Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sharon & Zephyr's Vermont 100 Story

Sharon's Story & Vermont 100 Photos

Sharon Levasseur

After Pine Tree, I decided that if we had kept a more reasonable pace for the first half of the ride we would have been in much better shape at the end, and capable of going much further. So I decided to enter the Moonlight in VT 75 that was being held 3 weeks later. The name of the game would be GOOOO SLOOOOOW.

To that end, I practiced getting off and jogging alongside. Unfortunately, I soon remembered that the reason I don't usually do that is because Zephyr trots at a minimum of 8mph and I run at a maximum of 6mph (and that only lasts a few yards). Nonetheless, we worked on it a few days in a row and I thought we had it down. I even ordered some Dirty Girl Gaiters to fit over the tops of my shoes and keep the dirt out because I can't wear half chaps. Of course I bought yellow.

On Tuesday of ride week, my Dad agreed to crew for me. He isn't a horse person and had never crewed before, but he wanted to spend some time with me. I was just as excited about it as he was.

I waited until Friday morning when he was in the truck and we were headed down the road before I told him that, just the night before, I had decided to up the ante and ride the 100.

I broke the news by telling him about a book I'd read as a child. It was about a mommy badger who had eight pups/kits/cubs and one by one they got lost or died and she never noticed UNTIL she was down to two... because badgers can only count "One, Two, Many". (Yes, it was an odd book.) My theory, backed up by opinions of the enthusiastic members of the "New to 100s" Yahoo Group, was that if I thought we could finish the 75 then surely we could also finish the 100. Everyone says after you hit 60-70 miles you're over the hump anyway. The theory was that this ride would seem like "25, 50, Many."

He was game, but of course he teased me about kidnapping him before I broke the news!

The long trip was punctuated by a few bits of excitement. At two different points, a horrendous noise came from under the center console of the truck and scared me stiff. We finally decided it was probably ice coming off the AC underneath the truck, because Dad was running his side at 60° (I was running mine at 80°). Also, there was a Border Patrol stop... in coastal New Hampshire! Nothing much else of interest, just a long drive... 8 hours including my stop to pick up Dad. Oh yeah, it would have been a little shorter but Dad made me miss my first two turns in like 2 years. Great navigator he is. (Just kidding, Dad.)

We arrived in camp around 12:30. The "cheap" part of town (small rigs, no generators) was still pretty empty but the "ritzy neighborhood" was chock full.

We puttered around setting up our campsite, including Zephyr's pen and Dad's tent. I went up and vetted in while he finished getting everything ready. In the picture below, you can see Zephyr underneath the awning.

During the ride meeting there were some sprinkles and some wind, but nothing bad. After the manager, day manager, and vets had finished their talks and asked for questions, I spoke up and said I was attempting a first 100 for myself and my horse and would like someone experienced to ride with. Laura Hayes volunteered herself, Bill, and Tom... they planned to walk flat-footed out of camp and keep a reasonably slow pace. Great! I was very excited to have lucked out like that.

Dinner, as always, was amazing. Those runners know how to put on a spread. I filled up my plate and only could eat half, and of course Dad chimed in with the "I knew you couldn't eat all that!" line that parents can deliver so well. Dinner conversation was great, we talked to a bunch of runners and also several riders. One experienced crew-person assured Dad that his coworkers' assessment of his job for the weekend was pretty much spot on... he was going to be "The Waterboy". He said as long as he didn't have to shovel poop he was good.

Before we lost the light, we got the obligatory pictures under the start banner. MAN he looks short here. He's also wearing a 3-digit number starting with a 2. It's the first time I've ever seen the 100-mile horses marked that way, normally it starts with a 1. If there are 75-milers usually they have a 3-digit number starting with a 7. Oh well, it's not like I've waited 6 years for my horse to wear a 100-something number anyway, right? Right?? Guess I should have stuck with the 75-miler... then his number would have been 106.

After the photo shoot, Dad helped me load into the truck whatever I had ready at that point. He went to bed shortly afterwards... maybe 8:30. I felt bad because I knew I'd be making noise for the next couple of hours, getting the rest of my gear ready.

