Sunday, June 1, 2014

NASTR 75 - In Which pft and I Ride 75 Miles and pft Gets Whacked in the Face by Branches

At 25 miles - Photo: Bill Gore

Well, in time-honoured tradition, the NASTR 75 plan that wasn't really a plan came off way smoother than expected. Is there a correlation between worry and what will go wrong? i.e. the more you worry, the less likely it is that the things you are worrying about will cause any problems at all? Of course, there were the mandatory glitches, but nothing overwhelming, and they involved none of the things I'd been fretting about all week.

The Day Before

It was a scrabble to get there on time - we were running so late (even later than our Predictably Late lateness) that we had to scuttle around like mad things once we got there to get everything ready. So much for socialising.

One of the last minute "emergencies" involved a discussion between pft and I about which tights to wear. He wondered about some elastic-nearly-gone tights that had knee padding, over a newer pair. I worried that the bagginess from lack of elastic would cause rubs (happened to me at 20MT last year). Turns out that he was already getting knee rubs from the saddle. He's been using a shortie-sheepskin cover - it's very very cushy, but only for the butt and upper thigh - no protection down lower. I have a longer sheepskin, but it was pretty tired and had been more or less retired due to being ripped at the attachment points. It has been sitting on my copious "mending pile" for months. Looked like I needed to do some emergency mending.

So I got out the needle and thread and sewed up the torn parts, then proceeded to add various strategically-placed grommets to get the thing really firmly attached to the saddle. Luckily, I've got one of these longer sheepskins on my saddle, so I know how to rig them up and what the pitfalls were if you didn't get it firmly attached.

Once at ride camp, we speed-tacked up Fergus and I had pft trot him up and down to make sure it was going to work OK - because you know that trotting 200' is going to show you exactly how something will perform over 75 miles. Unfortunately, he was wearing jeans that were rucking up, so it was hard to tell what was a wrinkle in his jeans and what might be a wrinkle in the saddle cover. The fact that you're not supposed to try anything new on ride day was in the back of my mind, so my Emergency Plan involved adding the shortie sheepskin (and the grommet kit) to an auxiliary crew bag in case we should need to make a switch at the vet check if we discovered that the longer sheepskin wasn't working.

Of course, the sheepskin (experted mounted on the saddle, if I do say so myself) performed flawlessly and pft never even noticed it was there all day.

One of my other tasks was to get both pones braided up. The temps were forecast to be in the mid 80s, so I knew we'd be sponging a lot. I ran the other day - first time in a year - and know how good and refreshing and rejuvenating splashing myself in the creek half-way along had felt - and I resolved to do much, much better about sponging the horse at EVERY opportunity. Sponges and soft-sided scoops were added to the tack pile.

We may be slow, but at least my pones look smart in their braids:

Feeling fraught, we finally sat down to supper at 11:30 pm.

We set our alarm for 3:30 am although neither of us slept that well. But getting up that early did make for a reasonably relaxed start to the day, as well as giving us time to get the "horse stations" ready for the evening (filling water buckets to the brim and setting out full hay bags). I knew from past experience that the less we had to do when we came in at the end of the ride, the better (...and, yup, once again by the end, I proved incapable of getting the T-fasteners done up on Roo's blankie - and his is the easiest one to do up).

(I'm still not sure I managed to actually eat any breakfast, though, now I think about it. Hmmm.)

Figuring out what to wear was tricky - it was warm enough to be in shirt sleeves, until the breeze kicked in. I eventually opted for a cami top with sunshirt over it, and my fleece vest on top of that. pft wore a hoodie - and we were glad of the extra layers going through the canyon in the early morning. By about 8:30 a.m. I was starting to bake and the vest got elasticked onto the back of the saddle (I have a couple of string-elastic toggles back there which I can maneuver clothing into without turning around in my saddle).

Loop 1 - 0-25 miles

Fergus got quite excited watching the front-runners warming up in the sand arena immediately adjacent to our trailer, so we let everyone go ahead and ambled out at about 5:05 a.m., both horses on a loose rein, both pretty laid-back about the whole situation. Mindful of my warming up lessons during rehab with Uno, I made us walk for ten minutes before picking up the trot. Andrew Gerhardt came flying past saying "you should make time while it's still cool" - and I told him we still had three minutes of walking to go.

