Not Finishing Is Not Winning
"Failure after great perseverance is much grander than never to have a striving good enough to be called a failure."
-- George Eliot
Six months had passed since this quirky endurance revelation had taken root. Honor had celebrated his fourth birthday (29 January - Kansas Day, by coincidence), weaned his race brain to a trickle of focused excitement, and logged hundreds of conditioning miles up and down the frozen back-roads of the Kansas tall-grass prairie. The beach-ball we constantly accused Honor of swallowing had deflated to a sinewy, taut abdomen capable of crushing diamonds. His rump clenched to steel with even the daintiest of steps. His chest, depleted from its racing bulk to a finely chiseled leanness, brandished his trademark scar like a name tag. There it was, nestled betwixt both pectorals, a cold reminder, but also a warm, reassuring piece of proof... proof that Honor was real, and so was his story -- and another defining chapter was a page turn away.
His first endurance competition had been a roller-coaster in every facet. It had been comical, frustrating, disappointing, endearing, but by the end, eye-opening for everyone, even me. He would, over the next few months explode in capability and conditioning, shattering the top-ten his next several competitions. Invariably, however, he finished with untapped fuel in the reservoir. Honor was fit, as fit as any Thoroughbred on the planet by this point, and the disciplined regimen Missi and I had assigned to him was overtly evident. An honest question still wafted through the air during every conditioning ride: how good was he?
The amazement of Honor's story is universal, but his actual performance had been deliberately restrained for various reasons. He was young, I was a green rider, and endurance was a "long slow distance" (in so many ways). We were cautious to push him, but short of pushing him, we were wrenching on the reins, both literally and metaphorically. I ruminated an idea regarding an upcoming ride, a ride venue with which I was already familiar.
"I want to let Honor go at Admire," I postulated to Missi out of the blue at the dining table. She had been giggling at her phone, which came to a screeching record-player halt.
May 2014, Milford Lake
"I love you. I love your slow, dainty, slightly rotund Arab. But I want to give Honor a chance... to see how good he can be."
"You're going to drop the reins on the freight train and ask him to kill you? He is going to try and murder you, you know that right?"
"And I'm going to try not to die. But if I can survive through mile two, we can set the cruise control, and of course that's assuming there aren't any puddles of doom or the broken branches of Mordor don't line the trail. But this time, I want to let him set the cruise. Just this once, this one course. If ever there was a course, this is the one."
She couldn't argue the last premise. Admire is a renovated railroad track that loosely resembles a dead man's EKG reading with fewer turns and twists than a Dick and Jane plot line. It is the drag strip of endurance competition -- twelve and a half out, twelve and a half back. The footing is a crushed ballast that is a smidge rocky in places and footing can be a little too firm in others, but both can be either avoided or mitigated. Straight and flat as far as the eye can see, with only a few slightly-intimidating bridges dashed in for spice, this trail is what Honor dreams of when splayed out in his alfalfa pile. Allowed to trot to his own devices, Honor screams at upwards of fourteen miles an hour on flat ground with eye-popping efficiency. Genetically, his diminutive Arab counterparts outshine Honor in almost every regard in the sport of Endurance, but his back pocket ensconces an Ace-of-Spades he loves to slam on the table. Admire -- is that table.
May 2014, Milford Lake
"Hmm. Well...you are insured and I can always get another husband, so..." Missi smirked. "But Honor's not, so at least be careful with him."
I lied. "I'm not worried about that at all. Once his brain goes into that trail trance thing he does, it'll be fine." At least the second part was halfway true. Honor was strange about his attention on the trail. Off the trail, as a four year-old OTTB, Honor has the attention span of a similarly-aged human. Post-mile two on the trail, however, Honor embarks on Buddhist-style meditative odyssey. His ears flail with sensory overload for two miles -- then the trail "drug" hits. His ears snap to attention the way we think of the pyramids as permanent. His gargantuan cranium eases forward to a locked position ahead of his pace. The Captain then comes over the intercom informing passengers they are now free to move about the cabin. We are in Honor's moment of Zen. A 2,000-pound GBU-31 dropped and detonated danger-close couldn't pry his mind from his rhythm.
