Thursday, May 29, 2014

More Than The Finish Line: An Endurance Athlete Discovers Endurance Riding

Date: May 2014
More Than The Finish Line: An Endurance Athlete Discovers Endurance Riding
By Mike LeRoux
Ten years ago I made a conscious decision to live my life outside of my comfort zone. I had held in my grasp for a fleeting few seconds the feeling that I could do the things I thought were impossible, and it was intoxicating. It was the start of a lifelong adventure which has taken me to the jungles of Papua New Guinea, the sand dunes of the Moroccan Sahara, the remote outback of Australia, up and over the unforgiving hills of the Comrades marathon in South Africa, over staggering altitudes in the Rockies, swimming six miles in the ocean off Hawaii and now riding five back-to-back 50 mile days on horseback in Utah.
Over the years as I pushed and explored the boundaries of my comfort zone, or discomfort zone, as I came to know it, I developed a philosophy I called More Than The Finish Line, which effectively focused on my journey, allowing me to live outside of my comfort zone but in a way that made sense of the setbacks and managed my expectations. It allowed me to let go of finish lines and showed me the value and the joy of the journey. When I look back 15 years I could never have imagined that I would be where I am now, a South Africa-born naturalized Australian, living in the Coloradan Rockies on acreage with horses and dogs and plenty of local wildlife, riding the trails on horseback and working for a not-for-profit that encourages kids to get off the couch and outside.
When my wife Kirsten and I married in October 1999, I weighed a hefty 253 pounds, all of which I attributed to my Rugby Union-playing background, and the requirement to stop a charging athlete dead in his tracks. Over the past 15 years I have spent all of my energy and focus on trying to become as efficient as possible over long distance. Being a bigger-framed 6’3” athlete, I have always found that longer, harder and tougher has tended to suit me, by bringing everyone back to a level playing field.
Over the years I have competed at the highest level in Ironman Triathlon, run a multi-day race across the Moroccan Sahara desert and run competitively at the half-marathon, marathon, ultra distances. In 2010 I was fortunate enough to cross the finish line first at the Ultraman World Championships in Hawaii, a 3-day endurance triathlon with a 6.2 mile swim, 261.4 mile bike ride and 52.4 mile run. Afterwards, I decided that I had spent a long career in triathlon, and that it was time to pursue something different. At the time I was working for a global engineering firm in Australia while studying to be a coach and personal trainer. To “walk the talk” I needed to follow my passions in life and get out from behind a desk.
In 2011 my focus became on gaining qualification status for the Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley. To do this I was required to run three 100 mile events, one of which needed to be within 12 months of my application. Never having run 100 miles, this was going to my year of wading through the races. In my third 100 mile race in Australia I ran the country's fastest-ever time for 100 miles on trail: 15 hours and 37 minutes. As the year drew to a close I had achieved my criteria for qualifying for Badwater – now all I had to do was wait until February to apply.
In the December of 2011 I thought that I would put my name in the lottery for the Western States 100 mile endurance run. This was before the Badwater application but I figured that in a lottery my chances were not that great of getting accepted. As it turns out I was given a special consideration spot as an international, the only Australian entrant accepted. There went my plans for Badwater, but more excitingly I was going to run the “grandfather” of 100 milers and follow in the footsteps of ultrarunning greats. Thinking, “How do I get further out of my comfort zone?” following my acceptance, I applied for and was granted entry to race in the “Grand Slam of Ultrarunning.” The Slam consists of the four oldest 100 milers in history over a period of 11 weeks: Western States 100, Vermont 100, Leadville 100 and Wasatch 100. There is generally three weeks between each event with only two weeks between Leadville and Wasatch. 
So in June 2012 I moved from Australia to the U.S. for the summer to race the Slam. Finishing The Slam is winning enough, although I was fortunate enough to place second overall and was the first Australian to complete the series. It was a grueling 11 weeks where I learned a lot about myself and my discomforts, as well as my boundaries and capabilities. During the Slam I stayed with Morgan Murri of Pagosa Springs, Colorado. We had met at Marathon des Sables in 2008 which was the same time that Morgan founded a charitable fund called GECKO (Giving Every Child Knowledge of the Outdoors) that staged outdoor events raising funds for GECKO programs and scholarships. GECKO was growing quickly and Morgan needed some help. Over the summer we hatched a plan for me to join him in this exciting venture. 
In 2013, my wife Kirsten and I moved from Australia to Pagosa Spring to pursue a lifestyle of mountain living and continue life outside of our comfort zones. I joined GECKO and took on the role of Race Director for the event management side of the organization, as well continuing to train and coach athletes from around the globe. Of course aside from trails and continuing with my running, living in a Colorado mountain town meant I became immersed in the ranching and horse culture.
I have always had an affinity for horses, ever since I was a kid. Every opportunity I had, every birthday I could convince my parents, I would go horseback riding. I rode as much as I could whilst living in Australia too. Then when I raced the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning I learned about the history of the Western States 100 mile endurance run and its relation to the Tevis Cup and endurance horse riding. The Vermont 100 (the second race in the Slam) also happens to be run on the same day as the Vermont 50, 75 and 100 mile endurance horse ride – so I was able to experience firsthand what the ride event looked like. It was the most exciting feeling to be on course with super-fit horses. As a runner, it looked and felt as though the horses shared the same enjoyment of being out on the trail doing what they do best.