I slept about 3 hours overnight. There was some rain, and of course I had one ear open for loose horses (especially mine), but mostly I listened to the endless sounds of a camp full of horses, riders, runners, crew, and volunteers.

When the alarm went off at 3:00 a.m. I was already awake. I quickly got up and fed Zephyr, then went back to lay down for a few more minutes.

I was up and eating breakfast when the runners started at 4:00 a.m. They softly shuffled downhill past our row of trailers, their headlamps and handheld flashlights shining brightly and bobbing as they cheered and were cheered for by onlookers. Some wore trash bags and ponchos in a futile effort to stay dry in the thick, foggy dawn air. From the back, after they all passed, they were a half-mile-long glowworm oozing through the dark.

I checked in with the starter at exactly 4:30. Tacking up by the light of a flourescent lantern went more quickly once Dad came over to help, as Zephyr didn't want to stand still. I was in the saddle at about 4:50, with no idea what Laura, Bill, or Tom looked like under helmets and on top of horses. I peered through the fog, asking people if they were Laura, or if they knew her.

Zephyr misbehaved while waiting, sidepassing and tossing his head. We waited until the end, looking for three other horses hanging back in the crowd. After a moment I moved to the start line, asking the crowd whether they knew whether Laura, Bill and Tom had come through yet. Nobody knew. Oh well. Here we go.

Dad was walking back down the hill to the trailer when I passed him. He was surprised to see me, he had thought I'd already left. He'd wished good luck to the rider of a different chestnut horse wearing yellow tack before he'd realized it wasn't me. I believe he managed to get a picture, but he hasn't sent it to me yet.

We headed down the long hill out of camp walking behind everyone else, but soon passed two horses because Zephyr began to gait. He went in between foxtrot and rack for the next 3-5 miles. I would have preferred a nice slow trot but he made it quite clear that trotting with a low head and slow speed was not possible for him just then; a 6mph foxtrot/rack was all he could offer. I wished he would trot because we don't usually gait for so long; I worried that it would be hard on his body. After those first few miles he did trot at about 7-8 mph. It was a relief.

The two horses that we had passed at the beginning passed us about then, at a good steady trot. They reported seeing a couple of horses still behind me. I thought that was probably Laura et al but I knew I couldn't stop to wait and see. The intel might have been wrong and where would that have left me? Further behind the crowd than I already was.

At this point, Zephyr was mentally well-established in plodding along in a slow trot. The humidity may have contributed to his willingness to trot slowly. Once we were moving I was warm enough to take my windbreaker off and tie it around my waist.

The trails were beautiful and because we were moving so slowly I had a chance to take some pictures.

After a while, we rode through the center of a quaint little downtown area. I had passed a female runner several times who was wearing all pink with the name TAMMY written in magic marker across her chest. Tammy took pictures of everything she passed and that passed her, including probably 20 just of Zephyr and I. We chatted a bit; it was her first time at the Vermont 100 but not her first 100-miler. She planned a slow and easy pace. I just hoped she had a big enough memory card to last her the distance!

There was a traffic cop to help us through the intersection at the center of downtown, and then we crossed a beautiful old covered bridge where Tammy took my camera so I could have a picture of us crossing.

The first leg of the ride lasted F-O-R-E-V-E-R. It was supposed to be 12 miles but I know what 12 miles feels like. I was sure I'd missed the first stop, which I thought was supposed to be a flyby. I thought maybe Dad had gone there, decided I'd already been through, and left. I started looking for Hold 1.

Everywhere along this stretch of trail there were trees down. In some cases it was just a few branches piled alongside the road. In other cases there were enormous trees, obviously centuries old, cracked through with the top half slanting at an angle, or with the entire root structure exposed and the whole tree tipping over from the base. The fresh cracks were obscenely bright against the weathered old gentlemen's bark, an ugly atrocity seen through the calm and peaceful blanket of the still-humid morning.

Eventually I came to a left turn on the dirt road. Straight ahead of me was a massive tree, laying across the road and on top of the roadside power lines.

I followed the signs left into a field where a vet, my Dad, and a couple volunteers all waited. The first thing they said was that this was indeed the 12 mile stop, but that it was indeed more like 15 miles. My GPS agreed.

