By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
At the base of the mountain a search party called their names, but the thunder drowned out their voices. The rescuers figured Darolyn could find her own way out; she's not a woman who usually needs to be rescued.
Back on top the rain slacked off as the women warmed themselves sharing flimsy ponchos and body heat. Darolyn had a soggy, mashed-up cookie in her pocket that served as dinner. Around 2 a.m. the temperature dropped; teeth chattering, Lynda Corry untangled herself from the group and grabbed the horses' saddles. The women curled into a ball, and Lynda threw the gear on top, dived into the bottom of the pile and fell asleep.
A few minutes later Darolyn saw a pair of eyes coming toward them. She punched Lynda awake; Lynda said she didn't see anything. Certain it was a bear, Darolyn turned on her flashlight only to see one of the horses had gotten loose. The women laughed and slept until sunrise.
At 5 a.m. they resaddled and slowly made their way down the muddy mountain, horses and people sliding over rocky, wet clay. They arrived at camp in time for the awards breakfast. Darolyn had lost the national championship.
Six years later Darolyn has 20,000 miles of competition and three national championships under her belt. No matter what happens during a race, she keeps riding. During one ride, her horse stepped in a hole, giving Darolyn a concussion, a broken nose and two broken elbows. Six weeks later she rode another race with pins in her arms.
Darolyn won a 25-mile race when she was eight and a half months pregnant. The vets were afraid they were going to have to deliver her baby. Two weeks after Cici was born Darolyn was back in the saddle training with the baby in a backpack. She has to ride, she says. "I can't stand not to."
Armed with degrees in theater and teaching, Darolyn moved to Dallas to model and act. She was hired to start a production company, but the guy who funded her gave her hot checks and $3,000 debt. It was the height of the urban cowboy craze, so she got a job selling Tony Lama's ladies' handbags. In Humble she bought a small house and stable down Cyprus Creek Road. The five empty acres adjoining hers were owned by an airline pilot.
The pilot heard that a rich retired model had moved in next door, so he introduced himself. Pat French was a charming man; he looked like Steve McQueen and was two inches taller than Darolyn. Darolyn invited him in, they made bacon and egg sandwiches, and -- despite the fact that he was married and living with a woman who wasn't his wife -- they started dating. "We were our most favorite people," Darolyn remembers.
It was the '70s, so they dated other people. Pat was always her favorite, and Darolyn believed that eventually he would realize that she was smarter and prettier than his other women. But after their wedding in 1976 he didn't stop dating. Still, the marriage continued.
When she was 31, Darolyn read an article about endurance riding. She had just had her first daughter, Rima, and she figured she'd better try it before she got too old. She and Pat had lived on the ranch six years, but Darolyn hadn't ridden more than half a mile into the surrounding woods.
She rode her first 50-mile race after training a quarter horse for six months. She covered the first 35 miles in three hours and the last 15 miles in three hours. "Most of it spent leading this tired, tired horse," Darolyn says. "The horse was a runaway -- that cured him." Darolyn's quads hurt so much after the ride she spent a week walking down stairs backward.
Training for an endurance ride takes about two years, Darolyn found out. "Anything less is suicide for the rider," she says. "Homicide for the horse." Horses build stamina running up and down hills and mountains. Since Houston doesn't have hills, Darolyn began riding her horses through mud, sand and streams.
The more she trained, the more she won. In two years she earned her first national championship. She applied the same determination to her work life, but in 1983 Tony Lama refused to promote Darolyn to boot salesman. So she started making instructional horseback-riding videos. She didn't know very much about books and business ledgers, so, she says, people screwed her in every subsequent business venture. But at endurance rides she kept winning. Darolyn's children told her that driving to an endurance ride was the only time they heard her laugh.
Darolyn's husband rode with her in almost every race. But Pat began telling her the horses were draining them financially. As her stable grew, he didn't like the traffic in his home. Eventually he stopped wanting to go to rides every weekend. He wanted to do things that didn't involve horseback riding, but Darolyn couldn't think of anything else she'd rather do. About this time, Darolyn started finding receipts and bank documents indicating Pat had another life involving a girlfriend and a separate apartment. When they divorced in 1993, Pat stopped riding.
Two years later Darolyn got a training license and started flat-track racing her Arabians. But whenever a race conflicted with an endurance ride, she found herself longing to be on the trail. Darolyn took on more boarders and started teaching lessons and leading trail rides. Endurance riding is how she makes her living now. People board their horses with winners, buy their horses from winners and take lessons from winners, she says. She took the best part of her life and made it her livelihood.
