Why Endurance Ride - Why Not? Anybody can do it.

Why endurance? Why not endurance? This blog is geared toward young adults, to show why you should give the sport of endurance riding a try, and toward our current members who just might be thinking "Hey, I still want to try a 100" or "I want to step up to finishing in the Top Ten." Anyone can achieve it! It is a tough distance but a doable one. So many riders have the desire; what's holding you back from trying?

Sunday, June 29, 2014


Mike LaRoux

Ten years ago I made a conscious decision to live my life outside of my comfort zone. I had held in my grasp for a fleeting few seconds the feeling that I could do the things I thought were impossible, and it was intoxicating. It was the start of a lifelong adventure which has taken me to the jungles of Papua New Guinea, the sand dunes of the Moroccan Sahara, the remote outback of Australia, up and over the unforgiving hills of the Comrades marathon in South Africa, over staggering altitudes in the Rockies, swimming 6 miles in the ocean off Hawaii and now riding five back to back 50 mile days on horse back in Utah.

Over the years as I pushed and explored the boundaries of my comfort zone, or discomfort zone as I came to know it, I developed a philosophy I called More Than The Finish Line, which effectively focused on my journey, allowing me to live outside of my comfort zone but in a way that made sense of the set backs and managed my expectations. It allowed me to let go of finish lines and showed me the value and the joy of the journey. When I look back 15 years I could never have imagined that I would be where I am now, a South Africa born, naturalized Australia, living in the Coloradan Rockies on a property, with horses and dogs, and plenty of local wildlife, riding the trails on horseback and working for a not for profit that encourages kids to get off the couch and outside.

On our wedding day in October 1999, I weighed a hefty 253 lbs, all of which I attributed to my Rugby Union playing background, and the requirement to stop a charging athlete dead in his tracks. Over the past 15 years I have spent all of my energy and focus on trying to become as efficient as possible over long distance. Being a bigger framed athlete (6.3ft) I have always found that longer, harder and tougher has tended to suit me, by bringing everyone back to a level playing field.

Over the years I have competed at the highest level in Ironman Triathlon, run a multi-day race across the Moroccan Sahara desert and run competitively at the half-marathon, marathon, 50 mile and 100 mile distances. In 2010 I was fortunate enough to cross the finish line first at the Ultraman World Championships in Hawaii, a 3-day endurance triathlon, and decided that I had spent a long career in triathlon, and that it was time to pursue something different. At the time I was working for a global engineering firm in Australia, while studying to be a coach and personal trainer. To walk the talk I needed to follow my passions in life and get out from behind a desk.

In 2011 my focus became on gaining qualification status for the Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley. To do this I was required to run 3 x 100 mile events. One of which needed to be within 12 months of my application. Never having run 100 miles, this was going to my year of wading through the races. In my third 100 mile race in Australia I ran the country's fastest ever time for 100 miles on trail, in a time of 15hrs 37 min. As the year drew to a close I had achieved my criteria for qualifying for Badwater – now all I had to do was wait until February to apply.

In the December of 2011 I thought that I would put my name in the lottery for the Western States 100 endurance run. This was before the Badwater application but I figured that in a lottery my chances were not that great of getting accepted. As it turns out I was given a special consideration spot as an international, the only Australian entrant accepted. There went my plans for Badwater, but more excitingly I was going to run the Grandfather of 100 milers and follow in the footsteps of ultra running greats. Thinking ‘how do I get further out of my comfort zone’, following my acceptance I applied for and was granted entry to race in the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. The Slam consists of the four oldest 100 milers in history over a period of 11 weeks. The order is Western States 100, Vermont 100, Leadville 100 and Wasatch 100. There is generally 3 weeks between each event with only 2 weeks between Leadville and Wasatch.

So in June 2012 I moved from Australia to the US for the summer to race The Slam. Finishing The Slam is winning enough, although I was fortunate enough to place 2nd overall and the first Australian to complete the series. It was a grueling 11 weeks where I learnt a lot about myself and my discomforts, as well as my boundaries and capabilities. During the Slam I stayed with Morgan Murri on Pagosa Springs, Colorado. We had met at Marathon des Sables in 2008 which was the same time that Morgan founded a charitable fund called GECKO (Giving Every Child Knowledge of the Outdoors) that staged outdoor events raising funds for GECKO programs and scholarships. GECKO was growing quickly and Morgan needed some help. Over the summer we hatched a plan for me to join him in this exciting venture.

In 2013, my wife Kirsten and I then moved from Australia to Pagosa Springs in Colorado to pursue a lifestyle of mountain living and continue life outside of our comfort zones. I joined GECKO and took on the role of Race Director for the event management side of the organization, as well continuing to train and coach athlete from around the globe. Of course aside from trails and continuing with my running,  living in a Colorado Mountain town meant I became immersed in the ranching and horse culture.

I have always had an affinity for horses, ever since I was a kid. Every opportunity I had, every birthday I could convince my parents, I would go horseback riding. I rode as much as I could whilst living in Australia too. All trail related. Then when I raced the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning I learnt about the history of the Western States 100 mile endurance run and its relation to the Tevis Cup and endurance horse riding. The Vermont 100 (the second race in the Slam) also happens to be run on the same day as the Vermont 50, 75 and 100 mile endurance horse ride – so I was able to experience first hand what the ride event looked like. It was the most exciting feeling to be on course with super fit horses. As a runner, it looked and felt as though the horses shared the same enjoyment of being out on the trail doing what they do best.

