It was an honor and a privilege for Ned to be the requisite "pitter patter of hooves" behind the Mighty Morgan, Hawk, for his final 50 miler at the Mary Lutz Memorial in New Jersey (a sort of opening-season ride here in the NE).
Mary Coleman and I got more than adequate whining in as we were reading the weekend forecast for New Jersey; it looked like we would be sitting in steady rain from our arrival on Friday, through Saturday's ride, and be packing up to head back to Mary's around the time that the weather began to clear on Sunday.
Over the winter, Mary told me she'd made this her plan for Hawk -- his final 50, and their 2008 ride for qualification for the Decade Team, and then time to retire him to parades and shows and play days, with a few LDs and CTRs thrown in here and there as he was able. She expressed some concern about having "someone out there with him" -- as nothing suits Hawk's ego better than having a horse BEHIND him on the trail. While it's not always easy to prep a horse for NJ during the late WNY winter, I volunteered up one of my horses. One of them would be Hawk's shadow for the day.
As winter wore on, we had a real scare with Ned, my 100 mile horse and friend and true character of an equine. A malignant melanoma that got removed with a pathology report that would leave you digging a large hole on the property. But so far, so good, no regrowth, no lymph node involvement, and so every conditioning ride has been precious, and the notion of sharing the trail with Hawk, with whom Ned has raced, pouted, traveled and camped over the years, well, as the commercial says, "priceless."
Despite the weather forecast.
I left my house Thursday, packing every piece of clothing I owned with any water resistant value, and an entire tack shop's stock of waterproof blankets and sheets for Ned. It was going to be a wet one.
Or maybe not.
As Mary and I crossed from PA to NJ on Friday morning, the rain turned to a drizzle, then to an occasional spit, and as we arrived in camp, no other drop of precipitation fell from the sky until long after we'd finished up on Saturday.
In fact, even as riders were calling Linda Carangia, the Ride Secretary, to switch from Saturday to Sunday's ride (which had a far better forecast), the skies were clearing and the air was crisper. It was the best NJ weather I'd experienced, either at Patti Pizzo's spring ride, or the NJTRA's fall ride.
Still, the trail is what it is -- 50 miles on a sand treadmill, Mary likes to call it. Sand and pine trees and, well, pine trees and sand. No elevation changes to speak of, no landmarks other than Hawkins Bridge, or sometimes a spot where someone dumped a body recently (with apologies to the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and Tourism), just long trails and hard packs of sand, occasional softer sand, puddles and um, pine trees.
We were pretty cheerful heading out, grateful as could be that we weren't in goretex (but we were carrying it, no idiots we!), and Hawk and Ned headed out with the pack, power-trotting and letting everyone know that the Power Lifters in the sport were out there amongst the more traditional lithe and lean endurance machines. Hawk, as usual, had the look of eagles.
Soon enough, we dropped back, wanting to be sure we had plenty of horse left for the last loop. It was humid, and so we took the opportunity to use puddles to sponge, and forced the boys to take walk breaks between session of The Big Trot. Hawk was content to match Ned stride for stride, and the two boys, as they have in the past, nudged each other along a bit faster. No lack of ego in that pair.
Eighteen miles the first loop, and it went fast, and the skies were bright and clear and the humidity had dropped away as we arrived back to camp. Would we need to strip tack, sponge? Zoe, my friend, greeted us at the in-timer, so we stripped tack, checked pulses, and Hawk was down, so off to the pulse area we went, where the big boys were 40 and 48, I think. Guess we weren't pushing them too hard. :-)
We knew the next 20 mile loop would be a test. Twenty miles in the sand, is, well, a little demoralizing and a long time to be out there early in the season, and tho we love the three loop fifty, this is the price you pay. It typically means quite a long time without a significant meal, as there's nothing to graze on out in the Pine Barrens, and a trail that seems to never end. But the sun was shining, the boys felt strong, and at this point, I mostly kept Ned behind or beside Hawk, letting the chestnut set the pace for the day. We popped Aleve and Advil respectively, the flat miles taking their toll on our rested-over-winter bodies, particularly since both of us are accustomed to conditioning in mountainous terrain -- the boys got snacks and electrolytes. About four miles from camp, we reached Hawkins Bridge, a welcome landmark, where a couple of great guys were waiting with a trough of water, and Mary was thirsty. One of the guys offered a bottle of water, and I explained to him with great fanfare that he was providing water to one of the legendary pairs in our sport, and while he might not realize it now, he would be telling his grandchildren about this momentous occasion some day. I'm not sure he believed me because Mary was laughing awfully hard, and we were sort of trailing the pack, but I knew it was true.
In we came, the boys voracious, pulses down as we arrived again.
One more loop to go. Mary snuck a look at her cake, declared it "gorgeous" and I scolded her for trying to jinx her ride. I'd had to borrow a t-shirt as the day warmed up, as all I'd packed was layer after layer of clothing one would want to be wearing when it was cold and raining. Ah, New Jersey!
The last loop was a familiar one, and we were looking forward to it being over. Cocktails and celebrations and hot showers and laughter in camp -- we knew what awaited us, we just needed to "git 'er done." And that we did. We were behind two other horses on the trail, who we kept coming upon, we had plenty of horse we knew, but we stayed behind. Race for what would be sixteenth and seventeenth, or something like that? Nah. We backed off and enjoyed (?!) the last of those miles, celebrating with true glee as we hit the trail back to camp (finally!), high fiving as we crossed the finish (not too much elation, we knew we needed to vet the boys through). Mary teased me about "elevating" Ned to the 75, which I declined after much consideration and contemplation, explaining that sadly, there was no "elevator" option for this ride, as much as nothing would please me more than another 25 miles in the sand.
Mary insisted on combing out Hawk's tail before presenting him for his final vetting, though Zoe and I would allow only speed-combing, ever-aware that horses who turn 20 on Tuesday should not stand around at the finish of a 50 and postpone the final trot out until such time that their body reminds them that they are indeed hitting their second decade. Off to be vetted, where Hawk gained his much-anticipated completion, tears and hugs and pats all around, then back to his paddock where he ate and ate and then napped and napped (no doubt certain he was going out the next morning, as he had so many times in NJ before, sometimes three days in a row).
Showers and snacks and a walk for Ned and Hawk, where Hawk dragged Zoe around in true Hawk-fashion. And a celebration after dinner, complete with champagne and cake and giddy laughter and politically incorrect conversation and a speech from Mary, summing up her 5K AERC miles with Hawk and their 10 years competing together.
Then an even more tear-jerking celebration of the life of another Mary -- Mary Lutz, a USEF champion for international endurance, to whom the ride was dedicated-- who died on her 55th birthday while out celebrating the special day on her favorite horse -- no better way to go for those of us who love and live for horses.
Then overnight the rains came. Hawk pouted a bit, wondering if he'd be heading back out on the trail, and lept joyously into the rig behind Ned, not quite believing, I'm sure, that he was really done for the weekend. For a lifetime. He'd have headed back out on that trail, head high, attitude fully intact, fortified by the "pitter patter" of hooves behind him and the attitude that has made him such a remarkable horse in our sport.
But he didn't have to.
Congratulations Mary and Hawk! It has been a supreme honor and a privilege, and I look forward to regaling the tales (embellished of course) of hitting the trail with the Mighty Morgan and Mary, true legends, for many, many years.