OK then, I thought, that stinks but at least this is the flyby and not the hold, so I didn't miss anything out on trail. How odd, a flyby in a field! I wonder why the vet is here, he must be doing on-trail observations.

Then someone solemnly announced that I was running overtime, and that after my hold time had passed I had better get some boogie in it. "What? What hold time? I thought this was the crew stop! This is the HOLD? Where is everyone?"

I had made a crucial mistake. Because I had studied the schedule for the 75 in such detail, I had only glanced at the schedule for the 100. I'd seen "Pit Crew #1" at 12 miles, and "Hold 1" at 18 miles, but I'd missed the fact that there was a 10-minute hold time listed for PC1. In my defense, though, I KNOW I'm not the only person who finds this ride's Hold Schedule really hard to understand. I don't know how I missed hearing it at the meeting, but I did.

During those 10 minutes, Laura, Bill, and Tom arrived. We very briefly exclaimed over having missed each other at the start; it turned out they had ridden together uphill on the road for a few minutes until everyone had left, then turned around and actually started. Lesson learned... make a firm plan about when/where to meet up at the start.

Ten scatterbrained minutes after arriving, I hauled myself back into the saddle and headed out. Zephyr had eaten and drunk well, but I had done neither. I had been focused on a couple of tack adjustments; other than that I honestly have no idea where the time went. I think I was shellshocked from discovering how far behind I truly was.

You see, the Open/Close times for all the Holds had been calculated based on a first leg of 12 miles... not 15... so our slow average speed at the start meant we were going to need to chase the closing times all day.

I boogied as much as I could for the next 6 miles, and arrived at Hold 1 ("Galaxy Hill") just 4 minutes before the closing time of 8:40 a.m. I was still so distracted that I didn't get him over to the vet for his pulse time as soon as I'm sure I could have; he was at 52 by the time I went over. I believe he vetted through with mostly As, but A- for impulsion/willingness. I remember asking Dad "Where's the awesome view? Management said the Galaxy Hill hold has a view so spectacular that everyone calls it The Sound of Music!" Dad shushed me and told me to eat something so I dropped the subject.

I waited 2 minutes past my out time so I could leave with Laura, Bill, and Tom. Again, because I hadn't studied the Hold Schedule well enough, I didn't realize the next leg was 24 miles. I must have thought it was 16 miles because that was the length of the first leg of the 75. We didn't really talk about it, either, as I recall. Finally, I had no idea that in that leg there were only 2 flybys. For some reason I expected a flyby roughly every 5 miles, certainly not any more than 10 miles apart.

We rode and rode, and rode some more. Sometimes we all rode together, sometimes it was just me and Tom, and sometimes it was just me and Laura with Tom ahead and Bill behind.

Zephyr had plenty of energy and tried hard to lead the way but Tom's horse would have none of it. I took this picture during one of the times Tom was ahead out of sight.

The next thing that really stands out in my mind is riding up a hill on a mowed path through a grassy field. Tom was ahead of me, Laura and Bill behind, and runners interspersed as always. The further up the hill I got, the more awesome the view became. (It was only after I returned home that I realized that THIS is the view they call "The Sound of Music". Management must have meant it was AFTER Galaxy Hill.)

It was "all butterflies and kittens" until I rode a few more feet and saw the way down. Yikes. I do not ride down hills that steep. I do not ski down them. I usually do not even walk down them. My gut instinct was to sit and scooch down on my bum! I'm sorry I don't have a picture but my hands were too busy shaking and my brain was too busy turning around and walking back the other way.

We all got off our horses to lead them down. Tom and Laura walked down fast and may have even jogged, while meanwhile poor Bill got stuck behind the freak who is scared absolutely stiff at the thought of even having to drive down a hill like this. He was very patient and truly "talked me down" just like the Ski Patrol does when you freeze up. I know. They've come for me before.

At the bottom, the pads of my feet were burning from slipping against the vinyl of my orthopedic insoles while my toes grabbed futilely for security in the dirt. I was a good sport though and we jogged behind Bill for a few yards before he and I both agreed it was time to mount up.