The first few miles are easy hard-packed dirt road that climbs gradually before dropping into El Dorado Canyon. I don't know if the creek in El Dorado Canyon runs the entire summer (possibly, since I think it's spring-fed), but there was plenty of water in it at the end of May. With so much greenery and water, it's a riparian oasis for birds and animals.

The cave about 2/3rds of the way
through El Dorado Canyon
I love the first 2-3 hours of this ride - it's all technical stuff - dropping into the creekbed, scrambling over rocks, balancing through babyheads, clambering up the side of the banks. There were mini-bogs, endless stream crossings, a multitude of pine boughs to poke your eye out on, willows to dodge, cottonwoods to duck under. We passed through the middle of a jeepers' camp, passed strange rock formations (this canyon is very volcanic), passed a cave big enough to live in, as well as several that were big enough to squeeze into, and it's all interspersed with sections of footing that is good enough to trot at will - if only for 50' at a time.

Fergus and pft led the way and did a great job getting us through in a seamless fashion - no easy feat when you're pacing for two very-unevenly sized/strided horses.

Illinois Canyon (a side canyon to El Dorado) rock formations

We were caught and passed by two groups of 50-mile front runners (a group of five, followed by a group of three) - earlier than usual to be passed, but I think it was them pushing each other rather than the speed we were going.

Picking our way through the babyhead rocks
in Illinois Canyon 

When we finally got out on the main dirt road - Sunrise Pass Rd - Roo was eager to get on with it and asked to canter. It's a level, minimally-rutted road  so I let him play a little. pft got Fergus cantering as well and pretty soon both boys were racing each other along the ledge of road, having a lot of fun and not pacing correctly for a 75 mile ride at all. We pulled them down to a walk and then let them go again. And that was enough. For the next half hour or so, every time we tried to get them to trot sensibly, they wanted to canter and race each other.

We stopped and sponged and got them a drink at the slightly-off-trail creek (didn't look like many riders had bothered with this drinking/sponging opportunity) - and four of the six people I knew were behind us snuck on by while we were down there. At the top of the climb, the remaining pair of riders came past and thus we were in last place - at 20 miles.

Climbing the only hill of any significance on the course.
Despite the apparent lack of real hills, we still ended up doing
6,000'+ of climbing (and descent) by the end of the day.

...and clambering down the other side among the rocks - Slide Mtn in the distance on the right.

Shortly after this, Fergus' RF size 3 glue-one came off. This was no great surprise - it's the one where the glue was set up before I even got it on his foot. I was pleased that it lasted as long as it did. pft got off and put on a strap-on Glove and off we went again. This turned out to be the only "boot event" of the entire 75 miles. Roo's four glue-ons and Fergus' remaining three never moved (and, as I type this on Wednesday evening, are still firmly on their feet - removal is going to have to wait until the weekend because it's going to require some serious work to get them off and I haven't gotten home from work before 10 p.m. this week). The sparsie Glove gave Fergus no problem either - picking up minimal grit despite the sandwashes and the creek crossings, didn't rub, and didn't shift the whole ride.

For once Roo out-drank and out-peed Fergus - not a common occurrence.
Fergus usually out-drinks Roo by about three to one, but on this ride, for some reason Roo was in drinking mode. Fergus still got As on hydration, but Roo drank and drank - and peed often as a result. Good pony. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come (it only took him 1700 miles to figure it out).

We got into the 26 mile vet check just past 10 a.m. - five hours which was pretty good going for the terrain and minor booting-interlude.

This was a 40 minute hold, but wasn't really long enough to sort out two people and two horses.

Arriving at the first vet check at 26 miles - still grinning
Photo: Bob Hall

Does this couple look like they have any clue what they're doing??
Photo: Bob Hall

Making up the horse meals the night before -
exactly how much food do two horses need to complete a 75?