Upon moving to Pagosa Springs it became apparent that the equine community in town and the region was huge. In fact, probably more extensive than the running community. I was really excited by this as I knew I could access the support I needed for my new direction. I started taking note and networking and through a series of meetings and friendships locally I set my sights on the sport of endurance riding and completing the 2015 Tevis Cup.

Having raced solo extensively over the past number of years, a racing partnership was going to be a whole new way of thinking. It was no longer all about me before, during and after the race, I now had a relationship to nurture and develop on this journey. A relationship with a powerful, athletic creature with a mind of its own.

The concept of providing support and maintaining the best interests of a partner to get through 100 grueling trail miles, really appealed to me. I am hoping that through my experience and passion within the sport of endurance, I have something to offer an equine partner. I have immense respect for the 100 mile distance, but its not intimidating because I’ve done it human powered many times before. This gives me the courage to be 100% focused on my horse's well being and our partnership on the trail.

That being said – this experience has flung me out past anything I know, and the learning curve so far has been vertical.  I am so far out of my comfort zone I can barely glimpse it’s edges.

What keeps me moving forward at this point is the extreme generosity of the endurance riding community, who have made themselves available as mentors to guide me daily through this overwhelming new world. Erica and Mark Devoti, Garrett Ford, Rusty Toth and Kevin Myers; Parelli Professional and good friend, Terry Wilson; Mark Weiler Parelli President and many others from Parelli Natural Horsemanship; Christoph Schork and Tennessee Lane. Whilst I understand the dynamics of what is required to get to my goal, I have no real experience with horses or horse ownership. Each day I climb a vertical cliff face of learning.

I became fully immersed in training for my first endurance horse ride – whenever that was to be. If that concept was not hard enough for someone with no equine background, it was made slightly more challenging living in the mountains dealing with icy road conditions, snow dumps and day time temps of 10 to 25 F.

I am perfecting the skill of trailering a horse, sometimes two (which is two steps forward, one step backwards); as well as how to efficiently boot and suit my guy in pretty quick time before a ride. I learnt the art of tailing. I’m still learning the intricacies of nutrition and metabolic symptoms. I learnt about heart rates for horses, different recovery rates, and how my ability to run a few miles with the horse significantly helps that rate of recovery.

As I’ve already mentioned some great teachers and mentors have made and continue to make all of this possible. However the greatest teacher of all so far has been Sonny, an 18 year old Arab Gelding who has allowed me to explore, experiment and give me the latitude to develop. Sonny has the patience of a saint and the enthusiasm of a child.

In April this year I attempted my first LD ride at Antelope Island. I borrowed a seasoned campaigner called Gus from the ride manager, Jeffrey Stuart. It took a while for me to get into the swing of things, but after the first 6 miles was done, I was hooked and happy with my choice of new sport. It was a classroom day, with Jeff sharing his knowledge of the trail and all things endurance related. I was fortunate enough to be loaned a second horse for the following day in which I completed my second LD. After that weekend I was definitely not disappointed with how things had gone.

Three weeks later I was signed up to ride my first 50 miler at the Mt Carmel XP in Utah. My plan was to ride 4 x 50 milers. I leased horses from Christoph Schork and Global Endurance Training Centre and Tennessee Lane from Remuda Run. My learning curve was almost vertical. I was exposed to a faster paced ride on an experienced horse from day 1 on technical trails. Day 2 was getting Stolis Hot Shot through his first 50 miler safely. The pace was surprisingly fast given it was Stolis' first 50. By the end of day 4 I was totally fatigued and super happy with how the ride had gone. I was packing up to drive home when I was subject to some peer pressure to stay and ride a 5th day. I had no real argument as to “why not”, so I stayed and completed a 5th day – 250 miles in 5 days. I had an absolute blast and have to thank Christoph Schork and Tennessee Lane for babysitting me on each ride. Without their guidance, support and mentoring my experience would have been totally different, and I don’t believe that I would have gained so much valuable insight into the sport. It is now two weeks after Mt Carmel and I have just purchased Stolis. I know that we have a fun few years ahead of us.

Every now and then the idea of where I am heading, the goal I have set myself, and the ups and downs of the journey overwhelm me. It is important to have long-term audacious goals, but the trick to achieving them is to take life one-step at a time, live in the moment, focus on the NOW, enjoy the friendships and celebrate milestones along the way and what you have achieved today.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Endurance - I wish I knew how to quit you

Endurance - I wish I knew how to quit you.
Confessions of an endurance addict, and how you, too, can stoke the fire that burns within throughout your lifetime. By Barbara White

