Karma Comes Into Play For Engsberg's Tevis Cup Win

Aug 13, 2009 - 10:00 PM
This first-time Western States competitor checks off the last item on a deceased friend’s bucket list.

People attempt the Western States Trail Foundation 100-Mile One-Day Ride for any number of reasons. The history of the “Tevis Cup,” which began in 1955 and is the oldest modern-day endurance ride, draws some. The difficulty—it’s one of the most challenging 100-mile rides in the world—draws others.

But Sarah Engsberg had a more personal reason for taking on the trail. She was riding for Michael Bailey, who died before he could finish his bucket list, a to-do list that featured the Tevis Cup first and foremost.

The plan was to finish, hopefully in the top 10. But “To Finish Is To Win” is the motto of the American Endurance Ride Conference, and that’s never more true than in the Tevis Cup, where on average only 55 percent of the riders complete.

So Tevis Cup rookie Engsberg was surprised and ecstatic when she not only finished the ride, held Aug. 1 between Lake Tahoe, Calif., and Auburn, but also won it with a time of 15:05.

“It’s awesome, and I’m awestruck,” said Engsberg, Fairburn, Ga. “I am just so proud. We prepared, executed and got it done. And we did it for Mike.”

Bailey’s widow, Alison, hatched the plan with Engsberg back in January. Mike died in 2006, less than two weeks after he’d won the heavyweight division of the AERC National Championship 50-mile ride and won best condition aboard K-Zar Emmanuel.

“Since then Alison has been riding and competing the horse. There wasn’t a written bucket list, but there was a verbal list of things he wanted to accomplish. He knew he wanted to do 100s. He wanted to ultimately do the AERC National 100-mile Championship, which Alison [finished fourth at] in 2008,” said Engsberg.

But more than any other ride, Mike wanted to complete the Tevis Cup.

“Even when he’d just started and was doing limited distance rides, he always said he wanted to do the Tevis one day. That was always in the back of his mind,” said Engsberg. “He even bought books about it and printed out articles about it. We have those articles with us, along with all sorts of mementos—things that were his that belonged to the idea of doing the Tevis.”

Alison, Waxhaw, N.C., knew she couldn’t contest the Tevis Cup herself because of her fear of heights. She was discussing this with Engsberg at the Southeast Endurance Riders Association annual awards banquet when Engsberg said she’d always wanted to try the Tevis. Alison offered her the ride on the spot.

Engsberg, 45, had completed many 100-mile rides and earned a spot on the short list for the FEI World Equestrian Games in 2006, but she’d taken a break from the sport.

“I needed to regroup, spend time at home and renew my relationship with my husband,” she said wryly.

When Alison asked Engsberg about the Tevis Cup, she didn’t say yes right away. “I asked Alison if I could think about it,” she recalled. “I couldn’t sleep all night. So when we all met for breakfast, I told her, ‘Absolutely. I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do more than help you reach that goal for Mike and get that Tevis completion.’ ”

Thoughtful Preparation

Engsberg headed out to California feeling well prepared. “From the time Alison asked me do this, I started studying the trail,” she said. “I studied the last three years of top-10 ride times, but I primarily studied John Crandall’s ride times because he’s done so well, and his horses have been really well-presented when they’ve gone the last couple of years.”

Crandall finished first in 2006, second in 2007 and won the Haggin Cup for best condition both years.

“K-Zar” remained in training with Alison, but Engsberg rode him in two 50-mile rides and finished sixth in the challenging Biltmore 100-mile ride (N.C.) in May.

The highest point of the Tevis ride is Emmigrant Pass at 8,700 feet, and the first 35 miles remain above 6,000 feet, but high altitude work couldn’t be part of K-Zar’s training regime, as it just wasn’t possible to find those heights in the Southeastern United States.

However, Alison spent plenty of time climbing mountains in the Blue Ridge, and she used the heat and humidity of summer in the South to give the 15-year-old Arabian gelding an edge.

“He’s got unnatural recoveries. He drops to recovery and below almost immediately. He comes in, takes a deep breath, and he’s ready to be presented to the vet,” said Engsberg. “We studied his heart rates and kept trying to get his upper end rate up to teach him to recover from there.”