Bill and I caught up to Laura, who was having trouble with her horse's shoes (Epona, I think??). One of them had broken clean in half! She pulled an Easyboot on and continued on foot. Eventually she mounted again and we all rode together for a while. I think there was a flyby in there somewhere, I remember stopping at one while I was with Bill and Laura. She didn't stay long, but walked on ahead.

Bill and I left the flyby together having been told we had another obscene number of miles to go until Hold 2. I believe it was 12 miles. Keep in mind, I was still thinking this entire leg was only 16 miles. So I was hugely confused and discouraged to hear that the endless miles between Hold 1 and this flyby had added up to only FOUR MILES! For pete's sake, we had trotted a lot of it, so there COULDN'T still be 12 miles to go before Hold 2! I almost passed out from the shock of trying (and failing) to get the numbers to add up.

As I left, Dad told me that the next pit crew stop was about 4 miles down the trail, and he ordered me to hustle!

I think somehow I got ahead of both Bill and Laura, but I don't remember how. All I know is I did that 4 miles alone and seriously booked it. I think it may have been mostly woods trail, and if so, that would have helped. We just got in a zone, even to the point that we began ignoring the runners we passed unless I had to call ahead to tell them which side of the trail we would pass them on.

Leaving the second and last flyby on that leg, Dad told me Hold 2 was about 7 miles down the trail. Given the warped nature of time/distance that morning, it might as well have been 50. Still, we dug in.

Soon there was a nice shallow river crossing. It took some convincing before Zephyr would cross it; he just wanted to stand in the middle and play.

We were both doing reasonably well when we turned right at a Y where the left-hand side was named something along the lines of "Incredibly Steep Hill Road" ... and it headed straight up at a 90° angle to prove it... and the right-hand side was named something along the lines of "Frederick's Hill Road".

Frederick sounds like a nice well-mannered man, I thought, as I cackled to myself at not having to climb up Incredibly Steep Hill Road.

We went around a corner.

We climbed.

We went around a corner.

We climbed some more.

I got off to walk.

We went around a corner.

We climbed.

I stopped to rest.

You get the idea.

I would have sworn that hill was at least 4 miles long. After a while there was a house with a teenage girl in the driveway minding buckets of water for the horses. I thanked her profusely. She promised we were almost at the top.

We climbed some more.

You get the idea.

I think, although I'm not sure because I wasn't looking at my watch, that it may have taken us an hour to climb that hill. Runners passed us, but no horses although I know Bill and Laura were back there. (Turns out, Laura had stopped at the second flyby to replace the shoe. She's a farrier.) I heard later that it is exactly 2 miles long, and I doubt we averaged more than 2 mph going up it.

When we finally reached the top, I tried to get Zephyr to stand in the ditch so I could get on. He wasn't having it. After a moment a runner came by and I begged him to hold my stirrup. I was up. We were off.

By this point it had been probably 3 miles and well over an hour since Zephyr had seen another horse. He was pretty convinced that I had taken him on a well-desguised training ride. He's very lazy on training rides. It was all I could do to get him to trot slowly along behind a runner, and if that runner walked, Zephyr would too (in a most abrupt fashion that dug my GPS right into my tummy).

That's all well and good, but I was also getting funny readings from the heart rate monitor; it seemed as if his heart rate was spiking whenever we trotted. The problem was that I couldn't tell if those were real readings or not, I'd been having trouble with the Wearlink belt sliding back really far and I suspected the thin fabric may have been twisted under the saddle. No telling what effect that would have.

At this point, every runner we saw on trail asked if Zephyr was OK. They knew I'd struggled on the hill (although Zephyr hadn't) and that I didn't know whether the heart rate monitor was malfunctioning. I didn't really know what to say to them. I alternated between telling them "we're overtime, we're done" as we walked along, and spanking him up into a trot to see how he responded. I just couldn' t tell if I could believe the monitor readings. Every time I spanked him, I winced, wondering if the runners were judging me for urging forward a horse I didn't know was really OK.

Although I don't really remember specifics, we must have finally gotten into the groove. We were trotting steadily for a while before we got to Hold 2. Tom was still there, but was scheduled to leave just a few minutes after we arrived. We got there 30 minutes past the cutoff time but the vet informed me that management wasn't going to officially enforce Closing times until Hold 4.