When Roo and I did this ride in 2007, I didn't pack enough food for him at the holds (not sure what I was thinking, but apparently failed to take into account the extra 25 miles). So this time, I packed enough food for each hold, plus a bit more ... and then doubled it for the two horses. Added to that were people water bottles - ride management were providing people water at the vet check, but I've been caught out by that before* - one of the pitfalls of riding at the back - so always carry extra. And then doubled that for two people. The result was the stupid crew-box was so heavy I couldn't lift it on my own.

(* turns out this wasn't unreasonable. Whilst they didn't run out, they were running very low by the time we left on our final leg back to camp).

All my boys resting in the shade at the first vet check. 

The trouble with not being able to lift it was the box was in one place and the horses and pft were in another, so I had to shuttle individual items back and forth which didn't make for a very restful 40 minutes. I did manage to elyte the horses (Gina's magic recipe that they have no objection to) before we left, knowing that there was a water trough just a couple of miles up the trail. But we still left the check about 15-20 minutes late.

Leaving on the next leg
Photo: Bob Hall

Loop 2 - 25-50 miles

This was the Kalahari Loop and possibly one of my least favorites of any ride I've ever done. This loop brings out the true meaning of "endurance".

Firstly, it's 25 miles long.

Secondly, it goes out into the desert where there are no trees and no shade.

And thirdly, it does this during the hottest part of the day causing you to become a shrivelled, dessicated thing the longer you're out there.

The first time I ever rode this loop convinced me I needed one of those large Salamander "beak" brims - and I've ridden with one ever since.

The good thing is they've moved the ride date of NASTR 75 to a month earlier - the end of May instead of June, making it marginally less warm, but it was still toasty out there. Of interest is the fact that pft said he never felt uncomfortable, while I was totally baking for most of the five hours we were out there. Unsure if this is:

A) Because I'm a girl and have more, er, "covering" than pft, esp. in the front (even more especially since he dropped over 20 lbs in the last few months... a HW he is no longer, so I told him he mustn't top-ten anything because they'll find out when they weigh him).
B) Because he's riding a great big horse with a really slow tempo, so not working up a lot of heat from activity (this seems possible - I die of heat when riding Small Thing because of the fast tempo).
C) Because I'm 48 and hormonal (this seems unlikely, but was suggested to me today by someone at work).
D) Because girls naturally run hotter than boys.

I wore one of those soaked neck-roll things with the gel inside and spent the entire loop, every three minutes, rolling it on my neck so the cool part was against my skin. I also dabbed at my face with my horse sponge at regular intervals, and re-dunked the neck roll and re-moistened* the sponge at every one of the four water troughs along the way.

(* one of the few perks of riding at the back - you can use your sponge in the trough because there's no one behind you).

I only dropped my neck-roll in the trough once.
And persuaded pft to get off to rescue it.
He's a good husband.

Loop 2 has all the fun stuff at the start - a wildly steep drop down into a sand wash, the sand wash that has lovely wildflowers and glimpses of a view through the V at the bottom, followed by a long chunk of twisty fun singletrack in the sagebrush.

Here's a little video of the steep drop into the sand wash - the video doesn't make it look nearly as steep as it actually is, but trust me, it's steep:

In the sand wash

Nearly to the bottom

Twisty singletrack in the sagebrush
The twisty singletrack section was thoughtfully extended by ride management this year and although it rode a little longer (and a good chunk was in deep, paranoia-provoking sand), it was still a lot of fun. The trick on this trail is to try to stay *on* the trail as it wends its way around the bushlets. And, in the case of riding Roo behind Fergus, staying *on top* of the horse when your body is following the trail around the bush and Roo decides to jog the opposite direction to cut the corner to keep up with Fergus. I only came close to coming off a couple of times. Roo led for some of this, Fergus led for some of this. And after a while we all had to walk for a bit because you can only have too much of a good thing before parts of you start to hurt.

