On July 24, 2010, Paschal and Deb Karl of Rapid City, SD awoke at three a.m. to be among the 182 riders who saddled up to attempt the 55th Annual Tevis Cup Western States 100 Miles One Day Endurance Ride. The Tevis Cup is considered one of the most challenging and technically difficult endurance rides in the world. Horse and rider teams are physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually tested through grueling terrain through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in hot July temperatures.
Riders and their mounts have 24 hours to complete 100 miles of narrow, rocky and slippery shale trails with sheer drop offs into the abyss and treacherous hoof sucking bogs. Teams must ford rivers, cross high mountain bridges, negotiate rocky climbs and 105 switchback descents, while contending with 100 degree temperatures and a lot of dust, all at a fairly heady clip. Riders climb more than 17,000 feet and descend 22,000 feet in elevations as high as 8,700 feet at Emigrants Pass to as low as 700 feet at No Hands Bridge.
In June, Time magazine listed the Tevis Cup as one of the top ten endurance competitions in the world along with the Tour de France bicycle race, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the Four Deserts 150 mile desert trek and the Vendee Globe a yacht race around the world.
“Half of all endurance riders are afraid of the Tevis,” said Paschal. This stands to reason, since statistically only half of the riders who attempt the ride finish it. This year 96 riders or 52.7 percent completed the ride. To date 9,102 riders have started the ride since its inception in1955 and 4,946 have completed it.
Deb and her horse, 14 year old grey Arabian DustDee Seeker were the 84th horse and rider team to finish the ride this year, Paschal and his mount, seven year old sorrel Arabian, Kraejus were not quite so lucky. The Karl’s rode with sisters, junior rider Kelsey Kimbler and Kirsten Kimbler from Aberdeen, SD. They were the only four riders from South Dakota entered in the race.
The Tevis Cup is the oldest endurance horse race in the United States. It began in 1955 when trail and wilderness enthusiast, Wendell Robie was challenged to ride the old Pony Express trail from Lake Tahoe to Auburn in a single day. The annual event has been held ever since, except in 2008, when the ride was cancelled due to wildfires. Robie formed the Western States Trail Foundation to preserve and maintain the 100 mile trail and host the ride. In 1959, it was named the Tevis Cup when San Francisco business man Will Tevis sponsored the event.
The ride which has inspired and served as a model for endurance rides worldwide has grown to become a world class event. Riders from all over the world come to compete in the arduous race. This year, riders from Japan, Canada and Australia competed in the event however the majority of the riders are from the United States.
Only 250 riders are accepted in the race each year. To qualify riders must have ridden 300 miles in qualified rides of 50 miles or longer. Horses must be at least six years old and are drug tested for performance enhancing and pain masking drugs. The ride is sanctioned by the American Endurance Ride Conference.
Deb has been riding all her life and introduced Paschal to riding. He has been riding for the last 18 years and logging more than 20,000 miles. This was Deb’s first Tevis Cup and Paschal’s second attempt. In 2000, he was unable to complete it at the 63 mile mark.
“This ride was his passion, I just went along,” said Deb. “I have never done a 100 mile ride before. I am not as sore as I thought I would be. I really didn’t even notice the heat but it was a very dirty, dusty ride and my toes are still numb.”
“All 100’s are tough, but I’ve always enjoyed the challenge. I attack things,” said Paschal, who has always been very athletic and enjoyed the outdoors. He is a bodybuilder and enjoys basketball, skiing, elk hunting, camping, and backpacking.
Besides endurance racing the couples other passion is photography. Since Paschal retired from the US Post Office, the Karl’s now combined their passion of horses, the outdoors and Deb’s zeal for traveling with their love of art as professional photographers. Paschal was a photographer during his stint in the US Navy. They often work at rides as the official photographer and have had their photos grace the cover of Endurance News magazine. Their photographs can be seen on their website.