When Engsberg arrived in California after 31⁄2 days of driving, she rode the first 8 miles of the trail from Robie Park to Squaw Valley, but then she and Alison headed down to the finish at Auburn to hang out for three days. Each day she rode about 5 miles to No Hands Bridge and then back to Auburn so K-Zar would learn the trail and figure out where home was located.

“Once I did that, all the anxiety went away. I felt very calm and really prepared to start the ride,” said Engsberg.

A Suspenseful Ride

When Engsberg and K-Zar actually headed off down the trail, however, things didn’t go as she’d planned.

“During the first 30 miles K-Zar and I were on two different rides. He was ready to win from the moment we pulled out of the pack after the controlled start,” said Engsberg. “He was pulling and plunging and trying to snatch the bit out of my hands. He was inverting as we were going around these turns on the inside curve of a precipice going down 1,000 feet. I had no steering.”

Her crew, who’d assembled from all over the country, was concerned at the first checkpoint.

“In order to see where my humor level was, they’d dressed up in ridiculous outfits. They had on stretch pants, tank tops and do-rags in these really awful colors. I didn’t laugh when I came into that vet check,” said Engsberg.

But once they left High Camp, things improved considerably. Engsberg came into that first hold at Robinson Flat in 15th place. K-Zar’s impressive recovery allowed him to skip ahead of many of his competitors.

“I picked up the pace with each leg of the ride, a mile an hour here and there. I started picking people off. Then we started passing people on trails by staying very consistent in our pace,” said Engsberg.

By the second hold, 70 miles into the ride at Foresthill, Engsberg was in third place. At that point it looked like she might be in a race with Marcia Smith on AM Sands Of Time and Melissa Ribley on LD Monique for second place. Jeanette Mero had been leading the group for some time, and she showed no sign of slowing down with Maksymilian.

The last 6 miles of the trail changed everything, however. Twelve horses were pulled at Lower Quarry, the last vet check before the finish, and Maksymilian was one of them. Smith and Engsberg arrived at the same time, and Ribley was just 10 minutes behind them.

“Marcia Smith and I were together at No Hands Bridge. I thought we’d finish it together and make a decision at some point where we would race off for the finish line,” recalled Engsberg. “All of a sudden we heard this galloping up behind us, and this brown horse goes past us at Mach 7. I decided I wasn’t going to let her go, so I took off after Melissa in the dark at a hand gallop through all those woods and trees. There were no glowsticks on that particular section of the trail, because we were ahead of the people that were glowsticking.

“She knows that trail. I got a little scared because of the pace we were going, and it was dark. I didn’t really know the trail that well. I was preparing to accept second place when I caught her,” continued Engsberg. “I came around a corner and ran up on her. She said her horse was done. I asked her if she wanted me to bring her in, but she said no, so off we went. I galloped to the finish line in first place.”

Ribley eventually finished in second place (15:16) and won the Haggin Cup.

Engsberg grew emotional as she tried to explain what winning the ride meant to her and the Bailey family.

“It’s still sinking in. We’ve had lots of teary moments and lots of hugs. We’re still enjoying it,” she said.

Engsberg is a farrier, but she’s semi-retired and has just started her own art business where she makes jewelry and paints. She doesn’t plan to aim K-Zar toward the WEG next year.

“I’ll probably do a couple more endurance rides on him to see if I can get a jacket from the AERC with his name on it and my name on it. That would be a good memento for me,” she said.

But after that Engsberg will return to working her own horses, while Alison keeps K-Zar and brings along her young horse.

“I told her, ‘You finished Mike’s bucket list, now you’ve got to start your own,’ ” said Engsberg.

A Lifetime Dream Achieved

Although Ribley and “Monique” didn’t end up winning the Tevis Cup, taking home the Haggin Cup on the following day was more than just a consolation prize.

“It’s a lifetime dream of mine to win the Haggin Cup. I hold it in the highest honor. If I could pick an equestrian award to win in my lifetime, it would be the Haggin Cup,” she said.

