FRIDAY MARCH 27 2009
Fase 1 - Jerez de la Frontera - Trebujena - 24.9 km
Fase 2 - Trebujena - Sanlucar de Barrameda - 37.78 km
TOTAL: 62.68 km
There were a few bleary eyes and slow-moving people at breakfast in the Ibis Hotel early in the morning, including Jose Manuel Soto: "I'm already tired! And it's the first day!" (These Andalucians seem to get by on little sleep.)
The controlled start from the Centro Militar de Cria Caballar was at 8:30 AM through the busy streets of Jerez, with police on motorcycles, and the lead car of Javier and Alberto (my drivers for the day). It was heavily overcast with threatening clouds, and it started to rain! It was just enough to make the streets really slick, making me wince at the thought of already-slick horseshoes-on-cement. Now was when you didn't want a horse acting silly, on the first day of Al Andalus, on wet pavement! However, most of the horses were well behaved, and there was lots of chatting and smiling amongst the riders at the beginning of this adventure.
Javier, on the other hand, said, "Merri. I'm nervous!" "Why?" "I don't know, maybe a horserace?"
Javier and the police switched off the lead for the riders as we came to roundabouts, keeping traffic out of our way when, suddenly, we took a wrong turn - oh no! Horses were right on our tail, almost poking their heads through out back window - and we sure couldn't turn around (Andalucian cars don't have a reverse gear). Now what! Radios crackled, phones rang, many animated discussions occurred simultaneously while we continued to lead horses forward, along streets, a big bus squeezing by us once, then onto dirt roads, past a construction site where horses had to squeeze by big noisy equipment.
There was still a great deal of discussion going on, but magically, we arrived at a roundabout near a busy highway. All the horses gathered, and eventually, were led off on another controlled half-mile escort until they reached a marked trail onto farmed land, and the field was turned loose.
Off they went! 2009 Al Andalus was officially, by the clock, on its way. Through slight rolling hills of vineyards and olive groves, grass and wheat, riders moved along to an assistance point in a little village. The front runners stopped only for a drink, but others stopped for water, a washing-down, and a little snack for their horses. It was a pleasantly cool morning, 15* C and sans the predicted 25 kph wind.
We drove by road - not on the trail with the horses - on to the vet check at Trebujena at 25 km. A white city closely perched on a hill, it overlooked horse competition grounds where crews were able to spread out their water buckets and hay and wait for their riders to come in. It had warmed up enough to peel off my fleece jacket, 68* with a little breeze, perfect for horses on the trail.
Inigo Del Solar on his big Anglo Arab Zafia had a five minute lead leaving the vet check, and we took off after him, heading for the Guadalquivir River in Sanlucar de Barrameda. Alberto put on some locally flavored Andalucian flamenco, and he and Javier clapped in stereo rhythm, singing out the open windows. The dirt road took us past farmed fields, which gave way to cattle, some with some rather large horns.
The dirt eventually gave way to sand, and then the land surrendered to wetlands and marshes (Las Marismas) created by the Guadalquivir delta, an important part of Coto Donana Espacio Natural that's one of the last refuges for the Spanish imperial eagle and the Iberian lynx. We passed numerous flocks of pink flamingos, and saw crabs scuttling in muddy drainage ditches beside the road. Al Andalus riders cantered through cattle and horses herds roaming the area.
We kept pace well ahead of the first riders, arriving into the backside of Sanlucar de Barrameda. Located at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River and dating back to Roman times, it is home to the oldest horse races in Spain, (dating back to 1845), it was the departure point for world oceanic explorers Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan in the 15th and 16th centuries, and it is home to Manzanilla, a variety of fino (driest and palest of the traditional varieties) sherry. Somewhere near here is also perhaps also the final resting place of the ancient civilization of Tartessos, and possibly the mythical lost city of Atlantis.
We squeezed our cars onto the beach, and drove alongside the river which was about a half-mile wide here. We were free and clear - only a few kilometers down the beach to the finish line, and the first day of Al Andalus was done!
However, this is a multi-day ride, and something unexpected is bound to come up...
...like shipping cables and metal rail tracks stretching from some machinery at the top of the beach to far down into the water, directly across the trail for the horses! These men were working on somethingorother... creating an impassible barrier, all the way up above the beach as far as we could see and all the way to and far into the water.
Javier and the other car stopped, and I jumped out into the sand - "No no no no! Horse can't cross this!" Just in case anybody thought otherwise. Radios and telephones flew out of pockets and they started crackling and ringing. Jose Manuel Soto drove up in his jeep, and we all stared at the railing and cable, the men considering if horses might find a way over. "No no no no!!!" I said, and hurry up about it, because the first 4 horses were now on the beach, cantering our way!
Jose went up and talked animatedly to some of the men, and they started to mechanically haul the killer cable up out of the water, slowly pulling something along the tracks - slowly, slowly... Finally, that obstacle was moved, but the horses still had to cross the steel tracks. They were a bit like railroad tracks, only bigger and scarier.
Javier had waved the horses to a walk, and when they got to the rails, all four of them balked. Three of them were at least considering crossing it though they were nervous; their riders urged but did not rush them over. The three finally made it across, hopping as if their feet were on hot coals, but the fourth horse, ridden by Joaquim Sancho Cruz of Portugal, would not follow them. He refused to cross, danced sideways in both directions, but no, he was not about to cross those horse eating things at his feet. After trying for a few minutes, Joaquim took him up higher, where the rails were partially buried by sand, and what you can't see can't hurt you if you are a horse (most of the time), they made their way over, and were on their way to the finish.