The ride starts at 5:15 a.m. at Robie Equestrian Park in Lake Tahoe, Calif. and ends at 5:15 a.m. the following day in Auburn, Calif. the endurance capital of the world. “To finish is to win” is the motto of Tevis riders as there are no monetary prizes. All riders with horses in good condition who cross the finish line receive the hard earned Tevis silver belt buckle. The Tevis Cup trophy is awarded to the person who completes the race in the shortest amount of time and whose horse is in sound condition.
This year’s winner was John Crandell and his mount Heraldic, a 12 year old bay Arabian gelding. This was the team’s second Tevis Cup victory. Crandell finished the race at 10:14 p.m. two hours ahead of the other competitors. The average first place time for the race is ten hours and 46 minutes with an average speed of 7.3 miles per hour. Crandell is considered one of the best endurance riders in the world and Heraldic remains undefeated in six 100 mile endurance races.
While Crandell and Heraldic took their victory lap in Auburn’s McCann Stadium well before midnight, more than half of those who complete the race take nearly the full 24 hours to take their victory laps and pass the final veterinary inspection. Deb Karl finished the ride with 19 minutes left to spare.
Kelsey Kimbler finished 44th and was the top junior rider. Junior riders, between the ages of 12 and 18 years old, may compete in the ride with a sponsoring adult rider to accompany them the entire way. Each junior rider who completes the race has their name inscribed on the Josephine Stedem Scripps Foundation Cup in addition to receiving a belt buckle. This was Kelsey’s second Tevis finish. She completed the race in 2006. Only four junior riders completed the ride this year.
The prizes for all endurance rides are nominal. “We do it for the love of riding and the satisfaction of building a horse that is an incredible athlete,” said Paschal.
Not only do riders have to make it across the finish line in the allotted amount of time, but most importantly their mounts must be deemed “fit to finish”. The ride has eleven checkpoints, two of which are mandatory one hour rest stops at 35 miles and again at 67 miles and nine vet checks.
At checkpoints horses and riders refuel by quenching their thirsts with water and electrolytes. While the horses eat and riders regroup and care for their horses, veterinarians swarm each horse checking for gut sounds, capillary refill, heart rate, respiration, hydration levels, muscle tone, soundness and attitude. The horse’s heart rate must slow down to 64 beats per minute before entering checkpoints.
Veterinarians can pull horse-and-rider teams from the race due to horse fatigue, technical difficulties, lameness, dehydration, and metabolic imbalances caused by altitude and hot temperatures. Over 98 percent of the horses disqualified from the ride are at vet checks and less than two percent are disqualified due to not finishing the ride or being at a checkpoint on time.
Paschal and Kraejus were pulled at the 85 mile mark when Kraejus came up lame. “We ran the race as safely as we could. He gave it a great effort and came up short. We just didn’t yet have the base of conditioning in this event that DustDee Seeker has built up over 14 years and 10,000 miles and can draw from in such an event,” he said. Kirsten Kimbler was also pulled from the race.
The ride’s central emphasis is on horses being in peak condition and only the fittest horses and riders complete the race. The most coveted award given at the Tevis is the Haggin Cup, awarded to the horse in the best physical condition after completing the ride. The award is named after James Ben Ali Haggin and was first awarded in 1964. Only the first 10 finishers of the race are chosen to compete for the award. This year’s winner was The Fury, an eight year old Arabian gelding ridden by Garrett Ford.
The horses are judged by 15 veterinarians the morning following the ride. Horses are asked to trot out and vets perform cardiac recovery index, look for soundness, soreness in the back, withers and legs, wounds or galls caused by ill fitting tack, willingness, energy impulsion and fluid movement.
The results of the Haggin Cup and Tevis has helped make steady gains in equine veterinary assessment and treatment and has had ground breaking evaluations in the intricate demands of endurance racing making recommendations for better conditioning and treatment of these equine athletes.
“It’s incredible to me to see that kind of talent in these horses. They are amazing athletes,” said Paschal.
To complete the ride teams trot for almost the entire 100 mile stretch. “It is a very controlled brisk trot, a good endurance trot is 11 miles per hour. You can’t slow down much,” said Paschal.