A local veterinarian from Grass Valley, Calif., Ribley’s made endurance a part of her life since she was 12 years old. She’s ridden the Tevis Cup 11 times and finished eight times. She also works as a veterinarian at many rides and manages the Twenty Mule Team (Calif.) and the Wild West Pioneer (Calif.) rides with her husband Robert.

“I wanted to become a veterinarian so I could work at these endurance rides,” said Ribley. “Endurance has influenced my life hugely. The best part is that you get to spend a lot of time with your horse, but I also like the physical challenge of it. You get to see lots of different parts of the country, beautiful places that you’d never see in a car.”

Ribley started the ride with a different strategy than usual. In the past, she’d just aimed for a completion, but this year she knew Monique could do better.

“I had a horse that I thought was really fit and ready, so I was planning on moving out quicker this year,” she said. “She has tremendous muscular strength. She’s excellent on the hills. We’ve been preparing her for this ride for seven years.”

Ribley had two low points on the ride. The first came around mile 50 when her stirrup bar bent down so that her stirrup kept falling off.

“I spent a lot of time on the trail trying to fix that. It was a slow go for a couple of miles until I got to Last Chance where a volunteer fixed it for me,” she said. “I was hooking it to anything I could hook it to. I was hooking it to rings on the saddle, I was hooking it onto the breast collar, and I was riding unevenly.”

Things took a turn for the worse again about 85 miles into the ride at Francisco’s, the last check before the Poverty Bar river crossing.

“I think we were both getting a little more tired there,” said Ribley. “We crossed the river and got on the road coming into Auburn, and we live and train here, so she knew where she was and knew she was heading home. She really picked up the pace there.”

Ribley, 46, credited her own fitness as part of the program that allowed Monique to finish the race in good shape.

“I had a running group, and we ran every Wednesday. We also hiked up this steep hill that kind of mimics the canyons,” she said. “It gave me a big advantage in the canyons because I was able to get off her. I did the canyons on foot, which saved a lot of horse. Being physically fit helps tremendously for this ride. When you get tired, you start riding sloppily.”

Ribley also pointed to her husband Robert and her crew, who spent all night walking and icing Monique after the ride, as key components of her successful day.

“Robert is a horse trainer, and he trained and conditioned the horse and selected the horse. He got all her bad habits out, and then I got to ride her,” she said. “I’ve been riding her just the last couple of years.”

Monique, a 13-year-old Arabian mare, came to the Ribleys as a 4-year-old. “I rode her a lot at first because of her strength,” said Robert. “She carried me as a heavyweight, and I’ve won best condition on her.”

The Ribleys work as a team to manage their horses. “There’s some friction because there’s the cowboy way and the veterinary way, and sometimes we clash, but overall, with luck on your side, it makes an unbeatable combination,” said Robert.


A Tragic Accident

The 54th running of the Tevis Cup was marred by an accident when Skip Kemerer’s horse Ice Joy slipped off the trail approximately .25 miles from Swinging Bridge on the way to the Devil’s Thumb checkpoint. Kemerer was leading Ice Joy when she lost her footing, fell and suffered a fatal head injury.

As soon as word reached Devil’s Thumb, ride volunteers and an EMT immediately headed to the incident site.

Assistant Ride Director Lynn Seeley and one of the ride veterinarians, Rob Lydon, arrived soon after. Lydon pronounced the horse dead from a skull injury due to the fall. Kemerer, Myersville, Md., was uninjured.


Tidbits

•    The Tevis Cup has only been canceled once since 1955. Last year forest fires prevented the 53rd running of the ride.

•    Of the 172 riders who started the Tevis Cup, 87 finished within 24 hours, a 51 percent completion rate.

•    Potato Richardson, two-time Tevis Cup winner, completed his 20th Tevis Cup ride in 28th place aboard SMR Filouette to earn a 2,000 Mile Buckle Award.

•    Barbara White has the most Tevis Cup completions to date, and her 34th-placed finish this year with The Reverling TGE marked her 29th.

•    Diana Lundy, 55, completed the Tevis Cup in 27th place aboard C R Sampson, but earlier this year she ran the Western States Endurance Run on foot over almost the same course in 27:56:29.

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