How resilient is the human spirit……..The couple of weeks preceding the trip to Norfolk to compete in the 120K 2* were flat out. This is nothing new. On most days, my bottom only touches a seat when I am eating! So as I was trying to get fields topped to beat the unstoppable grass for the few days I would be away, planning meals and cooking my food for the trip, writing endless lists, sorting and packing, it wasn’t lost on me that this too was part of my training for endurance. A one day race involves five days of perpetual motion – 2 days planning and packing; one day travelling, unpacking, sorting gear and strategising with my crew; the day of the race itself where I am also part of the crew in the compulsory holds (no rest there), making Talisman comfortable afterwards, sorting and re-packing the trailer; travelling home the following day (six and a half hours each way), unpacking, washing and cleaning that evening (while I still have the will to live) and all of the next day, with an average of about 5 hours sleep a night for the duration.
There was also a job unrelated to the competition in the run up to leaving, which was a top-up to the woodchip track. Unfortunately, the load arrived in gale force winds and I can safely say I got more in my boots and my eyes than on the ground, whilst shovelling it off the trailer and spreading it, hindered by the cats who dug it up as quickly as it was laid, unable to resist the allure of an Olympic size litter tray. A woman’s work is never done!
So onto the competition…Talisman is becoming a seasoned traveller, thank the Lord, and travelled the long journey in hot conditions (extra long due to two detours) without getting overly stressed. He was happy to mooch around and eat grass when we arrived and was relatively calm for the vetting. We were stabling at the venue and he had a good night, eventually tucking into his food and drinking well. All of these things matter and can affect performance. He ate his breakfast after a bit of encouragement, towed whoever was leading him around the field and worked up a reasonable head of steam by the time it came to tacking up when it took two people to hold him. My crew, this time, were Kate and Gemma Parkin, two very experienced competitors whom I hadn’t previously met. What a joy it was to work with them knowing there wasn’t a lot they hadn’t seen or done in the sport.
The start time was 7am and I set off about 30 seconds behind the leading Arab group, with another British rider. The first loop of 32K was testing. The usual expectation is that the Arab riders go off quickly and set a strong pace. I thought the pace would be too quick for us and didn’t want to be caught up with it. They didn’t, they set out at a steady trot and to my surprise, kept trotting so I couldn’t let Talisman get into his comfortable canter zone as quickly as I would have liked and every time I did (when they disappeared out of view), they popped up on the horizon again, so I had to bring him back to trot to keep our distance.
Seeing them in front stressed Talisman who pulled and lathered up, wasting his energy and mine, in an effort to catch them and I was worried he would end up with a rub on his mouth after only a quarter of the distance. It was a case of ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’, so I decided to move him on and tuck in behind the leading group. They were still going too slowly for us and Talisman was no more settled, so as the group slowed for crewing on course, I took my chance and weaved through the riders sneaking out in front in an effort to canter away at Talisman’s comfortable speed. The move backfired – they wouldn’t let me stay in front, we were quickly surrounded and the pace accelerated. I decided to pull up and let them go (after which I could see they slowed down again). The result was that for the rest of the first loop I had an uncomfortable ride on a stressed horse!
Nonetheless, in spite of the excitement, we presented to the vet in reasonable time at the end of the first loop and Talisman ate and drank well in the hold. For most of the rest of the race, we were on our own (a further loop of 32K, two loops of 20K and a final loop of 16K, plus four more vettings) and he rode like a dream. I did my best to keep our spirits up, talking to Talisman most of the way and bursting into occasional song (!) whilst focusing on balance in our way of going every step of the way. In fairness, he’s good on his own and pretty motivated, as that’s how we train. I managed to find all the course markers, so no time-consuming errors of route on this occassion; conditions were sunny and humid but there was a helpful breeze and once he began to drink at crew points, he drank well, which was a relief. Being entirely focused on riding, vetting and jobs to be done in the compulsory hold (think ‘pit stop’ for washing, icing, feeding, drinking, treatments etc), you often have no idea which other competitors are still in the race. Around 15 starters were listed though I don’t think they all made it to the start line and only five of us finished, with Talisman in third.
Alas, the relief of finishing was short-lived and a second qualification at this level was not to be. In the final post ride vetting, Talisman was spun (means eliminated) for a little stiffness behind (resulting from a cramp, it was later found). I suspect he strained himself ‘motorbiking’ round a few of the tight bends in the forest on the first loop, whilst trying to catch the leading group. I was devastated and as soon as I got out of the vetting, couldn’t hold back the tears. I was ready to hang up my heart-rate monitor! I probably would have cried had he passed as well (but that would have been joy). The sheer effort of months of focused, intense training, the days of planning ‘purdah’, travelling, competing, lack of sleep and physical fatigue in that moment, gave way to a huge emotional low. But it wasn’t just about being vetted out after finishing, it was also about the question mark over whether I will ever get Talisman to let me be in control on the first loop when we are in company and that’s essential if he is going to make it to the top of the sport.
Moral support was offered by various people, for which I am grateful and from that very low point and a forensic analysis of every last detail of the day on the return trip, by the time I got home and unpacked, I was raring to go again. So for now, I have decided to do the third and final fixture on our list for this year, another 2* in September. How resilient is the human spirit that intense pain (both physical and emotional) evaporates so quickly and we come back for more!
(Pics: The woodchip track – before and after; Talisman before the competition looking great and having won the battle of the bulge, his extraordinary muscled bottom; back home after the competition – a tired bunny but not looking too worse for wear!)