From left to Right: Reese, Colwin, Amy Goodwin, Lynne Oslick, Cheyenne Williams and Banjo. Amy got 5th place on Rushcreek CO2 and Lynne got 2nd on Kenlyn Psyche on Saturday's 50 miler.
It was August 1st and we had been preparing for the Mountain Mettle Endurance Ride in Colorado—our first 75 miler– since last winter. It had been a busy season thus far for me and my rookie 7 year-old Arabian mare, Pshantilly Lace. What made it extra special is that I started Lacey under saddle only last summer, and less than a year later we were successfully completing 50s. My intuition told me this was a very special horse, and so far, she had proven me right every step of the way.
Michelle Smith, owner of Trailwise Saddles, and Pshantilly Lace, after a successful 75 mile completion at Mountain Mettle. The oak horse shoe mounting block was beautifully crafted by Dan Horne as an award.
Our preparation for this ride began 10 months earlier, with lots of winter riding, getting out in all kinds of weather, whether we felt like it or not. Because of that, we were ready to compete early in the season, and did Antelope Island in April, Mount Carmel in May, Strawberry Fields in June, and Shamrock in July. Mountain Mettle was right around the corner, and we had a good base and felt ready for the 75 mile challenge, which would be a first for us both.
Mountain Mettle Endurance Ride, Friday Morning, 8/1/14: We hit the trail at 5:30 am, still draped in darkness, with all the other riders in tow: There were (I think) 5 or 6 starts for the 55, 4 starts for the 75, and 2 starts for the 100. There had been torrential rain days before the ride, and a lot of folks were headed to Tevis and another established ride in Wyoming, which I think helped explain the disappointingly low turn out. (In comparison, the first day of the 50 milers at Strawberry Fields, only about a month prior, listed 120+- starts.)
Photo by Patricia Jarvis: Some of the scenic overlooks on the trail.
I had been on some pretty rides thus far, Strawberry being one of them, but I was truly impressed by the stunning scenery provided by this trail. We cantered through the sun rise (wow!) with the peaks of mountain tops spread out below us. The degraded granite footing was superb although the trail was technical, with ruts from recent heavy rainfall, roots from trees, and lots of ups and downs, switchbacks and stream crossings throughout the entire ride. I remember thinking: People spend their money on a lot of things–fancy cars, plastic surgery, drugs, season football tickets, golf trips, hair, nails, massages, designer clothing, trips abroad, etc.–but I could think of no better way to spend mine than on what I was doing at that moment in time. Endurance competition is an expensive addiction, there’s no doubt. But worth every dime if what you love doing is riding a great horse on an exquisite trail with a sunrise the color of liquid gold melting over mountain tops.
Michelle Smith and "Lacey" coming into the first vet hold, near Indian Creek campgrounds, which had been closed off due to bear activity
Michelle Smith and a rider from California (in yellow) coming into the Indian Creek vet hold
This was the first time I’d brought Lacey to a ride by herself and also the first time we’d ever ridden out alone, without a buddy. So far, she was handling all of it beautifully. Eventually we fell into place with Susie Jones and her horse Flash, competing on the 55 miler that day and both veteran competitors. I was riding faster than usual, which was my strategy for this ride: Get through the first sections of the ride in the cool of the day, make time, and then slow it down later. We were probably averaging about 8 miles an hour on really challenging terrain, and throughout the entire ride, both of us remained in first place for our mileage division. After the Indian Creek vet check we fell in with Sami Browneller on the 100. All three of us rode together for a good 20 miles or so until we reached the Platte River vet check, which was about 45 miles into the ride.
Susie Jones on Flash and Michelle Smith on Pshantilly Lace come into the Platte River vet hold, about 45 miles into the ride
Michelle Smith and Lacey.....all is well!
Platte River, engorged after days of heavy rain
Tyler Cernak and Cole Smith enjoying the Platte River vet hold
Dominique Camarco, junior volunteer, with the rat terrier puppie, Beans and Beowulf. Dominique was a sunny, positive presence throughout the entire ride!
Junior Volunteer, Jackie Smith, hams it up at the Platte River Vet Hold
Photo by Patricia Jarvis: Bridge over the Platte River...horses did great with this bridge!
