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.


  1. Bravo! Great post, and I agree about the "flowchart".
    I find I still have to check myself, even though I've come from a different background and should know better. (Nothing will teach a person what too much speed can do to a horse, like TB flat racing will).

  2. I really loved reading this post (and the previous ones leading up to it)--thanks for blogging about the ride from your perspective!

    I, too, hate having a cold face when camping, and even though I detest wearing hats during the day, I've discovered that a nice, deep, warm hat (preferably fleece or fleece-lined) is perfect--I pull it down over my nose (I'm a mouth-breather, at least at night), and snuggle up to my chin in the sleeping bag, and leave my mouth out to breathe fresh, cool air, and it's perfect.

  3. Great post, Ruth! I know you're really busy right now, but if you ever get some time on your hands, maybe you'd like to be a beta-reader for my Endurance 101 book? In the best case scenario, your feedback would help me revise the book, and you might learn stuff to make the process easier on yourself!

    Let me know if you're interested.

    Oh, and BTW Rescue Remedy is awesome. I used to put it in my (former) riding partner's morning cup before an event to keep her from being totally whacked-out for the first 20 miles. I also recommend L-Theanine (brand name "Zen in a bottle"), available at most health-food and vitamin stores. Zen doesn't make you dumb, it just makes you non-anxious.

  4. Way to go Ruth ☺ ! Glad you are having some good rides. Keep blogging...I so look forward to your progress. ~ E.G.

  5. It is so neat to see all the photos! The benefit of traveling with many others, I imagine :) Glad to hear you are riding your own ride and WINNING at it :D