I’m freshly back from my first 100 mile attempt at the 2017 20 Mule Team Ride based out of Ridgecrest, California and I couldn’t be more amazed at both human and animal perseverance–and my desire to sign up for another 100 miler as soon as possible. If that has you wondering about possibly smooth travels and a successful ride completion I must immediately burst your bubble and instead urge you to settle into a comfortable chair with some popcorn and prepare to read a winding tale of Things Gone Wrong, Everywhere, that still ended with big smiles, hugs, and the desire for more.
Thursday 2/23/17, The Getting There
In mid January my friend W asked me if I’d like to ride her 19 year old Arabian stallion Aur Aquavit in his first 100 mile attempt at 20 Mule Team on February 25th, with her crewing for us. I had never ridden Aqua before, or any stallion, and had never done a 100 miler either, but was fresh off a successful 4 day multi-day catch riding at Death Valley and while not high mileage in any way (655 endurance, 505 LD), I have quite a number of catch riding completions on different breeds and temperaments and thrive in the cold, so felt that I could give 100 miles on a new horse in the Southern California desert in February a good shot.
First Ride on Aqua
The weeks leading up to leaving for our entire team’s first 100 were anything but smooth. W’s truck was getting worked on (Hahahaha, the irony!!!), the Oroville Dam Spillway in our town was crumbling (I live above and some miles from the dam, fortunately, while W was on the edge of evacuation), and I had a raging cold and pinkeye. Auspicious beginnings, no?
Still, we were packed and on the road Thursday morning of ride week still decently in the early a.m.’s. We being W, her 6 year old daughter, and myself, in the single cab bench seat ’97 Ford dual tank diesel, towing a giant LQ full of our junk, with Aqua the stallion waaay back in his quarters. Spirits were high, as were nerves. One of the many hilarious ironies in this story is that I myself drive a ’97 Ford dual tank diesel, and as drivers of old vehicles, we exist in a territory of paranoia about break down, with generally sharp ears and highly attuned noses for the possible scent of our next Oh Shit moment. Fair enough, as we made it all of 30 miles from home before I sniffed up the first whiffs of a horrible burning rubber/metallic smell, and we quickly unanimously decided to pull over on the side of Hwy 70 and investigate. As we stopped we could now hear a undeniably unhappy clanking to the idle, and the first SOS calls went out. While W wrestled with AAA dispatchers I got in touch with fellow locals also headed to the same ride, and fortunately (for us, not them..) still behind us. E and her extra handy military husband, B, pulled up behind us and for the first but absolutely not last time got to sorting things out. B quickly discovered that an arm of our AC compressor had broken off and was causing grinding, sparks, and a charming smell. With it somewhat addressed, we limped the rig the short way off the main road and between B and some of W’s local friends, the conclusion was made to bend the piece out of the way and run it, as it solved the idle problem, the belt was intact, and the compressor hadn’t seized (yet). And of course our back-up gooseneck-hitched vehicle was my own ’97 Ford diesel that has recently developed a penchant for randomly turning itself off. 😀
To prevent this story from being endless, let’s just say that while the A/C compressor jerry rigging worked, the Ford also decided to play games about switching between it’s fuel tanks, and there were a few more quite tense moments before we finally pulled into Ridgecrest Fairgrounds ride camp in the dark, some 12 hours after we had started the 7 hour drive, and with no real clue if we’d have a functioning truck to get us home. Aquavit, like the amazing animal he is, had handled it all calmly and quietly, nonchalantly eating every time I anxiously checked on him.
2/24/17, This Just Got Real
What I learned from my successful decision to set aside some horse injury-related PTSD and ride unknown horses at Death Valley 4 days straight while sleeping in the back of a friend’s trailer is that you just can’t think about these things too hard. To be clear, you absolutely obsess over them, pack and re pack over and over in your head, and just generally never stop thinking about it–but without actually *Really* acknowledging and wallowing in the details of the facts that are signing up to do something that halfway terrifies you. You just do it. Winging it, while as overprepared as possible, I would call it. Because the Actual Reality of it might stop you from doing something awesome and missing something amazing in this very short thing called mortal life.
Friday morning found us successfully installed in Ride Camp with a very calm and collected Arabian stallion who ate, drank, pooped and peed his way through this entire epic tale. I will probably say this a million times, in this post and for the rest of my life, but Aur Aquavit is an amazing horse, and just as importantly, W has done amazing training and homework with him to make him an absolute pleasure to be around and ride. W got Aqua as a 14 year old pasture breeding stallion, completely unbroke, and did all of his training herself. I am the first person to ride now-19 year old Aqua besides W herself, and in my last couple of years riding alongside them on our home trails on every conceivable equine companion, I have been nothing but impressed by Aqua and eager to ride him. To her I must say again, Thank you for Sharing an amazing animal.