At the Platte River vet check Lacey was tired and not eating as well as I wanted, so we stayed 20 minutes over to let her rest and eat. Sami Browneller headed out right at her release time. Susie Jones pulled her horse at this vet check, so Lacey and I headed out alone on the 10 mile loop back to base camp, and I walked alongside her for about 5 miles of that, letting her stop and graze and fully regain her energy. Eventually, Kevin Waters and his amazing grey gelding, on the 55, caught up with us, and that revived my horse quite a bit and we mostly dragged off of them back into camp (thanks, Kevin!). Back in camp Kevin only had about 10 minutes until he went over time, which was hard to believe since he had been going at a good clip, but he made it—first place and (I believe) the only rider that completed at that distance for that day. He was surprised to see that the mileage on his GPS dialed in at 62 miles, rather than 55. I didn’t have a GPS, but I know I couldn’t have ridden those miles any faster than I did and it sure felt longer than 55 miles, but it is what it is, and I can neither confirm nor deny the validity of any of that. I just knew we were back, and still in the race and still ready to go complete our first 75. About an hour behind me were Diane Craft and Breanna Clark on the 75, and Dana Cernak, on the 100. Sami Browneller, also on the 100, was now about an hour ahead of us all and had just left Base Camp as I was getting there for my hold. I had observed Sami for several years, and this was nothing new–she was a frequent Top Tenner, if not down-right winner, at many rides.
Sami Browneller and her 12 year old super awesome mare, the day after the ride, going out to pull down ribbons.
Michelle Smith and Lacey, heading out solo at 7:20 pm on the last 22 mile loop for the 75
The Real Fun Begins: I went in for my one hour hold and went out on our last loop—22 miles– at 7:20 pm. We kept a steady trot until it became dark, a little after 9 pm and that’s when the Fun began. I’ve never ridden in the dark without a full moon. In addition to just a sliver of moon, there was lots of cloud cover, and it was getting really cold. Lacey had glow sticks attached to her breast collar, but they didn’t seem to do a bit of good—still couldn’t see a damn thing, and I could tell she felt uncertain as well. We had already crossed over 3 bridges and the trail was technical and surprising in its variety of obstacles. I electrolyted her right before it got pitch black, which turned out to be a smart move. I turned on my head lamp, messed with the settings, and finally found one that seemed to work the best, although I still could only see a few feet in front of us. We continued following ribbons at a walk. I would try to trot, but the head lamp in the inky thick darkness didn’t pick up on depth, and we often fell into ruts or stumbled on rocks and roots. I was by myself in a remote area of the Colorado Trail, and decided that trying to trot under these circumstances would be a Bad Choice. If my horse fell or I got hurt, we would be in serious trouble. No one knew exactly where we were. I hated that we were alone. As the darkness descended like molasses, I felt a fluttering panic set in, barely kept at bay by force of sheer will.
We continued to follow the trail ribbons like bread crumbs, until suddenly out of the darkness loomed a vast expanse of monolithic granite where the trail suddenly stopped. We scrabbled over the granite, Lacey’s steel shoes echoing and scratching loudly in the quiet darkness. She was slipping and sliding on the rock, and I was trying in vain to figure out where the trail picked up again. I knew Sami Browneller was about an hour ahead of me, on the 100, and so I had been following her horse’s tracks up to that point, but granite doesn’t leave tracks, so we were at an impasse. We continued to scrabble around the granite, finding each edge in each direction, looking, looking, only able to view several feet at a time in the murky glow of my head lamp, made more confusing by the dancing shadows it cast. There were no ribbons here, no glow sticks, no chalk markings, Nothing. Just more and more granite glowing eerily in the pitch black. Finally my headlamp picked up what appeared to be the vaguest sign of trampled earth…….a trail? and we headed that way. Hoof prints. Success. This happened about four times, and each time we had to stop and scrabble and search and look, which took up vast amounts of time. I could hear the clock ticking in my head. I still had hope we would make our timeline, but with each new granite encounter and each passing minute searching for trail, at a walk, groping around in the dark, that hope was growing dimmer. The voice in my head said This Can’t Be Happening……but it was. It was.
