Thursday, September 24, 2009

42nd Virginia City 100

(by request, I've put my long story of the Virginia City ride here)

Saturday September 19 2009

When anybody asks me how rocky a particular ride is, I say, "Have you ridden in Nevada? Nothing's rocky compared to Nevada. You don't know Rocks until you've ridden in Nevada."

The Virginia City 100 was my first 100-mile ride in 2002, on a horse, Royal Raffiq, doing his first 100. We finished. I got my silver bracelet. : ) It is one tough, Rocky ride, with a lot of mountains to climb and descend. It is one very special tough ride, very like the Tevis in that it feeds an addiction for some people, who keep coming back to ride it, year after year, despite knowing how hard it is going to be.

I rode it in 2002 with Jackie Bumgardner and Nick Warhol, and Nick wrote a story about it - Virginia City: Tougher Than Tevis? This year's Virginia City was particularly tough, with 42 starting and only 18 finishing - their worst percentage ever. Ride manager (and rider and finisher) Connie Creech said, " The weather? Hard tough trail? All the rocks? I don't know why."

Every year lately, whether or not the VC 100 will even be held is up in the air. The basecamp has been moved around Virginia City and squeezed (and next year it will again have to be moved somewhere else). Basecamp was, in fact, part of a 'Stagecoach route' - a circular dirt track, inside of which everybody was camped - where a 4-pinto-horse drawn stagecoach carried tourists at a gallop around the circular road many times a day. Made for some excited endurance horses tied to trailers.

Just about every year, trails must be changed due to housing developments, or in this year's case, a new railroad track. Four new hard miles of trail had to be added to go around the new tracks, while 4 miles were taken off elsewhere. And there are always rocks. Lots of rocks. There's the infamous Bailey Canyon on loop one, that even the front runners have to walk - and it takes at least an hour to get through it. Dave Rabe, who marked much of the trail, said, "I hit EVERY ROCK on the quad marking trail." If you have trouble picturing all the rocks, just imagine all the mining that went on here, all the rock the miners had to deal with when they dug tunnels and holes in the ground. I think all of those rocks were deposited on the roads and trails of the VC ride.

Old hands, and new riders and horses alike tackled the trails this year for the 42nd annual VC 100. There were 3 loops: Loop one, 55 miles, with one out vet check and a 45-minute hold at 24 miles, a trot by and 15-minute hold after 14 more miles, and a vet check and hour hold back in camp after 16 more miles. Loop 2, 22 miles and a vet check and hour hold back in camp. Loop 3, 23 miles with an out vet check and 15 minute hold after 16 miles, then the finish, at the cemetery in Virginia City. Guaranteed to be after dark. : ) A time and place where some people refuse to spend any extra time. Tinker Hart, who's both ridden and volunteered at the VC 100 (and who was riding a first-time horse this year) said, "I won't sit there at the finish waiting for anybody, no way, uh uh!"

It really is a terrific ride, giving you the real flavor of the old Wild West: starting a ride on horseback in downtown Virginia City, a town founded in the 1950's after the discovery of gold at the head of Six-Mile Canyon in 1859 by two men. One story is that Henry Comstock jumped their claim, ending up rich and with the biggest Comstock mine named after himself. Reportedly, he later lost all his property and possessions and ended up broke, and later committed suicide. One of the men who found the gold at Six-Mile Canyon, Peter O'Riley, eventually got rich from mining, and from the Virginia House Hotel he built, and from dealing mining stocks. He eventually lost everything he had and ended up in an insane asylum. Or so the story goes. Don't forget to visit the Suicide Table in the Delta Saloon, where at least 3 gamblers purportedly shot themselves after losing at the Faro gaming table. At its peak in the 1860's, Virginia City had 30,000 residents, and produced over $400 million (the price in those days) of gold and silver. Virginia City has been a National Historic Landmark since 1961.

