“John Henry did it. I was just along for the ride”!

“John Henry did it. I was just along for the ride”!

by Bruce Weary


I am writing this little memoir at the flattering request of an embarrassing number of good people who, for some reason, have taken an inordinate interest in my horse and our completion of the Tevis this last Saturday (and a good part of Sunday). There is so much to tell, that I just couldn’t seem to boil it down to one title, as it is really a story of the wonders of the ride itself, as well as the horse that carried me through it. I will have to write in installments, as I want to do this ride justice but also don’t wish to bore anyone. So if I ramble on too much, I hope someone will be kind-hearted enough to tell me to please shut up!

Many people know that this was my seventh attempt at Tevis, and though it honestly never occurred to me to quit trying or to be embarrassed about my past failures, I was painfully aware of the disappointment and vicarious suffering endured by my wife and the many friends who have pulled for me over the years. It was really for these people, more than myself, that I wanted to finish this time, and why we trained and prepared so fully over the last year. I felt it was the least John Henry and I could do in return for the friendships and support we had enjoyed all along.

Inspiration is where you find it, and I found it in some unusual places:

Winston Churchill’s shortest and most famous speech, “Never give up. Never, never, give up.” The 2004 Tevis video. The match race in “Seabiscuit.” The immortal words of that 21st century philosopher, Rocky Balboa, who said, “It’s not about how hard you can hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward.” I know, it’s cheesy, but it worked for me.

As far as inspirational people, there were many, some of whom certainly deserve to be mentioned here. First and foremost, my wife, Dayna. She is not only the love of my life and my very best friend, she has offered the greatest support and the harshest critical insight when I needed both. She has foregone her love affair with the Tevis trail for several years so that I might keep trying. She is known in familiar circles as the “Crewing Queen,” a title that is extremely well deserved. Though she owns a 50th anniversary buckle, she has more Tevis dreams of her own, one of which is to wear a 1,000 mile buckle someday.

Thank you, honey. I could not have achieved this goal, nor the life I have, without you. I love you.

Then there are people like Barbara White, who has become our friend, confidante, advisor and co-captain in getting Dayna’s horse, Crickett, to the Tevis finish line twice. Barbara earned her record 28th and 29th buckle on Crickett, and we think it only fair that the least she can do now is put him through college before returning him to us. ๐Ÿ™‚

Thank you, Barbara, for wanting this as badly as we did. Barbara’s mother, Julie Suhr, is an inspiration to so many, including Dayna and I, and I guess one can have no stronger mojo working in your favor at Tevis, than to have Julie pulling so hard for us. (NB. Julie Suhr has written several books on endurance riding as well as articles on the Training of the Peruvian Trail Horse. She is 76 years young and rode her first Tevis over 30 yrs. ago)

They say that in order to finish Tevis, you must make peace with the “Tevis Gods.” I think the Gods knew that if we didn’t finish, they would be hearing from Julie Suhr, and it wasn’t going to be pretty, so they left us alone on ride day.

Julie’s husband, Bob, though usually content to quietly reside in the background while everything Tevis swirls around him, is a man I would very much like to resemble when I grow up. He is remarkably funny, principled, an accomplished endurance rider, and openly adores his bride. Any man would do well to emulate him. Thank you, Bob and Julie.

Without a doubt, the most important figure as far as actually helping me to effectively prepare John Henry for what he would face on the Tevis trail, thus assuring our success, is Michele Roush, DVM. She agreed to be my coach very early on in our training. She is extremely knowledgeable, detail oriented, and thorough. I learned more from her about how to condition a horse than I had learned in 25 years of endurance riding experience. Michele, we simply would not have finished had it not been for your coaching, insight, strategies and steerage on ride day. Though I was often not the best student, we nailed the final exam! Thank you so much for your friendship, patience and guidance.

Other notable people include Dick Dawson, Dr. Susan Garlinghouse, Karen Chaton, Bruce Anderson, Dr. David Nicholson, Ron Barrett, Jeanetta Sturgeon and a host of others who, at one time or another, added inspiration or a piece to the puzzle. I hope you all know who you are. Thank you.

