244 RIDERS, 100 MILES, 24 HOURS — AFTER 50 RUNS, THE TEVIS RIDE REMAINS THE ULTIMATE TEST OF HORSE AND HUMAN
TEVIS STORIES ORIGINALLY RAN IN THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE IN AUGUST, 2004.
Dawn bleached shadows off the Sierra’s granite bones as horses in the Tevis Cup Ride trotted from the forest and into Squaw Valley. Once on an open cat road, they cantered, tails raised, manes flying, muscles rippling in sleek haunches, and romped uphill to High Camp.
Many wilderness miles away to the west awaited a finish line, in the foothill town of Auburn.
At 5:15 a.m. last Saturday, the 50th running of this planet’s toughest and oldest endurance horse ride began at Robie Park, in mountains near Truckee. The event drew 244 top riders and horses from all over the United States, and even from the United Arab Emirates and Japan. In keeping with the tradition of this prestigious but tough event, slightly more than half would make it to the finish.
The riders faced a course with about 18,000 feet of rugged ascent and 22,000 feet of descent (according to the official Web site), including rough landmarks like 8,800-foot-high Emigrant Pass, Cougar Rock and Devil’s Thumb, as well as bogs and rubble of the Granite Chief Wilderness. Riders had to thread narrow paths above sheer cliffs, ford creeks and streams. A constant threat is the “rock with your name on it,” that can bruise a hoof and lame a horse.
As the sun rose, temperatures along the ridges rose to more than 80 degrees, and transformed still air in deep canyons along the American River into furnaces that approached 100 degrees.
As night fell (Tevis rides are always held on long summer days with a full moon), riders enjoyed the moon’s silvery light, but in forest groves they plunged into pits of darkness, forcing them to surrender navigation to the horse sense and superior night vision of their mounts.
This supreme challenge over arduous terrain fully stresses man and beast, just as ultra-marathons such as the Badwater-to-Whitney stresses human runners.
The staged start divided horses into three groups: “hotshoes” taking a crack at the Tevis first-place trophy; moderates hoping to avoid chaos and jostling on the trail; and riders simply determined to finish this 100-mile ride before the 24-hour cut-off — thus scoring a silver Tevis buckle, coveted emblem of riding skill and horsemanship.
The strategy of frontrunners was a calculated gamble — to cover miles in the cool morning, moderate their pace through midday, then deliberately hasten through moonlit darkness to a top finish.
But of the first six riders passing through Squaw, only two, Mike Rapposelli of Greenwood (El Dorado County) on Sunwood Risk and Ron Belknap of Truckee on Kahn-Fection (both Arabs) would even attain a finish. Others had to drop out or be pulled after veterinary evaluations at checkpoints. In an event such as the Tevis — and no other endurance ride quite approaches its caliber — all mounts and riders compose their own drama.
Behind them came Gabrielle Mann of Bolinas, the horse buyer and trainer for San Francisco financier Warren Hellman, on her Saint Patrick or “Paddy.”
There was also the grand dame of the Tevis, Juliette Suhr of Scotts Valley, at 80 the oldest rider, mounted on Tarrah Miss. Only Suhr’s daughter, Barbara White of Colusa, has more Tevis buckles for her belt than Suhr’s 22 finishes.
Also trying to stay back in the pack was Cory Soltau, a Danville veterinarian with 14 Tevis buckles. The son of Arab horse breeders, Soltau is renowned for nurturing younger endurance riders and their horses. For this ride, he was up on Flyer, an obstreperous, over-confident horse who had not yet discovered his limits.
Even before its start, Tevis began to whittle the herd. Three weeks ago, all 250 start berths were filled; 170 stood on a waiting list. Spotting weaknesses or injuries in advance, entries began to self-edit. Three more were yanked at a veterinary inspection the day before the event. By dawn Saturday, 244 entrants were left.
Early in the ride, Lara Wright of Chesapeake City, Md., was injured when her horse fell on top of her on Lion Ridge. Flown by chopper to a hospital, a banged-up Wright was released Sunday. Her mount, Nathan’s Pride – a gray Arab gelding – ran off, but was found by searchers on Tuesday afternoon and returned to Squaw Valley.
Seventy miles into this ride, on a smooth stretch of road at Foresthill, Moonshadow Bey stumbled once, then fell dead under rider Debbie Wilson of Greenwood. That was even after Bey scored good marks in vet checks. A pre-existing condition — a pulmonary aneurysm — is suspected.
