Saturday, October 08, 2022
2022 Distance Horse National Championship 100 - David Lewis
by David Lewis
October 5 2022
It's a good thing that my horse (Matay) doesn't have Facebook so he can tell that I was cheating on him! This was by far the most brutal ride I've ever done.
I don't know what made this ride so difficult, but out of 29 starters, only 16 finished (55%).
I was not originally planning on going to the Distance Nationals at Autumn Sun because my horse had the equivalent of a tendon sheath sprain from Old Selam. Not a serious injury, but some time off and rehab are needed before doing another ride. Alexandra looked to move up from doing LDs and double her distance to attempt a 50 at the AHA 50-mile National Championship. Of course, I had to go to Nationals to crew for her, and then Stevie said she had an available horse to ride! The legendary Alexander Hamilton! This horse is a Tevis finisher and one that Becky Osborne would never shut up about. Now I didn't have an excuse to not make an attempt at my first 100-mile race.
I was so nervous I barely slept at all before the ride. It was like piling on all the nervousness from every ride I've ever done and bottled it up into a single night and the 3:50am alarm jolted me awake for what felt like 8 hours too soon.
The start time was 5:30am, which meant the first nearly 2 hours we'd be riding in pitch black darkness. I used to ride in the dark frequently, but it was a new experience to be doing it for this long at an endurance ride with only the occasional glow stick to guide your way and know that you're still on the trail. The stars were so clear above your head and I'd find myself making out constellations and making rapid wishes upon the shooting stars. The far-off city lights from the valley never seemed to go away until sunrise.
Getting on Alexander for the first time, I could tell within a few seconds that this horse has some amazing dressage training in his background, training that would come in handy throughout our ride and part of what made him the most incredible horse I've ever ridden, and by far one of the easiest horses to ride. His body control made you feel like you could Piaffe down the trail if you really wanted to. I had to resist the urge frequently.
Our group of 5 horses had green glow sticks that Stevie attached to our breast collars that made us look like a train of aliens flying down the trail. Even though we started in a field of 30 riders, nobody spoke a word. The darkness gave you an almost spiritual feeling that you didn't want to break by speaking. The darkness riding was so much fun, even being blinded by Stace Moss's 40,000 lumens headlamp riding a quarter mile behind us, which we just *had* to give him crap about. The miles flew by quickly.
One of the biggest challenges to riding this ride in the dark was not accidentally riding over a cattle guard. You had to make assumptions to avoid plowing right through a cattle guard since you couldn't see them, then the heard of untold hundreds of cattle who you could only make out as black blobs bumbling out of the way in front of you.
The sunrise brought conversations back that typically accompany a group of riders on a long endurance ride, and we all started to get to know each other. Stevie, our fearless leader, riding Sparta. Stevie owns Intergalactic Equine and these amazing five horses that we were riding, she leases out these horses to people like me looking to do something so crazy like riding a 100-mile race or competing at Tevis. These horses are second to none in their conditioning and rideability.
Courtney was riding Hero and the only rider (that I'm aware of) who has completed the Mongol Derby, the Race of the Wild Coast, top-10 Tevis completion, and the Goucho Derby. She's an incredible athlete and rider. Carmen, riding Chuck Norris, has completed Tevis twice and was not only an excellent rider herself, and an absolute joy to chat with, but seemingly had an entire pharmacy in her backpack. Something that would come in handy later. Then Joselyn, our junior and daughter of our vet, Dr. Cassee Terry, was riding her second 100 on big-boy Sonic and one of the toughest riders I know. Our group apparently looked like a centipede weaving down the trail. The lead horse would weave around the rocks and instinctively the other horses would follow in identical footsteps.
Our game plan was to just ride to completion, we weren't going to be racing today because there was such a full field of top-level riders on the trail and there appeared to be little to no chance of us getting anywhere near the top 10. It was going to be a long day in the saddle.
The first loop was longer than it stated on our GPS tracks and we rolled into the first vet check at 36 miles after about 6 hours with sound and very ravenous horses. Stevie did the majority of the crewing for us feeding the horses, handling the tack, and giving us motivational speeches. What does she not do?! Just to remind me that I was doing an endurance ride, Chuck Norris, probably kicking at a fly, roundhouse kicked me in the shin, which was fortunately padded by my half-chaps, and then not 60 seconds later, Alexander thought my finger was a carrot to snap in half while trying to grab a giant bite of alfalfa.
Back on the trail again and around mile 40, something went wrong in my stomach. Started getting light-headed and nauseous. Stevie would ask how everyone was doing and I'm thinking to myself, I don't know if I've ever felt worse on a ride. 20 miles to go before the next vet check and this loop would prove to be the most challenging with the hellish rock fields that we had to walk over. The next vet check couldn't come soon enough and with every mile, the nausea was getting worse. I stopped drinking my electrolytes because it felt like the last thing I wanted to put into my stomach, I think this made things worse.
At the 60-mile vet check, I was half-hoping something was going to be up with the horses so I'd have an excuse to pull, but I would have no such luck as Alexander was as strong and mighty as ever and made it obvious that he was more than ready to keep going. Me and Joselyn, on the other hand, were about to faint and vomit from heat exhaustion. I'm so thankful for everyone at the out vet check area especially Layne Lewis and Cassie who soaked jackets in cold water and put them on us and force-fed us nausea meds and Hammer fuel and electrolyte Gels.