Just being epic, Friday at ride camp
Friday’s pre-ride was a very important thing to do for a variety of reasons, the main one for me being to reassure myself and Aqua that we were going to be on the same page for this whole endurance ride thing, where a horse is often at it’s friskiest and most competitive. I also wanted to be sure we had the Boz saddle correctly re-rigged after cleaning as necessary, as I was not familiar with it at all, it being my ohhh, maybe third time aboard Aqua or in a Boz ever (I’m not a fan of how the saddle rides by the way, but it’s great on Aqua’s back and that’s what mattered). I saw two other endurance buddies saddling up for a pre-ride in camp late morning Friday, one of whom, Lucy, has finished the 100 multiple times, so I hustled to get mounted and headed out with them for whatever trail insight I could glean. Aqua did some jigging and I did some quiet swearing, and I quickly resolved to continue on alone after the other gals turned back, as we HAD to establish some sort of good behavior guidelines then and there or ride morning was sure to be worse. That’s a commentary on all horses, by the way, the need to recognize an issue when it’s an issue, and address it in a timely manner, before they use their clever successes against you. In all of his freshness Aqua wasn’t even a fraction as terrible as my own mare used to be, and in fact the moment my buddies had turned back on the pre ride Aqua picked up a businesslike power walk and assured me that we were kosher, showing no desire to turn back with them. Turning around to head back to camp, however, turned into another jiggy head tossing session so we did some turn around around and backtracks (so what?),turn around and back towards camps (Yeah, whatever lady, now I jig), and finally resolved on drunken steering side to side going forward as the One Thing that irked him into politely walking instead of jigging and getting swerved. As a catch rider I feel it’s incredibly important to establish early on with a new short term mount that you are both firm, but very fair. Power walk your heart out pal, just don’t jig. Okay, says Aqua, and I immediately felt better about the 100 miles facing us. Lots of brain and heart and good training there, no doubt.
More truck tinkering, and Vetted in with great scores and a sexy beast stallion!
2/25/17, Ride Day
One of the perks of ride camp being at a fairgrounds was the super hot shower I got to take at 4:30 am Saturday morning, with W feeding up the steed, and on track to tack up and head out timely but after the front runners. Here on ride morning, a couple of rookie mistakes almost bit me in the butt. First, I almost rode in only-worn-once new shoes, the same model as my old riding/hiking shoes, but not THE ones I’d been wearing. I was smart enough to try the newbies in camp Friday and concluded that despite them being the same shoe, they just weren’t as comfortable yet, and were fired. That was a good call, but then I almost mounted up to leave for the 100 miler still in my comfortable morning Muck Boots! No rookie nerves here, nope! 😉 Shoes corrected, I was on the steed and heading out on trail at a brisk power walk in no time it felt like. My actually fully committed rookie mistake was not leaving ride camp with a rump rug on Aqua. I also think I should have been on him sooner and walking around warming up, as I only completed a circuit or two of the immediate fairgrounds before seeing Lucy heading off and thinking that it was as fine a time as any to get on trail. And finally, I believe that despite advised discussions and conscious decisions, we should in fact have pre-loaded Aqua with syringed electrolytes, not just done salty mashes. Sometimes you just don’t know until you try!
Our first 17 miles to vet check 1 felt pretty darn good for a rider on a 100 mile fit Arabian stallion that she’d barely ridden, in a saddle that she didn’t love! Sponging at the reins and keeping up a running dialogue with Aqua as his momma did when he got jiggy got me a quite reliable 7-8.5 mph trot and after waiting for a rider to mount early on who turned out to be the guy that had marked the trail, I felt pretty calm and optimistic about the endeavor, even as we encountered trail marking sabotage within the first 10 miles (!). Aqua drank at the 10 mile water stop and tore into the multiple alfalfa bales we encountered in those early miles, and just overall felt like a totally reasonable customer as we cruised into the first vet check.