This blog series has the theme of Why Endurance.  Daryl, Gwen, and Dennis have articulately written why we do it. Sometimes, however, even if we understand and accept the why, getting it done requires us to plot the how very carefully. Unless you are a professional, it's not always easy to pursue Endurance dreams. My purpose here is to share some strategies to help keep you, the amateur Endurance addict, on the Endurance trail as you journey through the main stages of your life, facing the various challenges and obstacles each stage can bring to participation.
I entered my first Endurance Ride, a hundred miler, when I was a 19 year old college kid home for the summer. I have entered that same hundred miler, to be held in August, as a 66 year old retiree. In the intervening years, I have finished school, traveled, married, reared children, worked, volunteered, lived in a subdivision in a huge, flat valley with horses boarded out, and lived in the mountains with our equines surrounding the house. Not only does our sport of Endurance Riding welcome people of all ages; it is, indeed, a sport in which the individual can participate for a lifetime. I have learned that each chapter in a person's life will come with different challenges to that participation. I have also found that the three big necessities for this sport are time, money, and health/youth/energy. I have yet to find a period in my life when I had all three!  In spite of that, somehow, due to the generosity of others or wily behavior of my own, I have been able to ride Endurance almost every year of my adult life.
Many of us are passionate about this sport. The addiction plays havoc with our rational brains. The craving, the yearning, the sacrifices we will make, and the depths to which we will descend to feed the beast that overwhelms us are familiar. I want to share with you some of the strategies that have worked for me over the decades, as well as some observations about other riders.  No names have been changed because not one is innocent.
I ride Endurance because I love to ride horses, and I love to set personal goals that are both large and small.  I enjoy conditioning rides, and I enjoy competitions. I love to ride alone, and I love to ride with others. I love the nervous anticipation shared by the horse and me at the start of a ride, and I love the deep satisfaction of finishing a ride on an equine partner for which I feel both respect and gratitude.  Unfortunately, that satisfaction is temporary, only satiating the need for a short while.  And then it must begin again.  But it’s never the same; that would be pointless.  And, therein, are both the appeal and the test of Endurance Riding, as well as its overwhelming, addictive quality.  Can I do this trail, can this horse do this distance, or can this body handle another 100 miler?  With each ride similar questions pop up that won’t be answered until the finish line.  But first you have to get to the starting line.  Even without time, money, and an energetic, strong body, there are ways to get there. Don’t put it off; there will never be a perfect time.

Do you have time and energy, but little money? That was my story in my late teens and early adulthood.  Energy flows in abundance. A student or a five day a week working adult without family responsibilities probably has some free time. I moved to Auburn, CA, with a borrowed horse one summer when I had time and energy, but little money. I lived in the lower level of a house owned by an Endurance couple, secured a job at a burger place, and could ride at will because I had little other responsibility. My uncle loaned me an old station wagon, and I found a friend who had a trailer but no hauling vehicle. Hitching the two together allowed us hours on the trails of our choice.  It was riding on the cheap, and, although there were some misadventures that summer, I returned home at the end of August with the buckle that had eluded me the previous year.

That was back in the days of newspaper classified ads and dial telephones.  With social media it is easier these days for people with extra horses to link up with riders who are not owners. It's usually a mutually beneficial situation. The horseless person gets to ride, and the owner gets his extra horses conditioned and campaigned. I have both borrowed and loaned out horses over the years. My trailer tack room is stocked with girths of every size because I just never know what fun horse I might meet that needs a rider. Even when you decide you want your own horse and gear, you don't have to spend exorbitant amounts of money. There is a glut of good horses looking for homes. Used tack sales are in abundance. Do all those huge rigs arriving at camp make you feel inadequate? Not me. I haul a two horse bumper pull trailer and sleep in the back of my truck, protected by the camper shell. Although as a West Region rider I confess that I don't ride in subzero temps, it is probably actually easier for me to get out and saddle up in the wind and moisture when it is 27 degrees in my icy cocoon than it is for those luxuriating in their cozy little Taj Mahals. Please don't take offense.  I'm actually quite envious, but my discretionary income forces me to make choices, and I'm content with my little camping set up.
Horse people are mostly a very generous group, but when you borrow, show appreciation, and don't take any risks with your borrowed equines or the inanimate paraphernalia that goes along with the sport. And don't be young and foolish. In the early days of our marriage, a generous, wealthy, and politically conservative gentleman, who was a good friend of my husband, loaned us an extra horse trailer he had.  We used it for months, maybe years, hauling our horses to rides before complicating our lives with children.  It was in the ‘70’s, and I plastered a large NO NUKES bumper strip on the back door of his trailer.  Two days later the owner asked for the trailer back without explanation.  I guess he could tolerate my letters to the editor and door-to-door activism, but a bumper strip on his own trailer was too much. 
So, if you can purchase a horse cheaply, and you can get a reliable used truck and small trailer without winning the lottery and without offending others as I did, how can you save on the horse maintenance expenses? Fancy boarding stables are very expensive and may not be the best set-up for your endurance horse. Find a place with room for your horse to move around and a shelter for inclement weather. He doesn't want to be in a box stall or little pen; he craves a more natural setting. I have a friend who rescues horses. Her hay bills are huge, but her friendly relationships with her country neighbors allow her to move her horses to their empty pastures. Investigate, and you may be able to beg or barter a perfectly good living arrangement for your horse. Don't be afraid to ask. If he’s not on pasture, you will need to feed your horse high quality hay to meet his energy needs. Look around for the freshest, cleanest, and most nutritious. If you want to save a lot of money, be wary of all the supplements out there. Most horses don't need them, so don’t let clever marketing convince you that they do. For years we rode endurance with hay and oats or, maybe, COB (corn, oats and barley). We didn't know what electrolytes were; we had salt bricks. Our mailboxes weren't inundated with heavy catalogs promoting innumerable supplements and cure-alls. Of course, you want to do best by your horse, but most of this stuff is clever advertising, not necessities for success. Forty five years ago, back when all these magic nutritional delights were unavailable and not yet dreamed up, 50% of the starters finished the Tevis Cup 100 Mile Ride. Today, we obsess and spend much time measuring out this, mixing that, creating a complicated menu intended to cure every ill and buy fitness, and the Tevis finishing rate is still 50%. Think about it. Nutritional science is important, but I'm convinced that your time and money are better spent figuring out if there is something your horse actually needs rather than just following the crowd. And, remember, there is never a substitute for smart conditioning.

