coffee water heating on the kitchen stove while I fed the cats before they drove me crazy. By the time I was ready to enjoy my first sip of life-giving java, the wood stove had heated my little house to a reasonable temperature so that I could remove layers as I checked email.

Whoa! A patron signed up (the friend I quoted at the beginning of this post). Wow! Way to start the day!  (Reminder — support your friendly creator!  Thank you if you already have, and don’t be shy if you haven’t.  Any support is fantastic support.)




I feed the horses around 9 a.m. because generally it has warmed up some by that point. I’m not a fan of doing chores when it’s so cold my nostrils stick together when I breathe. In the summer I feed around 8 a.m. because it’s cooler. Due to Daylight Savings nonsense, from the horses’ point of view they’re being fed around the same time.  This is important because even though they’ve got grass hay available all the time, it’s not the same as those delectable flakes of alfalfa for breakfast.  My stallion, Koko, also gets pellets with probiotics in them, plus any fruit or veggie parts that are left over from my kitchen. He eats it all. You’d be amazed.

So as long as I’m outside, I’ve got other chores to do. First is breaking ice on the water troughs. Koko is always thirsty in the mornings, so I do his trough first. Then it’s time for some exercises — stuff left over from physical therapy for my hips that help keep me limber — and after that a short walk, about a half mile loop.

The walk lets me look out away from myself into the distance.  It reminds me I’m part of a much bigger system. It puts my own problems in perspective for a while. I stay on my own property and that walk also reminds me how wonderful it is that I get to live here, on this land. Each day there is something new to see. Coyote poop (full of barely-digested juniper berries right now), elk poop, horse poop, occasionally cow poop. Tracks of many kinds in the dust of the trail. If I’m lucky — and why I think it’s good luck I don’t know — I’ll see the resident roadrunner, who is a bold bird that is used to me by now. He will move away but not far.

Sometimes I’ll surprise an owl or hawk or a flock of larks or piñon jays.  Sometimes a raven will circle me, speaking to me in raven talk that I can’t quite understand.

This time of year the weeds are brittle and dry. Even though I stick to the trail I’ve made, it seems like every plant has burrs or needles or hooks on them so they can hitch a ride on a passing sock. Gaiters keep the nasty little things out of my shoes.  When it snows I’ll wear the gaiters to keep warm.

Some mornings after I’ve walked I’ll work with one of my young mares, Sonny, Koko’s daughter. She has had very little training even though she’s going to be seven years old next month. Now that I have new hips, working with her is fun.  I think we both enjoy it.

My training is hardly worth the word. Maybe ten minutes at a time. My method now that I’m not a young woman and am perhaps more breakable than I used to be, is to not use any restraints and to not pursue if she leaves me. No stress for her, no stress for me.  How I do this is a whole other story, but the end result is a horse that is a partner, not a slave. Given the kind of riding I do, I need that kind of a horse.

Back to the chores. Once a week I prepare the buckets with Koko’s pellets.  That would be today.  I stacked tonight’s hay in the wheelbarrow and stashed it under the tarp. I like to keep tools out of the sun as much as possible, because at this altitude the sun eats everything up. This particular wheelbarrow is only a year old and so far so good, but I have another that has broken apart to the point where it’s pretty useless now. I’m going to fix it one of these days.  It’s low on the To Do list, though.

A brief break to pet Tux, a stray tomcat that’s been living here for a couple years now. He knows my routines so well that he leads me rather than follows.

It being Sunday, it was time to pump water. I topped off the gas in the generator, then pulled the wagon the generator lives in down to the well. I’ll leave it running till this afternoon. After that, I hiked up to the water storage tanks to see how much had been used this week.

Then it was time to get a load of wood for tonight (see above). I need to order another cord soon, but that depends on my wood guy and my finances. I’m good for a month if it doesn’t get too cold. I’ll bring armfuls of wood in the house during the course of the day, when I’m coming in and out anyway. No point in taking the time this morning when I have other stuff to do.

My last chore of the morning was to add some water to the pans I have out for the birds and other small critters, and then I got to come back in the house and have another cup of coffee and think about getting something to eat and then… finally… writing. Or processing photos. Or sewing.

All those things were, as my friend suggested, what I have to do to be able to do what I want to do. My chores would be a drag, except that I want to do them. I like doing them.  Oh sure, I moan and groan.  But sometimes, weirdly, I find myself giggling while I’m wrestling with a tarp… right after I have screamed curses into the wind. Sometimes I snarl and want to feel sorry for myself when I realize I haven’t finished bringing in the wood and I’m exhausted and it’s already dark, but I shrug and I do it. Then there’s been a couple mornings when I was confronted with a fountain spouting from the frost-free hydrant because I forgot to close it the night before. It froze and cracked the pipe and there was nobody to blame but me. But I fixed it. And I was proud that I could do so.

This lifestyle, this responsibility for my own comfort and safety and for that of my critters, is what I have chosen, not what I am forced to. I could move to a house in town, with a regular job to pay for the easier lifestyle, but I would lose much, much more than I would gain in doing so.

There is a joy for me in living this way. Everything I do matters. Everything I do is fodder for my art — whether it’s writing, photography, quilting, or… whatever occurs to me. When, by 11 a.m., I finally come to the part of my day that others would consider (finally) the creative time,  I’ve already been experiencing hours of a world I want to share with others. I’ve been recording some of it with a camera, I’ve been testing out narrative in my head, I’ve been seeing patterns that would make beautiful art.

It’s all there.

It’s all one big creative act for me.

It’s all what I want to do.