Sunday, May 27, 2012

To Finish Is To Win

Heather, Laurie and I heading out for a walk Friday night (photo by Hope).

It WAS a long, cold night. I never sleep well the night before a ride anyway, but when the temps approach freezing, two things tend to happen. One, my face gets really cold unless I cover it with a blanket (which then restricts breathing), and two, my bladder shrinks to the size of a thimble (necessitating leaving the blanket cocoon and searching out the potty in the dark).

Sometimes I try to imagine what it is like to have a camper or an LQ at a ride. The sport must look very different to a person who has the option of being warm and clean. Having a smartphone has made it so I have many of the comforts of home. At Grizzly, I “watched” an episode of SVU to help me sleep (a trick that always works). Sleeping in the trailer also means that I have a space large enough to stand up in. I guess if I add a pee bucket and start using the propane tent heater again, I’d pretty much be living in a poor man’s LQ.

But I digress.

I officially got up at 6 a.m. Saturday to feed and begin my preparations. Six is pretty early for an 8:30 a.m. start, but I would rather have too much time than not enough when it comes to my horse’s digestive system. I know some folks who feed very lightly on ride mornings, but Blue gets the same breakfast on ride day as he’d have at home.

Getting ready on Saturday morning. NOT the most flattering picture, but I'm just blogging what's real. :) (Photo by Hope)

There isn’t much to note about my morning routine except to say that stretching is essential. When I forget to stretch, my ride goes poorly. When I stretch, I seem to do better. I also stretched Blue a bit, though by then we were pushed on time. Heather and Laurie headed over to the start at 8, still eager to be in front of the pack. Hope and I left Blue and Belle at the trailer so we could finish getting our vet area set up. Back at the trailer at 8:25 or so, I double checked that I had everything, took a double dose of Rescue Remedy, and walked Blue up to the start. I gave our number to the out timer, and just kept walking.

Quick note on Rescue Remedy: I am aware that it might be total homeopathic, new-age mumbo-jumbo. That said, the placebo effect is a real thing. So, whether it is the flower oils that relax me or just my belief that relaxes me… either way, I end up more relaxed. Might also be the high alcohol content, right?! Regardless, stretched muscles and relaxed attitude = Ruth does not panic when Blue starts blowing by horses at a hitherto-unsuspected blisteringly fast trot.

This new gear of trot threatened to make the mental leap into runaway when the first little bit of trail opened out to skirt the woods along the edge of a hay field. Blue thought that perhaps galloping across the field would take him somewhere. And then he spotted a horse cantering 100 yards in front of us, and really started to test me. I don’t like doing the SRS at speed, but we were alone out there and it was time to assert myself. I wanted to have the argument now, a mile into the ride, so that maybe I wouldn’t be having it for the ENTIRE ride. I think I alternated SRS directions 4 or 5 times in a little ten-foot space before Blue decided it was possible to walk off on a loose rein again. I eased him back into a jog where he offered more than I wanted but was at least rateable. He blew by the sharp turn back into the woods, so again, the SRS. I got him pointed in the right direction and he powered back up into the trees. We went through a little section of face-slapping bushes, and then I saw up ahead that the trail just sort of disappeared off into space.

I wish I had gotten a picture of this, because it was the one (and only) part of the course that I feel was a real hazard. It was a five-or-so-foot almost-vertical drop with a big, half-buried boulder in the middle of it. I know that if I had hit it with Otto, he’d have found a way to scramble down without jumping. With Blue, I stopped and dismounted to lead him down it (rather than taking a chance at him trying to leap it in his amped-up state of mind). I can’t imagine doing it on a real fire-breathing horse in the dark at the start of a 50 or a 75. It seems like an unusually hazardous thing not so much because of what it was (a sharpish drop on iffy footing) as much as where it was (very near to the start, coming out of a section of poor visibility). Luckily, I didn’t hear of any wrecks happening there. But I’m keeping it in the memory banks for next year if they’re going to use the same trail.

