Thursday, June 27, 2013

Endurance Rashomon

I literally haven’t touched my horse since the Sunday after Sunriver. I wanted to give him two full weeks off to process the ride and heal before we hit the trails again.

In the meantime there has been some chatter in PNER-land about Funder’s ride story and follow-up post. (Though I think more read the former than the latter...) As you may have guessed, her comments were not universally well-received up here.

PNER is like any organization. There are politics involved—backstories, old grudges, personality conflicts, historical context and nuance—much of which I’m totally oblivious to as a relatively new person. Unfortunately (?) the internet is a great place for people to air their grievances or retaliate publicly for all to see—forever. Then negativity overflows, devolves into he-said-she-said, divides our tiny club, and feeds more bad feelings. It’s the same lack of civility that made me leave the Ridecamp email group. It’s disappointing to see that attitude spill over into Facebook, where a lot of beginners congregate  to soak up our knowledge.

What must they think of us?

Do they want to be part of a club where the reaction to criticism is petty name-calling?

Look, not every ride goes perfectly for everyone. You guys know I had a crappy time at Bandit last year. It wasn’t exactly a secret. A big part of endurance blogging for me is telling my story—warts and all—so that beginners and aspiring riders know that everyone has crappy experiences from time to time. Horses misbehave, trail is iffy, people are under a lot of pressure and get snarky, rude and judgmental. (Seriously, that’s just competitions and horses. Anyone who has shown on the breed circuit, hunter/jumper, rodeo, dressage or whatever also sees the equestrian community at their absolute elitist worst.)

Blogging isn’t journalism. (I should know; my degree is in journalism but my day job is in social media.) When I write the blog, I’m telling about the experience from my perspective, as I experienced it. Sometimes I leave things out because I think they are boring, or too private, or I know that someone who was involved would be embarrassed to see it in writing. Sometimes I add my own commentary, hearsay and hindsight. As they say: Your Experience May Vary.

We’re all out there on the trail alone. This is an individual sport, and everyone’s internal monologue is different. Two people riding together may have opposite impressions of how it’s going. That’s the nature of the sport. Endurance is Rashomon.

So when someone says "that ride was perfect in every way, and anyone who says different is an idiot," it upsets me. Ride a mile in my stirrups before you call me names.

When I blog, I try to convey a sense of the full range of emotions you might feel as a rider in this crazy sport. Newbies take note: It isn’t weird to be frustrated, nor is it weird to be triumphant. You can be both at the same time if you want. Endurance isn’t all glory and good feelings—it’s also a lot of sweat, blood, tears, dirt, early mornings, late nights and money down the drain.

Absolutely, there are people who are going to disagree or take offense when I say it isn’t all rainbows and flowers. If you are one of those people, I’d sure appreciate it if you comment on my posts and tell me why I’m wrong. Defend your opinion. Start a dialogue. Teach me something about the way you see the world.

I promote this sport to every rider I meet because it changed my relationship with horses forever. It changed the way I see myself as a rider. It changed my perspective on all equestrian disciplines.

There is nothing else quite like it, even when it goes badly.

So why is it so frowned-upon to say so?

Monday, June 17, 2013

55 miles is a lot of miles

The only good thing about the second loop: Mt. Bachelor.

I had plenty of time to write this post. I mean, I was writing it in my head as Blue and I trudged, and I mean trudged, through the last 15 or so miles of Sunriver this weekend.

Like many of my greatest endurance experiences, this one was kind of spur-of-the-moment. Thank goodness my horse is such a rock that he can just go with it. I mean, I was planning to go to Sunriver. It fit the schedule that I’ve designed for the season. I have been pretty consistent with my conditioning. We were absolutely ready for another LD.

And then, for whatever reason, late last week, I started thinking about doing a 50. And the idea of maybe doing the 50 began to eat away at my peace of mind. It nibbled and nagged at the edge of my consciousness, making it very hard for me to focus on things like, say, my job. A little voice whispered in my ear that Blue is in the best shape of his life. Everything I’ve read or heard about Sunriver makes it sound fairly easy. The weather report for the weekend looked perfect—neither hot nor cold.

Maybe I should do the 50…?

Maybe I should do the 50?

Maybe I should do the 50.

Maybe I should do the 50!