And so I hoped. And we trained. And we trained. And we trained. We trained on hills for miles on end, ruggedly acclimating to the now waxing heat of the summer. The hotter it got, the harder we trained. By the second week of June, Honor's skin was a thin hairy sheen pulled taut across a machine of deeply chiseled muscular mechanisms. He had morphed from the obnoxiously awkward yearling to a physical freak. A machine, he had certainly become. June 14th was nigh... one day removed from June 13th, a Friday.
He was manageable that morning, surprisingly so. Aside from one childish bronc of excitement, he wasn't steamed in the least. He was perfectly cued. Warm, energetic and spry, and only slightly embarrassingly boyish. I walked along side Missi towards the start. better than a dozen others moseyed in trail and ahead. Honor began to pull as his eyes met the familiar trail. I situated my gear, initiated my smartphone app, secured my earbuds, and hovered my finger above the "play" triangle to start the music. Horses ahead were beginning to canter out for spacing. I wrenched my head to the left to look at Missi. She was visibly nervous. I know what she saw: a nine year old riding a four year old, both smirking uncontrollably ear to ear.
Admire - Flint Hills Nature Trail
"I love you baby!" I didn't get a chance to hear her respond. My finger dropped onto the play icon, the music started, and so did the trail.
For several hundred miles of competition and training, I had rarely, if ever, softened the reins. Missi was right. Honor was a freight train requiring often times inhuman strength to substitute for power steering or anti-lock brakes. He wasn't dangerous because he was mean; to be certain, Honor is incredibly sweet both on the ground and under saddle. He just can't grasp complex concepts like physics, or the force equation where a half-ton animal requires maneuver space. Thankfully, I have both a self-preservation instinct and outstanding depth perception, so as a team we break about even. My hands softened. I cringed. Through my wincing I checked the GPS: nine miles per hour, then ten, then eleven, then...
Then his ears snapped. They were the rigid sails of a tail-winded sloop, tightly affixed, powered by the breeze itself. I checked the phone - 11.68 mph. Ladies and gentlemen, the flight attendants will be coming by with a beverage tray. Thrashing guitars and aggressive drums played wildly in my ears as we glided through the field of teams. I would momentarily remove an earbud, "Passing on your left," I would say accompanied with a hearty greeting.
It was a phenomenal day to ride. The sun was comfortably shrouded by low-hanging stratus clouds that lightly dappled the ground with occasional droplets. These were far less inclement conditions than Honor and I had been training in, and his pace was far lighter than his training. My wife is rarely wrong when it comes to either me or horses. Her perception of a nine year old on a four year old weren't distanced from the mark. Honor and I were in heaven. We rode casually, walking here and there, nibbling here and there, and trotting out on Honor's pace. Remarkably, he was riding intuitively, and impressively. The weather, however, was insidious with kindness.
We approached the first water station. By this time, we were astride the leader who now struggled to keep pace with this lanky trot machine. The clouds hung low and softened the heat as I walked Honor to the trough. His sweat-free brow hung with boredom over the water. Honor hadn't been this comfortable on a ride in weeks. It was problematically too easy.
12.5 out, 12.5 back
"DRINK!" I scolded. The young woman atop the dark bay Arab to my right smiled sweetly as her mare chugged water with abandon. I was embarrassed, as well as coyly frustrated by the trumpeting clichés in my brain involving horses, water, and leading them to it. I grumbled inaudibly at Honor's amateur presentation. His head loomed motionless over the water. He was a bump on a log, a log nestled cozily among the softest mosses. I cursed the clouds and the unseasonable coolness.
I conceded to Honor's stubbornness and aimed him down the trail. Immediately he lurched back to his cruise control pace, and again we passed the mare. We approached mile 9, where the vet station was. As the trail was established, the vet check was mandatory on the way back, but because of his reluctance to drink at the first station, I led him into the check, abdicating any lead we had. Un-rushed, I dismounted and jabbed the first tube of electrolytes into his cheek. Honor cooperates with this process the way black holes cooperate with light. After finagling the tube-full into his mouth, I quickly jabbed my wrist up under his chin like a solid Greek column and waited for him to swallow. And waited. And waited. I massaged his neck. EUREKA! One full gulp (6 minutes later) and I pulled Honor to the trough.
