Friday, December 19, 2003

2002 My Last Tevis Ride? - Chris Martin

This story is about the 2002 Tevis ride and the horse that fell off the cliff on Cal 2 I first rode the Tevis in 1999 and since that time, the ride has kinda taken on a life of its own. Tevis is a 24-hour event that takes 365 days of your life. You pack a whole year into that little 24-hour period, especially for those of us who have the BUG. The Tevis gods rule, and this year was no exception. I have pre ridden most of the trail, at least twice and as many as 10 times, except that portion from Robie to Robinson. This year I started in January, riding different parts of the trail once a week.

The horse I have been training and conditioning for four years came up with a reoccurring problem with his right fetlock, fracture of the sesamoid that never really healed. He could go for a couple of fast 50's and then he would start to have some problems. This was to be by top-ten Tevis horse.

I had another horse that I’d started along last year and he was doing fine until he came up lame in May. I knew you had to have a backup horse but I didn’t think I needed a backup for the backup. The Tevis god’s have spoken.

Being desperate, I borrowed a horse from my neighbor on June 23rd, a 12-year-old Arab named Bo who had been bought at auction. The horse had done some endurance back in April of 2001 and had 150 AERC miles with one metabolic pull. My neighbor’s daughter was riding him when he panicked about a loose saddle and fell off a cliff, hurting himself pretty badly. After he’d healed up enough, he was put out to pasture on 900 acres for that whole year. When I rode him home from, a distance of about 3.5 miles, I thought he was going to die. I had a heart rate monitor on him and it took him over 20 minutes to recover from the ride/trot home. I had some big question marks at that time.

I started conditioning rides with the horse (Bo), riding every day and sometimes twice a day. He did very well, some days being able to do twice what he had done the day before. I recorded all his training rides keeping track of milage, heart rate files, and recovery times. We did quite well on our first 25-mile training ride and then the next week we did a 40-mile training ride. During the last weeks, we were doing about 80 miles a week with our long ride days being on portions of the Tevis trail with our training buddies Jon and Spider. Spider is the horse. We did hard/easy workdays with a high carbo supplement after each work and feeding the work with grain. He had taken to the work very well His most training miles were 83 miles in one week. By his 8th week, which was the Tevis week, I was sick with the flu and we did almost no milage, but Bo was looking very fit, a much different horse from the pasture potato that I had started with seven weeks earlier.

One week before Tevis I decided that I should buy Bo., just in case something happened, so we worked out a price, just a little more than the price of meat, and the deal was done. The eight weeks of conditioning were actually six He had once week off because of a swelling on the left rear caused by a kick during one of our long rides about the 4th week. He had another week off, the week before the Tevis, as he had caught his right front in the lead rope while tied to the trailer. On Monday prior to Tevis, I came down with the flu and was down in bed until Wed. On Thursday, I left for the ride. Jon and Spider had saved us a spot at Robie

Jon and I rode on Friday before we vetted in. We rode about 10 miles, Bo looked fine when we got back, still swollen but not lame at all. Anyway, I vetted him through and he got all A's, so we were good to go. I kept ice on it until we went to bed. Jon got Spider a massage and he looked like he really enjoyed it.

Ride morning started for me at about 3 a.m., with the ride actually starting at 5:15 a.m. I was kinda worried about having lost about 12 pounds with the flu and not having eaten anything since Sunday (not to mention having liquid coming out each portal). Needless to say, I was pleased when I made that first important stop to the Porta Potty and I did more than dribble; now we were really ready to ride.

At about 5 a.m. Jon and I headed for the start line along with 250 other riders. Bo and Spider were all hyped up and ready to go. The trail was set up in three sections, red for the people who wanted to start up towards the front, blue for those who wanted to be in the middle, and white for those in the rear. We started moving up towards the front and just made it into the red section when the line started moving. The trail is only 20 feet wide at this point and we were all packed into this little space with very excited horses, some behaving better than others. As we started moving down the trail, I heard someone behind us holler that a person was down but do not know what happened. As the trail opened up, we started moving faster and faster, riding with someone beside us and of course someone in front and someone in the rear. As we came to a small wooded bridge, there is a guy on a mule trying to pull it across the bridge. He got out of the way and we continued on, heading down to the highway just below Squaw Valley. We crossed the highway and up the steep trail that led us the to top Squaw. Bo was flipping his head and trying to get the rains over the top of the bit. Jon noticed that Bo had managed to get his tongue over the bit and was now bleeding. I looked at the heart rate monitor and it was in the 170-180 range. People were in front of us and behind us, so there was no backing down the way I wanted to. Before the ride, I had decided not to let him get over 160 for any length of time during the ride. As soon as I found a place we could pull over, I pulled the bit off and just rode him with the reins attached to his rope halter (what a mistake). After I pulled the bit we continued down the trail for a quarter of a mile or so when we heard people yelling. We looked up and saw that we (me) had missed the trail and would have to go back up the mountain to catch it.