And then on Thursday, I went out to the barn to pack up all my stuff and give Blue one last once-over to make sure all systems were go for launch. I decided I wanted to do a little more work on his feet to make sure they’d actually fit into the boots. I also wanted to medicate them, as he’s had a little flare-up of the ouchies in his feet since he went back on pasture for the summer. I figure one more thorough cleaning and application of No Thrush would kill things off to the point where the moisture-sucking Eastern Oregon grit could work its way into the crevices over the weekend and get Blue’s foot fauna back into happy balance.

Once I was satisfied with my work, I took Blue to the round pen so I could watch him move and make sure he was really, truly, absolutely sound before we got on the road. I would describe his movement that night as sub-par. His heels were clearly on the sore side, and he was choosing to go a little short and land toe-first, but the rhythm was good and his attitude was normal. So I decided we’d go for it. This probably isn’t the most enlightened approach to these things, but I figured that if his feet were so horrible last fall when we finished Foothills, having them at least a shade better meant they were good enough to justify a ride. Yeah, that’s right. I admit it. I am fine with riding my horse when his overall health is just good enough and not perfect. Sue me.

The drive over was completely uneventful (my better-late-than-never vehicle repairs pay off!); we got to camp around 1 p.m. I’d never been there before, so I wasn’t fully prepared for the landscape or the dust. Frankly, this is one of the uglier camps. It’s a clearcut field of snags and bare dirt surrounded by scrubby trees. Luckily, with my small rig, I was able to claim a spot in those very same scrubby trees, so Blue and I at least had some shade.

Setting up camp took an eternity. I caught myself longing for Kara’s trailer, where camp is “set up” as soon as the corrals come out.

But eventually all the work got done so I could go for a ride. Still unsure about the distance I wanted to enter, I decided to base my final choice on the outcome of a quick pre-ride of the first couple miles. Blue was an absolute raving lunatic. He powered up the hill out of camp, took hold, and barreled down the trail light as a feather and stiff as a board, brake lines apparently severed. Clearly, he needed the miles.

(In retrospect, you’d think that his lack of brakes would make me want to ride him less, but for some reason my brain was all, like, “Hey, this animal is almost uncontrollable. Let’s spend the whole day with him! Hooray!”)

After I made that choice, paid my entry and vetted, it was time to be social. Kara and my Walla Walla peeps were there, and I finally got to meet Team Fixie! Those guys are crazy. (But Funder gave me some excellent advice…. More on that to come.)

4:42 a.m., ride day

I have to pee. I have to pee so bad I’m sweating and my eyeballs are yellow. But it is soooooo cooooooold I can’t bear to leave my sleeping bag. I can hear horses moving around outside, talking softly, warming up. The 100-milers start at 5 a.m. 

I did get up and hike to the potty, bundled in many layers and a bit unsteady from cold and lack of sleep. I grabbed the phone and snapped a few photos of Team Fixie going out.

There was quite a bit of confusion at the start. Management had told us the start was in one place, but when we all went up to the trail, there was no RM to take numbers. The riders went back and forth between that spot and the vet area many times looking for a number-taker before someone finally went to WAKE UP the RM team, who had overslept. Several of the horses were pretty worked up by then from all the waiting around, but they finally left, and it was time for me to get my own horse ready.

  • A quick note—my take on the management of this ride: I really have no point of reference. Because I’ve only ever done the LD, I’m typically in the last group to leave camp and the first group to come back. All of the endurance “infrastructure” is fully up and running by the time I ride and doesn’t come down until long after I’m finished. So I’ve never been awake or present to see if the start and end of this ride were managed in a way that was “normal” (even if not ideal). But seeing how the 100-milers started on Saturday morning and reading about how Funder was lost at the gravel pit in the dark of Saturday night… it does seem like things were not as professional as I would hope/expect from the people involved. We lost a well-known horse in our region a few years ago when riders couldn’t find the trail in the dark and the horse was fatally injured off-trail. It was a different RM and different circumstances in some ways, but to me, it was a very real reminder of what’s at stake at these rides. People and horses can die because of choices made by RMs and riders both. I hope that what happened to Funder and M is made known to the RM in a calm, straightforward way so she can put more safeguards in place next year.

So anyway, back to my ride. Once the 100s were gone, I had less than an hour to pound the boots onto Blue’s feet, tack him up, finish getting dressed, force-feed myself breakfast and warm up my horse.

Blue, doing what he does best... even at 5:30 in the morning.
An hour is really the perfect amount of time because that way I can’t fidget or worry. Our start was at 6 a.m., so at 5:57, I walked Blue far away from the start, mounted, and rode him in the opposite direction to warm up and bring his sky-high racebrain back down to earth. This ended up working great, the mutiny being contained and away from the other horses.