Honor has a progression of thirst that starts with playful interest with the water, that turns to fits of splashing/drinking, and crescendos to Honor drinking while burying his face up to his ears like he were bobbing for pearls. Eventually, I, Honor, all our tack, and a ten-foot circle are entirely drenched. By now, Honor had progressed to the "slightly splashing" stage of thirst, reaping only light wine sips. I was watching a four year-old play with his food. I moseyed him around the area, allowing him to eat grass and the alfalfa provided, hoping to spur a thirst drive. Again, he slapped his mashed potatoes around with his fork when asked to drink. I sighed and mounted back up.
Once back on the trail, I began to interlude his cruise control with mandatory walking bits to encourage him to grasp at the prairie grass lining the trail. This found only slight success. After several miles of this pace rotation, we had caught back up with the Arab mare. The mare was visibly gassed after trying to keep pace with Honor. As we pulled up beside the team, I removed my earbuds to chat a little.
"Is he even tired?"
"No, but I'm starting to wish he was. I've been conditioning him hard in the heat the last month or so, and Mongo the Camel here is now convinced water is purely for entertainment purposes."
"I was wondering why you broke off into the vet check. I tried calling out to you that you only have to stop on your way back, but I guess you had your headphones in."
"Ya, I tied him to the gurney and we did the electrolyte torture. Then we played the splashing game. That's always delightful." I rolled my eyes. "You'll see here shortly." Honor wouldn't disappoint.
Honor and I went back to work, stretching ground between us and the mare team. We approached the turnaround where our token and another trough awaited. I quickly dismounted and we did the the electrolyte waltz which was remarkably easier this iteration. The sun was burning off the stratiform shield overhead and Honor was now infused with this alien urge known as thirst.
LET THE WATER GAMES COMMENCE.
Just as the young lady and her Arab approached the trough, I snickered, "might wanna grab a towel, it's about to get messy." Not more than a second later and Honor was violently smashing his face into the trough like a possessed, head-banging guitarist lost in the throes of the sickest of solos. Eddie Van Halen would have been proud. I however, was now drenched from the waist down and the young lady atop her bewildered steed was doubled over in the saddle, laughing hysterically. Honor paused his momentary madness, eyes submerged, opting for the delectable flavor of water at the bottom of the trough. I stood there, reins in hand, waiting with the patience of a loyal dog... a wet... loyal dog.
"Does -- he --," she was gasping for breath. "...always do this?"
I said nothing, but offered a sheepish smirk and a nod. Suddenly, up from the deepest fathoms rose Honor's enormous melon. Water sheeted off his face like the Kraken emerging from the Aegean Sea. His eyes blinked heavily with boyish innocence as he turned to look at the girl atop the mare as if caught with his hand in a cookie jar. He licked his lips with indifference. I stepped over to the tokens, grabbed one for myself and the girl, passed hers off, and mounted back up. I climbed back atop Honor with awkward athleticism, and with a tip of the helmet to my fellow rider, started off back towards the vet check.
Honor was a machine for the next several miles, nearly perfectly maintaining his pace and now with the sun out, beginning to finally sweat. I saw Missi approaching ahead on her way to the turnaround. She was riding as a two ship, her wingman another young lady she had met on the trail. She was closing fast and in true-dork fashion, all I could muster was, "I LOVE YOU! I'M ALL WET!" It didn't occur to me until after we passed, how utterly odd that must have sounded. Anyway, we pulled off into the stop finally for our check and wait.
Vet Check - Bushong, Kansas
Honor ate. Honor drank (and re-bathed his head). He pulsed down in seconds, trotted out great, and scored A's across the board. I was taught however (thank you Jeanie), how to properly sponge a horse that day; it was a lesson learned, but not necessarily at the vet check. While sponging Honor down, I was somewhat indiscriminate with the sponge, dousing essentially every part of his body. Yes, many rookie lessons are, in the end, self-critiquing. Jeanie Hauser, the vet at the remote station, noticed my "technique" (or lack thereof), and was quick to instruct, "You know Tim, it's not really a good idea to sponge down large muscle groups, it makes them prone to cramping."