After that, it was smooth sailing. We passed a big cluster of riders, including Karen and Cartman, who were riding with a whole line of gaiters. We met up with Nicole and Dancer, and were passed by Red Tide (Penny, a fellow Pirate). 

Before I knew it, we hit the first water stop. Blue took a sip, but wasn’t all that interested in water or grass. Right after that was the photo op with Mt. Hood in the background. We trucked down some familiar logging roads (Blue’s downhill trot had improved dramatically) and were on the common trail back to camp much sooner than I expected. Out of nowhere, there was the paved road.

I dismounted, walked in. Blue pulsed at 56 immediately. More exciting for me was that Heather and Laurie were both still in the vet check, meaning that I wasn’t that far behind the leaders—only about 20 minutes, and 10 of them could be explained by my late start and walking the pavement both times. 

Heather coming into the VC.

Laurie and Otto in the VC.

I let Blue eat for maybe two minutes, and went for a quick potty break while someone was available to keep an eye on my horse.

And then I got into the longest vet line in the history of the world. We vetted through with Mike Foss, who said everything looked great. I bet the actual vetting  process took a minute, tops. But the line had done its damage. I missed my out time by five minutes or so.

Again, no complaints. I hope this is a problem that we have at all the PNER rides for the rest of the year. And, honestly, we were all battling the same lines, so it’s not like there was any particular disadvantage to one rider more than another.

We walked back out along the pavement, and I mounted and started off at a smart trot. Blue did not offer to get squirrelly and go back to camp like he tried at Grizzly. But something just didn’t feel right.

My saddle seemed oddly bouncy and sort of… loose. Oh, crap. I forgot to tighten my girth back up after the vet check. It is amazing the whole thing didn’t flip when I mounted. Hole #4 and hole #8 are very different parts of the billets.

With that fixed, we got going again without incident. We rode with some 50-milers for a while. We rode with the Falks for a while. Blue doesn’t like being in a group that dictates his pace, though, so I decided to hold him back and let them all get away. He wasn’t thrilled with this plan, but the mutiny was fairly mild. We waited a bit before setting off again in a comfortable bubble of solitude. The bubble got us through some of my favorite and most familiar parts of the trail, including the brutal hill with the log steps (LEAP, step-step, LEAP, step-step) that has knackered every horse I’ve ever taken up it. The top of that hill was the only place that Blue seemed even mildly tired. It took him a while to pull himself back together an offer anything more than a walk or a shambling jog. Luckily, I knew we were almost to the horse camp then.

The longer distances had an out check in the horse camp, so there was water and companionship to be had. As soon as Blue spotted the camp and the other horses, he perked right up and actually got a little hard to manage. We left that water tank just as two 50-milers finished up their hold. I really didn’t want to ride with them, but the single-track leaving the horse camp has some steep ups and downs that pretty much force everyone to walk down and charge back up. So we’re all going basically the same speed. There wasn’t much choice in the matter, so I comforted myself that the trail would soon open up again onto a road (this is one of those cases where knowing the trails helped a lot). I let those two 50s go blasting off down the road and let Blue trot. His trot was very strong. As strong as the start. And he wasn’t trying to catch those two 50s, he was just trotting that way because it suited him. Lois Fox passed us on what she called a “sort-of runaway,” which cracks me up. I know that feeling!

Turning back into the trees, we started passing ride-and-tie pairs. We were again going much faster than I had planned for. Blue wasn’t being bad, but he was very, very focused on going forward. I rated him a few times just to remind him I was still there.

There is a long-legged buckskin horse. I don’t know the rider’s name, but I have seen this horse many times over the years. I always remember him because people confused him and Topper back in the early days. Well, we caught that horse. But his legs are longer, so he trotted away. His rider, feeling us breathing down her neck, broke him into a canter. After what happened at Grizzly, I am not allowing a canter unless I’m the one who gives the order. So I checked Blue back to let them go. But for some reason, this buckskin horse was the one that Blue was determined to catch. He had willingly let me decide when to pass and when to drop back all day up to this point. But now, all of a sudden at 20 miles into the ride, the buckskin became his nemesis.