Coming out on the good-footing road at the trough (where I dropped my neck thing), we stopped to talk to several off-roaders who were curious about the ride and what we were doing. After this trough interlude, I explained to pft that we needed to trot as much as possible because there were going to be places later in the day where we wouldn't be able to. And we did pretty good for a pair of riders who have little motivation to trot continously. We egged each other on - taking it in turns to lead. We even cantered a little in a nice relaxed way (I know this was relaxed because I was able to reach down and rescue my escapee sponge as we were going along).

But again, there's only so much trotting you can do before you get the bleahs. Peddling two horses wasn't much fun. At the turning under the powerlines, Roo's homing beacon kicked in a little and he set off in the front - only to spook hugely at a large white boulder and nearly dump me. I could get him to go, but only if Fergus kept up and F was less and less interested in doing so.

Turning into the hot wash I came very close to nearly falling asleep in the saddle and was only saved by Roo stopping to pee - thus providing a bit of minor interest. We trudged along, peddling them into a trot as best we could as often as we could, which didn't seem to be very often.

Wilting in the Kalahari

There was a strange dead truck in the middle of the wash at one point, and that provided some interest for a short while.

And then embarrassingly, along came Scott Dutcher (part of ride management) on an ATV. I assume they sent him out to look for us, which is never a good sign. I announced to pft that from here on out, if we *could* trot, we *would* trot - and luckily from about there onwards, there was plenty of trotting opportunity. On the dirt road coming in (usually my most hated section), I got Roo in front and he went for it - trotting the whole way in in front at a good clip, with only two short 30 second walking breaks that he instigated - and started to trot again without me asking.

We arrived back at the vet check 5 hr 10 mins after we left 25 miles earlier. Again, not too bad - at this point we'd gone 51 miles in 11 hours. Not great, but still within parameters provided we stayed on track and didn't dawdle any further.

We had an hour hold at this point - much needed. The vet check was deserted of other horses, so we left Roo and Fergus unattended in front of a huge pile of hay and sat in the partial shade of a tree. Thanks to Kelly Williams coming in from the next loop, I even got my mind to turn off while chatting with her and munched down some chicken pasta salad, despite feeling queasy from heat and tiredness.

Loop 3 - 50-60 miles

I did not manage to remember to elyte the horses, or to put my soaking neck roll back on my neck leaving on this next loop, so it didn't start quite how it was supposed to. We met two big groups of riders coming in off this loop, which always makes you a little nervous - it shows exactly how far behind you are. But I was OK with our situation. It wasn't great, but I told pft we could still make it provided we didn't dawdle and we trotted everything that could be trotted.

And the loop started off great. pft put Fergus in front and off we went - trotting solidly for about three miles, including another long gradual downhill. pft normally hates to trot downhill, but he did a great job here - really making some time and I was impressed - as well as relieved that we were making time and would be back on track in no time.

And then everything went south.

Roo will lead on his terms - when his radar kicks in, or on occasions when he starts to feel brave. He won't do it consistently, however. Fergus is happy to lead most of the time, and will do so at a good pace.

Except on this loop he decided he didn't want to. And here's where Roo's Wimp Self gets REALLY frustrating. There are times when I NEED him to pick up the slack and go in front and trot when told - and he won't. Partly it was the two horses feeding off each other - the one in front wouldn't trot without the one behind coming too - and the one behind, half the time, was so lethargic in his response that by the time you got him trotting, the one in front had decided he wasn't coming and stopped trotting. So we walked a good chunk of the second half of this loop, particularly when it started uphill and  pft thought Fergus was too tired to do more.

Coming in the last couple of miles, we met the lady on the pinto who we'd overtaken at around five miles into the ride. She was now about an hour ahead of us. That was a demoralizing moment and I started to think that we were in serious trouble.

We had three choices:

1. Do a RO pull at the next vet check (60 miles). I didn't particularly want to do this, but if pft decided that neither he nor Fergus were up for the last 15 mile section, and opted to pull, I wasn't convinced that I'd be able to get Roo out of the vet check and back to the finish on his own. Remember his Wimp Self.
2. Continue along the trail, but with no energy and go overtime.
3. Continue along the trail, but make some serious time by upping that energy and trotting everything we could.

pft was not amused. Words were said.

