|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.|
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.|
|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.
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.
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.|
|Outstanding in his field. (Sunday afternoon)|