I really had my hands full for those last 5 miles. They passed in a blur. The combination of the buckskin horse in front of us and the familiar common trail back to camp under foot (PS, Blue does not forget a trail he’s been over once) had Blue roaring toward the finish at full bore. There was only one point where I really had to lay down the law. I was literally sitting back with two hands doing a scissor rein and getting NOTHING. Like someone had cut the brake lines. So I executed the SRS, at speed, on singletrack in the woods. Blue was not impressed. This fight was very much like the fight at the start. Four or five tight turns, mild mutiny, then a grudging acceptance of the walk.

I let him trot the last little bit, and there is no doubt in my mind that if there had been another 25 miles of trail there instead of ridecamp, he would have done the 50 miles without batting an eye. He really was that game at the end.

He was already pulsed down when we crossed the line. And there were Heather and Hope to play crew. They were waiting because after the first few riders, there had been a gap. They thought there was a small chance that I might be top 10, and they wanted to help just in case. The timer assured them that I wasn’t (a big clump of riders right in front of me), but it was still wonderful to have someone else there to strip the tack off my horse, hold him while I peed, and stand and talk to me while I waited in another humongous vet line.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about the rest of the weekend.

I think the thing that is finally getting through to me is the thing they try to tell you on the very first day: To Finish Is To Win. I was telling people all day long that it didn’t matter if I came in 11th or 68th (and for once I was actually believing it). The points are all the same. The distance is the same. So why was I stressing myself out about Top 10 and racing and winning and going fast and riding with other people for the past 4 years? What was that accomplishing?

If I were more talented, I’d draw you a flowchart. But I think for a certain segment of people who get into endurance, the trajectory is very much:

Enjoy first ride --> join clubs --> read books --> start trying to “win” at next ride --> failure/pull --> buy “more appropriate” horse --> failure/pull --> change feeding/supplementation/conditioning/turnout --> failure/pull --> buy new tack --> failure/pull --> take lessons and/or pay for training --> failure/pull --> repeat previous steps ad nauseum --> failure/pull --> stop trying to win --> succeed.

There are some relatively new people who are pretty active on the PNER social media platforms (email list, facebook and blogs) who are on this path. I was, and probably still am, on this continuum in some respects. I know if someone had taken me aside in 2008 and told me that I shouldn’t change anything about what I was doing, and just gradually and organically learn how the sport works, I would have ignored them. I wanted to be perfect from Day One. I wanted to excel, as if an endurance race were a standardized test. I thought if I just had the time and money to fill in all the right circles on that test, I’d win.

I think, when you’re new, “success” has a very narrow definition that has everything to do with placing. It’s endemic in our modern culture, and it is alive and well in pretty much every equestrian discipline.

When you redefine success for endurance, and make it about YOU and YOUR HORSE on any particular day, it is suddenly a lot easier to succeed. Blue and I succeeded on Saturday. I had a plan to ride my own ride the way I wanted without giving a flip what anyone else thought. Mission accomplished.

I get it now. To Finish [on your own terms] Is To Win.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Pre-ride jitters

The truth is, the Mt. Adams ride is already fading from my mind. I think that’s how it is supposed to work when they go really well. You ride your ride, and there’s no need to obsess afterward!

I’m not a big worrier anyway, FYI. I’m one of those who errs on over-preparation right up until the point where push comes to shove. Then, if I want to do something badly enough, I’ll just wing it. Hence, our chaotic ride at Grizzly.

Mt. Adams is my favorite ride. That’s hard to say, because there are so many excellent rides up here in the NW. And this year, I’m going to be trying some new ones. But for now, as of today, Mt. Adams is my favorite ride, and has held that position since the first time I did it. (Lo, those many years ago, with Topper.)

Since it’s my favorite ride, I make a point of going regardless of what it does to my work/life schedule. This year, I was especially determined to go because my Walla Walla friends (Laurie, Heather and Hope) would be there. I miss those ladies so much it makes me crazy sometimes. 

