Thursday, July 24, 2008

Vermont 100 - An Outlaw Rides the Yankee Trails

Tom Noll

A runner named Steve made this comment about the Vermont 100 endurance run
some time ago:

"Just a note on the Vermont 100; the run coincides with the VT 100 horse
race - same time and on the same course, so you spend a good part of time
passing and/or being passed by horses (and their riders hopefully). At
first, I thought this would be a pain. Turns out, it's nothing short of
magical, and the riders never failed to cheer you on as they passed. It's a
beautiful course, well organized, well marked, well stocked, and the horses
were a surprising bonus."

In the dark of winter, I contacted the Vermont 100 ride managers, John and
Sue Greenall about riding the Vermont 100. I mentioned that it is a very
long haul from Idaho to Vermont and I wondered if there were any local
horses that I could ride. Sue Greenall put me in touch with Paul Kendall at
the Kedron Valley Stables in South Woodstock and Paul thought that he might
have a horse that could be ready for the 100 in July. Paul has ridden the
Vermont 100 several times himself and he knows the trail and what is
required to condition a horse for 100 miles of trail. In addition,
Christina Phillips rides for the Kedron Valley Stables and Christina knows
how to condition horses too. Throughout the spring we kept in contact and
by late May it was time for me to make a commitment. Paul and I talked and
I made my decision.

Later I found out that Paul's horse was not just any horse but that her sire
was Omar, the only horse to complete all three Vermont 100-mile equine
endurance events; the three-day 100-mile endurance driving competition, the
one-day Vermont 100, and the three-day 100-mile competitive trail ride.
Omar completed the three events in one summer during the 1990s. Paul wanted
me to ride Springtime, a chestnut-colored Arabian mare sired by Omar.

I arrived in Vermont late on Wednesday evening before the ride. I met
Springtime with Paul Kendall and Cindy Davis. Cindy is a member of Kendall
family and Cindy has special feelings for Springtime. The next day, I went
on a short ride with Springtime while Cindy Davis and Christina Phillips
followed along. Just as I was assessing Springtime and her abilities, Cindy
and Christina were assessing my abilities too. Also, I was testing out the
tack. I arrived in Vermont with my riding clothes and very little else. I
figured that I would ride whatever tack and saddle fit the horse.

I could tell that Springtime was an efficient and easy moving horse with
plenty of trail experience. Cindy related some of her and Springtime's
history and I knew that I was taking Springtime on her first 100 and that
Springtime was very special to both Paul Kendall and Cindy Davis. They both
arranged to meet me several times on the 100-mile trail.

I made arrangements to ride with two experienced 100-mile riders, Laura
Hayes and Bill Taylor. Laura talked with Dolores Arste, and Dolores and her
husband Dave offered to crew for us. In addition, my endurance friend Sue
Hedgecock in Utah contacted her sister in Vermont, and Sally White would
help with crewing too. We were somewhat unorganized but we came together at
Silver Hill Meadow on Friday. We enjoyed a nice dinner under the big tent
with the runners, volunteers, and other riders, and we made our final
arrangements for the ride.

Laura Hayes, Bill Taylor and I started off down the trail at just after 5:00
AM the next morning. We waited for the other riders to clear the start and
after some uncertainty and wandering around, we passed under the banner.
Our 100-mile adventure was underway.

Springtime's job is to be the guide horse on the trail rides held at Kedron
Valley Stables. Springtime had many years of experience and, in all those
years, she always led the group. Spingtime was not comfortable in any
position but the lead, and following Bill or Laura's horse led to all kinds
of antics. We decided it would be easier for all of us, and especially
easier for Springtime and myself, to just to ride in the front. We rode a
conservative pace and soon we began to catch up with the runners. I became
concerned when we passed twelve miles or so and did not see the first stop.
Our plan was to start slow but we began to worry that we might miss the
first cut-off.

We crossed the covered bridge at Taftsville and continued on up the trail.
Eventually, we came to the first stop. Other riders had commented that the
distance was closer to 15 miles rather than twelve. In any case, we pulsed
down, spent our ten minutes, and took off for Galaxy Hill and the first vet
check six miles away. We arrived at Galaxy Hill with only five minutes to
spare. I was beginning to think of Tevis and being hounded by cut-off times
all through the day. Springtime was somewhat agitated and ate and drank
sparingly. By this time we picked up a fourth rider and Laura, Bill, Sharon
Levasseur, and I took off for the vet check at Highbrook. The four of us
were all pretty close together up and over the "Sound of Music" hill. The
view on the top was magnificent and we took photos of each other while we
rode the trail. At the top we all got off of the horses and Laura and I ran
off down the trail. It was great running down the trail leading a horse in
the company of ultrarunners.

The ride travels on roads and trail through rural Vermont. Many people
watch the event from their porches and others set out water tanks and hoses
for the horses and runners. We passed by some truly picturesque farms and
cottages. Riding the Vermont 100 is like taking a long trip through a
museum or a historical park. Many of the homes and farms have signs
indicating that the farm dated from the late 1700s - years before a
Louisiana Purchase, before Lewis and Clark, and years before there was a
West. Many trails are on overgrown Vermont Class Four roads through the
woods with stone walls on either side. Vehicles no longer traveled the
roads, but the public right-of-way is still used. One time we passed by a
very old cemetery, quiet and alone in the woods. That cemetery and some low
stone walls along the trail were all that remained of a family's homestead.

