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15 September 2014

Blazing saddles

A horse is a horse of course, of course.  Unless of course that horse is taking part in the Tevis Cup, the gruelling Californian race that pushes beast and rider to breaking point.  And as one Scot discovers, if the heat doesn't kill you, the mountain lions might

Words :Ros Davidson

ONE hundred miles in 24 hours, a third of it in the dark or on the edge of precipitous cliffs where stones rattle hundreds of feet into the silent canyons below.  Rattlesnakes, cougars and bears.  Temperatures that range from freezing to more than 40C and a trail that careens like a bucking bronco through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and past old gold mines, ghost towns and places with names like Last Chance, Devil's Thumb, Ruck-A-Chucky and Murderer's Bar.  Of the 200-plus riders and horses that usually start the Tevis Cup -- the oldest and most famed competition in the growing sport of endurance riding -- fewer than half reach the finish line, most often because of dehydration, fatigue, muscle cramps, altitude sickness or lameness.  Or sometimes it is just the lack of grit.

This intoxicating, gruelling schlep through the California wilderness -- where 150 years ago covered-wagons, gold miners and the Pony Express blazed the trail over the high, hellish peaks -- is perhaps the world's toughest horse race.  The Tevis Cup has been chewing up the unworthy and spitting them out for 46 years.  Grizzled veterans will squint into the sun, look you up and down, and warn that it is definitely not a race for snivellers.  The guidebook is more blunt: you or your horse might die.

At the start line, almost 1000 hooves kick up dust as competitors await the gun in the dark.  The air is chilled even in August in the Tahoe National Forest; it is the hour of the wolf and 7200 feet above sea level.  Little is visible save the occasional switching of a white horse's tail and the fluorescent glow-sticks that mark the first part of the trail.  Some of the riders, silhouetted in the moonlight, are wearing bandannas across their mouths, bandit-style, to keep out the choking dust.

Making his way into this huge pre-dawn cavalry is number 168, Clive Pollitt from Insch in Aberdeenshire, one of nine international competitors.  He is wiry, bearded, a life-long mountaineer, skier and runner and one of Scotland's leading endurance riders.  It is his second attempt; last year he was one of a minority who officially completed Tevis, which has the motto, 'To finish is to win'.  He is pumped with adrenaline.  'I've only peed three times,' he says wryly as he guides his big grey gelding Buster towards the start.  Clive is 57 years old.  He took up endurance riding five years ago as a way of not growing old gracefully.

His riding companion is Bruce Bingham, Buster's owner and a standout even among this motley crew.  A dry-humoured man with muscled arms, he is a physician in a Utah prison, an ultra-marathoner and a Mormon bishop.  His horse trailer is emblazoned with the legend 'Hell's Kitchen Canyon', the name of a race he organises in his spare time.  At 5.15am, the Tevis starts and 220 horses thunder off into the forest, leaving the air thick with the smell of sweat and dung.  The sky is starting to lighten above the granite peaks to the east in Nevada.  To the south is Lake Tahoe, 1000 feet deep and so cold that, according to legend, it contains the bodies of cowboys preserved perfectly from a century ago, gun holsters and all.

Horseboxes and four-wheelers are soon lumbering down the unpaved road towards the highway, ferrying Tevis crews and supplies to the first official stop, 36 miles into the race.  As it turns out, leaving the remote campsite on anything other than hoof is not easy.  Visibility is almost nil because of the dirt.  One of the huge four-horse trucks misjudges a corner and overturns, blocking the way for scores of vehicles.

On the trail, the riders are reaching the ski runs of Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics.  It is an early morning reminder of why the race is almost mythic in stature.  The trail, as it climbs 2550 feet up to Emigrant Pass and past huge volcanic outcrops, is treacherous with loose rubble and soil like cocoa powder.  This is just the start of a roller-coaster ride that twists and snakes up mountainsides and back down into valleys with dizzying zigzags.