I made a really lazy start on my trip Friday morning—slept late, took a luxurious shower, gradually pulled my stuff together. Brian came home after an early-morning staff meeting to see me off. Unfortunately, he was determined to make it to his 11 a.m. Kempo class, but also determined to watch me leave for the ride. This meant that he started “helping” me pack, and rushed me through the part of the packing process where I wander the house randomly opening closets and seeing if I need to take anything from them.  So yeah, totally forgot the camp chairs and my PNER officer jacket. Ooopsy!

It was after 11 when I got out to Abiqua to pick up Blue. Again, I lazily loaded up my stuff. There wasn’t anyone out there to rush me.

So here’s another one of those subtle differences between Walla Walla and Salem. Driving to Mt. Adams from Walla involved a lot of very easy driving on empty freeway with lots of places to stop. Driving up from Salem involves fighting traffic along the winding two-lane highway that goes from Silverton to Oregon city, then fighting bizarre mid-day Portland traffic on I-205, then coming back out onto the busiest stretch of I-84, then choosing between two narrow, grated bridges over the Columbia… anyway, it isn’t the same relaxing, soul-replenishing drive as it was from Walla. (Have I ever mentioned how much I enjoy a long, solitary drive on an empty highway? Too late now.)

Once across the Columbia (I took the Bridge of the Gods at Cascade Locks), I had about 20 miles of bendy, tunneled highway 14 to take before the turn north to Trout Lake. I wouldn’t bother mentioning this except that I fell in behind a rig I recognized. Monica and Cathy were going nice and slow, and since they were in front of me, setting the pace, I didn’t have to feel guilty about the line of cars behind us. :) Also, it’s just fun to have been doing this long enough to know people and rigs by sight. (It’s the little things, guys!)

We pulled into camp, and boy were we in for a surprise. The field was PACKED. I did this ride last year during the EHV scare, and we parked right next to the gate. This year, I had to drive through a virtual horse trailer city to find a place big enough for me to park and save room for Laurie’s rig too. I was lucky that it just happened to be relatively close to a potty and a water trough. Darlene even said in the ride meeting that she though they were nuts to put a potty so far down the field. Little did she know…

I called Heather to let the Walla contingent know that I had saved them a spot, and to warn them how full the field was. I didn’t want them to get discouraged on the quarter-mile drive down camp looking for my little setup. :)

One of the nice things about living closer and arriving relatively early is having time to set up in daylight and really think out the shape of your camp. The whole field was full of lush, green grass, so I set up Blue’s pen as fast as I could. He was a grazing machine, which was fine with me. As long as he’s eating, he gets into minimal mischief. That makes it less scary to leave him alone in camp while I register and get my vet card.

Oh, the line at registration. And the line to vet in. Such lines! I bet I waited at least half an hour to register. Honestly, that minor annoyance was drowned out by how happy I was for RM Darlene and PNER as a whole. A well-attended ride has a much better chance of being financially stable and coming back year after year. Standing in long lines is a good omen for the sport.

I went back for Blue and vetted in with Dr. Jen (again, wonderful to start “knowing” all the people at a ride). Blue pulsed at 40, which is pretty typical for him. He was all A’s down the card except for an A- on guts (fair enough, he didn’t touch his food in the trailer) and an A- on skin tenting. This is something that I’m not sure how to deal with. Blue has a lot of excess skin on his neck/chest. Like some mustangs, he has something almost like a borderline dewlap, and always looks wrinkled compared to every other horse I’ve ever owned. Is that something I can reasonably bring up with vets? I could bring pics that show he’s like that all the time regardless of stress, feeding, hydration and exercise level. He’s like the equine equivalent of a shar pei. Would it make a difference if the vets knew that, or are they seeing something in the tenting that I’m not seeing?

Anyway, it’s not like an A- is a bad score. Not obsessing. Not obsessing. Not obsessing.