You may find a period in your life with some money, some energy, and no time. I think this is the most challenging scenario, and it probably happens in the prime of life. Work is demanding; the kids, if you have them, even more so. You will have to make choices about how you will spend your diminishing free time, and, if Endurance Riding is your choice, you will miss out on some other things. Or you may have to take a hiatus from the sport for a while. That happened to me. Endurance Riding and motherhood are not the easiest and best fit.  Riding during pregnancy is generally safe and a decision to be made by a woman and her doctor.  Because I rode Arabians and was a member in good standing of the USFT (US Falloff Team), I chose not to.  However, knowing the power of addiction, I moved my horses an hour and a half away so I wouldn’t be tempted to take just one more little ride.  Nevertheless, there are legions of women who have ridden during their pregnancies without problems.  After the baby is born, one often learns what true Endurance is.  Meeting the 24 hour demands of a tiny tyrant can drain the energy from even the most fit and spirited parents on the planet.  But it must be good conditioning for getting back in the Endurance game.  Does mother’s milk mixed with trail dust ensure a top ten rider in the making?  I know of three young adults who were fed more than 30 years ago at the Tevis Cup Ride vet stops.  Two are stellar crew members (breed your own crew and start them young!), and the third is an AERC director.  It clearly did them no harm, and it enabled the mothers to channel their inner pioneer women for a day.
When I was raising children my horses were boarded out, I had to drive for an hour to get to worthwhile conditioning trails, and no one else in the family was interested. Luckily for me, however, because my parents were actively competing, I would usually get to ride one of their horses in a few rides annually. But, still, except for those few rides, taking a break from endurance sounds easier than it was. The problem with addiction is that withdrawal is very painful. I had to find a substitute drug that didn’t take as much time away from my family, so I chose running. It satisfied my need to set goals and condition for them, and it allowed me to savor that indescribable feeling of mellow fatigue and satisfaction after a job well done. However, unlike endurance riding, I could start training right out my front door, I could do it before the children got up, and I could go to a Saturday race and be home that same day to return to my maternal duties without guilt. Also, no time and energy were spent packing, hooking up the trailer or all the other prep and after care needed for the horse. And, best of all, even when I was lame at the finish line, I could still complete the race!

Remember that most people won’t understand why you enjoy Endurance Riding, much less why you are compulsive about it.  Two very scary words to the Endurance junkie are weddings and graduations.  Why do they always fall on the weekends you were hoping to go to one of your favorite rides?  These celebrations can cause real friction between you, your family, and closest friends.  The best way to avoid this is to be proactive.  Check the academic calendars online for those graduations you must attend.  At least you will know well in advance that you might have to sacrifice a beloved ride one year.  And for the big rides that mean so much to you, I suggest you share those dates with those whom you dare not offend well ahead of the ride date.  If it’s a graduation or other event that can’t be controlled by you, that’s one thing.  But if it’s something being scheduled by a host or hostess, you may have a little negotiating power.  Many rides are held on the same weekend each year and others publish their future dates.  Don’t let a large formal envelope, with a little reply envelope inside, take you by surprise!
One of life’s cruel little tricks is that by the time a person actually accumulates some money and has more spare time, he/she finds that health, energy and youth are declining rapidly.  Injuries plague most of us because our sport is risky, and accidents, of course, can happen at any age.  But with slowing reflexes and weaker muscles, the older rider learns that bad things can turn into very bad things more often.  Safety gear is an individual choice.  I don’t like it.  I long for the freedom of galloping in a tank top, wind flowing in my hair, soaring straight to the heavens on my Pegasus.  Instead, my dermatologist has chastised me so much that I have promised to wear long sleeves.  I started riding with a helmet when my first child was born.  That was very responsible of me, I felt, but I also decided if I were going to lose brain cells, I’d rather lose them drinking fine, or not-so-fine, wine than by clobbering my head on granite.  So the helmet and long sleeves are de rigueur for this rider.  The safety vest is a slightly different story.  It was a gift from someone who loves me, and although I don’t like wearing it, I usually put it on. I can tell that those riders with broken or cracked ribs aren’t usually happy, and, if they are, they don’t dare laugh because it hurts too much. They are also missing out on some good riding days while they heal. I cheat a bit in very hot weather and replace the safety vest with a cooling vest, which I hope is still better than nothing.  I usually ride in trail running shoes, so I never consider stirrups without covers.  There may be a certain romanticism about charging to the grave atop a gallant horse, but being dragged to the grave with a foot caught in a stirrup while Demon runs for his life doesn’t conjure up the same feeling somehow.

