Friday, February 24, 2023

2023 Twenty Mule Team - Alexandra Collier

February 21 2023
by Alexandra Collier

A recap of 20 Mule Team 100 for me and Halo (it’s going to be a long one- I either write very little or a lot ): I grew up doing very fast go-go-go training rides with someone who I came to find out later, rode faster than most. Despite the fast training rides, I will mention that the only official endurance ride I went to with her, we came in close to last (37th place) with her very green freshly started 5 year old horse. The long, slow, seemingly endless 9 hours and 41 minutes seemed endless to me as a 13 year old. Still, it didn’t deter me from loving the sport any less. My bum just began to hurt after about 20 miles and I no longer wanted to feel the impact on the saddle when trotting. But this was how it was done— we didn’t canter because it was more comfortable for us; we trotted because it’s what is most methodical for long distance riding. I will say, for the sake of my bum, I have fantasized lightly about what it would be like to canter an entire ride. I also have these strange made up rules, ex: I almost feel “guilty” for cantering because it’s not THE method or I feel like it’s “wrong.” I am never judging anyone else for doing that but the perception of cantering being faster which means as a catch rider, being seen cantering could imply “overriding” someone’s horse. And that’s what I strive not to do. I do care a lot about the horse and what someone thinks/feels about how I am caring for and treating their horse.

That being said, I don’t think I ever knew what Halo was capable of. At Huasna, the vet scored him highly on “Impulsion” (as most do) at the end of his ride and said “that’s a 100 mile horse.” I took it lightly as I have severe trust issues and in the back of my mind I’m like “yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it. Otherwise I believe everyone is just blowing smoke up my arse.” Every opportunity I got with Halo, I rode less rather than more. I chose 25s before 50s, I chose single days before multi-days, I chose 50 miles day 1 & 25 miles day 2, then I chose 2-day multi-day 50s rather than 3-day multi day 50s. You get the picture. Looking back, I think he was always ready for higher mileage and multidays. It’s like this is what he was meant for physically. I don’t regret my conservative gradual approach as I’d rather be safer than not. I aim for middle of the pack and completion. Our delays accumulate from our lagging at the start of rides, out-times leaving camp, and how he behaves at vet checks.

We finished the 20 Mule Team 100, leaving between 6:05-6:10am and coming in almost exactly 21 hours later at 3:05am give or take. We were grooving for the first 25 miles, Halo was content and happy to have his temporary girlfriend Montana Babe with him ridden by Jacqueline Davis. He wasn’t pulling or amped up, just head down ready to work. We arrive at vet check 1, Halo pulsed down immediately, Montana Babe shortly after. We go to vet in and Montana Babe is tight in the hind end. After a second assessment by the vet, we find out we have to continue on without our partners for the day. This was going to occur anyways at the 60 mile mark anyways, but I was bummed it happened so soon. What this means? My day gets a bit more difficult.

Halo is improving with leaving camp alone. At a different ride, we once stood in the same spot for over an hour having words as I pointed him forward, asking him to go that direction and he refused. He said he only wanted to walk backwards towards all of his other friends at camp. After we left Tj & Montana Babe behind, I knew that meant leading Halo out by foot and then mounting him about 1/4 mile out on trail and asking him to go forward. We had much better success than other times so for this I was immensely happy. He moves well alone surprisingly, but our next challenge was what happens when we catch someone? Because with his big trot and how fit he is, we will catch the rider in front of us. Not everyone wants a horse to tag along with them. The problem for us is that once we catch another horse, we haven’t yet tackled moving past another horse in the same direction. We can split from another horse in another direction, but we cannot pass them (yet).

I was mentally prepared not to inconvenience another rider on loop 2 and self-sacrifice or do what I needed to do in order to give another rider space. We soon approached Jerry Wittenauer who coincidentally expressed to me earlier that him and his horse Carlos usually ride alone. I have also witnessed this as I have seen him in passing at Grand Canyon & Fire Mountain— we are usually leap frogging one another. I quickly jumped off and start dragging my horse because I already know the embarrassing scene that was about to occur. I assured Jerry I will gladly be on my way, just please ignore the episode that Halo and I are about to have. Well we didn’t quite tackle that obstacle in full yet as Jerry was very generous and kind to let us ride along with him and Carlos. We finished that 25 mile loop and then the remaining 10 miles back to camp for Jerry and Carlos to complete their 60 miles while Halo and I were to continue on to our remaining 40 miles.