I began talking out loud. I told Lacey that when we saw our first glow stick, that meant we were close to camp. Wasn’t that what they had said at the ride meeting? I was sure that was what they said, but now, stumbling around in the dark, I became less certain. I chastised myself for not listening better. I didn’t know how far along on the loop I was, or how much further I had to go. It seemed we had already been out there forever, in the dark, alone. Then in the inky blackness, out in the distance, I saw a small glow…….yes! The first glow stick. I urged Lacey into a trot, and as we got closer I saw not one, but two glow sticks….Wait a minute!…..those weren’t glow sticks at all, but rather two glowing red eyes staring steadily at me through the darkness. A shiver went down my spine and I felt a surging panic rising up through me. I have always been terrified of running into a mountain lion, had glimpsed them a time or two out on trail, in the dusk, at a distance, and now here I was, alone with a tired horse in the darkest night I could imagine. My worst fear was in front of me. With the intense fear grew a feeling of outrage, and I started loudly singing, and then yelling. You better leave me the f— alone! I shouted, with all the bravado I could muster. Don’t Mess with Me! I yelled. And we kept trotting, right past the glowing eyes that followed us.
Several miles later we did finally, actually, come to a real glow stick. I was elated. There it is Lacey, I announced, in a reassuring voice, patting her neck, urging her towards it. As I got closer, yes indeed, it was a glow stick, but hmmmm, it looked so weird……I got closer and saw a white surgical rubber glove, with the middle finger of the glove inserted over the glow stick and the other fingers closed in……It was giving us The Finger. My excitement at seeing an actual real glow stick quickly turned to momentary confusion and then outrage. And yet, it seemed to fit the circumstances. It was as if the dark part of the Universe had just spoken, and it didn’t have anything nice to say. Still, even at that low point I could appreciate the twisted humor. You’re Doomed, it seemed to say. Despite that, we continued on.
And on. And on. And on. More glow sticks, more ribbons, more glow sticks, glow sticks with animal skeletons attached to trees, one had a spinal column nailed to a tree below the glow stick, another, a skull. It gave me the creeps. But worse than that, none of them seemed to be bringing us any closer to camp. They just went on and on, more and more, and we were still out in the middle of Nowhere!
I came down onto a good sized hard packed dirt road. I could tell it was used frequently. Now I felt sure we were close. We picked up a brisk trot on the road, happily anticipating somehow, someway riding into camp……and then more stupid glow sticks headed us off the road and back into the thick dark forest. Noooooo! I wanted so badly to stay on the road, stay on the road, stay……No more woods, no more glowing eyes, no more Nowhere. But I knew I had to follow the trail or I would be disqualified. I looked at my watch. It was 11 pm. I still had half an hour…….we could do it. I turned Lacey into the woods, and on we went.
The air was getting colder and colder, and we were descending. Soon I heard the crashing water sound of a quick, full river. I could feel the vegetation thickening. A shadow passed my eye….what was it? Was it even real? I was beginning to feel like I was out of my body, seeing things that weren’t there, hearing things that weren’t there. And then I heard a growl. It was low and rumbling, throaty, bear-like. The Indian Creek Campground, where our first vet check was supposed to have been, had been closed due to bear activity, and all day long I had been swiping at raspberries and thimble berries growing thick and wild along the trail. Perfect for bears. The growl I just heard sounded like a bear. Lacey heard it too and we raced by, as fast as the darkened trail would let us, dancing and moving in my head lamp, which was starting to make me feel seasick.
We kept riding and riding. I kept thinking that this couldn’t go on, it just couldn’t. But it did. The ribbons kept coming, the trail unravelling fitfully before us, shadowy and shaky in my headlamp, like a Nightmare. We came across two more sets of glowing eyes, peering out at us from the darkness on the sidelines of the trail, and each time I began singing, shouting, making noise and issuing meaningless threats. I wanted a gun. I wanted a warmer jacket. I was shivering from fear and cold. My breath was fogging up in front of me making it even harder to navigate the trail, and I began to turn my head to the side to exhale so my breath wouldn’t cloud my vision.
Lacey was hungry, and pulled her head down at every opportunity to eat grass. I think if I would have let her, we would have stayed out all night, just grazing and ambling along. She had reached a point where she just didn’t care anymore–about dark, eyes, noises, predators–she just wanted to eat. I would let her grab a few bites, nervously glancing around each time, and then urge her on. Each time, she would let out a big sigh, but dutifully continue down the trail. I could just imagine her rolling her eyes with disgust at the stupidity of human beings.
