December 31, 2012

Tribute to a friend

The November 2012 Ironman Florida was a significant event in our lives, but as that adventure was coming to a close something else was occurring. I had been expecting it for some time, but that didn't make it any easier.

Because I am long PENNED-ED, this is not a short read. Taffy had a long life, though, so she needs more than just a passing blurb. (Excuse the parts with weird spacing. Blogspot is acting ugly.)

Friday, after arriving in Florida on Wednesday, I got a call from Jenna, one of our summer barn employees. She was out at the barn taking care of her horse and called to let me know that Taffy was laying down in the pasture and wasn't interested in getting up. She had a friend with her, and over about a two hour period updated me on what was happening as they tried to get her to stand. I was trying to figure out what might be wrong over the phone, frankly trying to avoid a veterinary visit since I wasn't there and didn't want Jenna to have to stick around and wait. They finally rolled her over and helped heave her to her feet. She ate and drank a bit, and seemed okay otherwise. Saturday no one called me, so I assumed everything was okay. Sunday Abby called to let me know her balance seemed a bit off, but she was eating and drinking. I figured she was just sore from a long bout of laying down and heave ho-ing trying to stand. Monday she was still off balance and moving slow, but eating fine.

Tuesday we were driving home, and at about 3 PM Jenna called to let me know that Taffy was laying down in the barn aisle, flat on her side, not interested in getting up again. Jenna already had a vet on the way to check out a lameness her own horse had, and since it was my usual vet and I trusted him, I asked her to get him to look at her. Within the hour he had arrived and called me himself. I was driving at that point, somewhere near Columbus. He said it didn't look good, that her heart rate was very elevated and she probably wouldn't be able to stand back up again on her own. In the past he has told me he doesn't usually make recommendations that people put their animals down, unless it's without a doubt in the best interest of the animal to keep it from suffering. When he asked me if I wanted him to end it for her, my decision was made. He didn't think she would die on her own right away, that it was inevitable, but it would probably be several miserable hours for her. So, at about 4 PM on November 6, I found myself driving down the highway, tears streaming, saying good bye from afar.

Taffy joined our family in August of 1987. I was given my first horse, Flicka, two years before that when I was 11. She lived at a boarding stable until we got the front pasture fenced in and a shed added to the back of my dad's storage building to use as a stable. We moved her home during the summer of 1987, but horses are herd animals and don't like being kept alone. She wore a path up and down the fence line from pacing. Our neighbor had a few horses at a nearby boarding stable, and had acquired Taffy the year before. She initially loaned her to us as a companion horse for Flicka.

I now know our neighbor, Dot, was a saint of sorts. She used to take me with her to the barn when she took care of her horses. She already had a young son and daughter in tow, so horse keeping was difficult enough as it was. I jumped at whatever chance I could get to be near horses, to clean stalls, groom them, inhale their horsey scent. Riding was a definite bonus. She was the one who helped us navigate the early days of horse ownership with Flicka. I am sure I was not only very little help to her, but a bit of a risk as I had no fear around horses, and not yet enough experience to be able to tell the difference between a kid-friendly one and one that was not. So, Mrs. Dot Mathis, you may not ever read this, but THANK YOU!!

Mom eventually ended up buying Taffy from Dot. Back then there were visions of mother and daughter riding happily together, bonding over the mutual joy horses bring. The reality was that Taffy was a cautious, self-preserving, spooky Appaloosa (a trait that can be synonymous with the breed), and Mom wasn't ever comfortable riding her. Whenever we rode together Mom rode my sweet, honest, non-spooky bay Appendix mare and I rode the prone-to-whirl-around Appaloosa.

Some people learning to ride take lessons every week for years, perfecting their technique, going to horse shows, and buying expensive horses to bring ribbons home with. Others take a few lessons to get started, then "perfect" their craft through survival riding- hanging on through lateral and vertical spooking maneuvers, the occasional buck or rear, and through miles of haphazard bareback gallops. I am in the latter group. It was the most fun I've ever had.

Taffy came along through several years of steady riding. She was already trained pretty well as far as understanding commands went, but I learned with her how to "put the buttons" on a horse by working with her. In horsemen's terms, this means refining signals to the point that sitting a little deeper in the saddle means to slow down or stop, a slight lean forward and kiss means go straight from a halt to a canter, and turning left or right can be done entirely through the use of legs and seat without the use of reins. She became a real pleasure to ride, especially after her cautious nature was overcome through learning to trust her rider, which was at that time in her life, only me. She never hesitated to carry me through any water I asked her to cross, or go up any trail no matter how narrow or steep. Our only arguments were over the speed at which to return to the barn. She would always walk, sort of, and never tried to runaway with me, but it was a "jiggy" sort of walk that was almost more trot. Her actual trot was so smooth it could be ridden comfortably for miles, but her impatient return-to-the barn walk hybrid was gut jarring, and never failed to make me grumpy!

