In April 2020—early during the COVID-19 pandemic—the Western States Trail Foundation Board of Governors (BOG) met via Zoom to decide the fate of its Tevis 100-mile endurance event across the Sierra Nevada Mountains from near Lake Tahoe to Auburn, California. “Things were just too up in the air with COVID,” explained board member Abigail Madden. With riders from across the country and the world making plans, the board voted to cancel the ride.
Maintaining the trail has always been a financial struggle, so fellow board member Crysta Turnage suggested hosting a “Virtual Tevis” to raise trail funds. In honor of Tevis, participants would log 100 miles of movement over several months (initially 100 miles in 100 days, but unprecedented forest fires in the West caused the committee to extend the deadline). When the virtual dust settled, 1,639 participants signed up, including 1,373 riders and 266 who chose to walk, bike, swim, or otherwise move themselves 100 miles in 100 days. Seventy-seven percent completed the 100 miles. The event raised more than $80,000 and united people from around the world.
After signing up and paying the $65 entry fee, participants logged miles which then unlocked photos and stories of where that mileage would put them on the iconic Tevis trail. “We appealed to two groups,” explained Madden, “those who had ridden the real trail and those who had never seen it. For some it brought back memories, and for some it allowed them to experience what might always be beyond reach.” A Tevis Virtual Ride Facebook Group brought everyone together to share their stories.
Former Tevis winner Tennessee Lane, of Colorado, fell in the memory group. “I signed up to support the trail, but I loved how it was like I was there again,” she said. She did her virtual Tevis on a 4-year old, taking several days to complete 100 miles instead of the 16 hours a Tevis win requires. “I was really sad when it was over,” she said of her virtual finish.
Deirdre Monroe, of Pojoque, New Mexico, had multiple motives for herself and her half-Arab, Joe. “I was using the miles to rehab Joe from a suspensory injury, and having not completed my one 2004 attempt at the real event, it felt great to finally reach the finish line,” she said. “It was a goal in the time of COVID.” So entranced with the experience, Monroe promptly entered again.
Pam Talley Stoneburner, of Waynesboro, Virginia, completed both the riding Virtual Tevis and also walked 100 miles for her second completion. Having crewed for a friend and raised two daughters who completed Tevis in 2019, the virtual ride gave her a chance to follow their trail. “I would call my husband when I hit a milestone, ‘Hey! Come see where I am,’” she said.
Well into her ride, Stoneburner’s horse, 17-year-old liver chestnut Bia, got kicked and underwent surgery for a broken shin bone. “I was determined to finish and used the miles for rehabilitation,” she said. The rules were one horse, one rider, and taking the honor system seriously, she could not change horses. “The weather turned bad, but I went out anyway and sometimes I just led her around the farm. I was determined to get it done, and right before the deadline we finished.”
Event organizers faced challenges, too. The biggest challenge pulling off Virtual Tevis? Without hesitation, Madden replied, “Shipping the awards.” The volunteers faced corrupted data and had no real experience shipping T-shirts, bandanas, and stickers worldwide. She sighed, “Someday I will get my dining room table back.”
Recently retired after more than 26 years in law enforcement, Madden has undoubtedly witnessed the darker sides of human nature and behavior, yet she has been moved by the Virtual Tevis stories. “I kept picturing Iris Hermann, of Hof, Germany, riding where a wall once separated East and West Germany,” Madden said.
Closer to home, Madden found inspiration in Peggy Hansen, of Foresthill, California, the oldest participant at 97 years old, who entered the nonriding division. A longtime Tevis volunteer, she was on track with her multiple 1/5-of-a-mile treks when she fell at mile 66 only 10 feet from her back door. Beating a grim prognosis, she rallied to take advantage of the ride’s extension to smash through her family-constructed finish line on Nov. 21, 2020.
Both the 2021 Virtual and IRL (in real life) Tevis will start July 24, 2021. With more than 200 entries signed up for the actual Tevis, the challenges continue. Organizers can’t guarantee how many horses will be allowed to start due to the logging of dangerous trees at Robinson Flat, as well as possible COVID-19-related restrictions and potential limits on permits. But the spirit of the Tevis trail lives on, even if virtually, allowing riders around the world to accept its challenges and reach their personal goals. To learn more, visit teviscup.org.