Darolyn's current husband used to crew for her at rides. Mark "the Cowboy" Dial drove her rig, grilled steaks and massaged Darolyn's feet. Mark, 40, wears long-sleeved starched shirts no matter how hot it is, recites Wild West trivia and won't go to the doctor even if he cracks a few ribs. They were strictly friends without flirting for five years, until the summer they "accidentally" fell in love. He's utterly and entirely devoted to her and the horses. "We're both throwbacks from the 1800s," she says. They were married on horseback last fall; the ceremony was held at high noon at the joining in the creek.
Darolyn wanted to leave no later than 10 a.m. At 1 p.m. they're loading the rig when a woman on the 10:30 a.m. ride faints and falls off her horse. Darolyn and Mark drive into the woods to rescue her. Vicki Hudson, 44, looks at her watch. She's one of the "lilies" (as Darolyn calls them), who came for a trail ride then bought a horse and a trailer. Vicki sits down and sighs -- she doesn't want to drive a big rig of horses over dark hills, but it doesn't look like she has a choice. Vicki bought Belle last October; a month later she had a double mastectomy. When Vicki told her doctor she had taken up horseback riding, he said it was against his better judgment, so she didn't tell him about endurance rides. Just like she didn't tell him that the first time she fell off her horse she thought she had burst her silicon implants.
Around 4 p.m. they load 11 horses into Darolyn's big red rig and Vicki's deluxe white trailer. On the six-hour drive, they bounce along eating barbecue and listening to cowboys sing about corazones. Darolyn spends the ride on her cell phone talking to people back at the ranch.
Rain slams the windshield as the sky darkens. It's after 10 p.m. when they drive into what feels like Deliverance country. The race is in the Hill Country State Park, ten miles outside of Bandera, a small cowboy town where bar stools have saddles instead of seat cushions.
Mark drives the rig up a hill past picket fences into a darkened ocean of tents, trucks and trailers; horses stand silhouetted against the night sky. After the horses are settled, Mark and Darolyn are too tired to set up the tent, so they sleep in the rig. It's 1:30 a.m. when Darolyn's now-20-year-old student Laura spreads a tarp onto the hay, lies down and falls asleep.
On Memorial Day weekend about 60 riders, most of them women, saddled up at the Memory ride. Hundred-mile rides are usually ridden in one long day that turns into night. No one naps, they just ride. But this ride is broken into two 12-hour, 50-mile races.
The race costs about $1.25 per mile, and there's no big prize at the end. Oftentimes the grand prize is a bucket or a blanket. The prize Darolyn's most proud of is a ceramic horse she won racing in the Badlands; 66 people started, 16 finished -- Darolyn came in last. The American Endurance Riding Association's motto is "To finish is to win."
Darolyn's already curling her eyelashes and adding fresh waterproof mascara. She swallows ten vitamins and twirls her hip-long gray hair into a French twist. On her head is a wide-brimmed straw hat decorated with a fresh gardenia.
Usually Darolyn braids turquoise bears into her horse's mane; they symbolize strength and courage. But she doesn't have time today. She does four quick French braids to keep the hair off the horse's neck and to give her something to hold on to when riding uphill.
In the darkness Peter stands at the bottom of the hill, a white lantern at his feet. With his bullhorn, the Greek and Roman literature professor hollers at people to come into the light. Riders in the 50-mile race call out their names and the number grease-penciled on their horses' rumps as Cynthia Ansorge checks them in. The air is so hot and wet the 26 riders are already sweating.
"It's getting light fast," Peter says.
One rider grumbles: "Promises, promises." Darolyn rides up and tells Peter a few of her riders are going to start late.
At 5:45 a.m. Peter sends them off: "Take care, have a good ride," he says. "The trail is open for competition."
It's dark, so most people start slow. Darolyn isn't afraid; she and her horse have ridden this trail dozens of times. Darolyn knows to watch out for clumps of cacti, holes and hard ground. She won't ride on the asphalt and pound her horse's legs -- she rides beside the road in the dirt and grass. Her horse Alley usually knows which path to pick, but sitting three feet higher, Darolyn can see better. "You're always watching, watching, watching," she says. "Like a tree full of owls."
Darolyn takes the lead, putting Alley in a fast trot. They move through the dark at 18 miles an hour over slick rock and past fields of flowers they can't see. No one has a flashlight; they're riding blind. Darolyn doesn't ride any faster in the first five miles than she thinks she can the last five miles.
