Tuesday, December 2, 2014

My first limited distance ride: Foothills of the Cascades

Whoa. It has been awhile!

I blame a summer fraught with pitfalls on my lack of blogging about our adventures – more updates on that, and Deli’s current status later (probably).

BUT I do have some stellar news: I completed my FIRST endurance ride!

This Fall I went searching for a horse to borrow for the ride most local to me: Foothills of the Cascades. I knew at this point that Deli wouldn’t even be up for a 10 mile trail ride, but after volunteering at this particular ride for three years in a row I wanted to ride.

I ended up completely lucking out and was lent an experienced and sturdy little mustang mare to ride in the LD (25 miles) named Mesa. I got to ride the mare for the first time the afternoon before the ride, in the rain, and was impressed by how BIG the pony could move! It was pretty clear there was a lot of Spanish in her heritage (at that point my brain was going “wheeee fun!”). She was well trained and an old hat at this endurance-riding-thang. Perfect for a newbie like me!

Foothills is a VERY technical ride and I was told by my endurance mentors that you really had to move out when the footing was good to make up for time lost elsewhere. They were absolutely right! The morning started out cool, grey, and rainy and I was able to ride the first five miles with the 50-milers and Mesa’s owner, which was great. I got to have someone experienced by my side to illustrate by example how things were done on a race (like passing people).

Once we split ways I alternated riding with others and by myself. The first loop was 10 miles and in general most of the footing was great and Mesa was happy to move out. She is a short-statured and short-bodied horse, and so I found she could move out much faster in windy thickly-forested trails. In those areas I was able to pass larger and less maneuverable horses – it was so much fun to have a maneuverable and sure-footed pony at those times!

At the first pulse-in, it took Mesa about a minute to come down but she vetted through great. I parked her in front of food and water in her cooler and went to change my soaked clothes and grab some water. I realized I had made a mistake for not drinking more that morning because at this point I was feeling a bit dehydrated and I get heat stroke easily. I think given my excited nerves and the fact that it was raining made me forget how much I needed to drink. Having come into the check with a group of rowdy horses, I stayed a little longer in my hold to give myself a bubble before we headed out on the trail again. 

Right away it was clear the second loop (15 miles) was where a lot of the technical trails were. Some of the early stuff was deep footing intermixed with wet slippery sticks in an area that had recently been clear cut. We crawled there, and I felt like the footing was wearing Mesa out more than moving out on the good footing had! When we finally got back onto some logging roads it was a relief for both of us.

At some point I got in with another group of riders and we all missed a turn, making us need to back track a good bit to pick up the trail again. Oops. And the sun had come out making me glad I had shed my soaked clothes in favor of a lighter long-sleeve. Up until this point Mesa had not had anything to drink and I was a bit worried about that even though I knew the little mare was used to longer distances. I needn’t have worried: when we got lost it did have the advantage of having the trail cross a small stream where Mesa took a looooong drink and some bites of grass.

After going strong all day I felt that Mesa was getting a bit tired about midway through the second loop. I admit, I was getting tired too! After the fact I now know that a lot of my fatigue was due to dehydration – I was focusing on the horse and not on myself! Next time I’ll do better. Someone else told us we were at the base of a mile-long hill and I decided we were just going to walk up it. Mesa’s owner had told me she was an honest horse and if she was telling me she was tired, I was going to listen. So we walked, loose rein, enjoying the beautiful PNW forest. Mesa, being somewhat race-brained all day (in a polite way, mind you!), showed she hadn’t been kidding about being tired as other competitors rocked past us up the long hill and she didn’t even bat an eye.
When we reached the top the view was astounding. I TRIED to take some photos with my cell phone, but the camera had gotten wet earlier (next time: plastic baggies) and they came out terribly! Sadly, these were the only photos I got all day. I’m a failure as a photog… but to be honest it was the last thing on my mind! Next time.

Cute floppy mustang ears.
After the hill-walking-break Mesa perked right up. That was clearly all she needed. At this point I was eyeing my watch wondering how much further we had to go, because time was running out! We had blasted through the first 10 mile loop, but 5 miles of the second loop took us just as long as the first loop had. After some easy trail, we got to another long but more gradual incline. The footing was the best we had seen all day. I asked Mesa to move out and she obliged happily. There was a group close behind me at that time and the leader moved up to be neck-and-neck with us. When I started up the hill I felt like I had a lot of horse under me again and seeing the other rider grin at me as both our horses chomped at the bit, I asked Mesa to move out a bit more, and she sprung into a lovely quick canter. It was the only point in the day I actually let Mesa race and it was absolutely one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done. I know I was grinning ear-to-ear. Mesa was totally trustworthy and game and I also knew we needed to make up some lost time.

The final miles were the roughest. I was exhausted, which later I realized was mostly due to my own dehydration. I have ridden many miles in my life, but never at that speed. The stirrups on the saddle had rubbed my ankles raw. I was luckily able to pair up with someone I knew for the last part of the ride who let me complain a bit with good humor, and we swapped off pulling each other along.
Coming into camp at last, trying to be wise about it, I jumped off to hand-walk Mesa in while loosening her girth and taking off her bit. This clearly worked because she was down to pulse criteria (60 bpm) when checked. We also walked the last ½ mile into camp with our gaited buddy since Mesa is a heavier-bodied, and hairy(!), mare. Our pulse-down time gave us 10th place, as LD placings are determined by that criteria rather than crossing the finish line.

It was apparently a tough ride even by experienced competitors standards! I pulsed down only 15 minutes before cut-off time and I was MID-pack pretty much the whole ride. At the vet-in Mesa got all As and the vet and scribe joked with me how lame I was in the trot out but Mesa looked great! Ha ha, yes, very funny. I did show for BC despite wanting to collapse and fall sleep where I stood, and I got 4th in BC scores (all 10 showed for BC) so I'm quite happy about my first ride results even though I know with equipment I probably weighted the most out of the top 10 and that helped my score. But since I wasn’t TRYING to top-10, as evidenced by the 15-minutes-before-cutoff pulse down… I’m happy with that!

Waiting during the hour before the CRI re-check, I took the time to curry Mesa, give her more mash, and generally make her comfortable before I forced myself to eat and drink as much as I could. I’m normally just a water drinker (or Izze – yum!) but water tasted absolutely vile that afternoon. Coconut water was great though, and probably saved me from the more serious effects of dehydration.

After the hour CRI I knew I needed to weight myself and my tack, so I lugged everything over to the check, got weighed, and then headed back to the trailer. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but in the spirit of my newbie/Green-beany-ness I will say that halfway back my energy gave out. So I just sat down in the middle of ride camp underneath what had gradually become a VERY heavy saddle and pondered my fate. I could have slept right there, except I was rather close to some horse poo and intellectually I did NOT want to die next to poo. So I got up, went and got Mesa, put the saddle back on her back and had her carry it back to the trailer. After carrying ME and that tack all day in both rain and hot sun, she couldn’t have cared less. At that point I did take a nap after drinking another liter of water. I woke up feeling much better shortly before Mesa’s owner came in for her final hold (she was riding the 50 on Mesa’s daughter).

Mesa’s owner ended up getting 2nd and BC on the 50 mile ride, so it was a good day for both of us!

Next time: things I learned on my first endurance ride. In other words, things to do/not do next time!

Because now, after Foothills, I have this endurance riding bug even WORSE than before. Does that mean I’m insane? Not yet as insane as some of you other endurance folks (you know who you are)… but maybe a little.

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