As long as we were all the way over at the vet check, I figured I might as well take Blue up to see the start. This Mt. Adams camp is the “alternate” ride camp. In a normal (i.e., dry) year, camp is up at a forest service (?) horse camp a couple miles up the road. Since this alternate camp is on a private ranch, the start has to be controlled. The first quarter mile is pavement, including a bridge over a raging mountain creek. Coming back into camp, that’s great. It is the perfect excuse to dismount and let your horse pulse down as you walk the last little bit. Going out, it is a nightmare scenario, where amped-up horses slide around on pavement, spooking and jigging their way up to the trailhead. I wanted Blue to see it so he’d understand. We walked the paved part and maybe a half-mile into the trail. I didn’t want to see too much of it and psych myself out. I just wanted to know what we’d be up against.

But Ruth, you’ve ridden that trail before! Surely you remember how the beginning of the trail looks! Well, no. I rode it on Otto last year, and it was, at best, a blur… and at worst a sort of slasher flick montage of holding on for dear life. Riding that horse through a start scared the poop out of me. Make no mistake.

Walked back down to camp and met Laurie coming up to register. Hugs all around. They found the parking spot I saved for them and everybody was unloading and getting settled. I helped as much as I could while still getting my own stuff set up. After the WW people were registered and vetted, Heather, Hope and I took our horses up to look at the start again.

By the time we got back, it was getting on toward evening, so we had a little light supper and then gathered up our stuff for the ride meeting. It was already getting chilly, and I began to worry about the long, cold night ahead. I began to worry a bit more when Darlene announced that there were 70-plus riders in the LD. A murmur went up in the crowd.

I guess everyone else, like me, had been hoping that those long lines of people were all doing 50s. No such luck.

Heather, Laurie and I talked quite a bit about how we might deal with this scenario. They decided that since they were both on exceptionally fast horses, their best bet was to start right at the front and just try to stay there.

Before I knew how many riders there would be, I was planning to hang back and turtle again like at Grizzly. With 75 riders, many of them newbies who would likely bolt the start and fizzle the end, that wouldn’t be the best option for Blue. What we needed was to find a comfortable gap in the middle of the pack and ride in a bubble as much as possible. We had to do as everyone always says and “ride our own ride.” I crawled into my sleeping-bag-and-blanket cocoon still pondering how I might make that happen. Yes, indeed, this was going to be a challenge.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

There were 75 starters in the LD!

We came in 24th (?), and we had the BEST time.

Halfway through the first loop—smiling.

Vet check—smiling.

Almost finished—still smiling.
Me and Blue... we had the BEST TIME!

Mt. Adams ride story and many more pics to come...

Sunday, May 13, 2012

One more thing

When I got out to the barn today, the first thing Bob said you me:

"Did you know that horse of yours can swim?"

Turns out Blue crossed the pond to get into the mare pasture. No harm done, but I wish I had been there to see it.

Clip clop clank

Let me preface this with a very important statement: The farrier is coming tomorrow. The farrier IS coming tomorrow. Tomorrow!

I think The Kid actually thought I was being a little too "crazy horse lady" back in April when I said that it would be wise to reset Blue before Mt. Adams... putting us on a five-week shoe rotation. Well, what does he know anyway? Nah, it was his first time working on Blue and I think tomorrow will open his eyes a bit.

Blue's front feet are toe-tastic. They aren't completely pancaking, thank goodness, but they are long and underslung and too ugly to take pics of. :)

The hinds are more the opposite problem. I warned The Kid that Blue tends to drag his hind toes and will square them off on his own if you don't give him a humongous breakover.

That pinpoint of light in the toe is a little hole where he has worn his toe all the way through the hoof wall.
The other hind shoe has its own problems. I'm not sure if he stepped on himself or what, but I'm pretty sure this is isn't normal shoe placement:

I repeat, the farrier is coming tomorrow.

Overall, our ride was really good in spite of the shoe troubles. We did roughly 3.6 miles up before the road changed to pavement. By then it was getting pretty hot out and Blue was looking for water, so we were happy to head back to the trailer.

Molalla River, skeptical ears.

Nice even sweat marks.
Next stop, Trout Lake!

Hi, Mom.


Hi, Mom.