Flicka was always a great ride, and ended up becoming more of the "guest horse," as she would faithfully pack anyone no matter how inexperienced. She also became a camp horse during the summers, and worked six summer at Camp WinShape. One day I'll blog memories about her as well. No one could have ever asked for a better first horse.

Taffy became my sole riding horse during college days, where I actually was able to take some riding lessons again and ride on the Berry Equestrian Team. I was extremely fortunate to be able to exchange care of the WinShape stables and few horses the camp owned (most were leased for the summer) for board for my two horses. I didn't realize what a true blessing that was until I was out of school. Board at the college barn was $450 a month per horse, and here I had use of a barn and pasture, riding arena, and 28,000 acres of riding trails almost within sight of the college barn for FREE! It's so much fun to trace the hand of God working in my life. It's truly amazing.

Mom officially gifted Taffy to me my freshman year of college. The equestrian team used her a few times when they needed extra horses for intercollegiate shows, and she guided countless trail rides for campers at Camp WinShape. After getting married, James and I moved to Camp Skyline in 1997. By this point Flicka wasn't doing well health-wise, and she lived a year with us there in Alabama before I was forced to make the difficult decision, after having her for 14 years, to put her down. Taffy was in her early 20's by then and had finally started to settle into been there/done that older horse mode. She started her camp horse career at Camp Skyline, and was used there for five summers.

We moved to Cleveland in 2000, with Taffy in tow. I boarded her that first year at a friend's place, then another place, then another friend's place. In 2004 she moved to Strong Rock, once we had established enough grass in the pasture. In the meantime she went to another local camp I worked at for part of the summer before having Amelia, and I taught a few riding lessons on her as well. She did six summers at Strong Rock and packed countless beginner riders on trail rides during the off season, truly earning her oats! All the time I invested in her earlier in her life training-wise really paid off later on with beginner riders.

I had Taffy for 25 years. She was two months shy of being 38 years old when she died. It's not hard to understand that an attachment between a horse and owner can't help but form after that many years, but it's harder to explain how deep it ran. When I was a teenager, she was a secret keeper. It's easy to tell a horse buddy how you feel about things when you can't tell a person. She was a companion, who I hung out with for hours and hours both on the ground and in the saddle. She was a responsibility-builder, needing care whether I felt like getting up before school to feed her or not, rain or shine, hot or cold. She was always the "weenie" of the pasture, at the bottom of the herd pecking order. I could catch her eye though, and she would dart through aggressive herd mates to slip through the gate I would open just enough for her to get through. She never seemed to doubt that I would stand there and keep the others from chasing or kicking her. I could pat her on the shoulder when something was scary to her and she'd calm down and pass by it.

I only have pictures of her taken in the past five or six years posted below. The others were taken during the pre-digital era of my life. I also only have pictures of her with other people, and none with me. She was the go-to for beginner riders for the last 14 or so years of her life. One day I'm going to take some time to scan some earlier photos and maybe I'll add them here then.

In 2009, at 34 years old. She was heading out for a trail ride with a Scuttle (a summer staffer) and several others.

Also in 2009 (painted painting is a favorite activity of campers).

In  2006, a spry 31 year old.

Winter of 2005.

With Nicole H., one of her biggest fans, summer of 2008.

Nicole and Taffy again, summer of 2009.

Taffy learned to jump in her late teens, when I converted her from a solely western horse to one who could go huntseat (english) as well.  This is jumping Taffy-style as a 35 year old in 2010. Her depth-perception wasn't as keen as it was when she was younger and she didn't jump anymore.

 I think it's way cool that she had a hand in teaching my own kids to ride. I never would have imagined she'd be around that long.


Here's Amelia on Taffy and Shannon on Maverick He died exactly a year before she did. He was an amazing horse for beginners as well. Both are sorely missed.

I was able to document Taffy's last time under saddle. This is July of 2011, at 36 years old. We weren't using her for camp that summer, as I had made the decision to retire her from the demands of more regular riding a few months prior. This day in July was between camp sessions we had family in town. Some of the kids wanted to ride, so I figured she'd be up for a couple of times around the arena. It was a pretty hot day though, and she was stumbling and not doing so well, so that was the day she was retired from riding forever. She had developed a serious heart murmur the previous year, which accounted for her becoming a bit rickety. Old critters have old parts, and her heart valves weren't sealing properly anymore. Heart failure is eventually what got her in the end, just as I expected it would.

 Here she is during the winter of 2010. No one could grow a winter coat like Taffy as an old lady. It basically started growing hard core in early September, and would shed March through August. I had to body clip her the last few years of her life so she wouldn't be miserable through the summer. Grooming her in the spring was always a treat, if you liked to leave the barn wearing a white coat. After brushing her there would be a pile of hair at her feet big enough to make a pony.