Jon was in front so I just put Bo on Spider’s tail and off we went. He was pulling on me but when I headed him directly into the other horse's butt there was nothing he could do. We made it up the top of Squaw where they had a water stop. Both horses drank well and we gave them their electrolytes. There are no bathrooms so you just use your horse as kind of a shield and go for it.

From the top of Squaw where the lift stops, you have to go about another half a mile to mile to get to the real top. Wow! What a view, if you take the time to look. From there, the trail drops off into what they call the Granite Chief wilderness area. There is a five-mile stretch so terrible it’s hard to describe. It is a rocky (large and small rocks), steep, downhill stretch with large slabs of rock that you slide down into. Many, many horses are injured on this part of the trail. There are spots where it is muddy and almost boggy. Bo, not having a bit in his mouth, was almost uncontrollable. Spider would get a little bit ahead and Bo would just race through these rocks and mud; scared the hell out of me. My hands were so tired from trying to hold him back that I decided that I had to get his bit back in his mouth, but had to wait until we had a safe place to do it. As we were making our way though this nightmare, a lady in front of us fell off her horse when it slipped. Jon stopped and we blocked the trail until she got back on, after a couple of attempts, and then we were off again. I finally found a spot to stop and redo the bit for Bo; wow, power steering again!

The next obstacle was Cougar Rock . Not as hard as it looks; they take the pictures so it looks like you’re doing something superhuman but it’s a piece of cake. Both horses went up and over, looking good. A lot of the trail is fine dust so if you don't have a mask, you will be blowing a lot of dirt clods. I wore an outlaw-type bandana, which worked great, just pull it up and pull it down. We finally made it to Lyons Ridge, the first kinda vet check; horses get to eat and drink a little, heart rate checked, trotted to make sure they are not lame, and then you are off to Robinson Flat, which is at the 36-mile mark six miles down the road. From here, the trail is pretty nice all the way to Robinson. We had crew waiting for us with all the stuff we would need, plus some food and replenishment of the drinks we carried with us. We arrived at about 10 a.m., both horses vetted through, and we settled down for our one-hour hold. It seemed like we no sooner sat down before we had to get back up again to saddle up.

They pull a lot of horses at Robinson, mostly for lameness and some for metabolic (going too fast). The average pull rate of the ride is about 50 percent with this year closer to 60 percent. The finish rate was in the 40th percentile, with 94 riders finishing.

Jon and I had pre ridden the rest of the trail from Robinson to Auburn in different chunks during the last several months. Because I had to start a new horse, Bo had seen only some of it.

When we left Robinson, we were in 40- 50th position. From there, the ride goes to a water stop at Four Corners and then on to a vet check at Last Chance (an old mining location). The trail was not too bad but very dusty in spots, and they run you down a couple of canyons and back up again, all on single-track trails. We were following three other riders when the female rider’s horse tripped and fell. The rider went over her horse’s head and landed sitting up in the middle of the trail. Her horse skidding on his chin until he was almost right on top of her and then got up and trotted down the trail. One of the other riders got the horse while the lady slowly got up and made sure everything worked. At that point, we passed them and went down the trail. The vet check was just a few miles down the road. We were pleased and surprised to see the woman who had fallen off vetting her horse through, though she had a thick layer of that fine dust all over, especially were she skidded on the trail. Her horse looked fine and she ended up finishing the ride, as we found out later. We ended up staying at Last Chance for a while to let the horses eat. It was only a 15-minute hold but they had good eats, ice-cold watermelon, lemonade, Coke, etc.

From Last Chance, you head down into a canyon with a swinging bridge at the bottom, takes about a 30-minute ride with switch back after switch back. Some people get off their horses and jog down the trail which is single track and rocky in spots, but for the most part you can make good time over this stretch of trail. Time at this point was not a factor. There are cut off times at each vet check and you have to make that time or you are done; over time, you’re out. We started down the trail going pretty fast with the horses feeling great and everything looking good. All of the sudden riders start stacking up on the trail and we’re moving at a snail’s pace. We could see what the holdup was as we looked down the switch backs. I spied some unfit overweight female, slowly walking her horse down the trail. I kept my mouth shut for at least a couple of switch backs and was very proud of myself for that. Then I could no longer contain my frustration and started hollering. I asked for the trail, asked her to speed up, asked her to jog, asked her to pull over when safe and let us by. She basically said she didn’t have to and she didn't. We ended up passing her just before we got to the swinging bridge and didn’t see her again; I don’t think she finished. On the way down, we saw the same mule that we had seen at the beginning of the ride (the one that would not go over the bridge) coming back up towards us. The rider said that his mule would not go over this little tiny wooden bridge that was on the trail just before the swinging bridge, so I guess he was going back to Last Chance.