"The whole trick is to stay aerobic," she says. Sprinting creates lactic acid, which leads to sore muscles and a tired horse. If a horse keeps breathing, it can keep going.
Back at camp a dull white light creeps into the cloud-covered sky as the 25-mile race begins. Nine out of ten horses are Arabians or Arab mixes. Arabians are bred for endurance, with lean, flat muscles. They have a large lung capacity and short, strong backs. Morgans, mustangs, mules, quarter horses and thoroughbreds can enter the race, but usually Arabs win. Darolyn rides only Arabs.
It starts to sprinkle. After 13 miles over dry, rocky road, Darolyn rides up on Alley. It hasn't rained in Bandera for weeks, the creeks are dried up, and there are no puddles on the trail. Usually the first loop of the race has three rivers to cross, but they're dry. It's 7:20 a.m., and Darolyn's the first person back for the vet check. She walks Alley to a tub of water and grabs a cut-up milk jug to scoop water onto the horse's neck, legs and belly. Her time won't stop until the horse's pulse goes down. There are mandatory vet checks every 13 miles; it doesn't matter if it's the 99th mile of a 100-mile race -- if the horse isn't healthy it gets pulled.
Sounding like a tired Patsy Cline, Darolyn sings to relax the horse. She puts one manicured hand on Alley's nose and the other at the pulse point behind Alley's ears. The mare lowers her head -- when a horse's head goes down, the whole body relaxes. At tough competitions authorities won't let riders touch the horse, and that's why Darolyn sings: The horse associates the song with relaxation.
The vet does a Jiffy Lube check on the horse, measuring its hydration by pinching its skin and blanching its gums. With a stethoscope, the vet listens to the gut sounds and watches Alley trot. Alley's yellow report card has all As, but an A-minus in attitude. "That's weird," Darolyn says as she hands her card to the timekeeper.
At the time desk, Randy Moss sits with his three-month-old baby, Elijah. Elijah's mother is riding today. "This is a family sport," Darolyn says. She smiles at the baby. "He'll be riding in the next competition."
Darolyn smiles. "Maybe."
The woman has ridden 25-mile trails with Darolyn. She figured if she was going to drive all the way out here, she might as well do more. She's starting to regret that decision. Her whole body hurts, and she's got 37 miles left to go.
"Advil time," Darolyn tells her. Darolyn feels fine, she says, nothing hurts. Still, she takes a swig of KM, an herbal syrup that looks like tobacco juice and tastes like licorice and prunes. It's equivalent to eating ten bananas, Darolyn says.
The rest of her crew rides up, and Darolyn helps wet down the horses. Everyone tells her their horses' heart rates, what time they checked in and what the vet said. People who bought their horses from Darolyn or used to ride with her check back for her approval. "It's almost like I'm riding two horses," Darolyn says. "I ride for everybody here. I keep my eye on them all."
Back by the trailer, Darolyn grabs a milk jug marked "people water" and chugs it. She's under the microscope to join the national team. With her fingers crossed, she's breaking in a new saddle for the world competition. Her stirrups are stretching, so she adjusts them and takes the girth up a notch. A horse can lose 50 to 75 pounds in a race. That's why Darolyn feeds Alley at every stop and encourages her to eat along the trail.
In addition to the normal mix of hay, oats and corn, Darolyn feeds her horses sugar-beet pulp (for extra roughage) and two cups of corn oil a day. The oil goes straight to the horses' fat reserves for energy during a race. Since it's so hot in Texas, the horses are syringe-fed a white powdered electrolyte mix: regular salt, light salt and calcium carbonate blended with applesauce and honey. It's basically Gatorade for horses.
Darolyn doesn't sit down. She fights so hard for minutes on the trail, she doesn't want to lose time in camp. She doesn't waste time walking 50 yards to the Port-O-Let; she just pees in the hay with the horses.
"We're out in five minutes," Darolyn tells the girls riding with her. "Let's go!"
Darolyn grabs Alley's reins and steps onto the front bumper of a gold Jeep Grand Cherokee. The bumper breaks.
The British lady screams. "Oh, no! Not my bumper!"
Darolyn walks to the red Jeep next to it, hops onto that bumper and onto the horse and rides off. She doesn't waste time saying she's sorry.
"I don't want your horse to eat my horse's food," says Meghan, the previously missing prodigy.
It's the same food. "They're in the same pen," says Darolyn's step-daughter, Brittany Dial. "I'll feed 'em double."