Vet Check 1 to Vet Check 2
Aqua pulsed right in and we coolered him up and settled him in front of food as I hustled around to pee and get some food myself, then the first Really Exciting Moment occurred when a buddy’s horse being crewed next to us spooked, ripped free of containment, and proceeded to gallop at reckless speeds through the heavily occupied vet check, eventually breaking her companion horse’s reins by galloping through them so that they both ended up zooming around for a minute. Aqua stood at his hay pile throughout all of this, I believe he may have stopped chewing, but that was it. Eventually the two horses stopped back by their humans (and both of them went on to completions looking fabulous by the way) and with my heart rate barely recovered we took Aqua over to vet in. All was going well until the vet intoned, “feel his rump,” and I felt the tight muscles where things should be soft. The vet cautioned to keep an eye on his muscles while not thinking a recheck was necessary, so Aqua went back to hoovering hay while we immediately covered his rump with another rug, commenced massaging, and I stayed about 15 minutes extra on my hold continuing this process and seriously talking over with W whether we should continue. We agreed that I would carry on, with a rump rug, and walk for as long as I felt necessary, imagining that our friends who had come in a bit behind us might take some time to catch us on trail and then we could trot on with them if ready. And so Aqua and I set off, already behind our Out time, rump rugged and walking, and I proceeded to go through every conceivable emotion in the 18 or so miles to Vet Check 2. Our friends caught and passed us only a mile or less after leaving Vet Check 1 after my late departure, and neither Aqua nor I felt that was the appropriate pace for our ride in the moment, so on we walked at a brisk, ears up pace but still a walk, already in last place or darn near.
riding the highs and lows of your first 100 on a good horse
I resolved somewhere in those first miles out of vet check 1 as I questioned what in the bloody hell I was doing that I was going to start giving Aqua small doses of the Enduramax syringe I was carrying, but only after he drank well again (he had already taken multiple 30-swallow drinks to that point, starting at 10 miles). Years ago at the hot and challenging Cache Creek 50 my mare that I had only been using salty mashes on for electrolyting had a hind muscle cramping issue right at the base of their biggest hill of the ride, more than halfway through and miles from help; a passing rider who was also a vet gave me a tiny dose of enduramax and told me to just go slow–so I dosed my mare and hand walked up the entire hill. At the top of the hill the mare drank, pooped, peed, and despite my previous resolution to RO at the next check, dragged me down the other side of the hill, around the vet check where she never stopped eating, and on to bright eyed completion. It was on this and the recent Death Valley XP experience where we only electrolyted after good drinks, that I based my decision to introduce small doses of a powerful syringed electrolyte into his system after his drinks, something that I don’t take lightly. God bless that stallion, he took my messy syringing and even sadder attempts at rinsing his mouth out with a water bottle in stride, only covering one of my arms in spat electrolytes, and not getting harder to dose each time as some are wont. As I was syringing these powerful salts in I noticed that he had a small rub from his snaffle at the corner of his mouth and it struck me as a terribly uncomfortable combination, so after my mouth washing efforts on him I took his bridle off, swiped at his mouth with some more rinsing, and rode/hiked him the rest of the way to vet check 2 in his halter, as I’d seen W do many times on our home trails. This horse you guys, this horse ❤
As we hiked down the long hill together toward Vet Check 2 at 35ish miles and after two big drinks and 2 small electrolyte doses, still in his rump rug and with the muscles feeling looser, Aqua began to pick up more and more speed and I could tell his A game was entirely back, though at that point he wasn’t deigning to accept carrots after electrolyting, because Eww my Mouth! We trotted nearly into Vet check 2 in his halter and had the place to ourselves, being both the last 100 riders on course but also still the earliest Last they had had through the check in years. That was one of the odd parts of the experience, being certainly not fast, but definitely last, alone, and yet not actually pushing cut offs like it felt I must be. Our vet through was better than ever, the few Bs on guts improved to As and solid trot out. He drank and ate the entire hour hold, as did I, and I rolled out of Vet Check 2 feeling like we might actually get this thing done.
Vet Check 2 to Vet Check 3
Thanks to some Facebook consultations by W, I had saved some great How To Get This Done overviews into my phone from a couple of experienced riders, including Mel and Lucy. It was really helpful to open my notes in my phone throughout the day and reassure myself that I was following the general advice (“then ride the boring trot section, then climb the hill, then go down the other side, then ride to the trestle, then ride to the next check”). I also had music playing quietly on my phone in my saddle bag, and those two things were vastly soothing during this Doing My First 100 Solo thing, as that’s essentially what it became, not seeing a rider most of the time from Vet check 1 to vet check 2 and then not at all until Vet check 3 at 55 miles.
I can’t say enough good things about Aqua. As we climbed the big hill 40-something miles in we had started to mind meld. I thought about how I had to pee badly, and he immediately stopped and stood quietly as I obediently bailed off, peed, handed him a carrot (he now gave no shits about chomping a carrot directly after his electrolytes after drinking or any other time that I offered), and mounted again, he waiting to resume his power walk uphill until I was comfortably seated. We kept snacking, and drinking, and climbing, and life was good.