From the bottom of the canyon, the trail, which is all single track, goes straight up via switch back, for over a mile to Devil’s Thumb. A lot of people tail their horses up, walking behind the horse and holding its tail. It takes 30 minutes riding and a little longer tailing, but you can only go as fast as the people in front of you. When we got the top, they had water and some hay for the horses. After that, the trail flattens out until you get to the vet check at Deadwood, about four miles away. The trail to Deadwood is actually more like a road and doesn’t have many rocks so you can pass there.

The vet check at Deadwood was good, with lots to eat, and we spent lots of time letting the horses eat. From there the trail goes down into another canyon and then back up to the check at Michigan Bluff.

The Michigan Bluff check was even better, with fried chicken and lots of other good stuff to eat. Then it’s only six miles to Foresthill. While in Michigan Bluff, I encountered Bo’s previous owner. She said that the horse would only go so far and then he would just lay down. She asked if I had any such problems and I told her no; nice information to have at about the 60-mile mark in a 100-mile event.

The next stop was Foresthill, the main vet check and a one-hour hold. Our horses vetted through fine, we changed clothes and got something to eat, and then we were gone. The ride goes through the middle of town and all the local yokels were out hootin’ and a hollerin’ as we went by. We headed down into another canyon called the California Loop, on our way to Fransisco’s about 15 miles away. We started this loop in the dark at about 9 p.m. Again, we weren’t too concerned about time as it was just a buckle ride (riding for the finish and not top ten) and trying not to be in the other 50 percent. We’d just headed down the trail when we noticed another rider following quite a way behind us and hollered out for (him) to join us. He turned out to be from Japan and was riding a leased horse. Anyway, as time went on, we started picking up more and more riders. At last count, I think we had about 15 riders following. I started to pick up the pace. Bo had light bars on his breast collar so the other riders could see him as we trotted down the trail. Bo w as doing a great job. At one point, a rider asked who was leading them and doing such a great job, and I answered, “Bo, a gelding.”

The top part of the trail is called Cal 1 and the next section is Cal 2. Bo, who was leading us, had never been on this section of the trail. On about the third switch back of Cal 2, Bo was trotting fast with Jon and Spider right behind us when I heard some scrambling and then Jon saying, "Going down." I turned and looked and could see the light bars on Spider tumbling over and over. My heart sank as I heard Jon yell for Spider, that frantic scream you would yell after your child when he stepped into the path of a freight train. I yelled at Jon to see if he was OK and all I could hear was him yelling for Spider. The other riders were now on top of me as I halted Bo. By that time, I was at the corner of the switch back. Two riders were in the corner, apparently coming up the trail as Spider rolled right over the trail in front of them. As they let me by, I thought that Jon had gone on down the switch back that I was on. I sent the other two riders on to get help, let all the other 15 or so riders pass me, and then went back to find Jon. I finally found him and he was okay, having only gone down about 30 feet or so. We thought sure that Spider was dead because of how steep it was where he had gone down and because of the fact that he had gone completely over the trail in two spots. He went out of sight tumbling over and over and then there was dead silence. After the second switch back there aren’t any more as the trail continues west. Jon asked if I would go on to Francisco's and make sure we got some help. I gave Jon my flashlight and left my good friend in the darkness. Bo easily found his way through the darkness as my tears clouded my vision. I knew that Jon would be okay but I could still hear his screams for Spider in my mind. I knew that other riders that had passed me would get to Francisco's long before me. At this point, alone in the darkness and knowing that Spider was dead, the ride did not seem to be very important. Waiting year after year for the Tevis ride did not mean anything anymore. Bo and I just kind of plodded along and finally came to the vet check at Francisco’s which seemed like forever.

Wonderful volunteers, a couple of young ladies, held my horse while I went over the to person with the ham radio. He said they knew what had happened and that the sweep riders had already been in contact with Jon and were making plans to get him out. I kept worrying about what I was going to tell his wife, Anne Marie. I looked for the signal on my cell phone but no such luck. I decided that Jon had probably already been in touch with his wife on one of the radios that the sweep riders had and that he would beat me back to Auburn by a long shot.

