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Leatherwood Extreme Challenge (Long)

Friday, March 31st, Sunny and I, along my crew of Gabe Buckler and Joan
Tipton, attended the 3rd Annual Leatherwood Extreme Challenge in the
Leatherwood Mountains northeast of Morganton, NC.  Gabe's friend Becky
Ricks came along to help out. This was my first time at this ride. 
Missed it last year because it filled up before I sent in my entry.

Rained all day Thursday, so got up at 4:00 AM Friday morning to feed
Sunny and let him dry out a little in the stall before we left. Sometime
during the nite, it had stopped raining and he was relatively dry, so
left him in the paddock while loading the final few things and waiting
for Gabe.  Meanwhile, he rolled in the paddock, then rolled in the
stall.  Looked like he had been "tarred and feathered".

Left about 7:00 AM, zigged north a few miles to Tennessee and picked up
the Great Smokey Mountains Parkway (Highway 74), then east through the
Nantahala National Forest, carefully negotiating the winding narrow road
through Nantahala Gorge, where the Nantahala River provides World Class
Rapids.  Picked up I40 and whizzed on past the Biltmore Estate in
Ashevile through Pisgah National Forest over the Southern Continental
Divide (2786 ft) to Morganton, then East on 64.  Sun was out by the time
we wiggled through about 12-15 miles of winding narrow road and arrived
at Leatherwood Stables about 1:00 PM.

Leatherood is a beautiful spot.  Excellent restaurant, stables, green
pastures, board fences, streams.  Nestled in a valley, surrounded by
mountains all around, a first class facility.  This is all private
property. Although stalls were available, we chose to "primitive" (in
name only) camp in the pasture.   Lots of space, pretty green grass,
right next to a rushing stream.  Needless to say, we were overwhelmed.
We were setup in about an hour, kicked back in the sun and enjoying the
scenery. Gabe vetted Sunny in and left him pigging out on the grass.
Ride meeting was held in the indoor training area, complete with PA
system and chalkboard. Comic relief was provided by the grey cat that
kept walking back and forth on the beams above us. 

Abbe explained the trails, two loops leaving camp the same way, sharing
the first couple of miles to the ridge top, then looping to the right
and left back to camp. The yellow loop to the right was 10.6 miles, the
pink loop to the left was 14.4 miles.  Repeat for 50 miles. Jerry Fruth
and Jabask Knight (Irene) attended and had preridden the trail,
providing us with some first hand info.  There was some concern because
of the recent heavy rain the day before.  We expected steep terrain,
mud, rocks, and slick areas.  We weren't disappointed! We were warned
that those "Florida Horses" would have a hard time here and to take it
easy. Hmmm...more on this later.  Holds were 30, 40, 30, with a 64

Fifty miler start was scheduled for 6:00 AM. Got up and 4:00 AM to feed
Sunny, smelling Gabe's coffee perking next door.  Tacked up up at 5:15
in the dark and heavy fog.  Warmed Sunny up for awhile....start was
delayed 15 minutes to allow for more light. Bumped into Ken Marcella and
chatted for a few minutes...did you know he is getting married soon? 
Another good vet gone! :) Out at 6:15 AM behind a pace ATV.  Sunny
hadn't been ridden in a week and it was cool, his tummy was full of
green grass (and I hoped electrolytes) and he was feeling "frosty". We
trotted down the 100 yds or so to the trail up the mountain in the first
group of about 8-10 riders. Sunny's pulling hard, asking to go.  I had
no intention of staying up there, but knowing the first couple of miles
is "up", decided it would be good for him to burn off a little of the
excitement.  By the time we reached the yellow/pink split at the top of
the ridgeline, he's puffing like a freight train and not quite as
enthusiastic!  We settled down to a resonable pace.  About halfway
through the loop, Duane Barnett on Sassy and Jerry Fruth on Irene caught
up with us.  A little while later, Sarah Engsberg-Hunt joined us on
Bobcatt. With Duane pacing most of the time, the four of us rode
together the entire ride.

On the first loop, the fog lay deep and heavy in the valley below,
creating a mountain world with huge white lakes (fog) below.  It was
clear above the fog, and as the light increased, you could see the
mountain ridges rolling away into the distance. I was off tailing or
jogging down the worst hills for a lot of the first loop. We completed
the first loop in almost exactly two hours. My feet (and Sunny's) are
soggy and coated with heavy mud. We walked the 100 yards into camp and
Sunny was down immediately and thankfully all A's. We're just behind the
first ten riders.  