Brittany and Mark tell Meghan if she'd shown up on time instead of going to the slumber party then maybe her horse would have its own bucket of food. The girls keep arguing, Meghan hits Brittany with a water bottle, then Brittany shoves Meghan. They're best friends.
Meghan gets on her horse. "I think I broke my foot," she tells Mark. "She stepped on me really hard."
Mark's adjusting saddles. "Quit complaining," he says. An ex-Marine, Mark recites: "Improvise, adapt and overcome."
In April Darolyn rode a three-and-a-half-hour 50. Riding the same distance in today's heat and humidity takes twice as long. Darolyn rides toward the finish line, her arms bleeding from tiny cedar branch cuts. She slows down and tells Laura to take her hand. They rode together all day, and Laura worked just as hard, so Darolyn wants to tie. It's not as important nowadays for Darolyn to be the only winner.
The vets gush over how great Alley looks. The horse could easily turn around and run another 50. Darolyn wins Best Condition, the most coveted prize in the race. Marathon winners fall down at the end of the race and people say that's noble, the ride manager says, but marathon runners have a choice -- horses don't.
As the day closes, riders are draped across camp chairs or lying on the water cooler table. Darolyn sits down next to the British lady. "Still speaking to me?"
Not really. The lady packs up her Jeep. She still likes Darolyn, and she still likes riding, but she's getting out of here before Darolyn can talk her into riding again tomorrow. She's going to take her son to a nice air-conditioned restaurant and go home.
Vicki's back hurts. She feels like she has been on her feet lifting boxes for 48 hours. Vicki crossed the finish line first of the 25s. Darolyn thinks she's ready to ride a 50; she wants Vicki to challenge herself. Plus, a horse's value goes up $1,000 with each 50.
That night there is no campfire and no marshmallows. Instead, everyone trades massages and stories about other rides. They eat cold chicken, Brie and French bread. Someone opens a bottle of wine.
Throughout the camp, heavy raindrops cave in canvas tents. The water wets the horses, but as the air cools, the horses' muscles stiffen. They'll need morning massages. Endurance rides don't stop for rain.
Around 2 a.m. the flood waters slack off. The hard, dry mud is now chocolate mousse. Bobwhites and whippoorwills call in the darkness.
"It's going to be really treacherous today," she says. She rode her best horse in mud like this last summer, and the world championship selectors screamed at her for risking that horse. "I'm not gonna make that mistake again," she says. She had a good showing yesterday; riding today she has nothing to gain and everything to lose.
She's not alone in her decision. There are half the number of people riding the 50-mile today.
"I bet there will be lots of water out there," Mark says, scraping mud off his boots. The earth is a pile of soggy horse shit. "Good God almighty," he grumbles. Darolyn nods. "I know," she says. "It's gumbo."
Vicki sits underneath the tarp, stiff and sore. Her back is killing her. Darolyn tells her to take a swig of KM. Darolyn signed her up for the 50.
"I don't want to do this," Vicki says. "I'm doing this for Darolyn."
From inside the trailer Darolyn calls back: "Meghan too!" Vicki's her sponsor.
Vicki shakes her head: "I must be nuts." The same thought is echoed throughout the camp. At 6:19 a.m. riders are on their horses talking about how they're crazy. "We're certifiably insane," one rider says.
The vet nods. "It's an addictive game," he says. "Don't know why, but it is."
The sky is streaked a salmon watercolor, and the air feels like the calendar has rolled back to March. The trail is wet, but the creeks are still dry. There's standing water in the riverbeds, but nothing is running. For that they would have needed a small flood, at least ten inches.
The mud creates a whole different course; no one can go as fast as the day before. Most people walk more than they ride, but some canter through the sludge, leaving slip marks. The vet's worried that horses' hooves will act like suction cups, sticking in the mud while their bodies keep moving. Mud can mean pulled muscles, he says.
The sun is starting to come up. Meghan's horse has a sore tendon, and the vet orders it out of the race. Mark's horse has a sore foot; they get pulled too. Mark was registered for the two-day 100 ride, so all the points of finishing well yesterday are lost. "You okay?" Darolyn asks Mark softly. Yesterday he was the first-place heavyweight and leading the 100. "I ain't happy," he says. As he walks his horse back to camp, both the horse and rider have their heads down.
By 3 p.m. Sunday the camp is half abandoned. The 25-milers finished around noon, packed up and went home. Darolyn leaves to go visit her daughter at camp. When she goes, so does most of the excitement: The head cheerleader and coach is gone.