I pretty much took my time at Francisco’s, watching at least 20 riders pass along down the trail. I had no clue what time it was and really did not care. Bo and I started walking on down the trail, a section Bo had been on at least once. We walked along the trail about 200 feet above the American River, the full moon shining brightly, which would have been pretty nice if tragedy had not struck. We just walked in the darkness, not a soul in sight. I could see the tiny green light bars that they had marked the trail with dangling in the air. As your horse moves up and down along the trail you can make out all kinds of shapes and visions. I could see outlines of giant houses with windows and doors. The whole time I was thinking about Spider and Jon’s frantic scream. I decided that this is my last Tevis ride and a DNF (did not finish) at that. I never wanted to feel like this again. I am sure that my eyes were all red and blood shot.

We finally got to the river and crossed without incident. Bo was used to going fast on this last section of the trail. I knew that the last vet check, the quarry, is just four miles down the trail, but really didn’t care. I didn’t even look at my watch to see what time it was and had no idea what the cut-off time was. Bo kept trying to trot and I kept pulling him back to a walk. About two miles after the river crossing, I heard riders behind me. Bo and I just kept walking. Soon there were three riders, the drag riders coming from Francisco’s. Well, that meant that I was the last rider on the trail. They started chatting with me and I told them what had happened. By this time, I could see the lights from the vet check at the quarry. The ladies said that the cut-off time for the quarry was 4:15 a.m. and gave us some encouragement. I started thinking about it and decided that if Bo had it in him, we would give it a try for our good friend Spider.

Bo and I left the drag riders in the dust as we cantered that last two miles into the vet check. The people at the check could hear us coming and started yelling that we could make it. As we neared the check, they lowered a yellow ribbon they had used to direct the horses. The vet ran out to check Bo who got a quick drink and then had his pulse checked. Reaching the mandatory 68, he did a quick trot out and we were good to go. We nailed the 4:15 a.m. check-out time but now we had to go almost seven miles in under 60/minute. Bo had done this section of trail at least three times so he knew it well, but we had never done it in the dark and 60/minute was a real push even for daylight hours on a fresh horse. Bo had already done over 95 miles

Bo seemed to have taken on new life and had to be held back almost the whole way. I knew that if I got to the top of Robie Point by 5 a.m. I could make the finish by 5:15, the cut-off time. Bo ran through a section of the trail called the Black Hole of Calcutta like a champ. He strongly trotted all the way to the top of Robie Point were I checked my watch at 5 a.m. We then sprinted down the trail that weaved in and out, up and down, over some rocky areas, through the star thistle, and under the tree limbs towards the finish. Soon we heard someone screaming from the finish line. Some young girls (bless their hearts) started yelling,” You can make it, you can make it.” We crossed the finish line at 5:15 a.m., the last place finisher with maybe the fastest time between the last vet check and the finish line. I could not have been prouder of Bo if he’d had the four years of conditioning instead of his meager six weeks.

We walked into the stadium where Bo vetted through, looking very good, I might add, for a horse that just ran and last six miles of a 100-mile ride. We would get our “Spider buckle”.

I stood around for a few minutes looking for someone I knew. It wasn’t a very big crowd of people who had stayed up to see the last place finisher at 5:15 a.m. I finally spotted Jon’s wife, Anne Marie, and the tears welled in my eyes.

She told me that Jon was on his way in and would be there shortly. I assured her that Spider had to be dead, that there was no way he could have survived that fall, and vowed never to do this ride again

Bo ate some hay as we were talking and we saw a truck pull into the parking lot. Jon got out and we hugged and cried, then got down to business of finding Spider. Works were already underway for the search party. I left Jon talking to the search people and went to tuck Bo into bed. I had told Jon to wait because I was going with him. I had Bo squared away and was changing clothes when Ann Marie appeared and said the search party had already left. I didn’t think that I would be able to sleep but told them to come get me the minute they heard anything. I jumped up in the camper bunk at about 7:30 a.m. I laid awake for some time but finally fell asleep. At 10:30 a.m., there was knocking on the camper door and voices yelling that they had found Spider. I could not believe my ears. The first info that we got was that he was swimming in the river. Not all that info was correct but much better than dead. We waited for what seemed like forever for Jon and Spider to show up at the fairgrounds. The Tevis Gods had spoken again, only this time they were smiling.

We spotted the truck and trailer pulling into the parking lot at the rear of the Fairgrounds. I ran out and could see Jon riding in the back of the trailer with Spider. I jumped on the side of the trailer, looking in at Spider and Jon. The truck pulled as close as it could to the barn area and then stopped. I opened the trailer door and out jumped Spider, looking like he had been in a knife fight with straight razors. We walked Spider to the wash rack and washed his cuts and abrasions. He appeared to only have one (1) significant wound, a puncture wound to his left upper front leg. He was not lame and was eating up a storm! His right eye was somewhat swollen and he looked like a prize fighter, (the looser).