You'll ride past countless old abandoned mines (the whole town of Virginia City appears to be built on mine slag heaps!), and you'll pass many wild horses throughout the ride. You'll start in the dark, and you'll finish in the dark (if you make it that far). You might encounter some Virginia City ghosts along the way - a few crew members waiting at the cemetery in the wee hours of the morning saw one.

The VC 100 starts in front of the Delta Saloon (established 1863, and open 24 hours a day) at 5 AM, in the dark. (Difference from then to now is the paved streets!) Dave Rabe (13 VC buckles prior to this year) and Gina Hall (9 buckles prior to this year) led the controlled start, darkness swallowing the horses, sparks flying from horseshoes, as they walked out of the town. A mile or so later they hit a dirt road where they let everybody go. It was blustery overnight, not exactly cold - most people wore Tshirts or a light wind breaker to start; it was expected to reach the 90's today, an unseasonably hot temperature, tough to deal with on a 100-mile ride.

It was Eileen Bissmeyer, riding Ace, a two-time Virginia City finisher, and Tevis Cup finisher this year in his last ride, leading the pack into the first vet check after 24 miles. They had an 8 minute lead over Kristine Hartman ("Kristine with a 'K'!") and Klassy Sam ("Klassy with a 'K'!"). Klassy Sam has been with the Hartman family since 2007, completing all but one of his 25 starts, finishing 2nd in the VC 100 in 2007, and 4th in 2008. Kristine was one of those who had a Perma-Grin on her face all day.

There were two pulls at the first vet check, one of whom was Helen Mooney and BR George De Soi (Georgie)(sometimes Georgie Porgie, because he's one of those Good Keepers), attempting their first 100. They were also going for the NASTR Triple Crown, having already completed the 50-mile Nevada Derby in April, and the 75-mile NASTR in June. Georgie is 10 years old, and came from Jerry Zebrak. "He is an off-the-track horse, but he's very good. He's my Steady Eddie." I think it was lameness that got them at this vet check - Georgie's only pull for lameness over his 24 starts - though Helen had already packed up and hauled for home (30 minutes away) by the time I'd gotten back to camp.

The 15 miles from vet check 1 to the trot-by and hold at Washoe Lake State Park involves the trek through Bailey Canyon. At last night's ride meeting, Connie Creech got some laughter when she said, "If you don't know Bailey Canyon, you're in for a treat!" It is a treat in that it's picturesque - and very rocky. "Bailey Canyon is a WHOLE LOTTA ROCKS!" More laughter, from those in the know, and those about to be.

Bailey Canyon might be what got Ace and Eileen Bissmeyer. She wasn't the first one into the next trot-by and hold at the lake; she wasn't anywhere in front. We asked some riders if they'd seen her; they said she was walking in, because Ace was lame. That left Kristine and Klassy Sam in front by 10 minutes, ahead of Nanci Gabri and Maveric, and Leigh Bacco on EZ Silver Dollar. They'd been riding together since the start.

Nanci's been riding Maveric for 3 seasons; they last finished Tevis in August. Leigh's horse arrived as a Christmas present from her partner Matt in 2008 wrapped in a bow. He actually came from right down my own Bates Creek Road in southern Idaho. Leigh's ridden endurance for 13 years, and says that EZ Silver Dollar is "the most steady horse I've ever had." This was only the horse's fifth ride; in his previous ride he finished the Tevis with Matt.

Andrew Gerhart and MP Martini followed them 4 minutes later; he's finished the Virginia City 100 twice, the last time in 2008 on MP Martini.

Just a minute behind Andy were the father-son duo of Matt and Colton Madeiros, riding Rushcreek Oladom and Rushcreek Lance. You may remember them from the AERC National Championships where they finished 10th and 11th in the 100-mile ride, just 8 days ago - on the same horses. There were some raised eyebrows at this back-to-back 100 so close in timing, but time (about 18 hours) would tell about their decision today. There were in fact 5 Rushcreek horses entered in the ride; they are known to be pretty tough endurance horses.

