Publish date:

This Is No Joyride

The Tevis Cup, a 100-mile cross-country horse race, is a real cliff-hanger

It's past 4 A.M. in Squaw Valley, Calif.—the dead of night, the hour of the wolf, when sane people are sleeping under warm blankets, not standing in the chilly blackness at the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada waiting for a horse race to begin. Phantom horses with ghostly riders, or so they seem in the silver wash of the spotlights, clip-clop toward the starting line of the Western States 100 Miles One Day Ride, otherwise known as the Tevis Cup. This is the toughest single race in the world of endurance riding, a once-obscure sport now blossoming in the American West and around the world.

As the five o'clock starting time draws near, 271 horses and their riders crowd behind the low aluminum barrier that serves as a starting line for the race. To start the race, the horses pass, two by two, through a gap in the barrier. The mountain air trembles with sound: A thousand hooves scrape the gravel, and horses nicker and scream as their riders, some wearing surgical masks to keep from breathing the clouds of dust that fill the air, urge them toward the clogged gap. The onlookers—family and friends who will serve as support crews—call out words of encouragement as the horses thunder by like an Old West posse. A young girl shouts, "Good luck, Mom!"

There are a lot of moms in the Tevis Cup; in fact, more than half of the riders on this August morning are women. One of them is Juliette Weston Suhr, a 63-year-old grandmother from Scotts Valley, Calif. who's here to ride in her 23rd Tevis Cup. Her 39-year-old daughter, Barbara White, is riding in her 19th, and her husband, Bob, 68, heads their support crew, aided by son John and his wife, Stephanie.

The 100-mile race from Squaw Valley to the little town of Auburn (pop. 8,500) will be run over a trail, once used by the pony express, that climbs treacherously through the rugged mountains, traverses snow-filled passes and descends into canyons where the temperature may hit 120°. It's a test of stamina, courage and horsemanship. The idea, of course, is to finish first, but most of the riders have a more modest objective: to finish within the 24-hour limit. Those who do so win a silver belt buckle. Suhr already has 16 of them, and in the 1987 Tevis she's trying to become the first rider since the event was founded in 1955 to win 17. She is, she admits, addicted to this race.

Suhr is a handsome, whipcord-thin woman with a relentlessly sunny disposition and a will of steel. She's riding her 11-year-old Arabian bay gelding, H.C.C. (for Hyannis Cattle Company in Nebraska, where he was bred) Gazal, for the sixth straight year, and she's worried because Gazal has a crack in his left forehoof. "Before a race I get very nervous," she says. "I'm sure the horse is going to break a leg in the trailer, or come down with flu the day before, or fall off a cliff during the race." Clearly her concerns are not for herself but for her beloved Gazal; together they've won the Haggin Cup—given to the rider whose horse finishes in the top 10 and in the best physical condition—a record three times. This trophy is considered by many as important a prize as the Tevis Cup (named after Will Tevis, a famed American horseman in the early 1900s), which is awarded to the winner.

Suhr has never won the Tevis, but she has come close, having finished second in 1985 and third last year. Both times she held Gazal back in the final 15 miles to spare him, but she has no regrets. "I can honestly say the Haggin Cup is more important to me," she says. "On Sunday morning at the judging for the best-conditioned horse, some of those horses are pretty dragged out. Gazal has always whinnied, had his head up, and his eyes have been clear. It's always been my proudest moment to present him to the veterinary committee and the crowd in that condition."

Women do extremely well in the Tevis Cup race, and Suhr thinks it's because they have more empathy with their horses. She looks lovingly at Gazal. "He has such a kind eye," she says.

The race has begun, and the riders have disappeared into the mountains, heading toward Emigrant Pass, altitude 7,930 feet, and the prospect of a breathtaking dawn breaking over Lake Tahoe far below. The crews meanwhile have jumped in their cars and trucks hitched to empty horse trailers and headed west on Route 80, racing to Robinson Flat Ranger Station to be ready when the riders, 33½ rugged trail miles later, reach the first of eight veterinarian checkpoints.