I got Bo and took him over to keep Spider company while we waited for the vet to show up to treat Spider. Jon told us of the rescue while we waited.

Jon said that he and two volunteers, and the vet, Jamie Kerr followed the path that Spider had taken off the trail of Cal 2 on his journey down towards the river, with Jon in the lead. He said that he got to a ledge about 50 feet above the river when he looked down and thought he saw Spider’s head lying with his mouth open on top of a giant boulder. Thankfully, what Jon saw turned out to be a piece of driftwood. Just as he decided it was not Spider, Jon heard a noise to his left. He looked and there was Spider, 30 feet away, standing with his hind feet on the up slope of the hill. Jon could not believe his eyes. Spider was trying to reach around and grab a little patch of grass that was nearby. Jon called out for the rest of the party and they came on down the hillside. Jon led Spider to a small clearing where the vet did a quick assessment of Spider’s condition and was given some medical treatment by Dr. Kerr. The volunteers cut some brush and small trees out of the way so that they could walk Spider down this steep section closer to the river.

Dr. Jamie Kerr stayed with Spider, letting him eat the green grasses alongside the river while Jon went downstream to see if they could get to Ford’s Bar. The other two volunteers went upstream but ended up coming right back down. By the time Jon had turned around, Dr. Kerr and the other two had decided that the best way out was the way that Jon had gone, downstream, so they started crossing the river. When Jon met up with Dr. Kerr, the vet was soaked from head to toe as Spider had stepped on his toe and down into the river he’d gone. Dr. Kerr led Spider out about four miles to the waiting trailer in Todd Valley; or the way Dr. Kerr tells it, Spider pulled him up the trail the whole four miles

After Jamie Kerr returned to the fairgrounds, he made a more comprehensive inspection of Spider and spent some time cleaning out the puncture wound. Spider was cleared to go home at about four in the afternoon. Being pretty tired myself, I loaded Bo and headed for home.

The drive home went quickly as I reviewed in my mind everything that had happened in the last 34 hours. I did that same review for the next two weeks and then some.

At about 10:00 the next morning Jon called and said that he was going back to Cal 2 to retrieve his saddle. I told him I wanted to go and met him in Todd Valley, along with my precious Honda Rancher quad. Jon and his wife rode on the quad they had brought and Peter, their son, rode with me. We parked the quads at the beginning of Cal 2 and started walking. Jon shot a video on the walk to where Spider took his spill. We walked the two switch backs, marking Spider’s path with trail ribbon. We found where he had flown over the last switch back, marked it, and then started the climb down. We went down about 100 feet and then decided to use the rope that Jon had brought (300 feet). We secured the rope to a tree and the four of us descended the rest of the way to the bottom. We ran out of rope for the last 100 feet but the mountainside angle had finally started to mellow a little. We are guessing that it is about a 50-degree angle on the hillside. We took a reading on Jon’s altitude watch at the top and then again at the bottom, 750 feet. During the climb down the hillside, backwards, holding onto the rope, we could see small trees and other large bushes that had been dislodged by Spider’s fall. Whole tree branches had been snapped off the trees that he had come close to. His path was very definite. If Spider had gone the extra 50 feet to the river he would of died, but this 750 feet should have killed him too, so who knows? If it’s not your time, its not your time. We spent a few minutes at the water’s edge and then started the trek back up the hillside. Jon had purchased a large quilted BBQ bag, one of those real nice covers that you put over your Weber BBQ. We stuffed his saddle into the bag, tied it off with the rope and within the hour we were up to the trail.

On Thursday of that week Jon invited my wife Nancy and I, along with Tracy and Eric, our outstanding crew, and with their respective significant others to dinner at his house. We arrived about 5 p.m. and went directly to see Spider who whinnied when I called to him and paced around his pen. Jon got him out and I hand-trotted him around to see how he was. He was good to go. Jon told me that Spider wanted to look all scarred up like Bo so that’s why he fell down the mountain. Jon and his wife gave us a gift, it was a Manx Kitten, with the name of Tevis, who thinks that she “is the Tevis God”.

Three weeks later Bo and Spider were racing on the wonderful trails at Point Reyes, The hard rocky terrain of the Tevis seemed so far away.

For more information on Bo and his rise to being a real endurance horse see my story “Eight weeks to Tevis” This story actually happened for the most part before Tevis 2002 and takes you through the conditioning process from a pasture potato to his 8 weeks of training and the completion of the 2002 and 2003 Tevis rides.

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