Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Tipping into 100 Milers

So Mike Everett was curious what pushed me into doing 100s.

Firstly, I should say that like many others, I always had that classic goal of "completing Tevis" - seeing a Cougar Rock photo on a co-worker's office wall is what got me back into horses and into endurance riding in the first place in my early 30s. I didn't start endurance because I had a horse and wanted something to do with it, my whole endurance career was aimed from the very beginning at the elusive Tevis completion.

But wanting something and getting it are different things.

I had a rough start to endurance riding - first horse was physically hard on both himself and me (he was always going lame; I ended up needing knee surgery); the second horse had a congenital lameness issue which meant we only did one season and that ended in heartache; the third horse suffered a pasture accident and was never sound again...

So it wasn't until I got Roo, eight years after starting endurance riding that I really got to settle in and ride 'for real' - at that point I'd only cobbled together about 550 miles and still felt like I didn't have a good handle on what the heck I was doing.


Roo is an excellent little horse: he's uncomplicated, gets on with it, and will travel cheerfully down the trail on a loose rein. His downsides are that he's always had crappy recoveries, he spooks like a devil*, and can be moody as a moody thing** and so most of my 'management issues' with him are mental.

(* whiplash style - I came off during three successive E-rides, including in the last half-mile of a back-to-back-50 where he should have been tired after 100 miles and I got such a bad concussion—despite the helmet—I didn't even know where my trailer was).

(** loses complete motivation and slows to a crawl if his ride buddy disappears).

My biggest "problem" is that I don't ride fast. At one point, I was doing a fine job of managing to come third from last at every single ride I attended (which takes more skill and strategy than you might realise, honest). More recently, I've bumped up to fifth from last... but you get the picture. So long as I finish in the allotted time for the distance at hand, I'm content.

My reasons for this are twofold - for one, I hate arbitrary time constraints and can't stand being corralled into something time-wise - if this is supposed to be fun, I'll get there when I'm ready; and for another, I don't have the time, stamina, know-how, or desire to do the necessary conditioning needed to top-ten a ride.

But I always knew that my lack of speed (and lack of ability to get out of a vet hold on time) were going to be a problem if I wanted to finish a 100.


In 2007, Roo and I had a stellar year, completing 9 x 50s and a 75.

I can clearly remember pulling into camp for that 75 and having the weirdest feelings - "finally I'd made it to the big kids!" countered with "I don't belong here and they're all looking at me" (?). But I was so excited that we were going to try the 75. Interestingly, I don't remember ever doubting that we'd finish.

The ride went relatively smoothly. I rode with a friend so we didn't have any moving forward problems. We got some kinks worked out - had girth rubbing issues so Roo was slathered in Desitin, I neglected to pack enough horse food in my crew bags (who knew he'd eat that much on a 75?), and he got a massive hind-end cramp in the last half mile which scared the heck out of me but resolved itself. As always, we didn't ride fast but we got the job done, finishing near the back in the dark.

As an aside, I was fine with night riding. We'd practised it four weeks earlier completing the NV Moonshine 50*** ride, coupled with the fact I have a tendency to stay out too late during conditioning rides and end up being caught in the dark.

(*** NV Moonshine ride starts about an hour or two before sunset so you complete a big chunk of the loop in the daylight before it gets dark - then you ride the same loop backwards in pitch black. Excellent opportunity to find out how you and your horse will do in the dark, not to mention being really fun).

After Roo's performance at the 75, I honestly think he was ready for a 100, but I didn't know what I was doing. I think in the back of my mind I wanted more proof of his solidity. For some reason, I felt that he had to prove himself at multiday rides before he attempted a 100. Looking back, I don't think this is true, I like my 100-mile horses to have done a back-to-back 50 and I like to have done a 75 so that I know what I'm dealing with, but don't feel the horse has to have completed 3-4 days of 50s in a row to be able to do a 100.

More Rides

Later that year, we went to the Tejon ride with the idea of doing all three days and beforehand I fretted that I didn't know enough to know if it was time to stop. As it turned out, the weather conditions were horrendous the second day and I was so pleased with how he dealt with it that I decided we'd done good and didn't ride the third day anyway.

I promptly messed that karma up three months later when I took him down to Death Valley and tried to do all four days. He was raring to go and it wasn't until the second half of the third day that he settled down enough to ride on a loose rein. We did a good chunk of that day - across the 13 mile dry lake bed - enough to demoralize the best of horses - on our own. At the end of that section, we caught up with some friends at the penultimate vet check and, instead of keeping to our nice steady pace, I kept up with them and rode the last 8 miles much faster than we should have. Coming in at the finish, he was fit to continue but the ride vet said she "saw something" and that we should check back with her in the morning.

