One hundred miles is the signature distance of endurance riding and the Western States Tevis Cup Ride is the signature 100-mile endurance ride. There are other rides and other distances, but the Tevis Cup 100-Mile Endurance Ride is truly the "Grand Daddy of them all." My horse Frank has a solid 100-mile record and I always thought that he was a Tevis horse, but I never knew for sure, until now.
Last weekend Frank and I ran the 100 miles of the Tevis trail and the entire experience was incredible. The trail, the veterinarians, the volunteers, my crew, the riders, and the horses, and especially the horses, were all phenomenal. The ride was an experience that I'll never forget. Emotion and passion runs along side with the horses on the Tevis trail.
Three weeks before Tevis, Frank and I ran the Big Horn 100 in Wyoming. We were registered for Tevis but I was worried about pushing him too hard and doing too much in only three weeks. I could not make up my mind after Big Horn. On the last day to withdraw, I wrote to the Western States office and canceled my entry. I wrote to my crew leader and told her that I was out. And then, all weekend long, I agonized over my decision. Finally, it was a post from Julie Suhr with an offhand comment about riding the Race of Champions at Big Horn one year and then on to Tevis only a few weeks later that crystallized my mind. On Monday I called the Western States office and asked to be reinstated. Jo Ann asked, "Tom Noll, are you in or are you out?" and I replied to Jo Ann, "Count us in." Frank and I were committed.
I called my crew leader back and asked if she would still help me. Jane answered with an enthusiastic yes. Jane put me in touch with Vicki Testa and Vicki went over every mile of the trail with me on the telephone. We were in and we were ready to run.
I drove down to California on Wednesday and arrived at Robie Park that evening. There were only a few riders at the park and I was able to find an ideal campsite. More riders arrived on Thursday and by Friday, Robie Park was bustling with activity. You can feel the excitement in the air at Robie Park. Tevis is not just any ride. All the riders know, that at best, only about half of them will make it to Auburn and different riders have different strategies to improve their odds. Some ride the trail ahead of time, while others trust their horses to various potions and supplements. Frank and I rested and bided our time until the start while we tried to relax.
Jane Switzer and Jennifer Adam showed up and we discussed the crew activities. I could not help but notice that Jane had a Badwater 2002 hat. We talked, and Jane explained that she was the crew leader for a runner on the Badwater Death Valley-to-Whitney, endurance run. Jane mentioned that Vicki Testa and Kim Nunez, both Tevis finishers would help Frank and me at Robinson Flat. That was when I really began to feel the pressure. I had a world-class crew of endurance veterans and they were all there for Frank.
Frank and I walked around Robie Park. We saw the top riders, the top vets, and the top horses, including Galahad, Monsieur Joseph, and the Outlaw Trail horses. Bogus Thunder was there with the Halls. Barbara White and her horse were camped just down the trail from us. Lucky and her appaloosa Romeo were there from the Big Horn three weeks earlier along with Dave Rabe and Tom Sherwood who were also at Big Horn. Frank was vetted in by Jim Baldwin. Jamie Kerr was at the in check too. I told Frank that we were running in the big leagues now. We were going to run in the footsteps of Ann Trason and other endurance legends. I kept telling myself that once out on the trail we would focus just like any other 100 but I knew that was not true. This was Tevis, and Tevis is different from any other ride.
Frank is a tough little horse who has never been pulled. We both have the 100-mile trail experience and we both have the desire and savvy to make it happen. Frank and I think alike when we are out on the trail. We had primarily done multi-day rides for the past two seasons, but I know that Frank has the speed and I knew that I would call on that speed on the Tevis trail. So far, the winds of fate seemed to be with us too. I felt prepared but more than a wee bit nervous and unsteady as we walked among the giants around Robie Park.
We were split into three pens for the start and Frank and I were in the third pen. I would have preferred a different seed for the start, but on reflection, I though that I could be comfortable starting with the third group and that I would make the best of our placing.
After a restless night we were up at 3:30 to get Frank ready and pack the rig for the trip to Auburn. The stars were shining bright in a jet-black sky and I could tell that it was to be a magnificent day. Frank and I made our way down to the staging area for the start just before 5:00. We walked in some big circles to warm up. Soon the third pen was released and we were walking down the road. I was mildly surprised by how many horses had red ribbons in their tails and I began to think that perhaps there should be a fourth starting group for all the red-tailed horses. The start went very smoothly, the horses were all very well behaved, and soon we were running down the trail at a comfortable pace.