Instead of the 90+ degrees that was predicted, a blessed cloud cover had blown over, and it stayed quite windy. People later wondered if this dehydrating wind contributed to some of the pulls of the ride, because a few riders noted how dehydrated they were themselves at the end of the day (or night).

Many riders coming into the Washoe Lake vet check had big smiles on their faces. One was Karen Chaton riding her horse Ravenwood Mosham (Tigger), for the first time in over a year. She'd given him to Dave Rabe to ride last year after he bucked her off. Since then, Dave's ridden him on a number of rides, including 3 hundreds (one of them Virginia City last year). Karen wasn't sure, however, if she'd be riding Tigger - it depended on if, when Dave woke up in the morning, his horse White Cloud was okay. If White Cloud was OK to go, Dave would ride him, and Karen would ride her own horse. She was trying not to get too excited about it, because she really did want to ride. Turns out she did get to ride, and was having a great time. It was her first VC ride since 1998.

Another having a great time was Anne George from New Mexico. It was a big decision to haul all this way to ride in her horse's second 100. Chance G7 is a pinto National Show horse - quite a looker. Anne said "The ladies in my barn back home are taking bets as to if I'll finish or not." I asked Anne if Chance was a calm horse to ride... because I've ridden a few National Show horses who are not. Anne guffawed, "Oh heck no!" She fell off him at the finish of their last 50 when he spooked from a man and dog at the trailer. She was excited about the VC, but a bit worried about the start, because she didn't know how Chance would behave. She kept asking how far it was on pavement with the controlled start before they could move out. "I don't know about that first 30 minutes..."

A couple of horses were pulled here at the lake, both for metabolics. Eileen Bissmeyer still hadn't arrived when the last horse had; veterinarian Michele Roush drove off in her truck to look for her. She found Eileen and Ace along East Lake Road where the trail crossed it; Eileen had already called for her crew to come pick her up in her trailer and take her home. Michele looked the horse over and he was alright except for being lame.

The 16 miles back to camp included the SOBs: a set of three tough very steep and rocky SonsOfBitches hills to negotiate. They are especially aggravating when it is very hot, though today at least the temperature was agreeable. Kristine, a marathon runner with her husband Mike, was at least one person hiking the SOBs on foot to give Klassy Sam horse a break. I had hiked the first SOB hill when I rode VC, and almost passed out. I got back on for the other two.

Kristine's lead had increased on this loop, but Klassy Sam was eating so well at the reservoir stop a couple of miles later, she hung out there for 20 minutes and let him eat. Besides, she wanted to ride with Nanci and Leigh. The three girls rode the last several miles of loop 2 together, arriving in basecamp for the hour vet check at 6:43 PM.

And that's when it happened: Klassy Sam, being led by Kristine, suddenly started to collapse right at the in timer's table. He went from looking like a normal horse to a very stressed one in an instant - it was as if he knew he was back in camp and he could let go. Kristine later said she'd had absolutely no indication from Sam that anything was wrong. He'd been doing everything normally all day - EDPP (eating, drinking, peeing, pooping) - his heartrate was normal, and they were going slower than their usual Virginia City pace. The other two girls agreed he seemed fine, forward and eager on the trail.

It was distressing to watch, as several people jumped in to quickly help untack the horse and keep him on his feet and moving toward the veterinarians. The vets quickly jumped in to set up an IV fluid on him, sending someone to warm up the fluids in a microwave (the breeze was strong, and slightly cool), with many other people jumping in to dry the horse off, cover him with blankets, take the blankets back off, and help move him to their trailer (he'd been given a sedative, so was a bit unsteady on his feet.)

Kristine was overwhelmed by the help from everybody, many of them strangers to her. She held it together for a while - rather being in shock, as she'd only had one metabolic pull in her 14 years of endurance riding, and Kristine and Sam had never had a pull together; but then she fell apart. Eventually Sam was stabilized enough to be hauled off to the Comstock Large Animal Clinic.