The greatest challenge of this race is to maintain a workable pace that doesn’t burn your horse out, testing the rider’s horsemanship knowledge and capabilities. Endurance rides are all about the horse, and the riders pacing and strategy ultimately reflects their overarching concern for the well being of their horses.
Deb’s mount DustDee Seeker was bred, raised and trained by the Karl’s, and has logged more than 10,000 miles. “I consider it an ongoing experiment in horsemanship. You must take the time to take care of your horse and let them eat. It is a real juggling act and a real test of horsemanship. I think we did that well this year,” said Paschal.
“There is no place along the trail to let your horse graze,” said Deb. “Hay must be brought into the checkpoints.” The Kimbler sister’s parents served as a crew for the four riders, hauling supplies to the riders at certain checkpoints.
Riders carry with them in packs food and other items to help keep their horses comfortable in unpredictable mountain weather extremes, from 40 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as snacks and water for themselves. Many also ride with a heart rate monitor attached to the horse’s girth to ensure horses stay at an aerobic pace and GPS systems to measure location and rate of speed.
Riders spend years, even a decade conditioning themselves and their horses for the ride. Horses are trained like elite Olympic athletes’ beginning with long slow distance work. To win this race horses must also learn to be sure-footed while fast in mountainous terrain and to endure the 22,000 feet of downhill descents, which is hard on the their shoulders. Horses must also be trained to tail. Tailing is when riders dismount and hold onto their horse’s tail when climbing steep ascents, which most horses don’t readily accept.
To prepare for the Tevis the Karl’s ride at least twice a week at their home in Rapid City and on weekends log miles in the Black Hills. “The Black Hills is as good as it gets for trail riding,” said Paschal.
They also ride in five to six endurance rides a year from April to October in the Mountain Region of the American Endurance Ride Conference, which encompasses Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Western South Dakota, sometimes driving more than eight hours one way to ride for two or three days. There are only a couple 100 mile rides each year. “We go to as many rides as we can afford to,” said Paschal.
Riders themselves must be in top physical condition. One strategy rider’s use for giving their horses enough energy to complete the race is to get off the horse wherever they can cover as much ground on foot as fast as the horse can, down steep canyons, over rocks and tailing up steep terrain. Many riders spend just as much time physically conditioning themselves as they do their horses preparing themselves for the steep climbs and high temperatures.
Not only the fitness of both horse and rider is put to the ultimate test on this rugged ride, their courage is as well. The trail is 60 percent narrow, single tracked and hard packed with 500 to 600 foot drop offs into steep canyons in the remote wilderness of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, much of which is only accessible on foot, horseback or by helicopter.
The infamous Cougar Rock is one of the most challenging sections of the trail. It is an extremely difficult technical climb that has been called the “pinnacle of endurance riding.” Cougar Rock is a large volcanic outcrop that resembles the shape of a cougar’s head with a steep and narrow passage, poor footing and deep canyons on either side of it. Deb came off her horse and sprained her ankle going over Cougar Rock. “It was a tough race but our horses did very well for the terrain,” she said.
Over the years accidents happen with riders coming off their mounts and tumbling down rocky cliffs and horses who lose their footing and slide down ravines. During this year’s race a black Anglo-Arabian mare, Castle Country Karahty ridden by David Shefrin slid off the trail in the same place where in 2009, a horse fell, broke it’s leg and struck it’s head on a rock and died. Fortunately the horse escaped with minor injuries and Shefrin was not hurt.
In 2007, Roger Yohe, 64 had a near death tumble down a cliff while trying to negotiate a narrow part of the trail in the dark after his horse tripped over a rock. In his fall he suffered four broken ribs and a lacerated liver. He spent several hours clinging to a ledge with a straight 120 foot drop below him before he was rescued and helicoptered out. His horse only had minor injuries after falling 20 feet and regaining its footing.
While accidents do occur, prior to 2003, the Tevis had a safety record that extended more than 20 years without any incidents.