Our little four person expedition left together going back up the long
climb to the trail divide, anticipating a longer but easier second loop.
Tailed Sunny at a trot up most of it. The footing was much better on the
second loop, but just as steep.  Lots of long climbs and long descents,
"lollypops" up over ridges and down through and around  Rhododendron
covered streams. Nice "roller coasters" in a few places.  Trot, trot,
trot down a little hill, roll into a canter, coast to the top and do it
again. Full light now, and the mountains are shrouded in the blue aura
from which the "Blue Ridge Mountains" get their name.  Duane and I both
enjoy riding the mountains, and we paused on ridge tops and knolls to
enjoy the view. The fog has now lifted, and the mountains valleys below
are clear and sharp, the spring grass bright green, sprinkled here and
there with cows. Jerry finally reminded us that after all, this IS an
Endurance Ride and "if we were through sightseeing, he would like to
finish this ride sometime today". <grin> We arrived back in camp in a
little over two hours, feeling like we had already done 50 miles.  

All four horses were down immediately and we rode out again back up that
same long hill in 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th place.   Didn't want to think
about doing it a fourth time.  Tailed almost all of it this time. Hard
thigh burn and out of breath at the top.  Michelle Owens is just a few
minutes ahead and Jerry is leaving messages with the spotters to "tell
that blond headed Florida girl we're gonna' run her down!"   It's dried
off some now, the wind has picked up and the footing is better.  I'm
still tailing at a trot or a walk up all the long steep hills and
leading down them.  Footing is not real wet now, but its deep and soft
on some of the downhills, hard and rocky on others. Teased Jerry into
tailing Irene once in a while....puffing up the hills (He says he's just
out of shape...his wife says it's the "Ice Cream") <grin> and leading
down the hills. Glad to get that yellow loop over with.  Back in camp in
a little over two hours.  We caught up with Michelle just as we arrived
in camp and Jerry switched to a canter to come up behind her just as we
dismounted. Horses are tired but alert and down quickly. Sunny's mostly
all A's, but his CRI indicates that he is stressed a little.  We Left
the third check within a minute of each other and hooked up again for
the final 14.4 mile loop with 5 riders in front of us, Jerry still
trying to intimidate Michelle, but she's having none of it. Her "Florida
Horse" is hanging in there.

Back up that #$^%@ hill again, tailing all the way. Up and down the
ridges, through the valleys.  All of us are off some now, especially on
the downhills.  Wind has picked up and it's getting colder.  I can tell
Sunny's a little stiff in the hindquarters by the way he's "baby
stepping" down the hills. I was in front as I lead Sunny down the last
long hill to the creek crossing just before the finish.  There's no
place for a runoff here, and I can't conceive of anybody wanting to do
it. Sunny knows where he is and is anxious to go, so I cantered on over
to the finish line with Duane, Jerry, and Sarah right behind, finishing
6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th with a ride time of 9:09. Mark Elliott and Lois
Finley tied for first in 7:29. Mark won BC. Whew!  I'm impressed!  21
riders started and 12 finished. Jerry never did catch Michelle. That's
some "Florida Horse". :) Michelle and I had a few chuckles over that the
next day. We electrolyted heavily before and during the every
check and one hour into each loop.  Metabolics were great on all the

Thank you, Jerry, Duane, and Sarah, for sharing your company and your
expertise.  It was without question the hardest ride I've ever done and
the best. Reminds me a little of the old Edgemont Challenge.  Jerry and
Sarah provided the entertainment. I remarked that "this is kinda
different...usually when I'm out here with three or four riders, it's me
and all women". "Yeah", says Jerry.  "And they want you to hold their
horses while they pee and help them back on". Sarah's horse Bobcatt had
a funny little whinny when he got left behind and Jerry nick-named him
"Baby Huey". From then on, we decided it was too good an opportunity to
pass up and we all "got even with the women" by picking on Sarah.  Duane
mentioned that this was sorta like a "Lewis and Clark" expedition. I
said "Yeah...we don't know where we're going or when we're gonna get
there....all we need is a couple of pack horses". Then it sorta came up
that Lewis and Clark had a squaw guide with them.  Jerry immediately
bestowed that honor on Sarah. Most fun I've had on a horse in years! 
Irene is a just a great horse.  You would never know he is a stallion. 
Excellent manners.  Jerry, you did a great job with him.  Sarah, good to
have you're a good sport! Looking forward to having you come
up to Blue Ridge and ride my trails.  I'll stock up on Kettle1. <VBG>
Don't forget "Baby Huey" :) Duane, thank you for your knowledge and
advice. We appreciate all that great pacing.  Nina taught you well.
<grin>  Come over to Blue Ridge and ride with me sometime.  Joan and I
make great crockpot vegetable soup.