Meanwhile, at 7:43 PM Nanci Gabri and Leigh Bacco left on their 3rd and final 23 mile loop as darkness was descending over the old mining town. There wouldn't be any moonlight tonight - not even a sliver, to help riders on their way. Matt and Colton Madeiros were the next two, following them over 30 minutes later, the Rushcreek horses still going strong.

There were several Rider Option pulls at the vet check as the evening progressed. Gloria and Hugh Vanderford withdrew; their horses looked good, but Hugh didn't feel good. Didn't want to risk another 4 (at least) hours out on the trail.

Steve Thompson and Beat's Walkin had finished Virginia City in 2005, but it wouldn't happen this year. They started out on loop 3 but turned around because Beat's Walkin was lame. Jerry Zebrack had done the same thing earlier starting out on loop 2 but turned around when his horse BR Flotiki de Soi was sore.

Tinker Hart pulled her mare RTR Thunder's Hat Trick (Hattie) after loop 2, who was just too tired. She'd gotten off Hattie and walked her in the last several miles. "She's lost her enthusiasm. I risk losing her mentally if I push her." After a final vet inspection, the vets congratulated her on her decision of putting the welfare of her horse first. "Good job Tinker."

As the chilly night wore on, and we started thinking about looking for some finishers soon, we were still waiting for 5 more people to come off loop 2. The clock ticked on, well past an expected arrival time of finishers, and well past the cut-off time for horses coming off loop 2.

Finally night ride manager Scott Dutcher got a call from the finish timer at the (spooky) cemetery that the first riders had come in: Nanci Gabri on Maveric, and Leigh Bacco on EZ Silver Dollar, had ridden the entire 100 miles together, with Nanci putting Maveric's head in front on the finish line. They finished in a ride time of 15 hours and 10 minutes. Shortly afterward, 2 riders came in off loop 2. They would be given a choice, after their hour hold, of going out on loop 3 and trying to complete the ride by 5 AM. The other 3 riders would be too late to try. Two of those were riding mules; Rose Bishop on a big part Standardbred mule Cougar's Folly, sponsoring a friend's daughter riding a small Arabian mule, Jani Motto on Randy Nelson. Rose and Cougar last completed the Tevis in 18th place; junior rider Jani and Randy Nelson was riding in their first 100. Tough to be pulled for Overtime after such an effort, but that's the way the Virginia City is.

I heard the next three finishers - Matt and Colton Medeiros, and Dyke Kauffman - had come in to the cemetery when I went and crawled into bed. It's a 20 minute walk from the finish line at the cemetery, through the streets of Virginia City, to basecamp. So I missed the drama of the trot out: all three horses were off! The vets sent them away, giving them the AERC hour to see if they could work out of it. When they came back, Matt's horse trotted out soundly, but both Colton's horse Rushcreek Lance, and Dyke Kauffman's horse Sutter were pulled lame at the finish. A tough blow! Dyke had been pitched off his horse coming in off loop 2, right where the railroad tracks crossed the dirt road into camp. The horse had tripped over the crossing, and luckily Dyke's right eyebrow caught his fall. (Nope, no helmet on.) His wife Beth said, "He was bleeding like a stuck pig!" In the morning he had a big lump over the eye.

The remaining riders slowly trickled in throughout the night, or morning. If you were gunning for Top Ten in this year's ride, you could finish at 4:01 AM and still do it. Connie Creech and her mare LS Steele Breeze finished 9th, Connie earning her 19th Virginia City buckle (Yes - that's NINETEEN; only 2 other riders have earned their 2000 mile buckle at Virginia City), and Karen Chaton and Tigger finished 10th.