There are a lot of hills on the Vermont 100 and I began to chuckle to myself
every time the trail turned on a road that had the word "Hill" in the name.
That word, Hill, meant that we were in for a climb. A few miles before the
Ottauquechee River crossing Laura Hayes lost a shoe on Mo. Sharon's horse
Zephyr was feeling the effects of the distance. I passed ahead of Laura and
Sharon and continued on to the river and the second vet check at Highbrook.
Laura told me later that she quickly attached a new shoe but that she lost
valuable time. I reached the vet check at Highbrook about 40 minutes ahead
of Sharon and I left the hold before Bill and Laura arrived.

The next hold was Mitchell's at 60 miles. By now, it was clear that I was
the last of the riders. I was gaining time on the cutoffs and I was
guardedly optimistic. At Mitchell's, I decided that Springtime really
needed to eat and drink and I removed her bridle and bit and decided to ride
the rest of the trip with reins on her halter. Cindy told me that
Springtime had never been ridden without a bit, but I thought that eating
and drinking was important and that control would not be such an issue alone
and 60 miles into a 100. It turns out that we had nothing to fear because
Springtime was very well behaved.

Shortly after I left Mitchell's, I came to Margaritaville. The crew road
follows the same road to Margaritaville and my crew noticed that I had
stopped and that I was talking with a pretty woman. Later, I told my crew
that an attractive lady offered a margarita and I stopped to enjoy the aid
station. The margarita is gone but I will hold that margarita memory in my
mind for quite some time.

We rode on through the trails and up to the top of Heartbreak Hill.
Tuackenback is the aid station at the top of the hill and Springtime and I
arrived about an hour ahead of the cutoff. Like the other checks, I took
care of myself while Sally, Dolores, and Dave took care of Springtime. The
three of them cooled her and made sure that she ate while I tried to eat and
drink as well.

We left Tuackenback just at dusk. Soon it was complete darkness. I was
riding with no lights and only a reflective vest. I was well behind all of
the other horses and I am sure that some of the runners thought that I was a
ghost or a hallucination when I came up from behind in the darkness. At one
point on the trail I found myself off-trail going directly through the
brush. I guess that Springtime saw the next glowstick and decided to try a
slightly different and more direct route. Through the night I saw glowing
moss on the decaying logs and lightning bugs making streaks in the darkness.
Later, I put my light on my helmet, but I thoroughly enjoyed riding through
the darkness with no lights while trusting my horse to find a safe path.

Springtime and I came into the 88-mile check at O&H Farm. I had lost a
half-hour of time between Tuackenback and the O&H Farm. This was the only
time I was somewhat cranky during the ride and I apologize. There is a low
point on every 100 and the miles before the 88-mile check at the O&H Farm
was mine. I had been checking my watch and doing the arithmetic in my head,
and the calculations were not favorable. Springtime was walking slowly and
I figured that we could only maintain about three miles an hour. That pace
would not allow a finish. I thought that I still had plenty of physical
horse left, but the mental horse was about used up. I felt sorry for my
horse and I felt sorry for her on her first 100. Springtime has rarely been
out on the trail alone and the 60 miles of riding separate from any other
horses had been mentally tough for her. I talked with my crew at the hold.
Laura Hayes and Bill Taylor joined the crew, and Paul Kendal was there too.
Paul reminded me that Springtime was a driving horse and that she was
comfortable with the gentle tap of a buggy whip for direction. Paul cut a
short stick for me to lightly tap Springtime. Paul was convinced that we
could make it to the finish. In truth, I think that Paul cut that stick
more for my confidence than for Springtime's motivation.

We left the vet check and it became very foggy. I remembered one old
expression from the 1970s - onward through the fog - as we made our way on
the trails. I softly tapped Springtime with the stick. Springtime picked
up the pace and we maintained a very nice 100-mile trot. There was one long
downhill section and I got off and ran along beside her. We were making
good time now and I began to think that we might even finish. We both began
to "smell the barn." My sprits recovered and Springtime recognized my
optimism too. I encouraged Springtime, she encouraged me, and we trotted
right through the last two fly-by crew stops. I had plenty of horse left
and we were back to the ten-minutes per mile pace or better.

The last twelve miles were foggy, damp, and dark. I was riding with the
runners who were all chasing the 24-hour cutoff. Everyone was motivated.
Generally, I moved up in the group but a few runners managed to eke out a
faster pace and left us behind. At the very end it was just Springtime and
myself along with Chrissy Ferguson from Arkansas and her pacer. We finished
the Vermont 100 in the dark as two runners lightly jogging through the
forest with a horse and rider close behind.

Springtime had a good day. My friend Regina Rose says that mares can dig
deep and really pull when needed. Springtime is a working horse but still,
she is a horse who never went much further than 25 or 30 miles in a day,
probably had less than five rides out alone, had never been ridden in the
dark, and she dug deep within herself and finished 100 miles of trail fit to
continue. Many times it would have been easier to just turn and head back
to the stable but each time she turned away from her home with only minor
discussion when I asked. I continue to be impressed by the quiet confidence
and ability of horses.

The theme of the 20th Vermont 100 was to remember the volunteers. Many
times across the whole 100 miles, I was thinking about the volunteers and
the land owners who I met along the trail. I know that volunteering at a
ride makes a long day and I am sure that the race volunteers wonder if it is
worth the effort. Well, I am sure that some of the riders and runners had a
life-changing experience over the 100 miles of Vermont trails. That
experience will be woven into the fabric of their lives and will become a
part of them for the rest of their lives. And, although I cannot speak for
the horses, my suspicion is that some of the horses may have had a
life-changing experience as well.

Many times I took my buckle out of my pocket and held it in my palm later
that day after the ride. When I look at my Vermont 100 belt buckle, I
remember a day on good trails spent in the company of a good horse and good
friends. I am very lucky.

Tom Noll
SW Idaho

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