It has been said that growing old is not for sissies.  I believe that Endurance Riders never grow old; some of them just need a little extra help with mounting and trot-outs.  Our sport has had a number of successful Endurance Riders continue on despite advancing years.  I don’t think this is simply because they have become addled as a result of too many unplanned dismounts. Rather, it may be an accurate indicator of the grip the sport has on so many of us. My father rode Endurance Rides into his mid-80’s.  Basically fit and healthy, he accumulated 14,200 endurance miles, sprinkled with wins and BC’s, during a career that started when he was 58 and ended with a 50 miler when he was 84 years old.  While he wasn’t particularly passionate about the horses, he enjoyed the new trails and the interesting people he met through the sport.  I can recall him sitting in a camp chair, quenching a 50 mile thirst with a beer after finishing a hot summer’s ride, and seeming to be very pleased and content.  As I, too, glowed with the good feelings of a wonderful day on the trail, I remarked, “Dad, you seem to be so happy.”  His immediate and honest response was, “Well, yes, I’m off the horse.” 
Our sport’s title of Endurance refers to the horse, not the rider, but for the most senior among us, there has to be a strong will to persevere out there, mile after mile.  The incredible Jim Steere became the first person to finish the Tevis Cup Ride as an 80 year old.  I think we all tipped our helmets to him after that accomplishment.  Financier and billionaire Warren Hellman was one of San Francisco’s most generous philanthropists.  Well-educated and an activist, he served on many foundations and corporate boards in the city, sharing his ideas, knowledge, and wealth to create a better San Francisco.     Warren was also an Ultra-Runner, Endurance Rider, and avid Ride and Tie competitor.  The last time I saw him was a few months before he passed away from leukemia.  It was a foggy dawn at the Shine and Shine Only Ride, high above Silicon Valley, and I witnessed a frail and ill human being, with a great heart and spirit, mount up for his final AERC Ride.  I was very moved by what I saw.  In spite of his increasing infirmity, he still couldn’t quit Endurance.  Just like Jim Steere, the discomfort of riding and the indignity of being helped by others meant nothing compared to the joy he knew out there on the trail and that same satisfaction we all savor after a job well done with a special horse.  The Universe noticed that day, too, because Warren went home in the evening with a 4th place finish and a Best Conditioned award in the 25 Mile Ride.  These three men are deeply missed by those who loved them and many who knew them.  Perhaps their desire trumped their common sense, but it leaves the rest of us with great inspiration.
If you are hooked on Endurance, don’t wait for the perfect time in your life to ride. That time will never come; it doesn’t exist.  Whether you are 18 or 81, you will find other demands on your hours, money, and energy. So do it now. Endurance Riders are a very big-hearted group.  We show strong support for one another in victory and when things go wrong.  We are constantly learning as individuals and as a group.  We are bonded by our appreciation and respect for our horses and our trails.  And…we just don’t know how to quit. 
Add more years to your life, more life to your years.  Ride a horse. Really Ride.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Get Yer Motor Running!

Get yer motor runnin, head out on the highway! If you want to read a story about grinding out 50 miles in 8 hours you’ve come to the wrong page. As many of you know, I recently wrote the ebook,  4th Gear - Power Up Your Endurance Horse. It details methods and strategies to safely RACE as well as ride at endurance rides. I won't go too far into the book as you probably read it. If you haven't, what are you waiting for?

Endurance riding is like long distance running in many ways. Each person has their short and long term goals that hopefully align with their short and long term capabilities. The big difference is that your partner in this, your horse, is a flight animal and as such has abilities to "outrun " or overtax their system and running gear. It is our tough job to prepare ourselves and our horses to easily perform the distance and pace asked of them. With smart riding, a good horse with the right preparation, great speed and distance can be safely and easily accomplished. With adequate rest in between, this same horse can be competitive for many years. Some day when you’re bored, checkout our AERC lifetime horse records. When the flag drops, the BS stops. Mags Motivator is a great example: 10 years racing, over 3,000 lifetime miles and at 17 years old finishes 2 minutes behind the winner and wins Best Condition at this year’s National Championship 100!

Ok, time to get your motor running.

Last fall, 10 days prior to the National Championship, we had to select horses to take for each distance. For me, the choice for the 100 miler was easy. AH Bantiki, aka Bogart, is a tough Arab-Mustang we bred that was perfectly suited for the tough mountain championship trail. The choice for the 50 miler was much tougher. I ended up taking Hey Soul Sister, a 7-year old race bred mare. She hadn't shown me blinding speed at any of her races yet,  she just seems to get anything I throw at her done easily.
       Soul Sister had a great leg up in her early years. She was bred to race and then turned out for her first three years in the hilly grasslands of Eastern Montana. At the end of her 4-year old season, she got started by Darlene Anderson and in her fifth year began slow 50 milers. I took over in her sixth year when we usually begin to pick up the pace and intensity of our horses’ training-racing.

