Monday, May 1, 2017

The story of my first 50 miler – Eagle Canyon, 2017

You heard right. The title of this post is an accurate tease. I finally got to and completed a 50 miler ride. For those who know how long I have been drifting on the periphery of the endurance sport – doing an LD here and there – this was a major accomplishment for me. 

The background

Long story short of it I am catch riding this year due to Deli being out in rehab. Who knows if Deli will ever be able to do even LDs again? Her rehab is going well, but we’ve hit on the issue of saddles. So I’m in the thick of that again: finding a saddle that fits her given her health needs and fits me and is not super expensive. So far it’s been an impossible task.

In the meantime I’ve been riding and conditioning my friend “M” horse Duke. Duke is fairly new to her – a rescue with some possible harsh treatment in his past (he was likely a dancing horse). Either because of the sketchy past or for some unknown reason his brain tends to go to some unknown place when stressed and he pulls like heck. That, combined with becoming less aware of his surroundings – which can lead to more tripping/ignoring of aids – means riding him can be like being a freight train conductor. A freight train that can canter in place when agitated..! He is a little guy (mustang-arab cross), but very solidly built. Luckily he also has comfy gaits, so when he is hopping all over the place like a loon you at least are not being jarred everywhere.

Observe how adorable this guy is:

So I’ve been riding Duke 1-2 times a week and enjoying the challenge and getting to know him better. The good news is every ride came with some slight improvement. I hope I have been helpful overall, because there is some hope that Duke would be the mount for M’s kid, who has also done endurance.

Me on Duke on The Deschutes River trail.
Two weekends before the planned 50 M and I took Duke and her other horse, Pepper (who has completed Tevis) for a long conditioning ride. We ended up doing almost 25 miles out in the Colombia Gorge area. The general idea for Duke was that because of his pulling and general athleticism, his first ride should be a 50 rather than an LD. We did NOT want him, with his pulling and competitive anxiety-brain to get the idea he couldn’t take care of himself. This conditioning ride clinched it, as Duke still had plenty of juice after that ride despite doing it at an endurance pace. The only downsides of this ride were that he got some girth galls and some filling in his front legs after the ride – two things that were good information to have. Plus, that conditioning ride was almost 100% hard rock footing so I wasn’t too worried about a little filling. We could work with that by doing more aftercare on his legs.

The weekend in between (when Duke was resting in prep for the 50 miler) I went and did a 30 mile LD at Grizzly Mountain on another borrowed horse. This time a gaited TWH named Royal for his first endurance ride. I had a lot of fun with him – it’s always interesting to ride a gaited horse and to compare with the strengths and weaknesses of a trotting horse. I also survived the cold nights of that ride, despite sleeping in the back seat of my car for convenience sake.

At that ride I also tested my new Hit Air vest and my other riding gear I had planned for the 50 miler. I also got a cool completion award.

The journey into Idaho and Eagle Canyon

We got up quite early to head over to Idaho, with my husband dropping me off at M’s place at 4:30am. Our other friend “A” and her little mare Reba were there and set to go as well. Normally there are more early-season rides within the 4-6 hour drive distance for us in the greater Portland area, but lots of ride cancelations meant Eagle Canyon was the one.

We hit the road in good spirits towing M’s living quarters trailer and the three horses, with my companions loaded up on coffee (alas, none for me). Due to it being a Friday and a workday for me, I was on my laptop for a good portion of the drive working. Still, it was a nice change from my normal home office as I got to look outside and see the Colombia Gorge in all its stunning beauty roll past as we steadily chewed up the miles.
One of the views once we got to the "dry side" of Oregon.
About halfway there we stopped to let the horses out. Lucky for us there is a great rest stop with a gravel trailer turnaround and a grassy fenced paddock for livestock. The horses were happy to get off, pee, have some water, and run around and graze for about 40-ish minutes. At this stop they were butt-heads and did not want to be caught, but we managed it and were back on the road in short order.

The horses enjoying themselves at their rest-stop.
Then, soon after we crossed into Idaho, a trailer tire blew.