I saw a flickering light ahead and smelled smoke. We got closer, saw a parked car in the dim light, and then a row of water buckets, filled with beautiful water. More proof we were on the right trail. Lacey drank deeply. The water buckets were a hopeful sign and made my heart lift a bit. There was a good sized camp fire crackling in the distance, and I could hear voices talking, laughing. Lacey perked her ears with curiosity in the direction of the voices. I called out Do You Have Cell Phone Service? Someone answered No. Then they said Are You Alright? I said I’m On A Horse. They replied: Oh, Sorry.
I thought about going into the warmth of the camp fire. Of lying down and wrapping my reins around my hands, and just calling it a night until morning. I was so tired. I was so scared. I wanted People and Warmth. But then I thought about the fact that Lacey needed food, electrolytes, a blanket, good care. Also, what kind of people were these, camped around a fire at……holy crap, it was already 1:45 am! I was done. I had missed my time. It was Over.
And yet it wasn’t. It wasn’t Over. I was still Here, with my horse, in the dark. I couldn’t stop, we had to keep going. Keep going, keep going, keep going. It became a mantra in my brain, and with that, we stumbled back onto the trail, away from the beckoning campfire, diligently following the now hateful glow sticks and ribbons, which only seemed to lead us further and further into black, cold, Nowhere.
Across another road. Back into the woods. Up the side of a steep mountain. Ahead I could see the vaguest glimmer of city lights. Must be Denver. Through some clear cut burn area. More woods. More sides of mountains. More glow sticks and ribbons. A wave of dizziness swept over me and I almost fell out of my saddle. I felt like I was going to throw up. I stuffed half a protein bar down my throat, and forced myself to drink more electrolyte water. I knew I was dehydrated, tired, cold, and hadn’t eaten much all day. I was weak. I felt delirious. I dismounted, momentarily crumpling to the ground, then staggering up. I felt like I was 100 years old. My legs were numb with exhaustion. I stumbled into the darkness, the reins wrapped around my fist, leading Lacey onwards. I thought I might die. I thought about just laying down, sleeping, giving up. But as long as I could still put one foot in front of the other, I would keep going, just keep going.
More glow sticks, but now they were coming closer and closer. Hmmm. I saw a reddish light across a canyon area. I heard a plane fly overhead, and the noise of humanity and machinery ironically gave me hope. I wanted People. I wanted Light. I wanted Warmth. I began yelling Hello at regular intervals. Lacey was startled at first and then got used to it. I yelled out my husband’s name—Michaaaaael– knowing he was probably looking for me, that I was way past time, it was now 2:15 am, where was I, where was I? And yet I was Somewhere because there were ribbons and glow sticks, and I wanted to kill every ribbon I saw, and smash it under my boots. Stupid ribbons! Stupider glow sticks! I began apologizing to my horse. I am so sorry we are out here, Nowhere, in the middle of a cold night, hungry, walking, lost, Nowhere. Stupid, stupid Human. Stupid Me. I could only imagine what she thought of me.
We stumbled forward, I saw the fluorescent striping on an RV, and…..oh my God, was that really an RV? It dawned on me that we were actually, really, honestly, finally nearing Base Camp, and suddenly a man with a lantern appeared. Hello? I yelled. The man and the lantern stepped forward, the lantern held up, tentative, searching the dark. It was someone I knew, it was Hack, part of my girl friend Dana’s crew. Am I at base camp? I asked in a pitiful voice. Yes, yes, you made it, Hack told me. I started to cry, with relief, with exhaustion, with fury. We made it? We made it. We made it!
Photo by Patricia Jarvis: Dana Cernak and "Bubba" on the 100, before the night-time "fun" began
Hack took the reins, hugged me, told me Michael was out looking for me. We were joined by headlights and a car, with Dana’s husband and son inside, looking anxious. Dana was attempting the 100. Dana was Lost. Should we go look for her, they asked me. Absolutely, I said. For miles I had been hoping, wishing to be Found. I had called, yelled, been lonelier and scare-der than I’ve ever been in my whole 48 years of being alive. I said I know Dana’s one Tough Woman, but if it were me—and it just was—I would want you looking for me. If she feels anywhere near what I have been feeling, she wants to be Found. Right now. If not sooner.