Stevie came over and said "Before you make a decision on if you want to pull, think of how hard past-you has worked to get to this point and think of future you who will remember the decision you made today to complete this ride or to quit. But present you is fleeting and you won't remember how sick you were today." Well, there was no way I could quit now! Stace rubbed a hole into his leg riding Topper and so that left Marlene and her Shagya-Arab, Alamo, to do the remaining 40 miles by themselves. This was perfect, we could spend an extra hour at the vet check recovering and go out with them on the 3rd loop back to the 84-mile vet check back at camp. We'd be riding through Sunset into the dark, so we dawned the headlamps and headed out an hour after Stevie, Courtney, and Carmen left.
Alexander knows his place in the herd of 5: "I gotta be second!" he would insist throughout the ride. But now it was time for him to lead and lead he did so well, throwing out a "wait for me!" whinny every 5 minutes for 23 miles. This horse was a frickin' powerhouse on this loop, while I wanted to just fall off and pass out on the ground because I was convinced I'd somehow feel better that way, he kept on trucking as if we were still on mile 3.
As the ride progressed, I found out that time is not the only thing that feels subjective. Distance does as well. Every mile started to feel like 5 or 6 miles and it seemed to take forever for the miles to melt away, no matter how fast we traveled.
After 19 miles of leading, I was still so sick and tired, and having taken a break to lie down, knew that relief wouldn't come until we got into camp. Now that it was dark, Alamo took the lead while I set Alexander in behind and just rode with my eyes closed while concentrating on my breathing. Maybe this way I could feel somewhat rested, I thought, as the night turned the heat exhaustion into vertigo.
We made our way down the last 2 miles of steep downhill into camp at 9pm and walked down the road at the exact same time that Alexander's buddies were all leaving camp on their 4th and final loop. Well, Alex was NOT happy about this!! "Wait for me!" he continued to plead. Alexandra met me at camp and handed me some meds and said "Go sit down, we've got your horse" and Sonic pulsed down immediately, followed by Alamo. But Alexander stressed about his now-gone herd-mates. He was so strong, eating, drinking, moving, and pulling people around camp. This horse was so far from done.
While I watched sat in a chair, shivering and covered in a blanket that Jessica Huber brought over, waiting for my horse to pulse down, Jeremy Reynolds brought over a jar of pickle juice and said, "Here, drink this. This will settle your stomach and get you through the ride." Never thought about it, but I actually liked it! Jeremy went over to check on how they were doing trying to get Alex's pulse down, but I could tell something was wrong. I never heard them call out my number saying he pulsed down.
Alexander was like a truck with an unwavering engine and a bottomless gas tank. Yet looking off into the dark hills watching his buddies all leave, nobody could get his pulse down to 60 in the allotted time, so we were forced to end our ride there after 84 miles.
Joselyn and I had talked about taking a nap before going out on the final loop, and at first, I was relieved to not go out, and then so disappointed because of how close we came and how able we were to still go on and finish. It would have been so hard but so worth it.
Marlene on Alamo and Joselyn on Sonic went on to finish their ride, and what an amazing job they did.
Even though Alexander didn't pulse down, that horse was so far from being done. He pushed the pace for all of the 84 miles even if he was supposed to be in second. He wanted to push the pace as often as he could.
I stopped taking photos and videos by the second loop because it took so much effort to battle nausea, plus there was never anything different to take a photo of, the views and terrain on this ride never changed. It looked the same from mile 1 all the way through mile 84. The ride itself wasn't particularly hard, but somehow was also the hardest ride I've ever done, and Ride With GPS saved us at least 12 times from missing turns and getting off trail like so many other riders had, and that turned out to be a huge advantage as the other three, Stevie, Carmen, and Courtney were able to place in the top 10!! Most riders we passed had their phones out trying to follow the GPS tracks to avoid getting off the trail. Don't underestimate the necessity of RideWithGPS, and this ride has given me new material for the talk Stace and I will give at the PNER convention about how it helps keep you on the trail, but also can confuse you if you don't know how to use it. -- And then to everyone trying to follow the loops on their phones, it's a great idea to get a really good GPS watch.
I'm so grateful to so many people who helped out with such an undertaking, from my beautiful wife in her sexy red curly hair, the ride management, Stevie, Diane Seaby Stevens' amazing Crazy Legs tights that kept me comfortable beyond any other tights I've worn, to Jessica Isbrecht's partner, Byron, who made me a pair of hot tacos and walked them to my trailer at the end of our 84 miles. Those were the best damn tacos I've ever had.
Now, 2 days later as I reflect on this ride, I feel hungry. Like a super bowl loser. You're desperate to get back to training in the off-season to get back here and get that elusive win.
84 miles was not enough, and I didn't get the T-shirt award for finishing, yet 30 miles further than I've ever ridden and Alexander was awesome. Not that I had any doubt, given Becky's constant bubbling about how amazing he is.
I'm still after a buckle.