That alone should have been my red flag. If the vet "sees something", "something" is there and it's time to stop. But instead, blinded by my "must do all four days" goal and thinking he just looked funky because we'd come in a little fast, and given the go-ahead by the vet the following morning, I started Day 4.

Roo felt amazing - I couldn't believe how good he felt after 150 miles as we flew along the trail in the brisk, bright morning sunshine. And about three miles before the lunch vet check he was dead lame in the rear and I hand-walked him in. Lesson learned. I am a dummy.

(Predictably, he had an almost identical pull the following spring - day 2 of a ride, rode with a friend on a faster horse. Roo got pulled at lunch with a hind-end cramp. OK, so I'm a slow learner.)

On to 100s

Two other things were going around that time.

Patti Stedman "exposed" herself to the endurance world, so to speak, by writing a series of articles in Endurance News chronicling her journey to 100s with Ned. She explained how neither she nor Ned were terribly "classic examples" of 100 mile material, and more or less said "If I can do it, anyone can". (Ned went on to complete 6 out of 7 100s, with Patti on top for 5 of those).

Bearing in mind my feelings of "OMG, I don't belong up here with the real endurance riders" when Roo and I did that first 75, my brain filed Patti's story away for future consideration.

Around then I also became friends with Crysta Turnage and her horse, a cobby horse of indeterminate breed named Sinatra. After about 600 miles of 50s, Sinatra and Crysta completed Sunriver as their first 100 in 2006, tried Tevis, messed up on timing and got pulled OT at Michigan Bluff (~65 miles). Crysta did a few more 50s and then, because she lives in icy NV, more or less took the winter off.

In February 2007, frustrated by the OT pull at Tevis, she decided that they were going to go and do 20 Mule Team 100 in Southern California. Her reasoning  was that she had nothing to lose - Sinatra didn't have a sparkly 100% completion record, so they'd go to the desert and see what happened.

She wrote up the ride story - including an incident in the dark when Sinatra got itchy while being hand-walked down a hill, lay down to roll (fully tacked up), and got all weebly for a minute when he got back up again. (

But the upshot was they finished. Huh. And she'd hardly ridden him at all that winter?

Three and half months later, they finished Patriot 100, followed handily by Tevis, followed by an attempt at Virginia City 100 which was thwarted when Sinatra choked at about 50 miles.

But I haven't mentioned the best part. Sinatra, like Ned and Patti, wasn't "100 mile material". He was built a little on the heavy side, had a high-stepping ("energy wasting", right?) gait, he wasn't fast (his "go along" trot speed was about 7 mph), he wasn't hot (I loved riding with them because he didn't make the horses around him crazy), he wasn't forward or long-legged or an arab... he was just a little cobby-built horse that went along like a metronome.

And I reasoned if Sinatra and Patti and Ned could finish 100s (and in Sinatra's case, could finish Tevis), why couldn't Roo and I manage a 100? It was time.

The second part of Crysta's influence was her reasoning for going to 20MT. It taught me to evaluate exactly what I was aiming for in my endurance career.

  • Was it preserving my stellar 100% completion record? Well, like Crysta, I already messed that one up.
  • Was it fear of failure? likes to fail. But where are you going, adventure-wise, if you always do the same repetitive tried-and-tested activities, safe in the knowledge that you'll more than likely finish? Are you growing in any way? Are you pushing yourself in new and interesting directions?
  • Guilt that I might mess up? Well, yes, that was a biggie. In the back of my mind, I wanted to do a 100 "right", I didn't want to somehow mess up and compromise my horse. But in reality, given my slow-poke speed, what's the worst that was likely to happen? We'd go OT (dummy me), he might get pulled for lameness (possible, it is 100 miles, but would it be a career-ending lameness? not likely), he might go into metabolic crisis (why? Provided he was eating and drinking, I would be riding slowly enough that I wasn't going to push him over a metabolic cliff).
  • Fear of the unknown? This is also a difficult one. You don't know how the horse (or you) will react to that distance. You're told the horse will likely "hit the wall" at some point. I fretted that I wouldn't know the difference between "horse is fed up" versus "horse is about to drop dead". But I knew he'd managed 75 miles and was certainly still good to go at the end of that. And once again, you'll never know how your horse (and you) will react to that distance unless you take the plunge and find out.

Patriot 100

The best push was Crysta agreeing to chaperone us on our first 100 at Patriot the following year. Nothing better than having someone to hold your hand.

Once again, I had that "ooooh, I don't belong" feeling pulling into ridecamp. I felt totally sticky-outy, like everyone would be looking and going "they'll never finish a 100" (uh huh... like they have even noticed you exist...).