I staggered back to my trailer. My son and daughter came out and helped me care for Lacey. Michael was still out looking for me, but had considerately left a bucket of beet pulp, grain and electrolytes ready-made. Irina Weise, the vet, came to check on my horse. She’s doing great, she said. Gut sounds, heart rate, pulse, respiration, all Great. I was so l relieved. Sue Horne, the Ride Manager, came up and hugged me, told me how worried they had been, how relieved that I had made it back to camp. It was clear she was genuinely worried. I couldn’t help but think how tired she must be, still up, after all these hours. Her husband had called Search and Rescue to look for Dana. My husband was still out with Linda Browneller, looking for me. Dana’s husband and son had strapped on their head lamps and set off into the darkness on mountain bikes, looking for her. Sami Browneller had (wisely) pulled after riding through the loop I had just finished, saying I’m Not Going Out There Again! Screw the 100. She was sick, her eyes as big as head lights, and she laid right there on the ground when she finally made it back into Base Camp. Slid off her horse and laid on the ground, dizzy and sick. Or so I was later told. I knew the feeling well!
At 5:15 am Dana Cernak was Found and brought back into camp. I was told that one of the trails I’d been on in the night was called Nice Kitty Trail, named so because of the numerous mountain lion sightings on that section of trail. I was really glad I didn’t know that beforehand! If you had asked me then what I thought of my first 75, I would have told you It Sucked. It Sucked Bad. It was the worst, scariest, stupidest night of my life. Extreme fear and exhaustion do funny things to the human psyche. My friend Tennessee Lane refers to this particular aspect of extreme endurance riding as “The 100-mile Hangover.” I hadn’t technically done 100 miles, but I sure felt the Hangover!
But after a shower, some food, and sleep, I felt very differently. I looked back on my Night of Horror and saw it in the light of day from a whole new perspective. I had faced my worst fears, gone through something extremely difficult, and came through it, alive, intact, and stronger and wiser than before. Now I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that me and my horse could absolutely do a 100 miler, without question. Did I have what it took? Yes. Did my horse have what it took? Even moreso Yes. We had done something Really Hard and come through it together, even stronger and better and more bonded than before. It was a Beautiful Thing. And one of the best things that happened was that even though we didn’t make the time, Lacey and I were granted a Completion by Ride Management because we had completed the entire 75 mile course, as it was originally prescribed and designed. In addition, Diane Craft and Breanna Clark were granted completions, even though they did the wrong loop, because they did it twice by the 11:30 pm cut off and made the miles. So, as I understand it, there were 3 completions for the 75 miler, one for the 55 miler, and no one finished the 100 on Friday, the first day of the Mountain Mettle Ride.
Diane Craft and Kenlyn Valentine, the day after their successful completion of the 75. Diane has competed all season in a Trailwise Pioneer Endurance Saddle.
However, completions (and attendance) for the Saturday ride were much better and I believe may be a reflection of the slightly easier courses offered on that day. Despite my horrific moments on the last loop of my first 75, I know I will never forget this ride and what me and my horse learned about ourselves. It is clear that this ride is a Labor of Love by Ride Managers Sue Horne and Linda Browneller, the Volunteers and the vet staff, and has all the necessary components to be a Truly Great Ride. There is talk of a 2-day 100 miler for next year, which would cut out the night-time riding and some of the safety issues involved with that. Making the courses more like the trails offered on the Saturday ride would reassure attendees that completion rates would be more in the “normal” range. That combined with the truly stunning beauty of this ride will make it popular winner……As such, I am already looking forward to next year’s Mountain Mettle!
Jessica Cloeter and her horse going out to help take down ribbons. Jessica came in1st place (I think?) on Saturday's 50. Whatever it was, she and her horse kicked butt!
Linda Browneller, trail manager, heads out Sunday morning with volunteers to remove trail markings.
Kristi Schaaf and her mare, Lisa, all the way from Iowa came to attend the Mountain Mettle Ride. Kristi will soon be the proud new owner of a Trailwise Pioneer Endurance Saddle.
Make sure to welcome new endurance riders Jack Eckels and his wife....both recent "empty nesters" and having tons of fun getting into endurance. Jack's horse is "Houdini", a mustang.
(Next: Happy Jack Endurance Ride here we come! It’s Jackie’s 13th Birthday, so please stop by our trailer for some cake!)
–Michelle Smith, August 4, 2014
Photos by Michael and Michelle Smith and Patricia Jarvis (Ride Photographer)