Karen had a blast in the entire ride. She's a person who really does enjoy every ride she does, even if they aren't going her way. She did have a scare when Tigger choked while leaving the final out vet check after midnight, with seven miles to go. She turned around and headed back to the vet check, where Dr Susan McCartney massaged his throat, which got things moving again. Karen stayed an extra 45 minutes there, with Tigger eating bran mash, and returning to normal. "It was a bit scary going out with him again, but I figured I'd just turn right back around to the vet check if anything happened." Tigger was just fine the last 7 miles and the next morning.

Karen's crew Amy Bray enjoyed the ride also also... with the possible exception of the final couple hours waiting for Karen to arrive at the Virginia City cemetery finish. She and Dave Cootware both saw a ghost there. I think most ghosts don't bother you, but, still, it makes you wonder a bit. You don't know who the ghosts are, or what they have been through in a place like Virginia City. Perhaps the ghost was one of an old gambler, still betting on a horse race, waiting for his horse to cross the finish line.

The last two riders - the two that had left after cut-off time on the last loop - arrived at the finish at 4:55 AM in 17th and 18th place, with 5 minutes to spare.

That left just 18 horses standing after the dust (or, rather, rocks) settled. Why was the VC so difficult this year? "The ride was harder this year, I don't know why. It seemed rockier, humid. It beat me up!" said Leigh Bacco, who earned her 4th VC buckle. Steve Thompson said, "The four miles added were harder miles, the 4 they took out were easier. It seemed rockier this year." One rider suggested it was the wind, that really dried himself out. Maybe it prevented the horses from sweating so much.

The next morning, six horses showed for Best Condition. They all looked pretty darn good trotting out. A lot of the riders looked pretty sore.

Before awards were handed out for the 18 finishers, Connie Creech first presented the perpetual trophy that the NASTR club made in honor of Al Beaupre, the "Al Beaupre 1000 Mile Challenge Cup." Al was a long-time rider, runner, and supporter of the Nevada trails. He started riding endurance in 1973, completed 11,361 AERC miles, 8 Tevis Cups, the National Ride N' Tie Championships 10 times, a Western States 100-Mile Run once at the age of 51, and he was one of only 2 riders (Phil Gardner being the other) to complete the Virginia City 100 twenty times. (Yes, TWENTY times.) He passed away in July. Al touched the hearts of so many riders, in evidence by the statements made by the twelve 1000 mile VC riders present on Sunday (12 of 30 whose names are engraved on the trophy), and by the sniffs and tears and wiping of eyes and breaking of voices. Notably present was Donnna Fitzgerald, rider of the great Witezarif, a horse who finished Virginia City 11 times, won it 5 times, and who won Tevis 6 times. The Virginia City 100 is a modern day aspect of Virginia City history, one that still fits in with the old west: some incredible horses and riders, with a passion for conquering tough trails in the West.

Connie then presented the awards to the finishers. Several riders earned their first buckle, some of them on their first try.

Special mention not only goes to Gina Hall, finishing in 12th place, who earned her 10th buckle - she'll be the newest addition to the Al Beaupre trophy - but to her horse Fire Mt Destiny, who earned his 500 mile halter. He's one of 51 horses (YES, that's FIFTY-ONE) to finish the ride five times. (And 4 of those horses finished VC at least 10 times!) Fire Mt Destiny has completed all 63 of his rides with Gina (an 11,000+ mile rider), including 10 hundred-milers! It should probably be mentioned that I believe I was the first rider to climb on Destiny's back when Jackie Bumgardner was breaking him as a youngster. (That has nothing to do with anything, but I thought I'd slip that in there. : )

Deborah Breshears, finishing 8th on Solar Flame (their first VC buckle, Flame's first 100), won the NASTR Triple Crown.

Four of the five Rushcreek horses finished the ride, including Matt Medeiros' Rushcreek Oledom. "It was a tough decision to come here a week after the National Championships... I wish I could have finished with my son Coleton." There was a hitch in his voice this morning too.