My crew was spectacular as usual.  Gabe, Joan, and Becky were right
there with everything we needed and more.  Jim, where are you GETTING
all this crew? Any more out there like them? I don't tell them it's
because they just love that little horse to death...heaven help me if
anything ever happens to him! They spoil him beyond belief. <grin> Tried
out Sunny's new ice boots for the first time. Should have seen him
trying to walk in them! 

This is a difficult ride and not a place for first-time rider or a green
horse.  The trails are extreme, and the terrain varied with every
possible type of footing.  You must know how to pace and evaluate your
horse's condition or you won't finish. I had some horse left at the end,
but not much.  All the time I spent on the ground helped a lot. Sunny
was very sore in the hindquarters and tired, but still willing. Of the
four of us, I had the only horse who, at the end, would trot or canter
just by asking.  This was his first ride this spring and he did well. 
He doesn't have the greatest conformation, but the heart in this little
horse is awesome.  I was pleased and proud of his performance.  IMHO,
this ride is tougher than the Old Dominion 50.  The climbs are not
steeper, but there are more of them. Except for the 100 yards or so to
the start of the trail up the mountain, NOTHING is flat. The ridges just
keep coming at you. It would be hard to do this ride in June heat in 12
hours...and a 100 in this terrain is inconceivable. Ten miles seems like
25. I loved it! Want to test yourself and your horse?  This is the
place. Don't like flat, boring rides?  This is the place! Want a great
place to stay with excellent facilites?  This is it!  Want to "Ride,
Really Ride"? Try this one!  However, be sure to bring a HORSE!  The
EXTREME in the name is no joke.

This was one of the most organized rides I have every attended and the
trail marking was outstanding.  Big white signs at EVERY intersection
with an arrow and "up the hill" or "down the hill".  Two or three huge
water tanks at the top of every climb.  Numerous creek crossings, horse
trailers waiting at strategic points to pick up horses with problems
(Fortunately, there were none) Spotters checking numbers at crucial
points, volunteers everywhere.  This is a horse resort, with luxury
cabins and corrals all over the mountains. Everyone here is a horse
person. It's horse paradise. They have a wonderful restaurant (I won't
bring food next year), a nice tack shop, and great facilities.  The
awards were a heavy nylon halter with an engraved plaque (Leatherwood
Top Ten) and a very nice horse cooler with the Leatherwood Emblem, ride
name, and Top Ten monogramed on the side in large letters.
the heck out of a sofa throw! <grin>  Just kidding! Abbe even gave us a
little baggie of grass seed to sprinkle over our paddock when we left. about a National Championship 50 here?

There was only one sour note the whole ride.  The pasture where we
camped had a water spot where the fence skipped across the creek and
back.  We could take the horses for a walk and down into the creek at a
pretty little gravel bar.  One camper put their corral up across the
opening, denying the rest of us access to the creek so their horse could
use the creek water.  When they left, there was a big pile of
unscattered manure and a large clump of toilet paper.  There's always
one.......Come on, Folks...think! You know better than that!  Abbe, I
hope you will put up a sign next year to leave that open?  If you find a
couple of wheel chocks, they're probably mine...I got home with only can keep 'em.


Sunday morning we awoke to cloudy, overcast and threatening skies. Black
thunderclouds were hanging over the moutains above Ridecamp. 
Miraculously, the rain held off and Duane Barnett and Nina Gibson were
married in front of the little gazebo beside the horse barn.  The
wedding was attended by about 50 or so of us. It was a short and
touching ceremony, with Nina's high heels slowing sinking in the the wet
pasture at times. They forgot the kiss, and so we made them do an
encore. After the ceremony, Candace Bourne sang a love song acapella in
a beautiful sweet voice, creating a magical, spiritual moment, with
everyone spellbound, the huge black clouds looming above the mountains,
the green grass, and horses rustling in the stable.  There wasn't a dry
eye anywhere.  Wedding cake was served after the wedding.  Shortly
afterwards, the rains came down, as though thay had been patiently
waiting for the wedding to be over. 

Karen Clark attended in a skirt.  Wow, Karen, we didn't know you owned
one! <grin>

We packed up in the rain and headed for home about 11:30.  Encountered
some light snow going over the Southern Divide.  Windy and getting
colder.  Sunny was glad to be back in his domain about 5:00.

Thanks again, Crew!  I owe you big time!

Jim and Sun of Dimanche

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