When Ragan Kelly returns to school at Vanguard this week, she could show off a pretty nifty belt buckle if she wished. It’s not one that the 12-year-old picked up at the Gap or Cavender’s, either. She earned it.
She’s got the callouses and sore muscles to prove it.
The buckle carries the message “100 Miles, One Day,” and it’s emblazoned with a picture of a pony express rider. To receive it, one must finish the Tevis Cup, which has been called the nation’s most grueling equine endurance ride.
Back in late July, Ragan and her mother Tracy, a Waco veterinarian, accomplished just that. They had to endure scorching temperatures, rugged terrain and even rattlesnakes along a 100-mile ride through the Sierra Nevada mountain range from Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe, Nev., to Auburn, Calif.
And to get credit for the finish, they had to do it all in a single day. Come in over 24 hours, and it doesn’t count.
“This race is the pinnacle of our sport,” Tracy Kelly said. “It’s like Wimbledon for a tennis player.”
Tracy has been riding horses since she was 9, and the idea of competing in the Tevis Cup was a lifelong dream. She’d had the itch to give it a shot for decades.
“It was something I wanted to do for 20 years,” she said. “It was my No. 1 bucket list item.”
Ragan never appeared in those dreams, though. Ragan has been riding for nine years, occasionally competing in barrel races or horse shows.
Then one day three years ago Ragan told her mother she wanted to try an endurance ride. Tracy was initially excited, followed by a feeling of trepidation.
“Quite frankly, because this was such a big bucket list item for me, I was not going to let her do it,” Tracy said. “Both my husband and good girlfriend said, ‘You know, if she gets in trouble, your mother instinct is going to kick in and you’re not going to finish, because you’re concerned about her.’
“So we had some long talks before I decided to let her go, and basically I said, ‘If you have a brain injury, I’ll stop.’ If you are just worn out and can’t go on because you’re vomiting or you broke your arm or something, Mama’s going. I’ve got too much invested. I’m going for it. I may not get the chance again.”
Even for experienced riders, the odds of finishing the race aren’t high. This year 160 racers started out, but only 75 finished in the allotted time.
It’s not always the rider who throws in the sweat-soaked bandana, either. During the race, riders must take two mandatory one-hour breaks and visit 10 checkpoints where the horses are monitored by veterinarians. A bum leg, a breathing issue, a rapid pulse, and the horse is disqualified.
Fortunately, the Kellys landed a pair of horses that were no strangers to the Western States Trail. They also benefited from lots of pre-race training, including an educational ride in June which gives participants the chance to experience parts of the course with a guide.
“We did some things to hedge our bets,” Tracy said. “One thing that really paid off was that in the six weeks prior to the race, every jog, every bike ride or horse ride we did, we did here (in Waco) at peak heat. We made sure we went when it was 103 and humid. So when we got there, we never felt like we were in heat distress.”
They didn’t suffer heat stroke, but still felt like they were melting at times. At its peak, the mercury hit 118 degrees, with the sun bouncing off the canyon walls and making the riders feel like they were in a pressure cooker.
Halfway through, Ragan was ready to call it a day.
“Some people think of it as, ‘We’re halfway done! We’re on the downhill side!’ ” Ragan said. “But I think of it as, ‘I have to go do that all over again.’ ”
“That was her low point,” Tracy said.
Weary, they plugged along. Nightfall brought the refreshment of cooler air, but introduced new challenges.
“One thing that is very unique about this ride is that most of it is on the side of a cliff,” Tracy said. “It’s just a sheer dropoff, with a canyon wall on the other side. There’s not a lot of room for error. You’re completely trusting the horse’s night vision. … There’s a little bit of intimidation there.”
Ragan said that her eyes played tricks on her more than once.
“We were following the trail and I couldn’t see where it went but I could see there was a meadow in front of me,” she said. “Next thing I know the horse turns and my meadow was a giant cliff. If I had been like, ‘No, horse, the trail is this way,’ I’d have been in trouble.”
The heat and the heights felt like a picnic compared to the riders’ encounter with a rattlesnake. The Kellys were riding alongside two other women when the group heard the snake on the trail, crackling its warning.
One by one, they nervously and quickly passed by, with Ragan and Tracy in the rear.
“That was probably one of the more intense moments of the trip. Got my heart rate going,” Tracy said.
The Kellys said they couldn’t have made it without their support team. At each checkpoint, a six-person crew, led by Tracy’s husband Stewart and their son Jackson, tended to their needs, providing massages, fresh socks and water. During a rare brush with civilization, they even delivered a pizza.
“You get to the point where you never want to see another granola bar,” Tracy said.
Given the challenge of completing the race on time, riders don’t slow down much. But both Tracy and Ragan took time to engross themselves in their surroundings and enjoy the majestic scenery along the way.
“It was so breathtaking,” Tracy said. “You literally cross the entire Sierra Nevada. When you get to the highest peak, it’s about 9,000 feet atop of Squaw Valley, you can look across the Sierra Nevada to where you’re going to end up. It’s really daunting. But it’s just beautiful.”
The race began at 5:15 a.m. on a Saturday, and Tracy and Ragan crossed the finish line at 4:47 a.m. Sunday, with roughly 30 minutes to spare.
The feeling? “Overwhelming relief,” said Tracy, who added she don’t think she could have traveled another mile.
“I was like, ‘Get me off this horse and let me sleep,’” Ragan said. “We were so tired.”
Hours later that afternoon, after showering off their red dirt tans and devouring the best plate of tacos they’d ever tasted, the Kelly girls received their prized belt buckles at a Tevis Cup awards banquet. A sense of pride and gratitude washed over them.
Which begs the question — would they do it again?
“I’m not going to do (the Tevis Cup) anytime soon,” Ragan said. “Maybe later on in life.”
“I’m going to say that I don’t know,” Tracy said. “Never say never. I think it’s like childbirth. You forget the pain after a while and think, ‘Aw, that wasn’t so bad.’ ”