Ahem. I said HI, MOM.


Happy Mother's Day, everybody. (You're great—no matter how many legs your kids have.)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Molalla River Corridor

Say that Blue was “forward” on Sunday would be putting it all-too-mildly.  It felt like we could have done 50 miles, all uphill, were it not for the loggers using the trails as a sort of catchall for the branches they trimmed off. The mountain bikers that I met on my way up (their way down) said there were log jams all the way up the Huckleberry trail, so I took the Loop Road trail instead. It was in pretty much the same condition after the first two miles. 

I wish I had a picture. Basically, the trimmings (everything from twigs to four-inch-diameter limbs) were covering the trail for 10 or 15 yards every quarter mile. We bushwhacked through one, but it was a huge hassle to dismount, find a path, remount, ride the fire-breathing dragon for 3 minutes, dismount and do it all over again. So we turned around.

Coming back down, at a walk on the muddy gravel and rock, I gave Blue his head mostly… hoping that he would tuck his butt and concentrate without me micromanaging.

He did a pretty good job without any major bobbles until he caught sight of a couple horses in front of us. The anxiety-fueled racebrain had him walking faster and faster, then jigging, then trotting, then TROTTING (!!!) downhill on slick, muddy rock to catch them. I tried an SRS, but got a sideways jigging sliding stumble—and did I mention the trail dropping off into the Molalla river canyon off to the side?—so, coward that I am, I allowed him to catch them rather than risk SRSing us into the chasm. I know that means it will be even harder to stop him next time, but at least no one was hurt and there WILL BE a next time.

Who, me? I'm a GOOD BOY.

I DID make him go ahead and pass them, leaving them immediately, so he couldn’t get attached and didn’t receive any emotional benefit from his redonkulous behavior. We passed politely and then powered up another hill. Sadly, the downhill side on this new trail (Rim trail) was ankle-deep clay-mud and slick as snot. Blue wasn’t handling it well (can’t blame him; I struggled too), so I dismounted and had a long walk on slick single-track before we crossed back onto the gravel and I could remount.

I jogged him down again, and this time there was no one to catch so we were OK. He still had gallons of gas in the tank, but there wasn’t anywhere else to go, so I got down and walked him down the last long, rocky downhill stretch.

Overall, I liked the Molalla River Corridor. I think that once it dries out it a little more will be exceptional conditioning ground. In the meantime, I’ll probably be back to tackle those long uphills on the gravel a few more times.

The only real drawback I can see is that it was crowded. The parking area was a jumble of trailers, and we had to park on the side of the road down a ways from the trailhead. 

I am intrigued, though. There is a logging road (helpfully labeled “Molalla Forest Road” on my DeLorme) that can be accessed at the same point. The gate was open, but it was bristling with “private road” and “no trespassing” signs, so I’ll need to call Weyerheuser and see what the deal is. 

That road goes all the way back to the town of Molalla, and could be humdinger of a conditioning road if the loggers didn’t object to me being there. Blue doesn’t mind trucks and I don’t mind dust.

Looking at the Google satellite images, I can see that the road has some homes along it, so it seems like the gates would be open all the way up to town. I’m new to this sort of thing, though. I don’t want to upset anyone in my ongoing quest to find all-season riding options.

On Monday evening, we had a really good ride by ourselves at home. Blue again trucked up the hill gamely. Coming down, we took the switchbacks. I was able to collect him up, but he was still very heavy in front. I had to stop and show him each hairpin turn rather than lightly directing. But at least he went willingly and took the bit of mud and water in stride. I took him out on the road a little too. We didn't go far, but it was my first attempt to ride him away from the barn on a fairly busy paved road. He didn't bat an eye. There is a good horse somewhere deep under all that naughtiness.

Tomorrow we have an appointment for massage with Sarah of Topline. Sarah happens to be a fellow boarder, so it is particularly convenient for everyone involved. Blue has been sensitive over his loin because of our ongoing canter negotiations. I'm hoping Sarah can give him some relief and show me some useful stretches. I'll be sure to post some pics!