Epically. Taking the trailer fender with it, somehow, and flinging rubber all over the road.

Now that's an exploded tire!
We got to the side of the interstate safely (thankfully M’s truck is a gooseneck dually, so it’s very stable) but found we didn’t have the proper tool to change out the trailer tire ourselves. Not to mention, the destroyed fender was beyond repair and threatening to damage the other trailer tire. M called US Rider to get roadside assistance – something that should have been smoother than it was. It was stressful being on the side of a busy road with cars and trucks screaming past, feeling bad for the horses who were standing around. However, after M finally got it into the customer service’s head where we were (she was apparently very worried as to why we were on the side of the interstate! I don’t know where else you would expect someone to be when they have a tire explode?!) we waited for assistance. Luckily, the assistance that came, came quickly, was competent, and cheerful. He also helped us get the destroyed fender out of the way so we wouldn’t risk popping another tire.

At this point I think we were a little frazzled, but with the tire fixed we were free to move on. M decided – smartly – to go to the Les Schwab that was on our route to Eagle Canyon ride camp to get a replacement spare tire. We took this as an opportunity to offer the horses more water and lots of carrots and apples in the trailer. Luckily, the horses were traveling well despite the setbacks and we were not too far from our final destination.

The horses resigned to their fate as we wait at Les Schwab.
We finally got into camp with what I think was a collective sigh of relief. It had been a long day already. With the delays for the tire issues, it was a good thing we started so early! We still had plenty of daylight to set up camp. I ended up holding and grazing Duke and pepper while M and A set up the panels.

Eagle Canyon is a smaller ride compared to some of the rides nearer to Portland, like Klickitat or Mt. Adams. The camp was an open field surrounding by green grassy hills, with snowy peaks visible in the distance. The grassy ground was scattered with whistle pig burrows and badger holes, making it a bit of a minefield, but we managed not to break any legs all weekend! The camp was in an area normally grazed by cattle too, so we had regular interactions with them as well.

With camp set up, A and I decided to do a quick scope of the trails and get Reba’s and Duke’s legs moving. We just did a quick couple of miles while M took notes at the ride meeting for us. From what we saw, the trails looked to be fairly sandy with some washed-out portions and badger holes that would make the footing somewhat challenging the next day.

Ride day

We got up bright an early ride day, though the 50s were scheduled to leave at a cozy 8am. My plan for the day was to leave after Reba and Pepper, as I didn’t want Duke to over-stress himself keeping up with that more-experienced pair all day. In general Duke tends to be more behaved – and keep his freight-train brain fade at bay better when away from his companion Pepper.
Duke ready to go.

M on Pepper and A on Reba leaving for their ride.
Happily, Duke was calm being left behind. We watched till everyone at the front left and then I walked him over to our makeshift mounting block. He was UP and cantering sideways from the moment my butt hit the saddle. But I was used to these antics of his and pointed him in the general direction of the start line. Later, the vet joked with me that he looked a bit “hot” starting out and I laughed about it.

Duke stopped bouncing around pretty quickly and we got to work at a nice working trot down the trail. Right away there were some sections where the trail cut across hillsides where I felt the need to slow down to watch for both ribbons and holes. Duke was already listening nicely, though clearly a bit concerned as to why we were going out into a strange place all alone.

Throughout the ride I was very thankful for Duke’s interesting gait – essentially he is gaited… when going downhill he can get into this smooth wiggly gait where he cruises nicely. It feels similar to the fox trotter gaits I’ve ridden, but I’m no expert. Regardless, it’s faster than a walk downhill and a whole heck of a lot more comfortable than his downhill trot can be since he tends to start dragging you down with gravity.

This ride was a LOT of up and down, so every little strength helped!

We fairly quickly caught up to the tail end riders and passed a good chunk of them. Duke got more excited to see he wasn’t all alone and we got a good pace in for a while.