We followed, bumping and bouncing over the rails in our car, and raced down the beach after the leaders. We passed Inigo Del Solar, Emma Rosell, Iris Marion, and Joaquim cantering along, talking and laughing together. As they got close to the finish, Joaquim dropped back, while the other 3 made a sprint for the wire. The last 40 yards were full out, with Inigo's bay getting the jump, Emma's little stallion 1 second behind, and Iris' chestnut 1 second behind her. Joaquim came trotting under the line half a minute behind them.
The first 8 across the finish line were Equipos (teams) riders; the first Binomios rider across the line was Eduardo Sanchez Hidalgo on 16-year-old Hermes. (Originally, I heard Hermes was 14. As the ride progressed, he became 16 : ) .
It was Eduardo's first time to ride in Al Andalus - he's been away at university studying and has no time to ride. Normally it's his brother who rides. It is Hermes' 4th appearance in Al Andalus - and the first time as Binomios: their goal will be to finish every day. Why, at this age, ride every day on a 16-year-old horse? "Because it's a challenge! And he recovers (his heartrate) quickly." And why did Eduardo want to ride in Al Andalus? "It's heard to say! Because I'm Andalucian, and for the adventure."
43 horses started this morning; 4 received time penalties at the finish. One rider opted not to ride phase 2, 2 horses were eliminated at the finish on lameness, and 1 was eliminated on metabolics (the horse's pulse did not come down to 56 bpm in the required 30 minutes).
Loaded cargo ships passed from the ocean to Sevilla and back on the Guadalquivir, as the riders continued to stream in steadily under the finish line. Jose Manuel Soto raised his hands and shook his fists in the sky in victory - they pulled it off! First day successfully completed!
Most of the riders had finished by 3:15 PM. The Al Andalus stage was set up (as it would be every day) - the boys opened up the truck, set up the Kaliber and Cruzcampo beer stand for every finish line, and took it down after everybody left. Aceite de Oliva Virgen Extra de Andalucia set up a green octopus tent where they handed out samples of their divine olive oil. I called it an octopus tent, because at one point during the afternoon, the tent began to collapse, and eventually enveloped the person and all of the olive oil in its tentacles.
Stables were at the same place as last year, conveniently right across the street above the beach. Dinner was also held there - soups and stews with ingredients fresh from the river or sea. To top things off there was an ice cream bar for dessert.
Leonard and Joelle the Belgians, and Miguel the Argentinian had an enjoyable ride on their first day. On one track they'd come to a rather large cow, with rather large horns, that showed no interest in getting up and moving. Joelle detoured off the track to go around it, while Miguel trotted right past it. "He's from Argentina, he's used to cattle!" Joelle was amazed at the Organization's work in putting on Al Andalus and is astonished at what all must go into it. "Of course there will be mistakes," she said, but so far, so good.
I sat with one of the groups of Germans at Al Andalus. Nina Knapitsch is crewing for Annette Nothhaft (riding 2 horses) and Heike Blumel (riding one horse). Heike's horse Lens Armstrong KL is an 8-year-old trotter who was once a racehorse, but "he was too slow." It's Lenny's first year in endurance. Al Andalus was Heike's dream for 2 years, and now she's here, to see the countryside of Andalucia and to experience this 8-day ride. Nina used to ride in endurance, and in fact rode in the World Endurance Championships in Kansas in 1988, but now "my horse is not interested in endurance." (Kind of sounds like my horse at home...). She's no longer interested either in the commitment to ride at a high level of endurance, but she still loves the sport and enjoys crewing. When she heard these gals wanted help crewing, Nina jumped at the chance.
While the vet control was held at 5:30 for the new Equipos horses that would be ridden tomorrow, I found and bummed a ride to my hotel in town. What a hotel it was! We were on the 10th floor (my roomy was Maaike Vanhoutte, the physiotherapist asked to come to this year's ride) with a great view over the city. What was even better was the cafe I discovered on the 7th floor that provided the cappuchinos I needed so I could work on my photos. That provided a 360* view of the city, the beach and Guadalquivir, the ocean and the sunset.
My evening text message from the Organization - the clever way all participants were informed of schedules - indicated the evening's meeting and awards would be at "8:00 PM" in the Pedro Romero Bodega. It was within walking distance. But to find which Pedro Romero was the challenge of the evening. Many doorways said "Pedro Romero" but none were open. One pub said Pedro Romero, but the meeting was not here. Many people pointed the way for us, but we seemed to keep backtracking and spiraling inward, block by block. It was a good way to see the town. We saw some assistance cars, and finally we ran into several other people looking for the correct Pedro Romero.
We did find the one with the open door by 8:15. Not to worry, because "8 PM" in Andalucian time is somewhere around 8:30, more or less. Usually more. The first half hour or so were always taken up with visiting
"Tomorrow will be a difficult day for assistance," said Jose Soto. (Mostly in Spanish... some of the meeting got interpreted into other languages). While the horses would take the ferry across the Guadalquivir river into Donana National Park, and then travel in a straight line along the beach for 35 km to Matalascanas, and from there 30 km to the finish at El Rocio, all the assistance cars woudl have to drive over 200 km to get to El Rocio, by backtracking to Sevilla first.
Only a few official cars would be allowed on the beach; one person would be allowed on the ferry to crew for 2 horses, and would be transported by National Park buses to the vet check at Matalascanas. The organization would provide water stops along the beach. The rest of the meeting sort of descended into friendly chaos.
The awards were handed out to the top 3 riders in Equipos and Binomios to great cheers, then the meeting adjourned to wine and sherry provided by the Pedro Romero Bodega.