Though I had ridden Arabs for most of the 25 years I have been doing endurance riding, about six years ago, I became curious about gaited horses and began experimenting with them. I have had several in that time, and had some success, especially with a Foxtrotter mare, named Sugar. She and I failed at Tevis in 2007, and shortly thereafter I moved her on to a nice lady who trail rides, and began looking for my next candidate.

I found a horse broker, Fred Mau, in New Mexico, and flew over to look at his herd. I sifted through several horses, and decided to take John Henry, an eight year old TWH, on a test ride. We went about 15 miles, and I noticed how sure-footed and good-minded he was, as well as smooth gaited. At one point we tied the horses to a tree so we could hike a short distance to see a unique waterfall. When we returned, Fred and I noticed that John Henry had come untied, but was standing stock still exactly where I had left him. “Oh yeah, he ground ties, too,” Fred said. A few minutes after we got back, I caught his pulse at 32. He impressed me enough to bring him home.

I spoke to JH’s original owner, who raised and trained him. He had been a working horse all his life, having done everything from carrying ten year old children to serving as a pack horse in the mountains on elk hunting trips, so he was used to hauling weight up and down hills. Being reasonably fit already, I took him on his first 50 miler two weeks later, which he finished easily, and nearly top tenned amongst some eighty horses.

Well…………that got the wheels turning. The more Dayna and I watched this horse, the more we were fascinated with him. He is the most “human” horse either of us has ever owned or been around. He “talks” (nickers) to any person he sees, and if you go away for 30 seconds and come back, he will greet you again as if you’d been away for a week.

He is demanding at feeding time, and will stand three legged, with one foot carefully placed in his hanging feeder until we arrive with his ration, then gently remove it and begin dining. He has an unrivaled appetite, drinks well, trailers and camps like a pro, and will even lie down when tied to the trailer and never disturb his surroundings. All well and good, but then that question to my wife popped out of my mouth, in a moment of weakness and fantasy, “Do you think he could finish Tevis?”

God bless Dayna, she usually lets me roll with my wild ideas until I either succeed or it’s clear I’m

going down in flames. “You’re going to need some help,” she said. “Call Michele Roush and see if you can get her to coach you,” she added. Knowing there would be groveling involved, I wrote Michele, who took pity on me, and agreed to offer her services in our quest for Tevis gold. She had already been coaching Dayna with her horse, Crickett, and has a supreme record both as a rider and a vet, so I know she was sticking her neck out a bit to work with an unproven gaited horse, and a rider who had stepped up to the plate and struck out six times previously at Tevis.

After John Henry had done a half a dozen 50’s Michele had us reduce our ride schedule, and be more selective in the type and difficulty of the rides we attended. We did more specific conditioning at home, and I think the turning point for John Henry took place at Mt Carmel. We decided to try to do all three days, and see if he stood up to the task. Barbara White rode with us on Dayna’s horse,Crickett, those three days, as she was preparing to ride him at Tevis herself.

Now, Barbara has been around a bit, and ridden and known some pretty good horses, so I felt she was a good sounding board, and could offer objective opinion about JH, if she rode along side him for three days. Needless to say, we were both astonished at what he accomplished that weekend. He not only kept up with Crickett, who is no slouch, but he got stronger and faster each day, and more amazingly, recovered at the same time Crickett did all weekend. We never had to wait for him. Of the 20 horses that did all three days, Crickett and John Henry finished 5th and 6th.

Okay, so now I’m getting a rash. The kind you get when you know you might just get to show up at Robie Park with a horse that has a chance. Michele designed a workout program to peak JH in the weeks prior to Tevis, and we also took him along with Crickett to the Tevis Educational ride, to show him the trail and see if he could handle carrying me out of those challenging canyons between Last Chance and Foresthill. Not only did he, but he led our group much of the way. He became the mascot, as several of the riders wanted to ride near or behind him due to his calm nature. They knew he wouldn’t kick, fidget,

or endanger the other horses when frequent stops on the trail were necessary.