One of the canyons views on the first loop.
Then we hit the ridge tops and got to experience the full force of the wind. I honestly think this was the most challenging part of this ride: the 35+mph winds that blew almost all day. Often we were pushing against a headwind. Sometimes it was blowing against us side-ways and my body felt like a kite on top of Duke. Sometimes it was blowing up Duke’s butt, which annoyed him to no end. There were several times throughout the day that he stumbled sideways in a big gust. Twice during the day I got off him and walked or jogged alongside him so that we wouldn’t be blown away.

The views were incredible... even as we were being blown around.
At one point in that long first loop (which was 25 miles) a huge tumbleweed soared up onto the hill and before either of us could react smacked into Duke’s hind end, getting tangled somehow in his tail and/or hind legs. Duke is not a very spooky horse. At most before I’ve had him do one of those minor flinch-spooks. Having a tumbleweed attack him?! That warranted an all-out bolt spook complete with jumping straight into the air and kicking out against the offender. He crashed off the trail and through the sagebrush, with me clinging on (having lost my stirrups in one of the jump-kicks) the best I could, half-slid off him. Somehow I managed to calmly repeat to him “easy, Duke. Whoa, Duke. Everything is okay.” Whether that or me getting a better grip on the reins, I got him to stop, unclipped my air vest, and got off. Remnants of the tumbleweed were around his hind legs and tail, though a lot of it had been crunched by his antics.

Poor Duke was shaking, eyes rolling, much sweatier than he had been moments before when we were trotting along at a working pace. I’m pretty sure he thought he was being attacked and needed to fight for his life for those brief moments. It took a little bit to convince him not to spin around me while I removed the offensive tumbleweed from his tail. Luckily he wasn’t injured at all, just shaken up. I’m impressed with myself that I stayed on, to be honest!

Taking him in hand because he was still shaking I walked back toward the trail. I think when he bolted we were actually at a flagged turn in the trail, so we missed it. I walked him for a bit and then got back on, thinking by this time that it had been awhile since I’d seen a ribbon. We eventually turned around and got back on track, but that whole mishap set us back in more ways than one: everyone we had passed had now passed us, and we wouldn’t see anyone the rest of the day.

Another upshot of the tumbleweed incidence is that Duke, who again, is not normally spooky, started worrying about all the sagebrush thrashing in the wind and particularly the bits of plant life flying around. He started spooking frequently. His brain was much less forward minded, which is saying something of Mr. Freight Train pony!

We came in from that first long 25 mile loop very happy to see camp. Duke took some time to pulse down, which I think was more from nerves of a bustling pulser area and not having buddies around more than anything else. I ended up pulling his tack and sponging him (sponging the belly/groin area was particularly helpful) before he drop to the required 60bpm. We then vetted in – with all As – and headed for our first rest and the longest hold of the day. Duke got a cooler because it was still windy in camp and as much mash as he could eat, while I ate and drank as much as I could stomach.

Duke being a good boy and eating everything in sight during the first hold.
Before I tacked Duke up I smeared his old galls – which had healed since that conditioning ride, but were still hairless – with goo to continue to protect him and rubbed his itchy face down with a damp towel. He seemed to have perked up from being somewhat demoralized by the latter half of that first loop.

I started off the second loop on foot, expecting (and I wasn’t wrong) that Duke was going to be unhappy about leaving the comfort of camp. Starting this loop Duke would have gone further than he ever had before.

Once I got back on Duke and had convinced him that yes, we were heading out again, I found this loop very enjoyable. This was the prettiest of the loops, with the beginning winding and following a lovely creek. There were also lots of wildflowers and tall grass alongside the trail. And the best part: a good portion of this loop had us in the canyons and protected from the worst of the wind. We settled into a steady pace again, with Duke trotting along on a loose rein for the most part.

Other than another exaggerated spook at a clanging metal sign and a nerve wracking moment where we were riding down a hill that some local folks were using as a shooting range for some semi-automatic rifles, this loop was scenic and more fun. That is until my left calf started hurting. Bad.