As it turned out, Option 1. seemed to be off the table. There was no horse trailer at the vet check when we arrived. I assume it had taken some pulled-horses back to camp and hadn't returned (it's about a 50 minute, very bumpy, trailer ride back to camp).

The horses looked really good at the vet check - Fergus in particular (so much for the "he's too tired") - scoring nearly all As. The vet said they looked good and that they'd looked good all day, which was a nice compliment. We may be slow, but at least our horses look good. Roo did well for his check, but I noticed him taking a few funky steps just before our trot out, and one during the trot out, and knew he was getting crampy in his right rear. This is his biggest weakness and when he gets crampy, he'll kick out with that leg. He kicked out as we were getting ready to leave and my heart sank. It would either get better, or we'd be pulled at the finish.

As far as getting to the finish, I hoped that we could turn things around and go with Option 3.

The remaining vet check staff (yay them) got pft a sandwich and he got to sit for a bit. Meanwhile, I ran around like a maniac, taping glowsticks to both horses, elyting them, grabbing our warm clothing, stuffing things frantically back into the crew box (predictably, the horses had enjoyed the hay so much that they only ate about a third of the "special" food I'd brought them, so I couldn't fit everything back into the carefully-packed box). Ended up having to bungie things to the outside of the box just to group it all together.

A big thank you to the volunteers for looking after pft here, and for having to deal with our stupid large box. If pft and I continue to ride together, I think we need to divide our crew junk into 3-4 containers, because the one enormously-heavy box (along the the lightweight auxiliary crew bag of horse coolers, sheepskin cover and grommet kit) doesn't work.

Before we left, I wolfed down a yoghurt and 2/3rd of an Ensure in literally about 20 seconds - who knew you could do that? (guaranteed to make you puke).

an assortment of glowsticks on our breast collars

Loop 4 - 60-75 miles

We were out of the final vet check at 7:55 p.m. Sunset was at 8:15 and it would be dark-dark by 8:50, so we had a little under and hour of daylight to get as much trail covered as we could.

The volunteers told us "Make as much time as you can in the daylight" and we didn't need any urging - we were out of there and trotting within 50'. Evidently the sandwich did good for pft, he put Fergus in front and off we went. Poor Fergus had never been worked so hard - pft made him trot all the way to the trough (uphill), where we paused to let them drink (after elyting them) and I handed pft a couple of Tylenol. And off we went again.

Connie Creech told us at the ride meeting that Sullivan Canyon was in the worst shape she'd seen it in years, with lots of whups from motorcycles and lots of erosion. We trotted as best we could - once again, pft did some great work on the downhill stuff and trotted for as long as he could before it got too dark to do so safely. After that, we just had to rely on Fergus' super powers of Big Walking.

That's a big horse
Photo: Diana Hiesalu-Bain

The strangest thing for me on that section was I kept hallucinating a wire strung across the trail about five foot above my head. This happened about every 20 seconds for about 10 minutes in the dwindling light - several times I even ducked to avoid it. No idea what my brain was doing, but it was odd.

From having done Tevis with Fergus, I knew he was good at following the trail, but I don't think I realised *how* good. This trail in Sullivan and El Dorado Canyon isn't exactly the easiest to follow, with many twists and turns and sudden sideways drops into the creek. Although they'd put out glow-sticks, they were very few and far between and really only served as confidence markers - more a "Yup, you're still on the right trail" type of thing. Fergus led us in nearly the whole way almost flawlessly - only taking about three wrong turns over the course of about ten miles.

At one point, Roo pulled over to pee, so Fergus did likewise. For once Roo (who is the slowest pee-er in horsedom) was done sooner, so pulled back onto the trail and set off in front. Only I have no idea where the trail was, or where we were (keeping in mind we'd done this section first thing in the morning). We ended up dropping down a steep embankment and going along for a while - presumably on the trail - but I have no idea. Roo stayed in front for about five minutes before he started gawping at every single rock and twig alongside the trail. He was weaving around to avoid them all, so I finally had pft put Fergus back in front again - figured I'd either get dumped, or we'd just never make it in time.

