I run. A lot. But, I am not fast. Non runners are impressed by my resolve (insanity), health (why else would anyone run on purpose?), and unstoppable (ludicrous) urge to never DNF (Did Not Finish). Runners, though, will eventually get around to asking my pace, or my PR (Personal Record) in a specific race distance. When they learn that my pace is a mediocre 10 minute mile and that my PR’s put me squarely in the middle of the pack, they are either pleasant at my non-achievement, or unsure how to follow up. Pity? Advice on how to get faster? Offers to train me? Now, I am dedicated to my mediocrity. I run around 30 miles a week on a regular basis. When marathon training, that number falls closer to 40. Running slowly, that’s a lot of time spent pounding the pavement, or the trails. I am proud of my achievements – I’ve finished four marathons. Three were on trails. One was in Death Valley. Two were the Black Mountain Marathon – which is a trail marathon run in the winter, through snow, ice, and cold, up the mountain and then back down it, and I am preparing to run it again next month. Yaktrax, shoe traction devices are usually required. And I love it. Every minute. Ok, maybe not every minute, but I do love it. I read somewhere recently that some sports scientists think that we don’t build a strong running base until we’ve been at it consistently for ten years. If that is so, I didn’t start seriously running until eight years ago. Maybe I will magically find new lungs and legs in three years and run a BQ (Boston Qualifier). Since I am over an hour off, that would be amazing. Finally, my hard work will pay off! But I am not holding my breath. No, I run because I do love it. The feeling after a run, when I am eating a bag of chips and chugging a Coke. The beautiful trails I have seen. The moment when everything clicks and I am gasping towards the finish line faster than the last time. The people I have met out running, both in races and out training – when you’re slow and definitely not winning anything (probably not even an age group award), you can make friends with others out there struggling away.
I’ve recently discovered Ride and Tie – a relay race that involves three partners, one of whom is a horse. Yup, a horse. Let me explain – Human #1 takes off at the start on the horse. Human #2 follows behind on foot. Human #1 at a time or place designated by the team (but not usually the same place or time as the other teams out on the trail) stops and ties the horse to a tree, then takes off running. Human #2 catches up to the horse, unties, mounts, and passes Human #1. Then the cycle repeats. I’ve been lucky enough to find people out there willing to let me ride their horses, since I do not have one of my own, though I have loved horses since my mom first boosted me up on Queenie, the resident Shetland Pony at the barn my sister was taking riding lessons at when I was four years old and she was eight. My sister is also the one who introduced me to Ride and Tie. These races range in distance, but my favorites have been 25-30 miles. I’ve chased off bears and wrangled rattlesnakes off the trail. (My partner, trotting up behind me on our horse, “What are you playing with now?”) The runners in these races are endurance athletes, many do back to back races two days in a row. I love the intellectual challenge of Ride and Tie – in regular races, all I have to do is put one foot in front of the other, not fall, and make sure I eat and drink. Sometimes, I can convince myself to run faster. Sure, it is a mental game, but only with my own limitations. In Ride and Tie, I have to be constantly considering not only how I feel, but how my partner and our horse feel. Steep hill? I should slow the horse down, and tie somewhere in the middle so my poor partner isn’t running up the whole thing. Rocky ridgeline? If I am out front, running, I probably won’t see my horse and partner for a while since they have to slow down. Vet check? Mandatory at the beginning, middle, and end of a race, the horse’s heart rate has to slow to a certain point, and he has to pass other tests as well, such as being properly hydrated. Runners have to switch at vet checks, so strategy is involved there too. Run the horse in too hot, and as you run out on foot, you know it’ll be a while before you see your teammates again. The more often you tie, the faster you can typically complete the course, but that means you have to mount and dismount constantly – most teams learn to do this from both sides of the horse though a horse is traditionally mounted from the left. Some partners are stronger runners, and some are stronger riders. During a race, this can change rapidly since a lot can happen over 30 miles. If your human partner is tiring, then you might have to run more. Some teams go into races knowing that one partner will run more than the other, and plan ties and pace accordingly. The horse has his own thoughts and opinions about where to go on the trail, and even the most steady horse will spook when he sees certain things in the woods – like a hunter dragging a fresh killed deer. Those who aren’t familiar with riding will say we get a rest when we mount up, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Riding muscles get sore too, and steering, holding on, and changing pace all require work.
This past season I raced 289 miles in 12 different races, ranging in distance from 10 to 30 miles. I rode six different horses, with nine different partners, in three different states. At the East Coast Championship race in Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, my partners, Diana, Stetson, and I finished second! In the national individual rankings, I finished 5th in 2015. I am very proud of that. Every run I go on, I am thinking about Ride and Tie season, reflecting on the fun, the laughter among teams, the friendly competition, the constant joking, and the mental fortitude required to finish these crazy races. My Ride and Tie family is broad, and contains some of the most diverse, entertaining, and tough people (and horses!) I’ve ever met. We’ll race each other, testing ourselves and the terrain, during the day, then laugh together over a fire in the evening, good natured jokes flying over anecdotes from the race. There is nothing like the start of a Ride and Tie. Horses cantering off into the woods, runners huffing and puffing behind, searching the trees for your horse, wondering if you missed him (happens quite frequently, magically these 1,000 pound animals find ways to camouflage with the trees), then chatting with the competition as you tackle a particularly muddy patch of trail together, listening for hoofbeats behind you, quick exchanges with your partner, all the while managing to stay on a horse, or your own feet, on technical trails in all sorts of weather. I’ve been moved to tears on those trails, of joy, of pain, of frustration, but mostly I am running with a smile on my face, in between forcing gels and snacks down my throat.
I must thank Greg Bradner, Diana Burk, Rick Noer, Mary Gibbs, Sarah Krueger, Greg Cumberford, Courtney Krueger, Rick Koup, and Janice Heltibridle for partnering with me this season. Likewise, Mary Gibbs, Lea Krueger, Carol Federighi, Brian Coss, Greg Cumberford, and Janice Heltibridle for letting me borrow and ride their horses – it is not only incredibly generous, but also brave, to allow someone else to ride your horse off into the woods. Also, Bob Heltibridle and Lea Krueger for always being selfless crew members, especially Lea, who crewed for us with a broken leg! Last, but definitely not least, my husband, who supports my love for this insane sport, and even though I’ve only managed to get him on a horse once, has spent countless hours waiting for me at finish lines of various races. For more information about this sport, click here: Ride and Tie.