Thursday, August 03, 2023

2023 Tevis Cup - Alexandra Collier

July 31 2022
by Alexandra Collier

Alexandra Collier and the mustang JM Gibbs finished in 52nd place

7 years ago I made the decision to move from Maryland to San Diego, California. I had discovered that Auburn was the endurance capital of the world and where Tevis takes place. I didn’t move to Auburn specifically though for fear of lack of opportunities. Around this time period, I was not well, all around. I was in some of the lowest years of my life and just a mess. I had been contemplating and convincing myself that moving somewhere where there was “more endurance” would help set me on the right path to personal peace.

Fast forward to this morning at 4:42am, JM Gibbs and I completed the Western States Trail Ride aka the Tevis Cup. Until this weekend, Gibbs and I had never met. What I knew about him was that he was a stocky ole mustang from Devils Garden and “kids safe.” According to his AERC record, he has done a handful of 50s, maybe 5ish and the placings I saw were 25th, 28th, and 37th. Neither Gibbs nor I had ever attempted Tevis. I had a 100 mile completion under my belt, but Gibbs did not even have a previous attempt.

On paper, if someone were to be interested in leasing a horse for Tevis, Gibbs wouldn’t light someone up inside with excitement. Now, this is a normal person I’m talking about. Then, there is me.

Amongst all the reasons why Gibbs might not be someone’s best first interest for Tevis, I saw it differently. Mustang, underrepresented breed in endurance, underdog of endurance, not likely to finish, a mental challenge, a long long 100 miles, lots of mental effort into strategic planning, anxiety, more anxiety and worry. I won’t say I “like” all of those things, but that’s how I saw it. This wasn’t about a Tevis completion, truly. It was about how many crazy boxes I would check IF we completed and IF we didn’t, so what if we just did something crazy, and tried.

After winning the Tevis benefactor entry, this was my green-light-go sign. My gut, my heart, all shouting “You cannot miss this opportunity, despite the foreseen challenges.”

I met Gibbs on Thursday before the ride. Friday I took him for a 30 minute walking ride just to get a feel for things. Then I woke up on Saturday morning and hopped up on his back and off we were to conquer 100 miles. Our goal was to finish faster morning miles in the cooler weather to accommodate for the hot midday sun. Gibbs and I were doing great, until the canyons. It was hot, it was unmotivating for him, it was rocky. When we reached the swinging bridge we B-lined it for the river. I dismounted and walked him in submerging myself fully and letting him cool down for a few mins before the hike up Devil’s Thumb.

We crossed the bridge following two other riders that we eventually let go on without us. I dismounted to get a rock out of my shoe and thought to myself “No part of me wants to hike this canyon up to the top but I probably should as it may be our saving grace at the end.” So we hiked it together, miserably. Gibbs’ attitude was “this is so not it.” Between the 2mph walking and my quite literally dragging him, I felt discouraged but continued on step after step. I mean literally looking down at the ground watching each one of my boots cover another small increment of ground.

We made it to the top, just to barrel down into another canyon. Same thing again. Walking, breathing, internally dying inside. We hit a relatively level point and I mounted Gibbs, gave him a kick, just for the result to be a dead stand still. He would not go. He knew that his body needed to recover and did not believe there was any urgency in continuing on. So I got off and resumed my dragging routine. “Mustangs take care of themselves” they say. And yup, they sure do. And sometimes that means, “I’d just like to rest and not do anything anymore despite us being in the middle of a very serious ride with a time cut off.”

We lost so much time. We came into Michigan Bluff with me thinking I had arrived at Chicken Hawk, but we had not. There was another handful of miles left. Gibbs was spent and morale was low for me and him. Luckily between my crew and Terry Howe’s positivity and motivation, I felt a surge of life. I left Michigan Bluff choking back my tears from the reality that this might be it we may not make it. Two riders knew the “bad times” were hitting me and they kept pushing me to continue on, keep up, and attach Gibbs to them for motivation. They saved me. The last 1.5 to Chicken Hawk felt ENDLESS. Somehow, somehow, we made it in with a few minutes to spare. My amazing crew immediately helped me and set me up for success. If my timeline of the story doesn’t align with location names or anything, it’s because anything after Michigan Bluff is an absolute complete blur. It was all just work and a one track mindset, GO.

The switchbacks following felt endless. We came into Forest Hill or Cal 2 with one minute to spare. One damn minute. After this, any concept of where I was just fell from my mind. We must keep moving forward and not waste much time. It was dark, which meant it was cooling down and our only opportunity to make it.