She didn't really get all her growth and strength until her seventh year, then she began to show me what she had in her gas tank. Any ride I threw at her she finished with that quiet " is that all you got? look". After we rode our depletion ride 3 weeks prior, she bounced back and began to act so sharp and ready I knew I just couldn't leave her home. A well bred, fit and sharp endurance horse is a beautiful thing.

Fast forward to the start and I tuck Soul Sister behind Kevin Myers and his seasoned gelding, Far. The first leg was maybe 18 miles and we eased into the first vet check maybe 10 minutes behind the front pack of 10 or so horses. We made up some time on recovery and then began the long, long ascent up the mountain. Saving horse as much as possible by tailing, we began to reel in the front pack. Soon after we crested the pass, there was good going and we caught the mob. Oh yeah! They bolted like rabbits and the chase was on! I remember saying to Kevin as we were side by side on a 2 track road, " there is nowhere else I would rather be". Do I like to race? Just a little.

After a bit of flattish country on top we began the long descent off the mountain, mostly off running to save young Soul Sister’s legs. We blew into the second and last check with maybe 8 horses. If I remember right, the order of recovery went Gwen Hall, Christoph Schork, Kevin Myers, and then me. All recovered within 2-3 minutes of each other with 10 easy miles of trail to the finish, giddy up. Soul Sister was having a great day, eating and  drinking at every chance. Full of energy and bright-eyed. The other three horses looked great too, and I could see no weak links. It's amazing how fast good horses ate up this mountain course.

I think that to race near the "red line", a rider needs to have all his senses working, including that hard to describe sixth sense tuned into his horse and the situation. I wish I could itemize the little things I do at a vetcheck and on trail to assess my horse’s condition at that moment. It is really more instinctive when I glance at my mare’s eye -- is it soft, quiet and fluid? I put a hand on her neck at the top of the mountain -- is she holding heat? Where to push on trail, where to coast. A thousand seemingly tiny details often turn out to be the difference between winning and losing, completing and not completing. Soul Sister passed all my assessments as well as the ride vets, let's go finish this thing!

One by one we got released and soon were back in a pack of four, making a beeline toward home. All strong, all fast, with seasoned riders aboard,  what to do? I had pre-ridden the finish and knew it well. The last three miles first had windy, narrow single track through the junipers with a great big boulder to skirt around. Then there was a downhill with two patches of pavement before the flat. There was two-track on the flat that led to a 90-degree right turn onto the road to the finish. What a ugly, scary finish to race on, perfect!

There was a water three miles from the finish where everyone's crew sponged horses while they drank. As we came in, I eased around to the camp-side of that tank, time for a breakaway! As the four horses raised their heads from drinking, I looked at the three riders and asked "everybody happy?" Quick as they nodded, I shot toward camp like my ass was on fire. Each of them knew that trail and there was only one of them crazy enough to chase me,  Christoph Schork. Through the years he and I had butted heads often and I had a feeling this was how it would go down.

Like a video game on steroids, the junipers went by like blurs and somehow I got around said boulder without careening into space. Got on the pavement stretches and Christoph came on by! He had four glue-on easy boots, I had them only on the front and her hinds were slipping a bit, bummer! Got down on the two-track maybe a mile from camp and made a second move by, wide open, all in! Both little greys are race bred and made their ancestors proud. Side-by-side they powered toward home, only one minor detail left, that 90-degree right turn to camp at Mach 9!

Christoph got a better angle on the turn and lost less speed, Soul Sister had to jump the ditch onto the road. The finish sprint was on! A couple hundred yards of sprint and we crossed the finish line, Christoph by 1/2 a length! Thinking of the grit those two mares showed racing it off at the end of a tough 50 miles still gets my motor running. I went over and shook Christoph’s hand as those two mares were still dancing and acting like fools. Great horses can do great things.

Soul Sister showed me the ability I knew was inside, we just waited for the right time to show the world. I couldn't be more proud of her and I pity the folks who have to race against her in the future. Funny that I picked a race to talk about where I came in second. Oh well, can't be Superman every Saturday.
Dennis Summers

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Thrill of Speed. The Beauty of Partnership

I was honored to be asked to write a short article on why I ride endurance, specifically, why I choose to sometimes race endurance and what got me started in the sport. I am not a writer by trade, and to put into words what at times is an intensely emotional experience for me is very difficult. For now, with this horse, my goals are sitius, altius, fortius- for as long as he enjoys doing it. The exhilaration of pushing our personal limits farther is incredible, and I believe that, at least for my four legged partner, the feeling seems to be mutual. If only I had a video of when he returned from his first 100 mile race! His chest was puffed out like a peacock and he strutted out to the pasture in front of his buddies like he was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Whoever says pride is only a human emotion does not know horses!