Special precaution must be taken at night when horse and riders mental and physical energy are waning. As much as a fourth of the trail may be traveled at night. Deb rode for more than eight hours in the dark.
To ride almost nonstop for 100 miles through the night requires a special bond with your horse, which only happens with many hours and miles well spent in the saddle. Traveling at night on single track, mountainous trails riders must depend on their horse’s instincts and eyesight to safely complete the ride. “It really does take a leap of faith to trust your horse, who can see the trail better than you can at a full trot in the pitch dark,” said Deb.
The ride is scheduled each year to coincide with the full moon, because every little bit of light helps. Glow sticks and yellow caution tape help mark the trail the riders travel at night. Riders duct tape glow sticks to their horses tack, wear head lamps and white clothing. It is in the dark where prior knowledge of the trail is of tremendous help. The Karl’s spent a few days prior to the race exploring the portion of the trails they would be traveling in the dark.
Riders also swim their horse across the American River at night. The river’s damned off for the race so horse and rider teams can cross without being swept downstream by the swift moving current. Volunteers mark the trail with glow sticks attached to rocks underwater.
The Tevis Cup would not be possible without the efforts of more than enthusiastic 700 volunteers who give heartfelt encouragement to the riders and efficiently manage them through the checkpoints, as well as the 17 veterinarians and 30 veterinary assistants. The Karl’s said it is amazing to see the whole community of Auburn come out and support the event.
All but two Tevis Cup winners since 1955 have been Arabians or part Arabian of which 71 percent are geldings. Arabians dominate the sport of endurance racing, with 98 percent participation because of their long efficient stride, large nostrils and lung capacity for taking in oxygen and their thin skin which helps dissipate heat.
In this sport women equally challenge men for wins, with exactly half of the previous year’s winners being men and half women. The most successful Tevis competitor was Donna Fitzgerald with her horse Witezarif who won the Tevis Cup six times in the 1970’s.
According to the American Endurance Ride Conference women make up 52 percent of their membership and 90 percent of members are over the age of 35 years old. Endurance racing legend Julie Suhr started endurance riding in her forties and went on to finish 22 Tevis Cups. Only seven people have ever completed the ride more than 20 times.
“I am often the only man at a ride. These women are fierce competitors who have backbones of steel,” said Pascal.
The Tevis is truly a grueling ride that demands equal measures of fitness, faith, teamwork, courage, knowledge and horsemanship skills all for the prize of knowing that you and your horse accomplished something incredibly special together. Both of the Karl’s were in tears at Deb’s and DustyDee’s Seekers finish of the race.
“We started in the dark and finished in the dark. We went to bed at 5 a.m. and then got up at 7 a.m. after only a couple hours of sleep to attend the awards ceremony the next day,” said Paschal.
“I would like to see the trail again, but will not compete in the Tevis again,” said Deb. “The first three hours of the ride had the most beautiful scenery and views of Lake Tahoe.”
Paschal says he will attempt the ride again. “I will continue to train for it. If I work hard enough we’ll be able to complete it,” he said.
Next year’s Tevis will be held July 16, 2011.
Paschal said that he would like to see more interest in the sport in South Dakota. “There are not a lot of endurance riders in this area, maybe only six or seven in Western South Dakota. It is a lonely sport, especially in this area,” he said. He encourages all breeds of horses to take part in the event. Most horses can easily ride a 25 mile ride, a 50 mile ride takes a little more conditioning and only nine percent of all endurance riders ride 100 mile races.
There is only one endurance ride currently held in South Dakota which is the Fort Meade ride at Bear Butte held each year in late July and is put on by Kerri Greear of Whitewood. The Karl’s hosted the Black Hills Endurance ride for 13 years in Edgemont but had to end the ride when the base camp for the ride was sold and fire dangers became too much of a liability.
If you would like more information about endurance riding visit the Endurance Net website, the American Endurance Ride Conference, or the Western States Trails Foundation.