Blue still started up the trail with a lot of power, but I could hold him and he wasn’t trying anything stupid like bucking. We just powered down the trail. Of course, we missed one of the very first turns because of our speed. I hadn’t seen a ribbon in a while, and I saw tracks going both ways. If I had been thinking clearly, I would have known that those tracks were from other people who had missed the turn and come back, but I went another quarter mile before I made that connection with the people following me (sorry!) and we went back and caught the trail branching off.

Then began almost 20 miles of gradual, gradual, grrrrradual downhill to the Deschutes River vet check. This was actually the best trail of the day, having plenty of shade and single-track areas to keep it interesting. But it was still a very long haul to the first vet check and hold. Blue didn’t drink at the first two water stops, which is actually pretty normal. But I e-lyted him anyway, thinking that would encourage him to drink at the next stop. Little did I know how long it would be. He was more than ready to drink at our first glimpse of the river from the top of a bluff, but there were many, many miles to go before the check.

River view from high above.
When we finally got there, he drank and drank. I let him just gulp down water for a couple minutes, then took him to a pulser and was thrilled to learn he was already down. He ate like a starving man and vetting through fine. We got back on the trail, expecting 10-ish miles back to camp.

Almost done with the first leg, and still feeling mighty good! Photos by Jessica Anderson.

First check. Thank heaven for abundant water and shade.

What goes down must come up

I suppose it should go without saying that the whole second leg was just up, up, up since the first leg was down, down, down. And poor Blue, he has not been conditioned for that kind of brutal, slow uphill grade. He is used to short burst of extreme exertion up steep hills, followed by relatively flat. This was not that. He dogged along, only occasionally reviving when some of the LD frontrunners started passing us and dragging us along in their wake.

The other thing that I really didn’t like about the second leg was that it was a lot of deeply rutted, rocky Jeep road, which meant that Blue was working hard not only on climbing the grade but in placing his feet safely. Then the Jeep road opened up into The Road That Never Ends, which was actually a really well-maintained forest service road. The problem with that road was that it was perfectly straight and so long you couldn’t see the end of it, just the horizon ahead. And, oh yeah, we would be doing that same stretch of road again… 20 miles later.

Still, Blue is a mustang with a lot of natural grit. He never gave up all the way up the hill. We made it through that second leg and came into camp feeling pretty good. Which reminds me, the reason I felt good was because Funder used positive reinforcement and peer pressure to convince me to eat at least 100 calories every hour and wash it down with plenty of water. She is a smart lady. I cursed her name as I choked down a melted granola bar and tough-as-nails jerky, flushing it down my throat with my now-lukewarm water… but danged if I wasn’t more clearheaded  and less pain-addled than usual.

Free hotdogs off the grill at the first vet check. I really wasn't hungry, nor did a hotdog sound good to me at 9 a.m., but I wanted to be sure the folks running the ride knew how grateful I was for their thoughtfulness! Also, Funder told me to. (Blue had junk food at the first check too—all the alfalfa and carrots he could eat.)

The death march begins

We vetted through the second check (in camp, this time) with flying colors. I took Blue up to the trailer to eat a gigantic mash. While he ate, I drank more vitaminwater, refilled my bottles, reapplied my sunscreen and changed into lighter clothes. According to my thermometer, it was 27 degrees out when we started riding at 6 a.m. By noon, when I was back in camp, it was in the mid-70s and full sun.

Second vet check. Photo by Laurie.

 We set out again, feeling not too shabby at all.

That changed quickly. The trail out of camp for the last loop was appallingly bad. It made the rocky, rutted road from earlier look like groomed arena footing. Truly, riding bad footing out of camp on a tired horse who doesn’t really want to leave is just… bah. It really took the wind out of both of our sails.

I can’t say much about that last loop. It was hot, it was far, the footing was mostly middling to meh. There wasn’t nearly enough shade or water for my personal needs. Twenty miles is a long way without a refill, and my drinking water was long gone before we made it back to The Road That Never Ends.

Also, Blue had stopped trotting. He was willing to walk. He was happy to canter. But he was all trotted out. To me, this is where the longer distance really shows you your weaknesses. An LD isn’t really far enough to make those limitations show themselves. In retrospect, I know exactly what I did wrong. I rode the same diagonal too much. Blue’s right hind leg had been taking the brunt of my weight and lack of balance for 40-plus miles, and it just couldn’t take anymore. (Note: By that evening, his right hind had puffed up considerably, but on the trail his trouble didn’t seem to track to one particular limb. Hindsight is 20/20!)