The most famous obstacle is Cougar Rock, a huge volcanic plug that the horses must scramble up at an almost impossible angle.  For the next 20 or so hours, Buster and the other horses will climb the equivalent of 17,100 feet and descend almost twice as far, a muscle-wrenching task.  The fittest of the riders, including Clive, dismount and run whenever it is steep, especially downhill, to save their horses.  It's not worth taking risks.  Medical help can take hours to arrive, even with helicopters and horse ambulances standing by and drag riders with walkie-talkies scouring the trail for laggards and the injured.  In the course of the race, there are 12 veterinary checks for the horses, but no equivalent for the riders.

By about mid-morning, competitors are arriving at the first of two mandatory hour-long rest stops -- an alpine meadow that was once a religious site for Indian tribes.  Clive, wearing a yellow 'camel pack' for water, leather leggings, trail running shoes and -- to reduce weight -- no helmet, comes in after the first few dozen.  On his T-shirt is a quote from Macbeth that will become increasingly apt: 'Twas a rough night'.  Pauline Ainsley, formerly on the Scottish team, rushes over with a stethoscope.

Buster's pulse and respiration are low, which means he is recovering and probably fit enough to stay in the race.  They lead him into the vetting area, where he is officially checked for dehydration, fatigue and lameness.  Suddenly, the horse starts to pee.  A woman wandering around with a large cup on the end of a pole deftly moves it underneath for a sample: a random drug test.  A few minutes later, at the Hell's Kitchen crew site Buster is eating like, well, a horse.  Pauline, who has been seriously ill for three days with altitude sickness and the heat, washes down the horse while her Clive washes dirt off the tack.

Clive crams some food in his mouth and wipes his face with a sponge.  'Bugger off, that's Buster's,' says Bruce, grabbing it.  Clive, his face still damp, is soon catching a ten-minute 'power nap' amidst the clutter.  This is not a sport for the fastidious.

Soon they are off again, on to the most strenuous part of the trail, from Last Chance to Michigan Bluff, passing through canyons with sides that plummet 3000 feet.  Clive is probably concentrating too intensely to remember that round these parts during the gold rush, he could have bought a whisky from a Scotsman, Duncan Ferguson, who ran the Halfway House saloon and collected tolls at Deadwood, a mining town.

In those days, mule packs that crowded too fast would lose their footing and fall to their death.  All that is left, as the riders trot by, are the tumbled remains of a well, some rotten beams from the bar and a cemetery.  In broad daylight, it is clear that these riders are the bums of the equestrian world, dressed for the outback not fox hunting.  There are black or fluorescent Lycra riding tights, jeans and shorts, cowboy hats, baseball hats, a fireman's helmet, a few sets of spurs and hi-tech heart rate monitors for the horses.  Some ride well, some less so.  Some are true athletes, tanned and toned.  Others have sagging bellies.  And by this point, all are covered with grime.  A Japanese documentary crew is following the progress of a 64-year-old woman, Mitsuko Masui, a marathon runner, vet and former director of Tokyo Zoo.

Three riders from the United Arab Emirates, based at the Al Shafar Endurance Stables, have their own vet, a riding coach and nine crew members.  The horses are also an odd lot.  Most are Arabs, for centuries bred for toughness and distance.  They are high-spirited and showy, with their classically arched necks, flared nostrils and tails held high.  But as endurance horses, they are still more working class than aristocrat.

Buster, his number scrawled in thick red crayon on his muscled rump, has on a loose halter but no bridle.  During the race, a horse can drink as much as 100 gallons.  And with a bit in his mouth, says Clive, he could simply swallow too much air and get sick.  Tied to his saddle is a sponge, for cooling him down, and a bag packed with hi-tech equine electrolytes, snacks and the horse equivalent of a spare tyre, a rubber boot in case he casts a shoe.