Yes. This was said. No. I did not know it. Yes. I do now. Unfortunately, as it turns out, sponging is similar to farting loudly in a crowded elevator: you can't un-sponge once you have sponged. I sat there staring at the drenched left ass cheek, much the way Michelangelo might have, if he had accidentally chiseled David's arm off. I turned helplessly to Jeanie, the offending murder weapon (blue sponge) dripping with blood (dirty water).
Jeanie, still awaiting rider #2 to enter, took the time to explain where, why, and how to sponge properly. I listened intently all the while kicking myself for my naivete. I sighed, thanked her, and walked Honor about to keep him limber and allow him to graze and drink. Missi and her new-found compatriot came strolling into the check. Two peas in a pod, Kimi and and Honor went to sharing a flake of alfalfa as Missi and I chatted about our rides thus far. Linda Cole, the ride manager and her husband were there and commented on Honor's conditioning. I thanked her and explained the Rocky Balboa-style regimen he had been on prior to the ride, but fretted silently how all that training might have actually work against us. The last 8 miles would tell... and tell they would.
Much to Honor and Kimi's chagrin, I legged up and split the lovey herd to move out (with protest from Honor) onto the trail. Kimi cried, Honor cried, it was sad... yada yada yada. With a substantial head start in time, I knew there was no rush, and with a festering worry now rotting my parietal lobe, I began to pay detailed attention to Honor's every subtle move.
The first five miles were, as we flyboys call it, "as fragged," meaning as planned, as scheduled, no changes. We cruised along on Honor's cadence of choice. However, I now found myself checking his pace every thirty seconds, and every nuanced twitch became a concern. We were in the home stretch now, and we were the lead stock car, praying the tires had enough grip to endure the last few laps. Three miles remained.
We were working our rotation methodically: trot, walk, eat, walk, trot, walk, eat, trot. So far so good. Then Honor's self-selected cruise control began to slip, and my stomach began to churn. My lower back screamed in twisted, exhausted agony and I confided with my steed that I too was tired and how close we were. Honor's locked frame loosened. We walked. We were now walking as much as trotting and we both felt the tires giving way. I apologized to Honor for being stupid with the sponge, but was quick to remind him of our status as a team and his rookie mistake of not drinking. I promised him we could do a stupidity high-five at the finish line.
Less than a mile remained now and I leered over my shoulder at the infinite stretch of trail behind us -- Honor and I were alone. My legs quivered in the stirrups. To be clear, riding Honor for twenty five miles is not like riding a Lay-z-Boy, and is only slightly less difficult than actually running the full distance myself. My calves, my thighs, and particularly my back were now verging on spasms. The arches of my feet cramped inside my boots, and the inside of my calves were afire from friction. The finish line was now in sight, half a mile off. Horses in camp whinnied in the distance and Honor perked. His head re-caged, his frame re-formed, his step reset. We were at the finish and Honor seemed to understand. This was as good as Honor and I could be that day. Neither of us had much left in the tank. Honor had enjoyed loose reins and open trail. I had enjoyed sharing that chance with him. We were approaching our finish, competing against only ourselves and the question of our collective ability. The next few minutes would tell what lessons could be gleaned from the grand experiment -- and lessons there would be.
We crossed the finish and walked straight towards the vet out. With flailing, failing legs, I clumsily and without the slightest hint of grace tumbled out of the saddle. With practiced rapidity, I tore open the girth, ripped the saddle from his back and tossed the tack aside. On shaking legs, I lunged for the hose and doused his lower legs, while sponging very deliberately in accordance to the technique I had learned earlier. Honor pulsed down quickly and we were officially "completed." However, we were not "finished."
Cap refill - A
Skin - A
Gut - A-
A's across the board... standing still. Now for the trot out. I gritted my teeth and looked at Honor. He was tired. "This was your ride, guy. Whatever happens in the next 30 seconds, I've never been more proud of you."
We stepped off. I didn't look back towards him, but I didn't need to. I could feel it in the reins. In a split second I had mental flashes of a sweat-less Honor hanging his dopey head over a full trough of water in idle boredom. I flashed a memory of a soaked left rump glistening in the sun. I heard Jeanie's words from earlier replay as a foreshadowing omen in my mind's ear.