Robinson Flat is a golden meadow dotted with stands of tall pine. While the Tevis riders are picking their way through boulder fields, the crews at Robinson are hauling buckets of water, pans of feed, blankets and food from their trailers to spots they've selected in the meadow. "The crews are the real heroes of this race," says Suhr, whose support staff has grown to include White's husband, Doug, and their two children, Weston, 8, and Juliette, 5. A woman walks by wearing a T-shirt that's inscribed CREW—CRANKY RIDERS, ENDLESS WAITING.

The first rider trots in at 8:50 a.m. White, riding H.C.C. Rusghala, an 8-year-old gray mare Suhr owns and trains, arrives at 9:13, just in front of her mother. "Everything's working beautifully," says Suhr, who immediately begins tending to the horses. She plugs a stethoscope into her ears and monitors Gazal's and Rusghala's pulse and respiration.

To be allowed to continue the race, a horse must have a pulse rate of no higher than 60 and a respiration rate of no more than 48 breaths per minute. A horse can eat, drink and rest for half an hour before reporting to the vet, who also checks each animal's dehydration level and capillary refill time. Much attention is given to ensuring that a horse is in condition to continue; as far as the rider is concerned, you could tie a dead body in the saddle and still get a green light.

After both horses are fed and watered, Suhr collapses in a chair. She bolts down a hard-boiled egg, a banana, a chocolate bar and some orange juice, all the while telling Barbara and the crew what should be done next. "Get Rusghala in the shade, Barbara," she says. "Bob, make sure Gazal's leg boots are washed out." Then she gets up, soaks a towel in Gazal's water bucket and slings it over his neck to cool him off. A few minutes later, she takes the towel off Gazal, plunges it into the bucket again, sloshes her face and head with it and hangs it around her neck. "This ride isn't for the fastidious," says Bob.

Both horses pass the vet check, and at 10:15 Suhr and White strap on their helmets and ride off to the next major checkpoint, Michigan Bluff, another 27½ punishing miles away.

The day is heating up as the riders make their way along the Last Chance-Deadwood Trail, over which millions of dollars in gold were once packed out by mule trains. The trail becomes increasingly treacherous as it descends into the American River Canyon, ascends the steep to Devil's Thumb, drops off again into the blast furnace of El Dorado Canyon and finally rises by graded switchbacks to Michigan Bluff.

Once a thriving pioneer city of 3,000, Michigan Bluff is now reduced to some 20 houses, nearly half of them weekend homes for city folk. Bob arrives before noon and, as he has done during the past several races, parks the trailer under the catalpa tree in Al Pond's backyard. People are milling around on the town's only street; this is the social event of the year in Michigan Bluff, and the elite among the locals sit in armchairs, lined up along the thoroughfare, to survey the scene. It's hot and getting hotter.

Doug White, a marathoner, returns from a run out onto the trail to bring news of Suhr's and White's progress. The news is bad. "Barb took a header near Devil's Thumb," he says calmly. "She had quite a bit of blood on her face, but she's O.K., and the horse wasn't hurt."

Endless waiting. The hours drag by, and the temperature vaults into the high 90's. Finally, around 4 p.m., Suhr and White arrive at the Michigan Bluff checkpoint. Suhr's face is flushed from the heat, and White looks as if she went five rounds with Marvin Hagler. Suhr is in overdrive. She's hyper and talking very fast. "I feel fine, just fine," she says breathlessly. White, bloodied but unbowed, immediately tends to her horse. There's some concern that Rusghala may have injured a leg during their fall, and Suhr puts ice on it. "Barbara's helmet saved her," she says. "We were on a really rocky trail, and Rusghala stumbled and went down, and Barb went flying over her head. A nice thing for a mother to watch."