My introduction to endurance sports started with running ultramarathons competitively. Actually, it started with running to lose weight which led to ultramarathons. I have completed races up to 100 miles, can’t remember how many marathons, and at one time proudly held three separate women’s ultra-distance course records. I learned from ultras that we are capable of so much more than we think we are. Some of my fondest memories though were not of the wins or completions of tough races, but the camaraderie amongst the runners. The front runners would cheer on the slower runners as they passed on an out and back section, or even came back after their finish (and a shower/nap in some cases) to welcome the back of the pack at the finish line. Many of the top runners showed true sportsmanship and for some of us mere mortals we could only aspire to compete as they did. I also learned the hard way that the long term wear and tear of training can catch up with you and what can happen when you do not listen to your body. Unfortunately, various life challenges cropped up that put an end on my time and ability to run/train as I once did. But as they say, when one door closes in your life, another opens. Mine opened to the fantastic sport of endurance riding.

I had limited exposure to endurance riding indirectly via the Western States Trail Run. The story of Gordy Ainsleigh at Tevis was familiar to me. So I started to research endurance riding and now I had the financial ability and geographic location to support a horse. My husband naively said yes. Silly man- he must really love me! I started cautiously, taking riding lessons from JoAnn Pavlis at Milemakers in CO. I hadn’t sat on a horse in 20 years when I started lessons with her but it came back quickly. As a kid, I used to lead trail rides at a stable for free on the weekends year round just to have the opportunity to ride. As for many kids though, going to college and starting a career pretty much put an end to that. It sure didn’t take much to re-kindle the addiction. By end of summer I had purchased a wonderful off track Arabian I named Dakar who was looking for a new line of work.

I was happy to find much of the same support in endurance riding as I had found in ultramarathons. At my very first ride, I was “rescued” by two wonderful riders whom I had never met before. Honestly, when I started endurance 4 years ago at our first LD ride, I was not intending to be competitive, at least not any time soon. Dakar had other ideas. That first ride would have been my last were it not for Neil and Branka McLaughlin. Dakar may not have been into the racing game on the track anymore but he was all about it on the trails. He still gets very angry with me if I hold him back at the finish because in my opinion the area is not safe for him to race in or I think that it is not appropriate for where he is in training. But that’s my part of the partnership- I’m supposed to be the big brain.

I view myself as both a partner and a coach for my horse which is a huge responsibility. Not every ride we enter is a “race” for us and is sometimes just a step to a different goal. I realize I am working with a partner who can not verbalize what he feels—I have to be more in tune with him that I think I ever was with myself. To make it tougher, Dakar tends to be the stoic sort. I think one of the best things about endurance for me has been the satisfaction I feel from helping him develop his natural abilities. There are so many things to learn- not just actual training techniques but what electrolyte/re-fueling strategies work best for him as an individual; how to read him better when we are training to know when we need to push harder or need to back off. To me, this is as fascinating and as fun as the ride itself- I guess I am a little crazy. I may plan out our ride season and goals a year in advance but have to be flexible enough to alter those goals when his needs or unforeseen circumstances dictate it. It takes a good plan and a lot of hard work to continue to improve- it doesn’t just happen by accident, at least not for long. I take great pride in guiding him safely through a race to completion first, placing well in it second. If we get Best Condition or High Vet Score, so much the better! But I would be lying if I said that a good race wasn’t both thrilling and terrifying all at the same time! Riding a gallop to the finish is truly a gift that I feel blessed to have experienced but also not one to be taken lightly. The ultimate goal is to finish safely, with a horse eager and capable of doing it again.

In my point of view, racing, riding for completion miles/points or just to have a good time, are all fine when done with respect to the horse. And they can all be dangerous. Sadly, abuse can and does occur at all levels and styles of riding, whether intentional or out of ignorance. There is always the risk of injury to either rider or horse; it is something most of us never want to take the chance of but as all horse owners know, even leaving a horse in its pasture is no guarantee of safety! Personally, I feel the most dangerous part of endurance riding is the trailer ride. There is a popular saying that “speed kills” as an argument as to why endurance should not be a race. I would argue that crossing the red line in any form kills. That red line is different for every horse and varies from day to day, season to season. No matter how you choose to ride, it is not benign. Every day bad things happen. Some times they happen to you. When fate deigns to offer you warning signs, you have to be willing, astute and empathetic enough to listen. It is incumbent upon the rider to leave the ego at the trailer. In my opinion, ego has no business on the trail.

We had our first real “test” in partnership and ego abandonment most recently at a ride where we had an unfortunate encounter with barbed wire. It was obscured in brush and not visible in the low light of sunrise. We were only about 3 miles from the vet check on our first loop when we hit it-- thankfully only a slow trot as we were approaching a water stop. Although most were very minor wounds there was one skin laceration on his left foreleg just below his elbow. Dakar was 100% sound when we vetted in but I asked the vets to recheck him before going back out.. He was still sound on the recheck so we went back out. He ran a strong second loop, pulling on me the whole way. When we came back in off the second loop though, the vet said he was intermittently off on the leg he had cut. That was enough for me. The vet asked what I wanted to do— all of his other parameters were A’s. That was a no-brainer. We retired/rider optioned. At the time, we were leading the ride and he had a 100% ride completion rate to that point. Sure, I had spent a lot of money, resources and time to get there. But the horse has to come first. Always.