Both horses handled the trail easily, and after that, Julie Suhr wrote and said, “Now put them both in bubble wrap, stick them in the freezer, and don’t let them out until Tevis.” Which we promptly did. I was always taught to respect my elders.

Finally, it came time for Dayna to take the horses and head to Robie Park. I stayed home to work and flew up a couple of days later, and arrived to see two well rested, well fed horses, waiting to venture off into the Sierras.

Barbara and I had a lovely pre-ride on Friday morning, just to get the kinks out and get a look at the first stretch of the trail. John Henry is a very good downhill horse, and he also needs about four miles to get his “machinery” warmed up, and to let his heart rate settle in at aerobic levels.

The Tevis trail offers the perfect start for him, as it is downhill for a little over six miles down to the Truckee River. Though Crickett and John Henry were very attached to each other as they rested at camp, they have no separation issues once the ride begins. Barbara headed toward the starting line, while I took John Henry off in the opposite direction, to let him warm up.

We planned to not ride together, as Crickett’s pace would be undoubtedly faster, and I wanted to keep JH at a pace that worked for him. The trail was in very good condition, and had been widened in many places, so there was really no risk of getting trapped behind other riders.

Michele Roush had carefully worked out a time schedule for us, which I tried to adhere to as closely as possible. John Henry was good about both passing other horses, and being passed without a fuss, as we made our way down to the river and up the other side toward High Camp. However, I had to stop to

pee once, and he did circles around me while he watched other horses passing us by. I hate that, and

it’s why I never wear my good shoes. ๐Ÿ™‚

I kept a close eye on his heart rate as he powered up the service road through Squaw Valley, and I think we beat our time schedule to High Camp by a few minutes. One thing Michele grilled me on was to stay focused when I arrived at any stop. I would look for the water, feed, PR people, the vets, and then track my time so as not to squander time needlessly. This was crucial to getting through the day without running overtime, or feeling like I had to ride faster to make up for wasted time.

We had practiced our electrolyte protocols, as John Henry would need them replenished throughout the day if he was to continue feeling good and wanting to work. It worked like a charm, in fact, he basically became a freight train in the last third of the ride, at times running along in the dark, with his pulse around 118-120. He drank deeply all day and night, and had excellent hydration scores throughout the ride. Thank you, Michele!

We led a group of riders through the Granite Chief Wilderness, aka “the bogs” and his big walk and sure-footedness really came in handy in getting us through there in a timely fashion. We watered at Lyon Ridge, then made our way mostly alone to Cougar Rock (we went around, as I wasn’t risking a fall that could end our day) and Elephant Trunk, on the way to Red Star.

Things can get clogged up at Red Star, but this time the vets were working diligently to get people vetted and out quickly. We got in, pulsed down, ate for a couple of minutes, got vetted and out,

all in nine minutes!

Onward to Robinson, I was reminded that this section of the trail is *not* all downhill. I counted at least five climbing sections, and John Henry showed some signs of fatigue here. We were alone, and

he wanted to walk the uphills. We finally skated into Robinson around 11:20, about 20 minutes behind schedule.

Robinson Flat is always a bustling blur to get through, due to the amount of people, horses and vet lines, which were pretty long this year. We waited to be vetted for about 15 minutes, and John Henry had a 52/52 CRI here. He ate a smorgasboard of feed, took a nap (which always makes Julie happy) and we headed out on time toward the canyons that lie between Last Chance and Foresthill.

We had trained hard for these canyons, which have been a source of concern for me ever since I first attempted Tevis in 1994. If you don’t know what to expect, or you or your horse aren’t fit, they can be

overwhelming. We were blessed with cooler weather this year, but those canyons can be very warm and are always muggy, so, long ago I decided that I would be fit enough to tail him out in order to save more horse for later on.