Suhr, born and raised in the Santa Clara Valley, took up riding as a girl of seven, much to the chagrin of her father, who frequently exhorted her to "get the horses out of your system." On moonlit summer nights she would sneak out her bedroom window, leap on her horse and gallop between the long rows of pear trees on her father's ranch, riding full-out until, tired and sated with happiness, she would slip back into the house. Years later, when Julie and Bob returned from their honeymoon, she found her father had taken down the corral and turned the little horse barn into a tool shed. "You're a married woman now," her father said. "You'll never ride a horse again."

And she didn't ride a horse for 18 years. But when she was 39 she bought a mare named Lady Kay, decided to enter the Tevis Cup and trained Lady Kay by trotting around the golf course. "I thought, We'll go out and ride all day and night and won't that be fun," says Suhr. Lady Kay was scratched at Robinson Flat. But the next year, riding a borrowed horse, Suhr won her first buckle. Immediately after crossing the finish line, she phoned her mother. "I made it," she said. Her mother replied, "Oh, I'm so glad you got that out of your system, dear."

After the vet at Michigan Bluff gives them the go-ahead, Suhr and White walk their horses down the street toward the trail. Bob and other members of their crew run alongside, throwing buckets of cool water over the necks and rumps of the horses, and drenching the riders in the process. "My next wife," Bob has said, "will have long, red-painted fingernails, live in a penthouse and play bridge."

The trail angles down into Volcano Canyon and then breaks out into the head of the wide main street of Forest-hill, another mining town that went bust. Slowed by White's accident and Rusghala's tender leg, Suhr and White enter Foresthill too far back to finish in the top 10 without pushing the horses. "I've decided to take my time," Suhr announces, "because there's no difference between finishing 30th and 40th."

The trail after Foresthill is very narrow—four feet wide in places—and the drop is precipitous. If a horse should slip, there is nothing to stop the fall. It is scary stretches like these that separate the Tevis from other endurance races. But Suhr remains undaunted. She has already decided she's going to keep entering this race until she has 20 buckles, and then she will quit. She won't give up endurance riding, just the Tevis, the toughest of them all.

At the Highway 49 checkpoint the full moon has risen. Kathy Ray, the 30-year-old Wyoming woman who will win the Tevis Cup, has long since passed through here. At 12:14 a.m. Suhr and White appear. Suhr is revving. "I'm fine, just fine," she chatters. "Who won? Oh, Kathy Ray? Terrific." A few minutes later they disappear into the darkness.

Bob drives the crew to No Hands Bridge, which hangs 140 frightening feet above a fork of the American River. Pinpoints of light can be seen high on the mountain that looms above the bridge as the riders' flashlights trace the zig-zag pattern of their descent along the switchbacks. Finally, Suhr appears, with White right behind her. It's 1:25.

A short while later Bob and crew, bleary-eyed and exhausted, sit in the stands at the Auburn fairgrounds, watching each finisher trot triumphantly around the brightly lit arena. At 2:17 a.m., Suhr and White arrive, and they smile as they take their victory lap. They have finished 28th and 29th. Of the 271 starters, only 153 will finish within the 24-hour limit.

Suhr dismounts and leads Gazal to the final vet check and then to the paddock, where she spreads her sleeping bag outside his stall. Other riders may plunge into warm beds, but Suhr will stay with her horse until daybreak. "I just like to be here," she says, "in case he needs me during the night."

It's 4:30, but Suhr isn't sleeping. She lies awake outside the stall and thinks back on the ride. "There are times out there on the trail when I get so scared," she says. "I think, Oh dear God, if you'll just let me get to the finish line, I'll never, ever do this again." She pauses and smiles. "Then I cross the finish line. And the next day I'm ready to plunk down my money again."



Of the 271 riders on hand for the predawn start, only 153 would finish in 24 hours.



Suhr, with White close behind, is a record setter in this sport in which women excel.





The dangers of the Tevis were evidenced by a rider who broke a leg when his horse fell.



A bloodied White braved it to the finish, where Gazal gave Suhr a good horselaugh.



The Tevis Cup race is run over an old pony express trail through the Sierra Nevada.