Head veterinarian Jaime Kerr gave us an update on Kristine's horse, Klassy Sam. He'd been given 60 liters of fluid overnight, and he hadn't really improved much, though he was stable. Blood tests indicated he had a latent bacterial infection, that the stress of the ride had brought out. "This is a sport that sometimes pushes horses to the edge," Jaime said "and, well, sometimes, Shit Happens."

Best Condition went to 6th place (at 2:42 AM) Erasmo Sauceda and his mare JC Charisma. This was only the mare's fourth ride, and her first 100. It was Erasmo's 2nd VC buckle. The pair last finished in first place in the Camp Far West 50 on September 6th.

Erasmo said a while back, he bought a mare who accidentally got pregnant. Charisma was the product. She is 8 years old now, half Arab, half something else (likely some appaloosa in there). "I had her for sale for $1000 for a long time, and nobody wanted her, so I kept her." Someone in the crowd yelled, "Is she still for sale for $1000?" Erasmo laughed. "I was impressed by her. And now I'm going to have nightmares for 2 weeks about rocks!"

The Virginia City 100 is what Real Endurance Riding is all about. It's not whose horse can gallop for 100 miles in 6 hours and 30 minutes; it's not about winning every ride and it's not about being a flash in the pan for one season then disappearing.

It's about the the horses who go ride after ride, year after year, multi-days and 100-milers; it's about the returning riders who enjoy every step of the trail that beats them up; it's about the riders who take care of their horses, those who turn back or stop when their horse is lame and walk back 5 miles to camp; it's about the endurance people who jump in to help a stranger when a horse is in distress.

It's about riders who remember one of their own with a special honor every year, and will never let his memory fade.

But make no mistake, the Virginia City 100 is a tough ride. Tough on volunteers and riders and horses, tough on horse feet and horseshoes and boots, tough on the old ghosts who wait for their horses to finish.

Is the Virginia City 100 tougher than Tevis? Come ride it next year and you decide.

P.S. Kristine's horse Klassy Sam is not out of the woods yet. He'd improved somewhat by Monday, with his pulse returning to 44 from 68, indicating his pain had decreased. He was still, however, on IV fluids and had a stomach tube. But by Wednesday noon, he'd taken a backwards step. He was still eating and drinking well, but temperature and heart rate were elevated again.

Kristine is wrecked by this. She has said she can never get on a horse again. Absolutely nothing had indicated to her anything was wrong during the ride, and tests show it was likely started by a bacterial infection, picked up either at the ride or earlier. Keep sending good thoughts their way. It could happen to your horse one day, too, endurance rider or not.


  1. Wow. Thanks for the story, it's heatbreaking and inspiring all at the same time.

  2. Merri, You did a great job of describing the ride. VC 100 was my first 100 mile ride in 1972. I know it has changed a lot but it sounds like the same challenge and the same great participants and organizers are still going strong. Is the Comstock Motel still the best resting spot in town?

  3. I have often compared VC and Tevis as being equally an Apples and Oranges sort of way!
    I was honored to win the Triple Crown riding my stallion, Bezt Splash, in 2004.
    The NASTR group deserves kudos for continuing this ride.
    I do miss the Ice House!

  4. I think the Ridecamp parking lot is the best spot in town : )

  5. Hello Merri,
    Was just reading your account of the 2009 Virginia City 100. First of all, I hope that Kristy's horse is doing better by now.
    Also, I wanted to make sure people know about one of the most special moments of the VC100 this year. That is that fact that Donna Fitzgerald showed up for the Awards Ceremony. Donna is a legend of this sport with 6 Tevis Cup wins and 7 Virginia City wins on the incredible horse Witezarif. Anyone who ever had the chance to see Donna and Witezarif blaze down a trail know they were watching something miraculous. She hasn't had a horse for 20 years but how on earth could she every duplicate Witezarif? There has never been another horse like him. Donna, who has been seldom seen for at least a decade, was adorned in her many pieces of award jewelry and it was an absolute delight to see her.