Camp... dreadful camp. This is a huge obstacle for us. I will be honest and say that I really admire the out vet checks rather than the ones back at camp. If it was another horse I was riding, I may feel differently. Halo was big mad after 60 miles. Tired, no. What he wanted was to be soul tied to Carlos, his new buddy horse, for the rest of his life, but it was Carlos & Jerry’s time to complete and turn in for the evening. I handed him over to Tj because you know, she was helping me crew. He wanted to remind the vets of how freely they should give him an A for impulsion.

Even after bringing over his temporary girlfriend, he insisted on going back to the trailer and getting some munchies and settling in. Our vet-in time was delayed about 30 minutes, who really knows but it felt like eternity. I was experiencing some gut-wrenching anxiety, will they allow us to continue? My internal thoughts were—

1. I mean it’s completely understandable if they tell me I cannot continue, I’m ready to take that loss (trying to convince myself I wouldn’t be devastated and envisioning the moment where they break the news- would I cry? Would I pretend it was ok? Would it be okay? Would I be sad/mad of would I be at peace?, playing the scenarios through my head).

2. But on the other hand this is my first 100 and I would really like to finish. I mean this is IT. This is our PLAN. We have worked so hard for this.

3. I mean maybe I’m not deserving of it this time. Maybe this is a lesson. Maybe Halo isn’t cut out for this at all.

Anxiously waiting for the vet check to be over. We got the green light to continue. The pendulum swung our way. I was grateful to say the least.

Headed out on loop 3 for 25 miles, I was ready to walk him out for as long as needed and hop up on his back when I felt the time was right. I saw another rider going out at the same time as me whose horse kind of did the “I don’t want to leave either” dance and her crew helped escort them out down the road. I expressed to this rider that my horse really likes riding with other horses and she said the same for hers. I felt very reassured that I wasn’t being an inconvenience to them. She informed me that she was headed out for the 4th loop of the 100 as I was headed out for the 3rd and we would be along the same trail for quite some time.

I had the pleasure of riding with Susie Kramer for about 7.5/8 miles and we chatted about a variety of endurance topics. It was very nice to have such a kind and personable rider to allow me to tag along with for a good chunk of our 25 mile loop. I kindly warned her that when we split ways, my horse and I may come to a complete stand still and we may be having some words, but please do not worry. This was and is part of our process, we will be just fine. She said it may be the same for her and her horse as well.

We parted ways and wished each other a wonderful end of the ride and a completion to each other. And then it would be Halo and I alone in the dark for the next 17 miles. I turned my light on and we were off. Halo did a side eye for the next hour looking off into the distance believing he would see Susie and her horse and I kept telling him ”There is NO ONE there. Unfortunately it is just you and me. YOU and ME. I’m not sure when you’re going to start wrapping your head around that, but if we are going to keep doing these rides together, you’re going to have to accept that sooner or later. I get you safely back to camp EVERY time.” And yes, these words and phrases get said out loud to him whether he is listening or not.

I came up to a road crossing and was reassured when I heard a familiar voice and realized it was Kaity Cummins waiting for her long time friend Ashley Wingert. She told me they were walking and probably about 30 mins ahead. I was sure at some point we would catch up to them.

We trotted endlessly for quite some time. I was getting super sleepy and my depth perception and peripherals were not doing well. The contrast between my headlight and the darkness of the desert had my eyesight constantly adjusting. I would see a light off in the distance— is it a glow stick marking the trail? Is that a car? Is it far away? I convinced myself it had to be a car and as I came up on it, it was a light overlooking a camp sight. I was wayyy off. At that point, I started wishing for an energy drink or a cup of coffee or some DayQuil to smack me in the face. Finally, I saw what look like a wheel spinning green fluorescent light. Oh no, this is not good. I really am losing it. I knew my depth perception was super skewed and as I kept getting closer, the object didn’t appear to be getting closer. I got that weird angst feeling deep in the pit of my stomach. Is someone messing with me? Oh lord, please brain stop doing this to me. I called out to try to calm myself “Hello?” Please please please someone respond.

No response.