However, he strongly suggested that I pull; he said the trail only got harder from there and we would need to drastically increase our average speed to make the Closing times. During the trot-out Zephyr showed further deterioration of willingness and impulsion... something that had been obvious to me on the trail... so that would have made an increase in speed difficult unless we had a horse to pace with.

I was overheated and drained... from not eating right (out of distraction over the seemingly distorted time/distance), from walking up that hill, and from having work so hard to encourage Zephyr to trot when he had no motivation of his own. It wasn't hard for the vet to convince me we didn't have a prayer of meeting cutoff times.

Dad and I were told we needed to wait until Laura and Bill came in, so they could be given the option of trailering their horses back to camp with Zephyr. I think they came in about 3:00. At first they wanted to continue on, and try to make up the time now that Laura's horse had its shoe back, but again the vet was influential in the decision. The trailer would only hold 2 horses, though, so they opted to ride their horses back to ridecamp to save the volunteer the trip.

As soon as the decision was made, I hustled Zephyr to the waiting trailer. I heard thunder in the distance and it was starting to rain; I hate thunder and I wanted to get him back to camp before all heck broke loose.

The volunteer trailer driver stopped at the top of the hill for me to unload. I grabbed Zephyr and ran down the hill as fast as I could under the blackening sky, with a sound and happy horse running beside me. As soon as I got him back to the trailer it began to rain. There were no other horses in camp and I was afraid he'd freak out during the storm, so I tried to load him on the trailer where I was sure he'd be safe. However, the step up was huge because the downhill (right) side of the trailer was on blocks, so he was uncharacteristically unwilling.

I quickly pulled out his rain sheet, put it on him, and led him to his pen. Before I went in, though, it began to rain harder. The wind was picking up and the thunder was getting closer. Camp was so deserted I could practically see tumbleweeds blowing through. Scared for him, I resolved to load him on that trailer if it killed me.

Lucky for me, the rider "next door" came in for her first in-camp Hold just then. She offered to help and at first I turned her down, but she had the good sense to just take the lead rope despite my protests that he would NOT get on that trailer if there was someone in there ahead of him. She hopped on, I tapped his hip, he hopped on and stood quietly while she snuck out next to him. YAY! Thanks Becky Cahill!

He was still wearing his rain sheet but my first priority was to get his hay bag out of the truck. As I was doing so, the wind at my back picked up so strongly and quickly that it knocked my breath from me. Suddenly I realized it wasn't just cold, it hurt! Dime-sized hail was striking me at somewhere around 50 mph!

Before a full second passed I was totally and completely soaked and freezing from the inside out. Becky huddled with her horse inside her open-sided stock trailer. I struggled to get the hay bag in through the open trailer window while Zephyr was trying just as hard to stick his head out through it to see what was going on. When I finished with the hay bag, I walked around behind the trailer to shut the door, just in time to see a tent and a folding canopy go careening end-over-end through several horse corrals, including the one right next to Zephyr's. Dad, meanwhile, was sitting in the truck watching two 50-mile riders come in to the trailer on the other side of me for their hold time. He said later that it was amazing to watch; they just went about their business.

As soon as I got into the dressing room I peeled off my dripping clothes and toweled dry. I was standing there buck naked when I heard a loud bang. The wind had shifted 180° the other direction and had blown open the side escape door into the horse area. In the few seconds it took me to jump into dry clothes, the entire inside of the front stall got soaked! And of course after I went out there to shut the door, my dry clothes were no longer dry.

After I changed (again) I just laid down and rested for about 3 hours, then got up and Dad and I rebuilt Zephyr's fence so he could get off the trailer. Dad had unloaded the gear from the truck onto the ground, so I loaded it into the trailer. Dad was in bed by 8:00 so I went up to the big tent to chat with the vets and management, and watch the first two 100-milers vet in. (It was around 8:30 when they finished... I would have MAYBE been within a few miles of Hold 4 if I'd still been out there.)

On Sunday morning we left camp at around 9:45, but we had to stop for gas and breakfast sandwiches (there were none, we had to get tuna). I didn't drop Dad off until 3:00, and got home around 5:30 or so. I went straight to bed... after unloading and feeding Zephyr of course. He was fine, in high spirits with plenty of energy. The new farrier did a good job and the shoes stayed on great. The interference boots did the trick too. All is well.