Every check after that was “you need to pick up the speed,” “you’re right at cut off,” “you can do it, but you have to keep moving and use every minute wisely.” I was riding with someone who had a gaited horse which was great for pacing a faster walk. We were working together to try to get this done. I was in charge of time and he was in charge of leading. I’ll be honest, every time he asked me the time, I lied. I told the time was five minutes past what the actual time was so that he didn’t believe we had any extra moment.  Probably saved us both in the end because he finished as well. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind the lying now if I told him my strategy.

At 1:52am, I realized the reality of we might not finish. Calculating, recalculating, mathing, running through my mind how could we possible make it 20 miles in 3 hours. That’s 10mph give or take. How is that even possible, we aren’t capable of that. We just aren’t. My text was sent to my crew at 1:52am during this breakdown and it read “I am not convinced we will make it in time.” I had to prepare my team for the disappointment to come despite their amazing efforts of crewing for me and cheering me on all day.

I asked myself if this was my giving up moment. No, it sure as heck is not. And we are going to fly at any damn opportunity that we can and if we don’t finish AT LEAST WE TRIED.

Every pulse Gibbs had coming into check, he would come in at about 80, but within 5 mins of snacking and drinking, he’d be down to 64. And we would head out essentially by our crew pushing us out the gate.

Francisco’s and the street crossings still had me tense about time, but once we hit Confluents, I started believing this is real. We are about to finish Tevis when I spent majority of the day mentally preparing myself for a potential pull or being overtime. We FLEW. I made sure he attached himself mentally to the butt of another horse and we kept going. There was no thinking really just following the glimpse of a riders sillouette in front of us. I tried not to let myself believe we “had this” before the end because I was still panicking about a stone bruise flying like that in the very dark forest. Again, if felt endless. Any glimmer of a light, I was hoping for the finish.

And finally, there it was. Lights up on a hill and my heart is beating so fast; I’m feeling so many emotions. How in the heck did I just pull this off? Just, how. But we did it.

With endurance, I get into this mindset where it’s like I’m using every single aspect of my brain. As I’m sure we all do. But I assess, reassess, push, pull, tweak this and that. It’s not easy with a horse who isn’t guaranteed to finish. There is so much that goes on internally in my mind throughout the process. I knew Gibbs would be a challenge, but what worked in my favor is that for the last two years I’ve been riding a mustang who is equally, even more so stubborn. I know how to navigate them. It’s not about demanding, it’s about asking. And sometimes they straight up tell you “No” and not a single thing will change that. So when this happens, is when I have to change the plan, again. And again, and again. It’s not a straight line.

I had a paper I was following with “set goal times” and the cut-off times listed. The first few points we were an hour to an hour and a half ahead. During this time I was of course feeling positive and motivated. Then, the lull of the ride was when we were coming in an hour to an hour and a half AFTER what our goal time should be and seconds before cut off. There is and was never any plan, truly. Do what you can with your best effort, and adjust. If it doesn’t go to plan, the day is not over, the ride is not over. We keep on going and we make it to the finish.

A very special thanks to Gibbs’ home Crater Hill Equestrian Center and all of their crew, Samantha Ellis, Gibbs’ rightful owners Jennifer Elizabeth Mayfield & Scotty Mayfield, Ashley Sansome whom I ventured on this mission with, Valerie Jaques for setting me up to borrow her Garmin, Terry Howe for letting me borrow her saddle, the benefactor who made it possible for me to have an entry to the ride, every single person who was out there on the sidelines in-person or from home, Jacqueline Davis for providing me with the resources and experience the last two years to have the knowledge that it took to complete this ride, and Gibbs of course for all of his hard work to make this happen.

I am so proud of our teamwork and our ability to finish the ride in time. This memory I will cherish forever. It checked so many personal boxes for me with regards to goals and putting myself to the test to see what I really am capable of as a rider and person in general. I am ecstatic and still in shock, so very happy with my ability to overcome challenges and prevail in the end. Gibbs is a very special mustang and although at times he wouldn’t give me what I wanted, in the end he gave us both what we needed to make it happen. Gibbs was part of the 2020 round up and brought in as a stallion. He was not gelded until 2 years ago (I believe) and has only been broke for 2 years as well. From RoundUp2020 to Tevis2023, really awesome.

I will try to forget about the embarrassing demonstration he put on for everyone as we did our victory lap.

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