Oh I’m totally screwed. I’ve completely gone bonkers or some clown is going to emerge from the green glowing lights and Halo’s going to spook, I’m going to die. Shoot… I mean yeah we are both going to die. We kept walking and a minute or two or three passed? Whose tracking time anyways? I called out again and with the sound of a woman’s voice my panicking brain was able to peel away the fear and ground itself back to reality to form the silouhette of a black horse ahead. It was Ashley who had responded to my calls. With my delirium, I had lost hope of catching Kaity’s friend and the thought had disappeared from my mind. The rotating green lights I saw were just reflectors on her horses rump rug.

I knew I had no hope of getting Halo to pass Ashley and her mare and at that point, I was too tired for an argument with him. We walked (or jigged) the last 10 miles of loop 3 since Halo is incapable of walking with another horse. #Fearofabandonment

We came into the vet check and vetted immediately after crossing the line. After walking for so long, Halo’s pulse was down. I wasn’t sure where my crew was, but I went back to the trailer to swing the door open “Ayo, you crewing or sleeping?!” I probably seemed bothered but I know it’s difficult for me to alert a crew of my ETA. With the gloves, the jigs, the phone too big for my hands, lack of service, lack of battery, difficult to put back in pocket— I try to only fidget with the GPS because this is most applicable in the moment. Am I lost? In the middle of the desert in the middle of the night? Yeah, GPS most important. Loop 3 was the hardest loop for me mentally— exhaustion hit, we split from another horse, on my own with my GPS, complete darkness & light sensitivity, some hills that seemed to drag at exactly the wrong time.

The 30 minute hold zoomed by. Tj asked if I wanted to lay down and close my eyes, I said no I’m okay. I stared with admiration at the pictures I bought earlier in the day from the photographer to remember why I do this sport. I drank the rest of an energy drink and took some DayQuil to give me the pep in my step to last the final 15 miles.

Before I knew it, we were back on the trail. I thought the other rider we came in with had already gone back out, but it was just us. I was looking forward to Halo and I spending 15 miles alone in the dark for the final loop. This was the final stretch, the final mental and physical push and I needed him and I to do this together- alone. Not because I’m selfish or didn’t want to ride with anyone, but because that’s what him and I needed as a team. We needed to grow together for those remaining 15 miles together.

He lagged for about 9 miles until we made some random right turn shorty after we saw Kaity at another road crossing. He realized we were finally headed back to camp and picked up his pace. I felt like I could exhale a bit. But then I panicked… what if something happened? That ONE time he trips on a rock or something spooks him and he dumps me and leaves me out there. You know, the mind wanders. I almost missed the turn back to camp as we started to descend for the final 4 miles. I passed the turn and my gut alerted me to check my gps. Sure enough we were a few steps past our missed turn. I turned my light off because it was inhibiting my ability to pick out the little details of the purple glow sticks. I panicked for another 3/4 mile convincing myself I was on the wrong trail and my GPS is a liar until I was reassured with another purple glow stick. Man, those last 3 miles really drag. With our light off, I played it safe and we walked. I had forgotten what the footing of this area looked like and was paranoid we would encounter a rock or uneven terrain, as Halo is known to stumble on things. Specifically when he is focused on something like getting back to camp. At this point I was still combatting the reality that Halo and I were really about to cross the finish line of our first 100 mile ride together. My mind was playing those tricks on me, the kind where it’s like pinch me is this real? But instead it was the obsessive staring at the GPS to make sure everything was *precisely* on track. I could not let myself cross that finish line with a DQ for something as minor as getting lost in the last 2 miles. No, no, no. Once we hit the road, we trotted. I had been here many times before, and he had been here a few himself. Once we made our final left turn, we walked. We approached he finish line and I heard Tj, ”Alex is that you?” We crossed the finish line.

Tj took Halo from me. The vets told me my job here was down. Halo pulsed down immediately and he trotted out with a whole lot left in his tank. I heard those words, ”Congratulations on your completion, you came in 10th place.” I am not sure which part shocked me more, the completion or the top 10. As we walked back to the trailer, Halo trotted like he was ready to do another loop. I heard from Tj earlier he was bucking around the arena earlier today and being his usual destructive self. He forgot he had just spent 21 hours carrying me across the high desert.

20 Mule Team was an amazing ride and experience for me and Halo. Thank you to TJ Davis, Jacob Rainer, ride management, the vets, volunteers, all of the other riders that come together to make this ride happen. I remember being a young girl, a teenager, and even early in my 20s and believing completing a 100 mile ride would never happen until I one day had my own horse and even then a 100 miler horse is rare. The idea seemed so far off.

It always seems impossible until it’s done.

Gore/Baylor Photography

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