Within the first few miles I was right behind two ladies who could not get their horses over a small little ditch in the trail. The two women were making a very big deal over their command of the trail and emphasized that we should all stay back and give them plenty of room. I'll admit that I would have been nervous on those horses too. Frank and I were patient although the ladies could have saved everyone, including themselves, considerable time and anguish and had a better training experience had they just stepped aside and let others pass. Some riders clocked the wasted time at over twenty minutes -- twenty minutes that were never to be regained that day.
After much effort, the ladies got their horses through the ditch, but only a few yards down the trail was another ditch and the process started anew with more fidgeting, frustration, and commanding behavior. Frank and I were loosing valuable time. Finally, the two ladies parted to opposite sides of the trail and I directed Frank right between the two uncertain horses and their uncertain mounts. As I passed between the ladies I said, "Frankus, show them how it's done!" and we walked through the small ditch and on up the trail never looking back.
We rode along and on up through Squaw Valley. For the most part I was able to ride alone until we got to the switchback tracks up through Squaw Valley to the Sierra crest. We passed Cowman in his Cowman Hat near the top and I let out a cowboy yell. We were on our way. Lake Tahoe was behind us to the east and the Pacific Ocean was in front to the west.
My experience through Granite Chief was perfect. Early on the wilderness trail some riders had experienced some difficulties. I stopped and asked if they needed any assistance. The downed rider seemed to be a little shaken but I was assured that all was ok so Frank and I continued on. After we passed those few riders I got off and ran along with Frank because the trail through the wilderness is steep and rocky. There was no one in front of us and there was no one behind us. We crossed the Granite Chief wilderness alone at our own pace and it was a true wilderness experience on a day on the trail with 200 other riders. Somewhere along the trail I saw the biggest pile of bear poo that I have seen in some time. Frank was unconcerned with the pile, but to me it indicated that Granite Chief is still wilderness and the poo pile did answer the age old question for at least one bear; "Do bears sh** in the woods?"
We passed through the trot-by at Lyon Ridge and we came to Cougar Rock. There was a short queue waiting for a turn on the rock. Time was an issue and I opted for the Cougar Rock bypass deciding that I would prefer a buckle in Auburn to a photo on Cougar Rock if given the choice. Frank and I continued on to Red Star and then to Robinson. We were later than I had hoped arriving into Robinson and the tardiness was probably due to the delays early in the ride. I began to feel the pressure of the cutoffs and that cutoff pressure would continue unabated throughout the entire ride right up until we arrived in Auburn so many hours later. In fact, I constantly worried about the cutoffs. The cutoffs were like the Pinkertons chasing Butch and Sundance in the movie -- they were always behind us, and plenty darn close enough to be worrisome at that.
Frank passed the vet checks at Red Star and Robinson with all As which was a pattern that would be repeated throughout the ride. The two Tevis veterans, Vicki Testa and Kim Nunez met us at Robinson Flat. We had a nice one-hour break and then Frank and I were off on a new trail section. Our odds of finishing went up dramatically with our successful passage through Robinson Flat.
The riders who I rode with on the sections after Robinson were veteran Tevis riders. They were joking about the WSTF always adding more trail each year, yet the overall distance still remains constant at exactly 100 miles. We talked that replacing fire roads with single-track trail certainly made the course more difficult and time consuming, but the character was closer to that of the historical Tevis trail experienced in the 1950s and we agreed that the trail changes were a good thing.
We made our way to Last Chance. Last Chance would be our last chance for a nice break before the canyons. I paused for about twenty minutes to let Frank eat and recover. The next twenty miles of trail would be very difficult and I thought that a break now would pay dividends later. We saddled up and began our descent into the first canyon. It was down, down, down, to the swinging bridge at the very bottom of the canyon. Chris Heron and I were off and leading our horses on much of the descent. At Swinging Bridge I asked Chris to lead across first in case Frank got nervous. Frank showed us his big eyes but he remained mostly cool and collected on the bridge. We crossed the Swinging Bridge and then began our ascent to Deadwood. I could look across the canyon and see that we regained nearly all of the elevation that we had lost since Last Chance. Frank is a hill-climbing horse but these canyons are tough. Near the top I looked into his big brown eyes and questioned myself whether it is really right for me to ask so much of him. He is an awesome horse, however, I need to respect his limits, and the canyons are very difficult.
We stopped briefly at Deadwood and then began the traverse of El Dorado Canyon, which was even deeper than the first canyon. Again, it was down, down, down, to the creek. We passed by the points where unfortunate horses had fallen from the trail on previous trips. Seeing those places was so disturbing that I thought that if something happens to Frank, I hope that I go along too, because I do not think that I could live with myself after such an accident.