I think (which has now been confirmed by consulting with my masseur at home) that I pulled or tore a muscle in my upper calf when clinging on during that bolt-spook. When posting the particular way my muscle was flexing in relation to the stirrup and the rest of my leg gave me some very sharp terrible pain. It was all I could do to keep trotting at times, and I was always happy for the downhills because it meant I could throw Duke into his nice speedy downhill gait where posting was not needed.

 Despite how pretty that loop was (and that it was only 14 miles), it felt like it took forever. The last five miles of that loop I felt like we were going at a snail’s pace and that it was my fault due to the painful calf. Duke didn’t seem particularly motivated for speed either, and I think at one point he was feeling a bit depressed about being all alone. I had to get off and walk at several points to stretch the leg out. I tried to time it with when there was long great, at least, so I could pull grass and hand it to Duke as we walked. He also drank great on this loop after not having much interest for that first loop. I’d been giving him electrolytes every 10 miles or so since the start of the day and I think that helped.

At any rate, I came into my second check feeling more than a little haggard, questioning whether I was capable of doing the last loop of 11 miles in time as I was defiantly the turtle and the day seemed to be zipping by.

Both M and A were already finished with their ride and actually hanging out in the pulse area with their ponies when I arrived. Duke, seeing the company, pulsed down much more quickly and both M & A jumped to help me with getting him taken care of and vetted. Without a doubt they saved me from crashing and burning! Duke vetted in again with all As – he was looking much better than me at this point! It was a short (30 minute hold) and I was so grateful that M & A were there to badger me to eat and drink and take care of Duke’s needs. They also told me I had plenty of time – slightly less than 3 hours – and described the trail on the last loop to me. It sounded like I could do more cantering if Duke was up for it and make good time.

I brace myself and got back on when the time came. Luckily the break had done my leg some good and even though I hadn’t felt hungry, being badgered to eat had been good for me. I felt some of my energy return, at least.

I left for that loop with people in camp cheering for us. I asked Duke to canter and we cantered out of camp to the whoops of riders who had already finished long before us. What a rush! Duke had no issues leaving camp at this point. In fact, I felt completely synced up with him by now.

It’s an odd thing, but the last loop was my favorite loop. I know I should have been exhausted – and I was still in pain and worn out from that – but Duke and I hit some kind of groove that last loop.

The light was getting softer as the sun sank. The wind had died down, and with it, Duke’s spookiness. As promised, there were long stretches of good footing and when I asked Duke to canter he obliged with his lovely smooth ground-eating pace. Cantering was the perfect break for my calf and we cruised along watching the clouds make patterns on the endless folded hills, birds flying. I felt like we were the only living beings in the world with a purpose at that time. Duke whinnied at every cow we passed as if to say, “how’s it going, neighbor?”

You can see the mountains in the distance!
In another amusing moment there was a point in the flat valley where we rode past a (still!) large tumbleweed along the trail. Duke spun his but around at it and kicked out with a squeal. I think he was very proud of himself for “killing” a tumbleweed on his own terms that time, because the rest of that valley he felt puffed up, his neck arched despite a loose rein, like a stallion strutting his stuff.

And Duke – he was amazing! Horses are such incredible animals. I thought he would be super tired but he perked up for that last loop. He literally felt stronger that loop than the preceding one! And I know, even though I was doing my best, that I wasn’t riding optimally with my injured calf. Duke didn’t seem bothered. For such a little horse he carried me all day without complaint.

When the footing got more technical and we had to trot I actually dropped my stirrups and rode without them. At that point muscle soreness from exertion was not any kind of concern of mine compared to the stabbing of my poor abused calf muscle.

On those moments when I had to pick up my stirrups I sang to Duke (and probably a lot of whistle pigs who were embarrassed for me) to not focus on the pain. I sang the Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtle theme song the most… because we were Turtles!

We cruised into our final vet check with a little less than an hour to spare, plenty of time, really! We were the true turtles, with the ride meeting already in progress when we arrived. Duke vetted in great, with the vet making the comment that he looked even better than he had on the last check.