But robust strength in these trained and conditioned mounts is also displayed. At Robinson Flat, 35 miles into the ride, Jon Steven of Vacaville hopped off Spider de Paz, a beautiful gray whose hide is webbed with black scars. In 2002, Spider stumbled at night on a steep switchback, missed his next step and fell off a cliff. Steven grabbed onto a tree 40 feet down. But Spider tumbled for a 750-foot fall, crashing through brush and even flying over the head of a rider on a switchback below.
Incredibly, the next day, Steven found Spider standing alive on a ledge above the river, and led him to safety. Eight weeks later, Spider set a record in a 50-mile ride. And now here they were, back at the Tevis, to lay their final demons to rest.
“Got a bit of a monkey on my back,” Steven said. “But he’s a great, great horse. We walked past
that spot in practice. First, he was nervous. Then it was no big deal.”
Cory Soltau pulled in to Robinson Flat drenched in sweat. He dismounted, staggered, then clung to his horse. “Flyer fought me the whole time,” Soltau said. “He just wants to go. I’m working too hard to hold him back. His energy flies up, down and sideways, as well as down the trail.”
Soltau held Flyer near a stablemate, Taabi, and gently stroked Flyer with fingertips below one eye to calm the horse’s heart rate for a vet check. Then he stumbled to his crew’s rest area.
Not only riders and horses swing into motion at a Tevis start. Hundreds of volunteers, veterinarians and assistants, as well as rider support crews, all whirl about in an intricate dance along the 100-mile course, trying to comb tangles out of the dusty chaos and keep the event running smoothly.
The best teams swarm a horse and rider like an Indy pit crew, sponging, icing, rigging and refueling participants. The only thing missing is a shrill whine from pneumatic lug wrenches.
Soltau swabbed his face with wet towels, changed his socks, gobbled strawberry yogurt, cookies, brownies and fat-free milk.
Not far away, Julie Suhr and Barbara White settled in under a tent pavilion that Bob Suhr had dubbed the Waldorf-Astoria. It boasted big suspension chairs and a smorgasbord of snacks.
“Come sit down, Ma,” Bob Suhr, 85, said to his wife. “I’ll take care of you. I know what you want.”
Suhr loaded up on cold Gatorade, a “PBJ” sandwich, and made herself eat a banana for the potassium. She cleaned her face with baby wipes, re-applied lipstick, then smiled at her husband. Theirs is a love story enabled by horses. During World War II, Julie rode up on a mustang to watch a Navy training balloon land. Ensign Suhr promptly invited the pretty girl he met out to dinner.
Bob Suhr has two Tevis finishes himself now but boasts no one has worked on support crews more than he. “It’s my claim to fame, such as it is,” Suhr said.
“I feel tired, but exhilarated,” Julie Suhr said. “Our most hazardous areas are over, but now we have to face the hot canyons. It’s time for smart, easy going.”
Barbara White said, “We saw a lot of bad luck out there. But there were no stumbles for us. Yet.
“This terrain is beautiful beyond description. Lots of green vistas, many tiny wildflowers.”
Gabrielle Mann breezed into Robinson Flat at 10:05 a.m., a mere hour behind the front-runners. While Paddy dropped his muzzle to guzzle beet-pulp tea from a tub, Mann ate a sandwich with one hand and smeared on fresh sun- screen with the other.
Warren Hellman, forced to stop to fix his slipping saddle pad, had waved her onward. Despite her strong horse and good check-in time, Mann refused to think about a top-10 finish.
“My No. 1 thing is just to get in,” she said. “The best way is, let Paddy find his pace. If he’s happy, I’m happy. But it does please him to pass other horses. As a former race horse, he thinks that’s his job.”
Thirty miles of steep, hot canyon onward lay the old Gold Rush hamlet of Michigan Bluff. Michel Bloch of Cool (El Dorado County) was first to appear, on foot, leading his sweaty Arab gelding, JoJo. Bloch is a crowd favorite for a gentlemanly demeanor leavened by witticisms delivered in a heavy French accent. Last year, a few miles from the finish, he cut a deal with 2003 Tevis winner Heather Reynolds to ride together. Then he would hold back at the end, sparing their horses a struggle for victory.
Now, at Michigan Bluff, Bloch held the lead by 45 minutes.”I’m an old man. I just look young, since I’m thin. A good rooster is never fat,” Bloch said, to general amusement. Then, showing élan or savoir-faire, he yodeled, wrapped his long legs around JoJo, and rode for Foresthill.
Foresthill, slightly over 30 miles from the finish, offers a sense of a long home stretch. And here, Bloch was forced to give up his lead when a vet declared his horse to be slightly lame.
With Bloch out, possibilities opened up. Afternoon shadows were lengthening as six front-runners trotted from Foresthill in a 15-minute span. They included Jeremy Reynolds of Morgan Hill, husband of the 2003 winner, and Mann on an incredibly strong and relaxed looking Paddy.