Again, some riders were reluctant to yield the trail. The riders that I was riding with were persistent and we passed on by. Again, we crossed El Dorado Creek at the canyon bottom and then began our ascent to Michigan Bluff. Again, it was another big climb and more questioning myself about how much I can ask of my partner. Frank is a good horse and he never faltered or wavered on the hills. We finally topped out at the quaint townsite of Michigan Bluff. My crew was there and we made sure that Frank had time to eat and recover. Again, all As on the vet card and we were off to Foresthill. Frank and I saw some wild turkeys as we were leaving the Michigan Bluff townsite.
Volcano Canyon from Michigan Bluff to Foresthill is shorter and a welcome reprieve from the previous two canyons. We quickly crossed the canyon and made it to Foresthill around 7:30 in the evening. Frank passed through the vet check with another set of As and we took our last one-hour hold. My crew prepared Frank's tack with three glow sticks on the breast collar and I had a little bit to eat. I noticed that Frank seemed to slightly favor his right front while he was standing and we trotted him out before leaving Foresthill. All seemed ok, so I joined up with Chris Heron and we rode together along the streets of Foresthill. It was Saturday night in Foresthill and people were out enjoying the horses. We passed bars and restaurants as well as private parties as we rode through Foresthill. Everyone wished us well. Chris and I descended from Foresthill into the nighttime darkness on our long trip to Franciscos.
Chris rides with a headlamp while I prefer no lights. We enjoyed each other's company on the trail. We walked the steep sections and trotted where we could. Sometimes Chris would lead and sometimes I would lead. I can say there is no other experience like trotting your horse, in the darkness, on an unfamiliar trail, after being out on the trail all day long. The night trail is one of the very best parts of a 100 and I love the feeling of trotting or cantering with my horse down a 100-mile trail in the darkness.
The seventeen miles of trail to Franciscos took us a few hours. Chris and I, Frank, and Impress, worked steadily up and down and along the trail. Every now and then we could see through the trees to the moonlight reflections on the Middle Fork of the American River. Frank vetted through Franciscos with all As again. We paused at Franciscos for a short break and then we were on to the river crossing at Poverty Bar and on to Lower Quarry. The trail along the American River does not get the attention of the canyons, still one slip along this stretch and it will be a quick slide down to the river and someone is going to get hurt. Chris and I passed up the opportunity for corn whiskey and rye at the Poverty Bar river crossing. We took a very brief stop at Lower Quarry and then we were out for the last six miles of trail and our final destination in Auburn.
No Hands Bridge was surreal. I cannot come up with words that describe crossing the bridge. I have seen the photos of the bridge and I have read others' accounts, but I never quite understood its significance. Today it is hard for me to look at photos of No Hands Bridge without a lump in my heart and my eyes misting over.
Leaving Lower Quarry, you can barely make out the bridge down the river. In the nighttime darkness the silhouette of the bridge with its big rainbow arches and old-style architecture is dark, eerie, and almost foreboding. The bridge looms in the darkness down the river in the canyon. You can hear the quiet rumble of rapids in the river. You know that when you cross that bridge there are only four miles to the finish and your whole awesome Tevis experience will soon be over.
Frank and I were in the front as our little group made our way down the trail switchback and then onto the bridge. Frank and I took our time and we walked across the bridge even though one could easily trot, lope, or even gallop across the span. The rider behind me said that we could trot if I wanted. I was so emotional that I could barely get the words out, but all I wanted was to walk and savor the whole experience. Frank and I had traveled 96 miles on the most famous 100-mile trail. We crossed mountains and we had crossed canyons. We had crossed rivers and creeks. We had run miles of dusty, rocky trails. For a few moments, time stood still and it was just myself and my horse and the Western States Trail as we crossed No Hands Bridge together.
No Hands Bridge is a mystical spot on the Tevis trail. The spirits of all the past Tevis horses ran with Frank and silently guided him along the Tevis trail all day and through the night. The breath of those Tevis horses formed the gentle winds of fate that blew us steadily onward towards Auburn. The spirits of the past Tevis horses visited us one last time on No Hands Bridge before they turned the trail over to Frank; "Mister Frank, let's take it on home."
My Tevis ride embodies everything that is great about endurance. Frank is a wonderful partner and my best friend, the trail is very tough, the Tevis volunteers were just as excited to be there as we were, the veterinary staff was world-class, the camaraderie on the trail was excellent, and strangers who I had never met before came together and formed a perfect crew and kindly took care of my horse. I will certainly return to the Western States trail but my 2006 Tevis experience will never be repeated.