Now that I'm sitting at home, well-rested and with a few days' perspective, I have to wonder whether maybe we should have continued on. Here's my analysis:

At the decision point, it was 2:00 p.m. and we were at Mile 42 with a 45-minute hold awaiting us. The five 75-mile horses had already come and gone from Hold 2 and were somewhere on the trail ahead of us; the 50-mile horses were at the start line.

The first 42 miles had taken us 8 hours and 20 minutes' ride time, including the few minutes spent at flybys but not including the 40 minutes of hold time, for an average speed of around 5 mph not including the holds.

There was an 18-mile leg from Hold 2 (at 42 miles) to Hold 3 (at 60 miles). If we had left Hold 2 at 2:50 and been able to increase our average speed to 6 mph, it would have taken 3 hours... which would have meant arriving at Hold 3 just before 6:00 p.m. for our 60-minute hold time. The suggested Closing time (which wouldn't be enforced) was 6:00 p.m. We wouldn't have left Hold 3 until around 7:00 p.m.

The 50-milers don't join up with the 100-mile trail until Hold 4 (at 70 miles) and their Closing time for Hold 4 was 7:00! (Closing times are different for the 50s vs. the 75s and 100s.) So the 50-milers would have all come and gone by the time we arrived, and there would have been no chance of seeing them on trail or at the hold. Unless Laura and Bill had caught up, Zephyr would have continued to be the only horse on the trail. We would have had to continue pacing off the runners.

The closing time for Hold 4 was 9:00. At that point, management would begin to enforce the Closing times. We would have needed to cover that 18 mile leg in only 2 hours; we would have needed an average speed of 9 mph to make it.

So, as much as it still pains me, it seems that I made the right decision.

Will there be a next time? Maybe. I'd do a few things differently.

First, I'd pick a flatter ride even if it is a few weeks earlier in the ride season. Heat and humidity are one thing, but add in mountains and it's just too much of a drain on both of us... at least for a first 100.

Second, I'd find a mentor ahead of time who is an experienced 100-mile rider AND familiar with that particular trail AND willing to shepherd me through the whole thing. I'd completely forgotten what it's like to ride at the back of the pack and not be able to count on leapfrogging with other horses to keep Zephyr motivated. I've gotten used to running somewhere near the front and just occasionally hooking up with riding partners but not having one person by my side all day. I guess it would be OK to let ourselves be a little dependent when trying to get through a first 100.

Third, I'd beg/borrow/steal an experienced crew member, hopefully who is experienced in crewing specifically for 100-mile rides. (There's apparently an art to pacing that is different than 50-milers, and I need all the help I can get.) Dad was great, he really got into his job, but he still had to ask me what Zephyr needed. I did NOT eat enough, though it wasn't Dad's fault. I just need someone who can just take my horse away to deal with him themselves, then push me into a chair in front of a wide selection of tasty tidbits to tempt my troubled tummy.

Fourth and most definitely NOT least, if I decide to pursue this dream, I need to make a mental commitment to condition more. Not just go out and ride a nice moderate speed/difficulty loop, but actually make an effort to seek out hills and force Zephyr to perform a quality cardio workout despite his somewhat lazy-when-alone nature.

So, given that the only two 100s within reasonable driving distance of home are Pine Tree and Vermont, it seems that IF I decide to do this again soon, Pine Tree will probably be my next attempt. 2009? We'll see how Changes 1-4 shape up.

Next up? I wish I could make it to Western Maine for a 50 or two, but I promised hubby I'd be home for the next few weekends. So instead, next it's a 2-day 50 at The 'Burbs CTR on August 23-24. Then nothing in September (going to a wedding in NJ), and in early October the Maine 100 (a 3-day 100 CTR).

After that, we'll be done competing till next May. If I want to do the 2009 Pine Tree 100 I should definitely aim for the May 2009 Bare Bones 50 as a warmup. Otherwise I can get by with the Brown Bag 25 CTR that same weekend. We'll just have to wait and see what winter training looks like.

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