For the next 20 miles, they jousted for the lead. Mann had it after the checkpoint of Francisco’s, as did Ali Al Jahouri from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates — here to represent Mohammed Al Said of UAE’s endurance village, a major sponsor of the Tevis this year.
But Al Jahouri gave it up when he got lost briefly. Mann dropped back when Paddy tossed a shoe after loosening it while crossing the American River. She strapped on a plastic replacement called an E-Z Boot, which was promptly lost, as well.
In a display of sportsmanship that underscored the best spirit and tradition of the Tevis, two other front-runners paused to help Mann out. Becky Spencer of Auburn loaned her a flashlight to look for the boot, and then Reynolds loaned her his own E-Z Boot when that search proved fruitless.
Determined, Mann ran on foot beside Paddy for 4 miles to the final, Lower Quarry stop. Here, a farrier hammered on an emergency horseshoe. Mann re- mounted and set off to catch the leaders.
But it was not to be.
A ripe blue moon — the second full moon in a month — tossed silver on the wishing-well shaped horse trough at the terminus of the Western States Trail, just above the Auburn Fairgrounds.
Just after 11 p.m. a crowd of fans and supporters had filled in behind a barrier fence of plastic netting. They cheered lustily at the sudden clop of hoofbeats. Green, luminescent glow sticks, attached to harness straps, bounced eerily from the darkness under trees along the trail. Then two powerful horses, matching strides, cantered into the floodlights. Their riders held their clasped hands high as they crossed the finish line together.
Becky Spencer and Jeremy Reynolds had become only the third tied pair of first-place finishers in the Tevis Cup’s 5o-year history. Later, on Sunday, Reynolds would also win the Haggin Cup, for finishing in the top 10 with a horse in superior physical condition. Only five previous times in Tevis history has one rider taken both awards.
Heather Reynolds ran up to kiss and embrace her husband. “Good job, honey! ” she yelled.
Seven minutes later, Lila Abdul-Rahim of Lafayette rode into the light, followed in eight minutes by Gabrielle Mann.
As Mann’s dad, Paul Mann, and sister Desiree cheered her fourth-place finish, Paddy looked around owlishly at the bright lights and teeming crowd. Waves of steam rose from his broad back.
“When I lost that shoe, I thought we were done, we were done,” Mann said, a tearful note in her voice.
Desiree watched proudly as her sister unsaddled Paddy, then mounted him bareback for a triumphant lap around the floodlit fairgrounds arena. A surprisingly large midnight crowd cheered and applauded. After Mann stopped and slid off, Desiree told her, “Now you’re done!”
Out on the course, until 5:15 on Sunday morning, many other stories continued to unfurl.
Soltau, stiff and weary at Foresthill, found that a worn-down Flyer no longer wanted to fight.
“We had a very nice, controlled ride to the finish from there,” Soltau said. “It was only tough at the river crossing. That was lit by lightsticks tied to rocks. But the current was up, and pushed us off the ford. We nearly got drenched!
“But I think Flyer learned something. Don’t know if I’d call it humility, exactly. More like a mental seasoning. Now, at a starting line, I think he’ll realize: There’s a whole lot more to come.”
Soltau rode in at 4:07 a.m., reaching 70th place among the 129 riders who completed the course. Hellman finished at 1:07 a.m., in a very respectable 21st place, aboard his new mount Billy.
Meanwhile, Suhr was having a tough time. At Foresthill, her daughter and riding pal, Barbara White, had pulled her gelding, Khazzblanca, because he was refusing to eat. An old friend, Loreley Stewart, of Bath, Pa., volunteered to continue with Suhr.
But after leaving Lower Quarry at 3:18 a.m., Suhr became increasingly exhausted and disoriented. She grew unable to ride, and then when she attempted to dismount and lead her horse, found she couldn’t do that, either.
Finally, Suhr sat down on a boulder at Robie Point, less than 2 miles from the finish. She urged Stewart to ride ahead — and earn the prized buckle for herself. Stewart galloped to the finish, mainly to tell Bob Suhr and the rest of the crew of Suhr’s distress. They ran to their truck and trailer and tore off to find her.
“There’s not one ounce of wimp in my mom,” Barbara White said. “Up til now, the oldest Tevis finisher was Wendell Robie himself, at 79. I bet she would have liked to beat him. Her spirit was willing, her mind eager, her joy evident, but — well, you can’t really say her body let her down, since it got her that far.”
“Well, it wasn’t like I burst into tears or anything,” Suhr later said. “Just plain ran out of gas. Woke up the next morning, tired but happy. I’ll have to sit back and think about this. I might want to try for it again.”