I hiked steep hills for several months and used a home video workout program called “P90X,” to get in shape. (When I first used it, I thought it stood for “Puke 90 Times”) ๐Ÿ™‚ These strategies worked, as I was able to tail him out of both canyons, and felt good afterward. My GPS and heart monitor showed that John Henry pulled me out of those canyons at 4 mph, with his heart rate not going over 120.

Dick Dawson told me when he saw us at Deadwood, that John Henry had that “look” that told him we would finish. Perfect time to hear that.

Many people have asked me at what point during the ride did I begin to feel like we were going to finish. My best answer is “at Foresthill.” Pulse criteria at Foresthill is 64, and after climbing out of Volcano Canyon and up Bath Road, John Henry presented at 56. I sought out one of my favorite vets, Jim Baldwin, to do our vet check, as he is very fair, and extremely fast at evaluating a horse.

Michele offered to trot him out for me so I could watch along with Dr Baldwin. He looked great, and Jim told me, “Let him rest and get some chow, and he should take you home. You have a lot of horse here.”

There was a crowd watching his vet check, and as the message rippled through that we would be going on, there was cheering and applause that gave me an adrenaline rush, and, I suspect John Henry, too.

Michele saved my bacon again, as during the hour hold she found that JH had sprung a shoe, and she took him to the farrier to have it removed, straightened and put back on while I was eating and taking care of me. There were tears and lumps in throats as my wife Dayna, Julie Suhr, my daughter

Elysse, and my crew all realized for the first time that unless I fell off, we were very likely to see Auburn before dawn.

With glowbars on JH’s breast collar lighting the way, and a crowd of well wishers sending us off from behind, we left Foresthill on time, right at 9:00. We were guided down Foresthill Road and through town by dozens of volunteers. Along the way, pockets of people were hootin’ and hollerin’ and carryin’ on to such an extent that it caused me to think to myself, “That’s okay. I remember my very first

beer, too.” ๐Ÿ™‚

John Henry’s power walk helped us to slowly catch and pass a small group of riders that had gone out before us. One rider asked, “What kind of horse is that?” “A Walker,” I replied. “Apparently!” he said.

We headed onto the Cal-2 trail, and descended into increasing darkness that was softened somewhat

by the 3/4 moon that hung in the humid night air. The switchback turns on this section of the trail are very sharp, and though I had many times been told to simply trust my horse’s night vision, I didn’t hesitate to flick my flashlight on for an instant every now and then to make sure we were negotiating the turns safely.

Our group had a somewhat ghostly appearance as a line of glow bars floated three feet off the ground, and traveled single file ever downward to the American River below. John Henry led much of the way, as the riders behind liked being able to see his glowbars, and his gaiting helped us cover ground

faster than a walk, but not as fast as a trot, which some were reluctant to do in this much darkness.

I had seen this section in the daylight, and it is very precarious in places. Some who have seen it in the daylight, have refused to ride it at night. However, the darkness mercifully makes it very difficult to actually see the scary parts, so, we continued steadily on through the night toward our next goal–Francisco’s. Located some 17 miles from Foresthill, even though we kept moving constantly, it took our group four hours to reach Francisco’s, where we were greeted by reassuring bright lights and the

friendliest and most nurturing volunteers I had met all day. Francisco’s is historically famous for that.

John Henry was at 60 when we arrived, and he dragged me to the water and then some wet alfalfa, as he began putting himself together for the last stretch of trail. We vetted out without incident, and I lingered a few minutes and had a sandwich and a cup of coffee while JH chowed down some more.

We said goodbye to the volunteers and stepped back into the darkness on our way to the waters of the American River, now only some three miles away. As we approached the river’s edge, there were

several horses in front of us, and John Henry became unruly, fighting to get around them and into the water.

After a few expletives from me, I allowed him to crash into the water, forgetting to lift my feet and legs clear of the water’s surface. You know that deep breath you take when someone dumps ice down the back of your shirt? Yeah, that’s the one that hit me as my legs became instantly soaked in the chilly

but refreshing American River. John Henry had planted himself and began drinking like a Shriner at a NASCAR race.

