Monday, July 25, 2005

Going the distance is its own reward

Going the distance is its own reward
No shame in Tevis Cup finish for back-of-the-packers

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
Sunday, July 24, 2005 10:50 PM PDT

Rider John Matthews finds a spot to sit after finishing a problem-plagued final stage of the Tevis Cup trail ride. Matthews was Sunday's final finisher. Photo by gus thomson/ Auburn Journal

The glory of finishing the 100-mile Tevis Cup endurance ride was escaping John Matthews as he sat hunched on the dirt floor of Auburn's McCann Stadium infield before dawn on Sunday.

Seconds earlier, his legs had buckled and the Manhattan, Kan. rider had dropped to the ground while his horse was being examined by a veterinarian at the finish line.

Matthews had made it. He'd get the silver buckle to show he'd ridden the Tevis trail - 100 miles in one day. But just barely.

Matthews and his horse, Knight Legend, completed the arduous trek through the Sierra to Auburn as the clock ticked down the final second on the 24-hour deadline for finishers. Nursing a bottle of Sierra Nevada beer soon after his dramatic drop to the ground, Matthews joked that the ride had been a "piece of cake," but the pinched expression on his face and forced words betrayed troubles on the trail.

"It was kind of a long trail ride," Matthews said, in deliberate understatement. The 69-year-old Midwesterner will go down in the record book as the 51st Tevis Cup ride's final finisher. The fact that Matthews and his horse finished at all turned into a testament not only to inner reserves of grit and determination but the willingness of others to help a fellow rider in trouble on the trail.

Matthews was on track to finish the ride with minutes to spare. But after he dismounted near No Hands Bridge at the American River Confluence about five miles from the Auburn finish line, things went terribly wrong. His horse bolted up the trail, leaving Matthews nearing the end of the ride without a mount.

"My saddle was slipping," Matthews said. "He got away from us and went down the trail. He wanted to go home."

One of the oldest riders in this weekend's competition, 80-year-old Jim Steere of Petaluma, soon approached and temporarily put aside his own plans for the final ascent up the walls of the American River canyon to the Gold Country Fairground to help Matthews find his horse.

Minutes later, Matthews' Wesob was found about a quarter mile up the trail. A rider farther along had caught the horse and tied its reins to a tree.

Steere continued on, to finish seconds after 5 a.m. - and 15 minutes ahead of the 24-hour cutoff. Matthews struggled up the same route and beat the clock by the slimmest of margins, marveling at the help he received from the octogenarian Good Samaritan.

"I didn't think I had a chance," Matthews said. "I don't believe I'll be riding when I'm his age. He's a marvel."

With little over a half-moon to guide them, the final finishers in the Tevis Cup ride suffered no shame as they made their way into McCann Stadium. They were far from stragglers. In fact, the flow of finishers was relatively steady as the riders who had slowed their mounts and timed their trek finished at their own pace.

Decatur, Texas rider Jonni Jewell arrived at the finish on Hank at 4:46 a.m. Jewell said that with no mountains to speak of in Texas, she brought her horse out to Southern California in June to get ready for the 17,000 feet of climbing it would face. The extra work paid off, with Hank stumbling on occasion over mountain trails but going the distance.

"It was tough on him but he's tough - amazingly tough," Jewell said.

Dave Rabe, of Carson City, Nev., celebrated with a Miller High Life at the finish line. Along the way, he was quaffing gifts of tequila, beer and wine from onlookers to help fuel the journey.

"People out there are really nice," Rabe said. "If you're conservative and pace yourself you have a chance to finish."

Rabe finished with about half an hour to spare - no disgrace in his books.

"Who cares if you finish 20th or last?" he said.

Tevis first-timer Logos Hall of Altadena logged a finish 10 minutes before the ride's official shutdown.

"I started getting nervous (about finishing) this afternoon," Hall said. "We did one vet check at a time. There were some stumbles but she got right back up every time."

Before an official finish, there was a final veterinary checkup at the stadium and then a chance to make a celebratory loop around the infield to the finish line. By 5 a.m. no one was in the stands to cheer on the finishers. Some took the victory lap with smiles denoting the victory they had achieved over the heat and rock-strewn dangers of the trail. About 250 horses and riders were signed up for the annual trek. Less than 90 finished.

Veterinary checkpoints along the route could make or break a rider's chances for a buckle.

With glow-lights the only signs of their movement along the trail, riders filed in to the Lower Quarry veterinary checkpoint as the final hours counted down. They were met by veterinarians like Chico's Jim Edwards, who has been volunteering for the ride for 37 years. At that point, veterinarians have to make tough calls on whether to keep a horse in the ride or pull it. Five horses were pulled out at the Lower Quarry checkpoint during this year's Tevis Cup competition, including two-time champion Potato Richardson's Garcon - a leader at the time and on track for a possible win.

Edwards said Richardson's horse had fallen farther up the trail and when it rolled over, suffered shoulder cuts and a bruised muscle that left it favoring a leg. Riders know that veterinarian decisions are final and several horse doctors can be brought in to explain in detail why the call to take a horse out was made, Edwards said.

"Usually they're very convinced that we're very convinced," he said. "Potato took it well."

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