We spotted the first lit glowstick on a bush at 5:37 pm somewhere in the 40 mile section, and I was pretty darn excited to have gotten to glowsticks before dark. I eagerly sent the news on to my crew (it was very VERY nice to have cell service almost the entire ride), then encountered deep sand that slowed us down yet again. At about 50 miles we were practicing our first trotting by glowsticks in near-dark together and it felt pretty good if slightly terrifying. I was feeling confident as I rode toward a truck with lights and a human with a clipboard, thinking I had finally gotten to the 55 mile check, so I bailed off cheerily with vet card in hand–only to discover that it was just a number taking volunteer, and a newly arrived and confused one at that, who told me both “Oh they’ve been looking for you!” (what? I thought I was in contact and kosher?!) and “I can’t find you on the list” (UHHH?!) and then reassured me that he didn’t know where the next vet check was either. With my carefully gathered calm starting to disintegrate, Aqua tore into the hay bales at what I now recognized as the common trail we had started on earlier in the morning, I mounted from a bale, and we trotted on after the glowsticks, starting to eyeball all the various lights sprinkled around the gathering dark and wondering which, if any, were this promised vet check.
I was riding towards the lights of the highway at that point which gave me some hope but it’s quite deceptive to follow glowsticks through the dark too, as things never seemed to get closer. I couldn’t figure out how to turn up the light on my GPS to look at mileage but was on track with glowsticks so I just kept trucking until I saw a large black figure moving along in front of me and wondered if this was my first hallucination that all the experienced 100 milers had warned me about (it’s too early for such things, my brain argued). It took two calls forward to get a response back that this was a rider, and not just any rider but Mark the Mustang guy, who I had ridden for at Death Valley. And who had been near the front all day?? My brain clicked over furiously trying to make sense of this until he said he was approaching his last check, so essentially lapping me as he came into 90 miles and I came into 55. We rode into the 55 mile check not long after and I confess to bleating “Just do something!” at my crew as I hurried to the porta potty. While I’ve certainly finished 50s in the dark before, and as recently as Death Valley Xp, I had never been at 55 miles in the dark and not done before. Aqua vetted through great and set to eating as enthusiastically as ever while I gulped down a mercifully hot and salty cup of noodles W had provided and tried to remain calm about the fact that my headlamp and glowsticks hadn’t made it to this stop. Overhearing this, Mark, who had a headlamp on but was interested in still getting his Top 5 (in fact, No. 3) place Finish, offered to wait the few extra minutes for my hold to be up and take me along for the 10 miles back to the Fairgrounds for the Finish/Next Check. It was an act of mercy for a team of Newbies and it was much, much appreciated. I had some of the most fun I had had all day in those ten miles in the dark, trading wry remarks with Mark, a nip of Fireball from his flask, and then hurtling along both on hoof and by foot to keep up with his impressive pace. Aqua felt amazing, doing some sort of fleet footed trot-canter-gait behind Mark’s Mustang, and only taking a little convincing that yes we were going to “jog” in hand down the black hill behind Mark’s bobbing beam–I say “jog” because Mark apparently has wings on his shoes as well as his horses, and zipped his way on foot down the hillside while I Jesus Take the Wheel’ed my way along behind him praying that nobody tripped and that I didn’t drop my vest that contained my vet card but that I had to strip off in a sweaty panic as I ran. It was everything hilarious and slightly mad that this endurance game is to me, and the fresh fresh horse under/beside me made it even better.
I left Mark to enjoy his successes at the Finish line about a mile out from camp and made my way easily by glowstick into my 65 mile Vet check and hour hold, garnering so many “Wait you’re ONLY at mile 65?” remarks at the vet check that Facebook friends days later told me that they’d heard it from afar. At this point I still wasn’t pushing cut offs, but apparently they were used to a brisker pace 😛 Aqua vetted through looking great and power walked back to the trailer to eat his way through his hour hold, as I did the same inside the LQ. I had thought I would shower at this hold but instead felt that I had sweated all my gear into place and I didn’t want to peel it off and reveal potential rubs that would feel worse once unmasked and might get worse in different clothing. I also couldn’t fathom taking a nap as some had suggested, since I felt I needed to keep my energy and optimism rolling or else. We had rather another comedy of errors in the LQ after I ate, when I almost taped on my finally located headlamp without checking if it had batteries (it didn’t!) then didn’t *have* new batteries, so in yet another Jesus Take the Wheel moment I prayed the used batteries that I harvested from a clock would last as I needed, said Nahhh I don’t think I need a Jacket in the Desert at Night in February (good coz they were still out in another crew’s vehicle and not at the fairgrounds) and headed out into the pitch black alone. What, can you smell the Greenness from there?? 😀
We went about 2 miles successfully navigating by headlamp beam and glowsticks before I couldn’t spot the next glowstick, panicked, and back tracked a half mile to the last big intersection, where riders coming in to their 100 mile finish assured me that yes, I had to take that left turn and head back the way I’d already been going. Turning a willing Aqua back that way, we jogged on and immediately spotted the glowstick farther on ahead that I hadn’t seen the first time. Okay, phew, on track, and we continued on another mile and a half or so until the glowsticks Just Ended. I did large looping circles from the last glowsticks I could see trying to locate the next, then decided to just keep navigating into the night with my headlamp, map, following hoof prints and poop, and seeing a chalk marker or ribbon just about the time I was convinced I must have finally gone wrong. I saw an arrow that said “100’s Out” that was quite encouraging…and then I just saw nothing but hoofprints for a while, and the headlights way ahead of me on the hill had petered out and I suddenly realized I was riding away into total darkness with no lights ahead and no glowsticks anywhere nearby.
