She Rides, I Pay: Endurance

Jan 18, 2010 - 5:57 AM

Who’s crazier? The endurance rider or runner?

Here in Vermont, there’s an annual event I have volunteered at for several years. It caters to two groups of elite athletes. It’s the Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Race.

There are actually two races happening simultaneously: one for runners and one for riders.

I have only ever participated in two sports: horseback riding and running. This event is the most fascinating apex of the two. When you pull into the parking area (a huge field) there are tents, portable paddocks and horse trailers. The runners are as fascinated by the horses as the riders are by the runners. There is one thing these two groups have in common: no fear of porta-potties.

I am one of the few people I’ve encountered at these events that has a foot in each sport. I’m no ultrarunner, but I have run (jogged—slowly) three marathons and a dozen or so half-marathons. Going to an ultramarathon is sort of like watching a grand-prix. It’s one of the most extreme events in the sport.

This year, the event takes place on July 17, and the starting line is in South Woodstock, Vermont. South Woodstock is the postcard-Vermont you’d imagine when fantasizing about moving to the country: stunning views of green mountains; bubbling brooks; old, well-tended red barns and valleys dotted with wildflowers.

This race is the last of its kind—one that allows riders and runners to share an adventure in endurance. The Vermont 100 Endurance Race is one of the original 100 mile runs in the USA and a part of the Grand Slam Series of Ultrarunning. Each year, 300 runners attempt to finish. The runners and riders share the starting line and cross the same finish line. They also cross paths often on the 100-mile journey. The runners start at 4 a.m., the riders, who prefer to sleep in, start at 5 a.m. Oh, and the big prize? If you finish in 24 hours, you get…..wait for it…..a belt buckle. Woo-hoo! The volunteer, me, goes home with a cool t-shirt.

This insane idea started as the Tevis Cup Trail Ride, a 100-mile trail ride out west. In 1974, one of the participants, Gordy Ainsleigh, decided to run the race on foot when his horse turned up lame. He finished in 23 hours and 47 minutes, barely coherent. Ainsleigh’s trek eventually turned into the Western States 100, one of the crown jewels of ultrarunning. Can you imagine trying this trick at a horse show? “But really, I CAN do the 2’6” hunters on my feet!”

At the ultramarathon, I work at the 76-mile aid station for runners. It’s called “The Spirit of ’76.” Aid station pride is serious business. You campaign hard with the runners for the distinction of being voted the best. We serve hot soup, PB & J, turkey sammies, gummy bears, M & Ms, Gatorade, Mountain Dew and hot coffe—calories designed to keep runners going through the night. Watching people come into the station after having run 76 miles is an experience like no other. I am at a loss for words to describe it. The station is at the top of a very big hill and sometimes riders come up, having missed their turn. I’m always happy to escort horse and rider back down the hill and put them back on the right track. At this point, it’s pitch dark and usually well past 11 p.m.

If you’d like to learn more about these wacky events and the athletes who participate in them, check out the December/January issue of Equestrian magazine, which features a chat with champion endurance rider Danielle McGunigal on page 50. Or, visit the COTH forum on Endurance and Trail Riding.

To learn more about ultrarunning, check out Dean Karnazes, who has a book and a web site. Or check out Ultrarunning Magazine.

Elizabeth Howell grew up riding on the hunter/jumper circuit in Massachusetts. Now she is a horse show mom. She holds a day job at The Emily Post Institute and slings horse manure on the weekends.  Her web site is





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