I recall parts of the day-time portion of the ride quite clearly. The flowers in the meadow next to the lake; my crew cooking eggs and potatoes for us for "lunch" - although I had no idea what time of day it was; Roo doing a huge spook coming into the mid-day vet hold and me glancing down during vetting and realising he'd spooked himself out of his shoe - it was totally twisted and hanging off (luckily my shoer at the time was also doing the 100 and was in on his hold, and very kindly reset the shoe for me); trotting down endless wooded [dull] fire roads... but the parts I remember most clearly were the nightime portions of the ride - when things got difficult and the amazingness of doing 100s really set in.

As it turned out, by that time Sinatra was suffering from an aggressive squamous cell carcinoma in his nose and although we thought he was OK, when we got to the 75(?) mile vet check, it became clear that he was done for the day. Roo and I were on our own.

(Sadly, this was the last ride Sinatra did and he left us the following year.)

So off Roo and I went, in a bad situation. Roo doesn't like travelling on his own so I had a feeling we were going to be in trouble because of this. But it was still light and there was one remaining rider behind us. We'd see how things went.

We did pretty well for the first couple of hours - there was a big climb and Roo was willing. Even when it got dark he was still "ok", until he started to see big rocks by the side of the dirt road. And began to spook at them. And worst of all, the trail was taking us away from the vet check and camp. The further we went in the "away" direction, the slower Roo went. No amount of "persuasion" from me could convince him to go faster and we were pretty much down to a slow walk. I didn't get the feeling he had hit the wall so much as his mental powers were just beyond being able to go faster when threatened by a multitude of attack-rocks.

Finally, the trail turned and we headed south again. Roo's camp radar kicked in and he allowed that, possibly, he could trot afterall. I remember trotting along after midnight in a cloud of euphoria, feeling ridiculously hot (it was a humid night) and poking my t-shirt into my bra to bare my midriff to try and cool off. I remember the trail taking a jog north to drop down to a dirt road below us, and having to be very emphatic that, yes, we would be taking that trail away from camp, albeit briefly. I remember being amazed that he was able to stop dead when detecting tuffs of grass by the side of the trail, despite it being pitch black. And I remember the despair when—once again—he decided he couldn't (wouldn't) trot any more and at this slow walking speed, we would not be finishing our first 100 miler afterall.

We trudged along in the dark and I came to terms with it. We'd had a good day, Roo had given me a good ride (up until then) and he'd done his best. Neither of us were maimed in any way. It wasn't the end of the world. How many other people were doing something as interesting as this - riding around in the dark, looking out at the lights across the lake, experiencing life to the full? In reality, the whole thing was pretty cool.

And because we were going so slowly, the rider behind us caught us up.

It turned out that this rider had been flung into a tree earlier in the day and had broken some ribs, so was understandably unwilling to trot much. Roo cheered up considerably once the other horse caught us. (From later rides when he also threw out the sea anchor when riding alone and wanting horses behind us to catch up, I suspect this had a lot to do with why he was dragging so much.)

I eventually figured out that if I could get the other rider trotting, Roo would cheerfully trot too and we stood a vague chance of actually finishing the ride. So there started an exercise in psychology - trying to persuade the other rider of "good places to trot".

The rider announced that they had some glowsticks and would be slightly more willing to trot if we could find some way to attach them to the breast collar. I knew I had tape in my crew box at the vet check, so was happy that we could resolve that problem. Except when we got to the vet check, by miscommunication, it turned out that my crew had taken my crewbox with them and I had nothing at the vet check.

(This, incidentally, taught me self-reliance - you will need all those bits of string and electrical tape that you stashed in the pommel bag.  :)    )

We got the glowsticks attached and I was kept awake for the next three hours by virtue of having to regularly use cunning psychology to keep us trotting in fits and starts.

In the last couple of miles of the ride, as we were making our way through thick, dense, dark woods, I heard some crashing by the side of the trail. Immediately I concluded there was a bear in the woods, the horses were going to spook and dump us and run off, and we'd never finish the ride.

And then the bear spoke: "Lucy?". It was my shoer who's flashlight had broken and who'd lost the trail in the dark.

We formed a three-horse procession and came zooming in to the finish (fastest we'd gone in the last four hours) with about ten minutes to spare on the clock.

And complete we did. I won't say it was pretty, but we got the job done - and had an adventure in the process.

And I was hooked.


  1. Wonderful wonderful wonderful post. Thank you for taking the time to write this up. I'm saving it to share with anyone who thinks they can't do a 100 miler.

  2. You are absolutely inspirational!