Crew members sit outside Darolyn's rig washing their feet in a bucket of dirty water. They've already consolidated the coolers and cleaned up; now they're just waiting. "This is a lot like sailing," says crew member Christine Ando. "Hours of boredom punctuated by moments of frenzy."
By 5:30 p.m. the camp is emptying out and the ride manager is grilling steaks. The ride secretaries are sitting nearby, their eyes so tired they can only look down. Everyone's exhausted, even those who didn't ride.
The 50-milers officially have 12 hours to finish the course: They have until 6:15 p.m.
"Should be soon," says the vet, glancing at his watch.
Still, nothing happens. No horses come trotting down the lane.
At 5:40 p.m. the first horse appears; at 5:43, two more. A minute later, two more. One lady is so tired she doesn't have the energy to get off and walk. Laura comes in fourth.
At 5:57 p.m. the ride manager approaches the time desk with a problem. Laura missed three out of four mandatory water stops. "Something is fishy," he says. Since she rode with Darolyn yesterday, someone says to check if Darolyn stopped. They figure if Darolyn had cheated then Laura wouldn't know better.
But Darolyn didn't cheat; Darolyn doesn't cheat.
"She was there on the first day," Peter says.
"So she knows," his wife, Cynthia, says.
There's a lot of whispering. Scandal is brewing. A timekeeper tells them to calm down; it's easy for a spotter to space out and miss a person.
The whispering continues. "Problem is, we don't have very much evidence at all," Peter says. "I don't think we have enough hard data to squeeze her through the wall."
Like they're solving a murder mystery, they try to figure out how and when Laura might have cheated. "There's no shortcut there," Peter says.
"But she could've just went right by," his wife says.
"That's not a big deal," Peter says as he exhales heavily. This is too hard.
Peter heads up the hill to talk to Laura. He sadly sits down and tells her they have to talk. Laura is a sophomore at Texas A&M majoring in biomedical engineering and physics. Aside from Darolyn and Mark, she's the hardest worker in the camp. She's an enthusiastic and energetic Rumanian immigrant who doesn't do things halfway. She would never think to cheat. She calmly tells Peter that of course she was at each stop and recites which riders were with her. Peter says he'll check her story with those riders.
Laura's number was 525. The spotter messed up and wrote down 225. Not her fault: Scandal over.
"It seemed like it was 1,000 miles," she says. "Really, it did."
Vicki told her just to get off her horse and walk.
At six-ten Brittany rides up crying. Mark lifts his daughter off her horse. Still sobbing, she throws her arms around his neck.
"Dad, just carry me," Brittany says. "Please, Dad."
He puts her down, his arm still around her: "I'm not carrying you.... This'll help." He pours ice water over her helmet. She runs off.
Mark lifts Brittany back onto her horse after the vet says it's sound. "You did good," Mark says. "I'm proud of you."
Mark taps a few extra-strength Tylenol into his hand. His back hurts, but his back always hurts, he says.
Vicki is sitting on the steps of her trailer, her cheeks red. "I don't want to do that again," she says. Well, maybe next year, she says, when she gets her strength back. Cancer takes a lot out of a person. Her daily medication makes her tired.
"I feel like my skin is leather," she says. "I hope Darolyn is proud of me."
Vicki is so tired she doesn't know if her feet can push the gas pedal driving home. All she wants to do tomorrow is sit by the lake with her three rottweilers. But even though the ride is over, the work isn't. The horses still have to be cooled down, hosed off, fed and watered. The gear has to be packed up and the electric corral broken down. The hay and horse manure have to be scattered and scooped. They work until the sky is black.
It's almost midnight, the horses are loaded into the rig, and the girls are asleep in the back. Mark has a large cup of coffee and some natural No-Doze. The air-conditioning is on high and he turns up the volume on the CD player. As Mark drives, cowboys sing about swaying in the saddle, riding easy with the sun.
Mark pulls the rig to a stop at 4 a.m. Finally showered and clean, Darolyn comes out to meet him. When she visited her daughter, the camp officials wouldn't let Darolyn shower in Cici's room. But they let her in the pool. Stiff and sore from riding and driving, Darolyn could barely move, but as soon as she stepped into the water, a volleyball game started. She and Cici played against each other; Darolyn won.
As they lead the horses into the pasture, Darolyn's watch alarm goes off: Time to wake up. They have a couple of hours to sleep and shower. Then they have to saddle up the horses for the 10:30 a.m. trail ride.