"He's giving to the left a little, but I can't be for certain what it is," stated the vet. I knew what it was. "Take him back to the trailer, get him some hay, and come back in thirty minutes, and we'll re-evaluate."
By this point Missi had come in, pulsed down and had trotted out. We scrambled as Team Finley once again to do what we could -- but it was futile. Honor and I returned to the vet with repeated results. Honor and I had crossed the finish in 2:47:16. We had trained through a blistering regimen for months in anticipation of this one ride. Honor at this moment may have been the best-conditioned four year-old OTTB in America, but even Olympic athletes get cramps.
"To finish is to win."
We did not finish.
We did not win.
We were lame.
I was devastated. Honor and I had ridden nearly every day for the better part of three months through very austere conditions on top of six months of already very regular training. A month prior, we had ridden harder and further at the Pokie Okie Pioneer Ride. In terms of exertion, this ride had been demonstrably light in comparison, and he was now in far-better shape. Honor and I had split our entire roulette money pot on red and black... the ball dropped on green... the same color as our talented, albeit young, team.
There was no sense in lamenting, but I was ravenously frustrated. I stood in the doorway of our trailer, demoralized, staring out at beautifully statuesque horse as he happily pulled hay from his bag. He was not the awkward yearling he once was. He was a horse as God would paint one. I was disappointed for him. I wished for him what he had earned, and it shredded my heart in a blender to not be able to give that to him. How endless was his heart? I shrank with insignificance in the shadow of his unbeatable character. He didn't drink because he didn't know any better. I sponged him incorrectly because I didn't know any better. But ultimately, the onus was on me, as the team lead. I didn't train him well enough to drink as he should have. Sure, maybe the cooler weather partnered with his style of training complicated it, but I should have worked that into the regimen. I should have known how to sponge -- stupid! -- I cursed myself.
I vented out loud to Missi.
"This was his! No horse here worked harder to be ready; no horse here was better prepared; no horse here was better conditioned! This was his ride! He deserved it! Just once! Just one time, why can't he have his in life? He was the best horse here today, but I failed to prove it to him. He spent all day proving it to anyone with at least marginal eyesight, including me, and I couldn’t hold up my end of the bargain. All I can give him are hollow words: 'You were the best horse today, Honor, but your team lead let you down. Thanks for pouring your heart out for me the last several months, here is your consolati... oh wait, no, you get nothing.' I owe him better, he's earned better!"
My voice quivered as Missi moved towards me and laid her head against my chest. She cried silently. "I know," she managed.
"He's the best horse in any field," I whispered. "I just wish I could find a way to show him."
Missi just hugged me. Hugs like these never last long enough.
Things don't always turn out as one hopes. That's why God gave us dogs.
I reached for the dog leash and pulled Bruno from his kennel. The Rhodesian and I silently moped into the shade of a nearby cherry tree. Bruno took residence on the soft fescue. I lay back against him as a pillow and introspectively examined what had transpired over the previous several hours. As usual, the lessons Honor had to teach reached far beyond any short-term lessons I had learned regarding Endurance that day. Honor was content, eating from his hay bag, in his typical oblivious charm. I envied his indifference, but I also admired it.
Honor had lived a life riddled with misfortune. To be clear, Honor's greatness didn't stem from genetic prowess, stellar breeding, or quantifiable achievement. But that was it -- that was the lesson here, and perhaps the genuine lesson from Admire. Honor's greatness wasn't defined by winning, it was defined by living. He was great because it was his nature and something as trite as "winning" (as we dumb humans think of it) was far beneath the concern of a horse who was clearly happy to just be doing what he enjoyed. Honor loved the trail. It was his Zen. In that sense, in every moment I spent on Honor's back, Honor was a victor, and this was a form of winning he understood. Honor didn't care how good he could be; he just enjoyed being what he is. With that thought as a blanket and a Ridgeback as a pillow, I dozed off with the contentment of a horse with a mouthful of hay.
Such a heart-wrenching pull provided several tactical lessons, but the stark reality provided the consolation of a heart-warming perspective: Honor was convinced he was always winning... and I would be a fool to ever disagree.
Admire -- how appropriate.