The first “I think I’m Lost” message went out to my crew at 10:48 pm, nearly 5 miles out from leaving the 65 mile ride camp hold. I’d gone almost 70 miles deep, had a good, willing, sound, forward horse under me, was feeling physically fine myself–and I knew then that I wouldn’t get it done. With 6 endurance ride distances happening the same day plus a running event that all used the same style of daytime marking (chalk, ribbons) I simply couldn’t navigate correctly without glowstick confirmation that I was on the right trail and not some other distances’ trail with poop and chalk and ribbons. I was the last rider on course so no one would be coming along. It was up to me to backtrack and get my horse back safe to those city lights and it was getting colder.
Because it’s completely hilarious and encapsulates the experience of being new at this and lost at this, here’s a screen cap from that night between my crew and I, who are both just continuing to do our best in a highly stressful situation (you can thank my phone for editing my colorful talk to text 😀 ):
You may imagine my incredulous face at “Get to walmart,” which was merely the latest thing relayed to my crew from the ride authorities who knew that I was lost. There was no getting to Walmart to be done (apparently a past pick up point for lost riders), but I did manage to find the last glowsticks I had seen a few miles back and was pretty sure that I was on track to successfully save myself, while W and a new friend decided to off road the gal’s quite nice car in an attempt to find us. As we traded “can you see me now” inquiries and I anxiously trekked along a road that I swear had had double the glowsticks when I had come out it that it now had, and I passed various vehicles off roading in the night that weren’t W, we had a hail mary “tap your brake lights” moment and suddenly off to my right I saw tapping brake lights, at the same moment that I found the big intersection I had backtracked to in my first turn-around earlier, common trail I had traveled many times at that point, and then I knew that I was alright. The relief I felt was immeasurable, and though my logical brain poo-poohed the idea that they need escort me in the last mile by their lights, as I knew now I was on trail, the OMG I was Just Lost In the Desert At Night part of my brain jumped in and said Actually Yes, Don’t Leave Me, Thanks!
We cruised back into the fairgrounds at a power walk after about 75 miles of ground covered and rustled up a vet for a Rider Option vet out around midnight, and I’d like to thank vet Melissa Ribley, former manager of this ride, for being so calm and gracious and comforting in the moment. We tucked Aqua in with his hay bag and mush after another long drink, I took a gloriously hot shower, and that, my friends, was that.
2/26/17, The Day After and Drive Home
Aqua looked and moved fabulously the morning after his impromptu 75 miler and I am happy to report that I too felt great, despite riding in the Boz saddle that I don’t relish the riding position of. All of my time on foot and changing diagonals throughout the day definitely helped, as well as remembering to ride Long, Straight and Strong with lowered shoulders and uncurled toes (a chant I use as I ride), K-Taping my ankles the night before the ride, and taking Redmond Salt Capsules throughout the event, ala my Death valley XP strategies.
As this ride story has already been epically long, let me just sum up the drive home by saying that it took us 12 hours again, we broke down again, and it all ended in the dark again, with Aqua being picked up by another trailer and a AAA big rig towing the truck and trailer unit home. Aqua took it all in stride and is now happily home and enjoying his well earned rest, while I feverishly look at the AERC calendar and wonder what my next Extra Nuts Dirty Unparalleled Really Awesome Night-Involved Crazy Extravaganza will be!
Congratulations to all the folks giving it their all at 20 Mule Team last weekend, and thank you to all the organizers, volunteers, and Vets that made it happen. See you on the trail!
20 Mule Team 100 2017, photo by Gore/Baylor