We climbed out the other side, and from that point on, I had trouble rating John Henry. He knew the trail, as he had seen it on the Educational Ride, and apparently, his own personal homing device kicked in as he hammered his way down the trail on our way to the Lower Quarry vet check.

Some of the faster horses had left us at that point, as time was getting short, and most riders had concerns about making cutoff times. The overwhelmingly bright lights of Lower Quarry were soon in

view, and we made our way down the short, steep trail into the vet check which offered a smorgasboard of food, warm blankets, bleary-eyed but cheerful volunteers, and, of course, the vets.

After we vetted out, I checked the time, and saw that it was 3:20, and realized that we had better get moving, as we still had six miles of dark trail to negotiate. I later found out that my wife and crew were becoming increasingly nervous about my arriving on time, due to the late hour, and the time delay in the reports they were receiving as to our location.

I left Lower Quarry following Steve Hallmark, a local who knows the trail. It was very dark, and the glow bars had become few and far between. I would have been very reluctant to move along quickly along this section, as I had ridden it in the daytime, and I knew there were rocky sections that could be tricky.

I owe thanks to Steve, who somehow knew when we could trot and when we needed to walk. We marched toward Auburn, with the clock ticking down.

Finally, we reached the last single track that leads to the Auburn overlook. As I glanced over my left shoulder, I could see the lights of the finish line, and could hear the faint hum of the generators that gave them life. In just a few short seconds, we emerged out the darkness, arriving at 4:56, with just 19 minutes to spare.

We were met with applause, cheering, whistling, bright lights, and a very welcome water tank for John Henry. I sifted through the small but mighty crowd to find my wife, who was sobbing on her cell phone. Julie Suhr had waited at the finish line until around three in the morning, and finally had to retire, but not before admonishing Dayna to call her the moment we crossed the finish line.

I would love to hear a recording of that conversation. I asked Dayna later what was said, and she replied, “I don’t really know. We were both crying so much I couldn’t understand everything she said. She did say to go take care of you and John Henry.”

My wife knows that I am often unable to speak when I am emotional, so I grabbed her and hugged her for a very long time, as much to regain my composure as to thank her. “You finally did it!” she said. “John Henry did it. I was just along for the ride,” was my answer.

Michele Roush tracked JH’s pulse from the moment we arrived, and she quietly told me to follow her as she led him to the vetting area, and told me he was down and ready to present. The vet checked him over, pronounced him at 60 bpm, and asked for the trot out.

Michele trotted him out and before she could turn around and trot back, the vet turned to me, shook my hand and said: “Congratulations, you’re done.” I must have set a world record for hugging the greatest number of women in the shortest period of time after that.

We led JH to McCann Stadium, and though there were only about three people in the stands, we took our victory lap. John Henry gaited the entire way around, looking sharp and sound. We peeled his saddle off, and led him off to shack up with Crickett, and to get some much needed rest and chow.

Dayna had laid out about ten glasses and two bottles of Champagne for each of us to toast the night, which was quickly becoming day. A glowing satisfaction flowed over all of us, that persists, and likely will for some time.


Weary #176

arrived Red Star Ridge 10:16am, 28.50 mile, departed 10;24am, hold time approx. 8 min.

arrived Robinson Flat, 36 mile, 11:29am; departed at 12:34pm, hold time approx. 1 hour & 5 min.;

arrived Last Chance 2:44pm, 50 mile, departed 2:56pm, hold time approx. 12 minutes;

arrived Deadwood 4:24pm, 55 mile

arrived Foresthill 7:55pm, 68 mile, departed 8:57pm hold time approx. 1 hr. 2 min.;

arrived Cal-2 11:12pm, 79 mile; arrived Franciscos 12:59, 85 mile;

arrived River Crossing 2:10am 88 mile;

arrived Lower Quarry 3:20am, 94 mile;

FINISH LINE 4:56am 100 miles