Upon moving to Pagosa Springs it became apparent that the equine community in town and the region was huge. In fact, it’s probably more extensive than the running community. I was really excited as I knew I could access the support I needed for my new direction. I started taking note and networking and through a series of meetings and friendships locally I set my sights on the sport of endurance riding and completing the 2015 Tevis Cup.
Having raced solo extensively over the past number of years, a racing partnership was going to be a whole new way of thinking. It was no longer all about me before, during and after the race; I now had a relationship to nurture and develop on this journey: a relationship with a powerful, athletic creature with a mind of its own.
The concept of providing support and maintaining the best interests of a partner to get through 100 grueling trail miles really appealed to me. I am hoping that through my experience and passion within the sport of endurance, I have something to offer an equine partner. I have immense respect for the 100 mile distance, but it’s not intimidating because I’ve done it human-powered many times before. This gives me the courage to be 100% focused on my horse's well-being and our partnership on the trail.
That being said, this experience has flung me out past anything I know, and the learning curve so far has been vertical.  I am so far out of my comfort zone I can barely glimpse its edges.
What keeps me moving forward at this point is the extreme generosity of the endurance riding community, who have made themselves available as mentors to guide me daily through this overwhelming new world. Erica and Mark Devoti, Garrett Ford, Rusty Toth and Kevin Myers, Parelli professional and good friend Terry Wilson, Parelli president Mark Weiler and many others from Parelli Natural Horsemanship, Christoph Schork and Tennessee Lane. Whilst I understand the dynamics of what is required to get to my goal, I have no real experience with horses or horse ownership. Each day I climb a vertical cliff face of learning.
I became fully immersed in training for my first endurance horse ride – whenever that was to be. If that concept was not hard enough for someone with no equine background, it was made slightly more challenging living in the mountains dealing with icy road conditions, snow dumps and frigid wintertime temperatures.
I am perfecting the skill of trailering a horse, sometimes two (which is two steps forward, one step backwards) as well as how to efficiently boot and suit my guy in pretty quick time before a ride. I learned the art of tailing. I’m still learning the intricacies of nutrition and metabolic symptoms. I learned about heart rates for horses, different recovery rates, and how my ability to run a few miles with the horse significantly helps that rate of recovery.
As I’ve already mentioned some great teachers and mentors have made and continue to make all of this possible. However the greatest teacher of all so far has been Sonny, an 18-year-old Arabian gelding who has allowed me to explore, experiment and give me the latitude to develop. Sonny has the patience of a saint and the enthusiasm of a child.
In April this year I attempted my first limited distance (25 mile) ride at Antelope Island in Utah. I borrowed a seasoned campaigner called Gus from the ride manager, Jeffrey Stuart. It took a while for me to get into the swing of things, but after the first six miles, I was hooked and happy with my choice of new sport. It was a classroom day, with Jeff sharing his knowledge of the trail and all things endurance-related. I was fortunate enough to be loaned a second horse for the following day in which I completed my second ride. After that weekend I was definitely not disappointed with how things had gone. 
Three weeks later I was signed up to ride my first 50 mile ride at the Mt. Carmel XP in Utah. My plan was to ride four days, 50 miles per day. I leased horses from Christoph Schork and his Global Endurance Training Center and Tennessee Lane from Remuda Run. My learning curve was almost vertical. I was exposed to a faster-paced ride on an experienced horse from day 1 on technical trails. Day 2 was getting Stolis Hot Shot through his first 50 mile ride safely. The pace was surprisingly fast given it was Stolis' first 50. By the end of day 4 I was totally fatigued and super happy with how the ride had gone. I was packing up to drive home when I was subject to some peer pressure to stay and ride a fifth day. I had no real argument as to “why not,” so I stayed and completed a fifth day – 250 miles in five days. I had an absolute blast and have to thank Christoph and Tennessee for babysitting me on each ride. Without their guidance, support and mentoring my experience would have been totally different, and I don’t believe that I would have gained so much valuable insight into the sport. It is now two weeks after Mt. Carmel and I have just purchased Stolis. I know that we have a fun few years ahead of us. 
Every now and then the idea of where I am heading, the goal I have set myself, and the ups and downs of the journey overwhelm me. It is important to have long-term audacious goals, but the trick to achieving them is to take life one-step at a time, live in the moment, focus on the NOW, enjoy the friendships and celebrate milestones along the way and what you have achieved today. 
 More information on endurance riding is available by visiting or by calling the AERC office at 866-271-2372. By request, the office will send out a free information packet to prospective members. To find out more about GECKO, visit

Contact: Troy Smith
American Endurance Ride Conference
866-271-2372, 530-823-2260

1 comment:

Carla said...

I loved reading this, welcome to endurance riding, Mike! Isn't it a great feeling riding a horse down a challenging trail? Mt Carmel XP is a great ride and a lot of fun. Congratulations on completing all 5 days.