In a nod to the area's pioneer days, the day's sentimental favourite is Billie, the only mule.  As it turns out, she will be 'vetted out' for health reasons.  But her entry is no joke.  Three years ago, a mule named Ruby won the most coveted award, 'best condition' among the top 10 finishers.

At the next mandatory stop, at Foresthill, the whole town seems to have turned out for the competitors.  Families are picnicking, watching with binoculars and discussing previous races.  Clive, streaked with red dust, is looking weary.  As they walk to the vet stop, Pauline feeds Buster as many carrots as she can.  A trouper with 3500 competition miles under his belt, Buster passes with flying colours.  At the trailer, after Buster is fed and watered, Clive will quickly shower, gulp down coffee and nap again.  He will also end up wearing one of Pauline's T-shirts because half their gear has been left inadvertently at the start.  Bruce is out of the running, his horse eliminated by vets at the last stop.

'The Tevis is no easier the second time,' says Clive sounding exhausted.  He and Buster have already had to travel alone for hours, a soul-destroying experience for man and horse.  He washes a pinch of salt down with Coke and contemplates the next few hours as the sun sinks behind the pine trees.  'You do become very tired; it's dark and the natural thing is to go to sleep.'  Nearby, horses in rugs are being walked gently by helpers, their legs wrapped in 'ice boots'.  There is a temporary outdoors horse hospital.  Several dehydrated animals are tethered to the side of a horsebox, IVs pumping fluids into their necks.  Clive and Buster set off again.  Even though there is a full moon, which ride officials always plan for, some of the most arduous final miles will be in complete inky blackness because of the craggy terrain.

A few riders now have torches on their helmets or glow sticks attached to saddles.  Clive does not and he will cede control, trusting Buster to see in the dark even when there is a precipitous drop just feet from the trail.  Like much of the race, it is an intense experience, so otherworldly, bleak and empty, riders say it stays with them for life.

At Poverty Bar, the riders ford the deep waters of the American River only to cross it again a few miles later at No Hands Bridge, a tantalising four miles from the finish line in Auburn, an old gold rush town in the Sierra foothills.  At 10.18pm -- 17 hours and three minutes since the race began -- the winner is in, veterinarian Marcia Smith on Saamson CC.  It is almost another hour before the second arrives, a horse trainer with the unlikely name Potato Richardson on Fille de Cailana, an elderly mare.

More riders are trickling in, with whoops of joy and fists pumping the air.  Once through the final vet check, they will earn a coveted Tevis silver belt buckle; no one is doing this for the money.  With an hour left until the cut off, less than a fifth of the 223 who started have finished.  It has been an unusually rough night, even for Tevis.  Another rider and horse slog up the final hill to the finish and a startled deer runs by, confused by the spotlights, cameras and few dozen spectators.  At 4.20am, Clive and Buster appear out of the night.  He is 43rd out of only 91 finishers and the first of the international riders.  He barely smiles until they are through the final checkpoint, but a few minutes later is talked into mounting for a traditional victory laps in the fairground nearby.  It was the final leg, he recalls, that was worst.

For 14 miles, they slogged on alone.  At one point Buster lagged so much, Clive got off and ran along side to cheer him up as much as to relieve the beast's aching muscles.  It was, he says, absolutely soul-destroying.  'At the 88th mile, when I thought I might have to carry the horse, I was definitely questioning it.'

Not all have been so stoic.  At one Tevis, long-time competitor Peter Rich encountered a middle-aged Brazilian lawyer sitting dejected, barely visible by the dark trail.  The man was weak, frightened and insistent that he was lost and would soon be devoured by a mountain lion.

Would Clive attempt the race again?  'I'd like to ride the ride to win,' he says matter-of-factly.  'I'll give it a go.  A fair crack.'  He and Pauline will also be back in the USA this month.  This time it is for a punishing five-day 275-mile race in southern Utah named, perhaps appropriately, The Outlaw Trail.

The next Tevis Cup will be held on July 20, 2002.  For more information call 001 530 823-7282 or go to www.foothill.net/tevis