Of course when I formalized our pull I shed a tear. I think one of the vets thought it was because I was upset that we weren’t going to finish. But that wasn’t why- I was upset because I felt I had let Dakar down. He went where I had told him to; he trusted me and it was pure and simple rider error. It could have happened to anyone at any place but today was our turn. That’s part of the partnership that you have to have with your horse, whether you are racing, riding for miles/completion or just having a great time over 50 miles with your friends. You have to be able to set your personal goals aside for your partner. And that’s part of the beauty of endurance- there are so many different ways to enjoy this sport and find your niche but to do so always in respect of your silent and faithful partner.

 Photos by Karl Creations

Friday, March 14, 2014

To Finish is to (you can still) Win!

In every great sport there are winners- competitive people who put in the time, dedication, sweat and (lots of) money into their passion.  Our beloved sport of endurance has a motto we all know- “To Finish is to Win”. Many of us agree with this motto and hold it true to each ride we go to.  Conquering a course of 25-100 miles in a single day is no common feat.  Many ride a horse for an hour trail ride and can’t walk the next few days (ask non-horse friends for details). Also, in endurance, there is a large segment of “racers” that take it to the next level.  They build a competitive program of steady training, quality nutrition and top foot care.  You see them at every ride, the ones that pull in and you say “Oh, well looks like [name] will be going for the win tomorrow.” The ones called “hot shoes”, “speedsters”, or sometimes not-so-nice names.  I wanted to write this article in order to help understand that racing is not a dangerous or bad thing- if done right and smart.
Endurance riding is a lot like NASCAR if you think about it.  Each year, racers pour in millions of dollars into their cars, set up great pit crews, practice year round, and build their craft to be the best they can be. Now there are many differences between NASCAR and endurance- NASCAR racers don’t have to walk out into snow to feed their cars! Cars aside, there is something common among the best racers and their strategies.  The winners do not put pedal to the ground and burn their engines up to win. They think about every detail and race at a pace that will maintain the speed level their car is ready for. If they push past that limit- they blow up and they are done. Sound familiar?
About me:  My name is Daryl Downs (M34665). I am 27 years old and live in Southeast Pennsylvania.  I started doing endurance when I was 15 years old.  To this day I have 3,200 miles in completions, multiple firsts, many top ten awards, and a few Best Condition awards (wish I had more but I maintain a light girlish figure). I have won the Old Dominion 100 (2005) and BC’ed the OD 100 (2006) as well.  I have competed on over 20 different horses, for multiple kind owners.  You will see many pulls early in my riding career- I call those growing pains and learning experiences.  

When I go into a ride, I go knowing my horse is not only in top condition, but also ready to rock that course. I see no reason that my training program does not prepare the horse to excel in a field of other talented horses. Now, this does not mean I always bolt to the front. I ride to my horse’s abilities and nothing more.  I take on the NASCAR mentality that says I will use my past experiences to make today the best race I can make it.  I have top crew (who decided to start riding, but I digress), top nutrition, and the best care I can afford.  I do not go up to the finish line unsure of my horse, or thinking that the win is mine.  I respect each course’s terrain and the challenges of my competitors.  I look around and know every single horse and their pasts. I know their records, I know what they did last month and I know what they can potentially do on this day.  I study as hard as I train my horse.
Today I notice a hesitancy to embrace the racing culture by many members of my AERC family. They question the health of the horses and whether we are being humane in reaching our goals.  Thanks to recent FEI struggles, we are seeing the dangers of reckless riding coupled with greed and disregard for their mounts.  This is not how many of your AERC friends go about competing.  First, we love every horse we get the privilege of riding.  We spend countless hours talking to people about them and our training (until they avoid us).  We truly work hard and put in the time and conditioning to match the pace we use in AERC events.  I bring it back to the NASCAR mentality- the best will conserve and drive (ride) smart. The winner will rarely be the one who rode the hardest, but the one who put in the work before and rode smart.
Why am I talking about racing and NASCAR? Am I rambling? Probably.  But, my point is, competing will not kill your horse- unfortunate events, poor care or poor riding will.   I want the new generation of riders to read this article and feel relieved that their goals of finishing first in a race can not only be met, but can be met with a happy, healthy horse.  Let us embrace different ideas in this awesome, diverse sport we love.  I invite anyone that has a desire to top ten a ride, or even step up their training to speak to any mentor about what they do. Pick their brains and learn! It is exactly what I did and still do today.  The only truly important piece of information to remember in the AERC is “Always Have FUN”.  I always do.

*** To new riders looking to enter the world of Endurance, just jump in- the perks are great.  There is so much to learn and so many different ways to enjoy the sport.  As a pre-30 year old endurance rider, I take great pride in knowing that I am doing something special. Endurance creates goals not only for your equine friend, but for your own health.  I have a focus to stay in shape all year long, preparing and keeping my weight steady for my horse.  Other perks include- having a horse (duh), telling friends what you do and seeing their face, meeting new people, partying after rides, traveling, partying more…  I have been doing it for 10 + years and look forward to every Spring and the adventures coming up!   Check out AERC and read all you can absorb, check out the AERC YouTube page for excellent educational videos, get your horse and ride!  ***

photos: Daryl Downs riding Gracie, owned by Sally. Jellison, BG Aashar, owned by Mike Marino. Odie, owned by Daryl Downs