With A & Ms help we got Duke settled and I limped over to catch the tail end of the ride meeting and my completion prize (a hoof pick). All the Idaho riders were very kind and congratulatory on my first 50. Duke deserves the most credit, honestly, and I’m immensely grateful I was given the opportunity to ride him.

The conclusion

Other than the pulled calf muscle (which I really think happened during the “tumbleweed incident”) I found 50 miles is enough to give me rubs where I’ve never had rubs before. Next time I will employ some body glide or something similar to myself and not just my mount!

I actually was not as sore as expected, which I guess is a good sign. But despite my efforts to stay hydrated all day I certainly got dehydrated. That was the worst of it – and I think the strong wind contributed to the dehydration. I love Ms living quarters – I was able to rinse off in her little shower and feel like some semblance of human again afterward. Though cold water on rubbed-raw thighs and bits is a new and different kind of ouch that I will try and avoid in the future!

I’m pretty bummed that the photographer abandoned their post before I got to them. I guess that’s the hazard of running as the turtle. Regardless, I would have liked a photo of my first 50 to keep next to my favorite photo of Deli and I at the Mt. Adam’s LD.

After the ride I put sore-no-more clay on Duke’s legs and put standing wraps on his fronts. His back felt good, happily.

The next morning Duke was still feeling perky, his back good, and he was totally sound and pushy about wanting his food (he ate wonderfully all weekend). Pepper and Reba – they had gotten 3rd and 4th in the ride – were also perky. We packed up camp and hit the road without too much fuss.

Ride camp the next morning (many people had cleared out!).

The ponies at the rest stop (Duke in the foreground, then Pepper, then Reba).

Duke looking great the day after his first endurance race.
Lucky for us the drive home was uneventful, including the stop-over at the same rest area. I was very tied still and napped for part of it. It would take a couple days to make up my water debt, but otherwise I recovered pretty well.

So that’s it: I now have a 50 miler completion on my record! I can’t wait for the next ride and am so thankful for my friends and teammates support me the way they do. The endurance community is the best niche in the equestrian sport, hands (and hooves) down!


  1. What gorgeous views! And Duke is super cute. Congratulations on your completion and cheers to many more (hopefully with fewer tire issues).

    1. Thank you! He is super cute and I'm sure his owner doesn't get tired of hearing that! I'm 5'10" and not thin so I'm really impressed by these sturdy little ponies.

      I can't wait till the next ride! LDs are still fun, but I think they are just a breeze now after 50 miles...

  2. Congratulations on your first 50! You brought back a lot of memories. Your story is funny and very well written. That tumbleweed attack was hilarious!

  3. Congratulations on the completion!!! And I loved the story about him "killing" that tumbleweed. Too funny. Did he feel like he got his revenge, or did he continue to mistrust vegetation after that?

  4. I'm late to the party but congrats!!!

    The landscape out there is incredible. Wow! I want to go to a ride with snow capped mountains visible from camp. We have nothing like that out here in the east. I also want an 8am start!

    That blow out is nuts. That is a lot of damage :(

    Dart, the horse I've been riding this year, does that wiggly semi-gait going down hills as well! He's an Arabian and shouldn't be gaited, but I swear he is at times!

    That wind sounds intense. I've ridden in blistering heat, pouring rain, and even snow, but never wind like that!

    What is with killer plants? That tumbleweed experience had my heart in my throat. I had a tree branch attack a three year old I have in training. She was just in a round pen and it was scary! Out in the open had to be so much worse. I'm impressed with your ability to get down safely AND without setting your air vest off. Wow!

    Attack-tumbleweeds and semi-automatic gunfire are a lot to handle, let alone in one ride! This 50 had more excitement in it than most rides I've been to. You really earned that completion!

    There's nothing like the feeling of cantering past whooping spectators :) I got to experience that at OD last year when we came galloping in with less than two minutes to spare. What a rush! I'm sure it did both you and Duke good to hear that on your way out on that third loop.

    I laughed out loud when Duke got his revenge on the tumbleweed. This entry was so well written! I loved it. Super bummed the ride photographer missed you though :(