So, once I had seen to it that he wasn’t actively lame or having an episode of tying up, I did the only sensible thing a person can do when they’re in unknown wilderness without a map or a friend. I kept riding. I followed the ribbons and finished the ride. I gave up on being steady and let Blue canter half a mile then walk half a mile, alternating all the way back to camp. It was horrible and dispiriting and lonely and I really don’t want to talk about it.

The Road.

OK, maybe I’ll talk about it a little. Part of the reason that I love endurance is that it is a “safe” way to see the backcountry. Everything is marked, the trails have been checked and ridden by others, someone is back in camp expecting me to show up. What makes the Mt. Adams ride my absolute favorite above all others is the radio contact. There are volunteers on the trail at key junctions with radios down to the ride manager. If you are sick or lost, or if you come upon someone who is hurt, it is a fair bet that you would not have to go more than five miles to find someone with a radio who can help. At Sunriver, that distance was 20-plus miles.

On the other hand, that lack of support is probably the reason I successfully completed my first “real endurance” event this weekend. If there had been someone out there with a clipboard and a radio, I would have been happy to quit right there.

If a rider pulls in the forest and no one is there to hear her, did it really happen? 

At Sunriver, there was no one to hear me give up, so I didn’t give up. Finishing was the only option.

Coming back into camp, I didn’t feel the burst of accomplishment and elation that some people speak of. I was dehydrated and in a lot of pain. By then I had changed my stirrup length twice, but my knees and hips still felt like raw hamburger, bone on bone. But far more than my pain and thirst, I was absolutely terrified that Blue would be too lame to earn his completion. If I had just subjected myself to the 20-mile Loop From Hell for no reason, I really don’t know what I would have done.

Because a 50-mile completion happens when you cross the finish line (instead of when your horse meets pulse criteria, as in LD), I made a strategic decision to take Blue up to the trailer before his completion exam. I untacked him and gave us both a couple minutes to eat, drink and collect our thoughts. I debated pulling his boots, but decided not to risk it. Then it was back down to the vet area. We were almost done.

I was bargaining with the universe as we walked together toward judgment. Please let him trot out sound. Please let his gut sounds be normal and his body be not too sore. Please, please, please just let us finish this ride. I won’t do another 50 until we’re both ready. I promise. Just don’t take this one away.

We did finish. The vet card tells the story. Blue was way beyond tired. His impulsion was nil, his movement was mildly off, but not consistent and not tracking to a particular limb at that point. The vet took our card and sent us on our way. We weren’t even last place, if you can believe it.

Sleepy boy Saturday evening. I went to bed long before dark and slept until awards the next morning.
When we got home on Sunday around lunchtime, Blue leapt out of the trailer and dragged me to the pasture gate. He was so impatient, he could barely wait for me to undo his halter. As soon as it was off his head, he was off like a bolt of lightning. He cantered away, bucked, trotted to the wallow, took a long roll in the dirt (grunting and groaning almost orgasmically throughout), leapt up and trotted away like he had all the energy in the world.

 Outstanding in his field. (Sunday afternoon)
But I guess I should have known. It takes more than 55 miles of hills to kill a mustang!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Public service announcement

It has been about a month since the fellow-boarder who was letting me borrow her rasp and hoofjack moved out to her own place. In the meantime, Blue's feet have been growing up a storm and were getting pretty raggedy. So raggedy, in fact, that they wouldn't fit in the boots anymore.

So yesterday, I went and bought myself a shiny new Save Edge rasp with a handle.

And that's when I learned something very important, kiddoes.

There is at least one good reason your farrier wears gloves.

"Sorry, officer. Those fingerprints couldn't possibly be mine."

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Muddy feet

We had some of this during the week:

Which is how Blue ended up with four of these.

Lovely little six-mile ride at Willamette Mission this afternoon. Blue managed the mud better than ever before and didn't break a sweat. It's a little bit of a bummer to see the pictures from Klickitat (a ride I love), but I know that staying home is the right thing from Blue and for my checking account. We should both be fresh and sassy and Sunriver in a couple weeks!

Rarin' to go.

This is one of the wider spots. Most of the trail is being rapidly reclaimed by blackberries. Good thing I wore long sleeves!

A very boggy obstacle.

Death march with gopher holes, the only slow going all day.

Yummy river water!