The worst spook he did was trotting to catch Fergus up (although he did an amazing job himself of Big Walk, his still isn't quite as fast as F's, so we'd still have to periodically jog-trot to catch up) - he came around a bush and there was a huge white boulder hiding behind it. He dropped out from under me like a brick but luckily didn't go too far sideways.

When pft is riding Fergus, he's about foot taller than I am on Roo and he'd gotten slapped in the face by tons of pine branches in the daylight and I was quite worried that he'd lose an eye on the trail in the dark. The glow-sticks not only lit up the trail around the horses, but they also lit up the branches above us to some extent. Pft still got pretty battered, but at least wasn't covered in blood as he had been at the first vet check. And he only took one skewer to the shoulder.

A couple of times towards the end where the trail was wider, Roo and I trotted up level with Fergus who craned his neck around to Roo and gave him a dirty look. I think Roo's glow-sticks were messing with his night vision, so after that we stayed behind.

We came back through the jeepers campground (that felt a little surreal... "Good evening!" [nonchalant-casual, like we always ride around in the pitch black at 10 pm]), and finally started up out of the canyon. Roo got in front after Fergus took his final wrong turn (took the down trail instead of the up one) and was marching along purposefully. My knees were screaming from so much walking on the trail, and about half a mile from the finish we both got off because we couldn't stand it any longer. Hobbling along behind Roo, I realised that—wow—this horse can *really* walk out when he wants to - he was striding along as fast as I've ever seen him.

We did get back on again (safer than tripping in the dark, plus pft's past injuries don't allow for much speed walking - there's a reason we got him a great big horse so he doesn't have to get off much) and, lured by the lights of Dayton, made it back to camp just about when they were starting to think about sending out a search party for us.

Too blotto to take good notes, I believe both horses got great vet scores at the finish. Roo and Fergus have both now completed the second leg of the NASTR Triple Crown (although pft says he has no interest in doing VC100). And Fergus looked amazing - a walk in the park for him. Tevis 2014 here we come!

Pones got put up in front of their hay bags, detacked and blanketed. Yanked on their Equisleeve socks (pft helped me with Fergus, since his feet are huge and it's a real struggle to get the socks over them - plus he's never terribly cooperative when it comes to pulling them up and insists on waving his leg around).

Ride management had saved us a plate of supper, but I was really too queasy to do more than pick at the melon (Robinson Flat vet check style), although I think pft ate more. Finally, once the pones were sorted out, I did munch my way through a load of ham.

And we were done.

I was impossibly proud of Roo who'd done such a great job all day. I'd spent the entire previous week fretting about how he wouldn't be able to comfortably keep up with Fergus all day and that he'd be struggling at the end - not. He took it all in his stride and never acted like he was in over his head.

Photo: Diana Hiesalu-Bain

So very proud of my small grey pone

And Fergus proved once again what an amazing horse he is.

Things I discovered along the way:

  • Roo really can keep up with Fergus and move out when he wants to without his legs falling off.
  • And he can walk fast when he's sufficiently motivated. 
  • If the glue sets up before it gets put on the horse's foot, the glue-on will fall off. But I knew that anyway. Pleased that that particular boot lasted 20 miles and very happy that that was our only loss.
  • If you walk that much, Roo's back will suffer from baldness and some edema. Evidently my pad setup still needs some serious work. 
  • Fergus' pad setup, OTOH, appears to be dialled in. Apart from some odd heat bumps (like small peas under the skin), he finished looking good. 
  • Not having to put boots on the morning of a ride is a Good Thing.
  • pft and I riding together is a bad combination to make time. Neither of us are motivated when we get the bleahs. We need a secret weapon of a third rider to get in front so that we may follow in that blind, miserable "must we?" fashion that gets you places far faster than you would under your own steam.
  • pft and I riding together is a bad combination because we're too close to each other and pick up on each other's moods - so if one gets negative, the other does too. 
  • I am very proud of pft for doing so well at this ride. There were some problems, but overall he did a great job and his riding is improving in leaps and bounds. 
  • Although he said he'd never do this again, I bet he will ;)