I love this picture. Two old friends, enjoying the sunshine, spring of 2011. Maverick was a good companion for her and pasturing them together worked well since they both had to be fed twice a day. For two years I trekked out to the barn after the kids went to bed to give them a second feeding, which consisted of Senior horse feed and alfalfa cubes softened with water to make a sort of soup. Veterinary care, like medical care for people, has continued to improve greatly. Horses can now outlive their teeth. Both of these oldies were missing as many molars as they had left, which made the soup routine necessary. I loved those evenings at the barn, it was always peaceful. 

Here are the last pictures that were taken of Taffy, in June of 2012. London and Harper came to visit and wanted to bathe a horse. Taffy was a willing participant. Note the pile of white hair, even this late in the shedding season!

Looking pretty good at 37! She had slowed down even more by this point though, and her hearing and eyesight continued to decline. She still trotted in to eat though, and it seemed that all of her days were good days, right up until the end.

I believe God was showing His mercy by letting me be out of town when it was her time to go. By the time I got home she was already buried. (Thank you again, Rick!) Jenna and Dr. Rob saved me a lock of her tail.

The love that was shown by friends and family, even at the passing of an animal, was incredible. I got calls from people who had known Taffy, or who had lost horses of their own. It was fun to see how many people commented about her on Facebook, many for whom she had been their first ride. She had taught several of them to ride a canter and jump. It would be neat to know how many folks she carried over her lifetime, how many she instilled confidence in with her steadiness and dependability.

The book of Revelation talks about Jesus coming back on a white horse. That gives me hope that maybe there are horses in heaven (?) I don't really believe that animals have souls, but part of me hopes to see Taffy and Flicka in a pasture beside my mansion in heaven. :)

I love the way God orchestrates every detail of our lives, and everything he does has purpose. He has been so good to me. Taffy was a huge blessing in my life, and I will be forever grateful for her!

R.I.P. Taffy: January 27, 1975- November 6, 2012

December 30, 2012


I've got a few months to catch up on blog-wise (as usual!), but I decided to skip September and October for now since a BIG EVENT happened in November. Yep, I am the wife of an Ironman. 

The first weekend in November was the Ironman Florida triathlon. On Wednesday before it, which happened to be Halloween, we drove to Panama City. (The whole costume thing at Halloween can be stressful, so I was off the hook this year. Unfortunately this also means there was no picking through the trick or treat bags for the good stuff. You didn't read that, kids.) 

This weekend was the culmination of tons of hard work, dedication, and countless hours on foot, bicycle, and in the pool. It was a difficult fall for us as a family with the schedule demands of an athlete in training, who also happens to run a business. Tackling a feat like an Ironman is not for the faint of heart or the slack of dedication. James was up WAY before sunrise, and in spite of attempting to be in bed at a reasonable hour, was sometimes up too late because schedule demands caused him to have to get in a run or a training ride (in the basement, on the trainer) at night. He worked hard to figure out what his body needed calorie and nutrition-wise, and what kind of food or supplements he needed. There were bottles of every size it seemed in the dish drainer throughout the fall from water or drink supplements, and some kind of dry fit shirt or shorts hung over the shower door drying every day. I had mixed feelings of pride, frustration, awe, loneliness, and amazement throughout the months leading up to the race. The kids and I missed him, probably exacerbated by the timing of it being right after a busy summer of camp where we also saw too little of him. In spite of the reality of that part of it, the respect I had and have for his persistence and strength have continued to grow. In short, it's incredible. Okay, on with the story.

Here we are getting ready to roll.

 Don't forget the bike, don't forget the bike, don't forget the bike...

On Halloween night we rolled in to Panama City Beach at bed time. After breakfast at Waffle House Thursday morning we headed to the race venue, a hotel about a mile from our condo. This is where the race would begin and end, and all transitions between sports happened there as well. It's the same place the half-Ironman distance triathlon he did a year and a half before used as its venue. 

James had to check in and pick up some information. Shannon stayed with him to do the official stuff and the rest of the kids and I went to Walmart to pick up groceries. (I can't think of a single vacation I've been on in the past several years that hasn't included at least one Walmart run.)

He borrowed a set of wheels from a friend for the race. Although he had several adjustments made to his bike before departing for Florida, he still ended up with a wheel issue. The back wheel scrubbed the frame because of its size, so he had to rent a back wheel for the race.

This is a time trial bike, which he was able to cobble together for a reasonable price just a few weeks before the race. It pays to have good buddies who are willing to help out by giving a fair price on their used things or donating them to the cause, as well as a good mechanic friend. I don't have pictures of any of the folks James knows and rides or runs or swims with, but I got to finally meet several of them at the race.

Amelia took our picture. Hmm, not sure where Elizabeth was. I don't remember having to go look for her anywhere, so I guess she stepped out of the frame.

As an aside, may I just say that whatever earlier posts I've done where I mentioned my dissatisfaction with my camera's settings, and then I said I was happy that I figured out how to fix them, please disregard that latter part. I DID NOT figure out how to fix them, and my wonderful camera that takes awesome pictures on the automatic setting, the camera that I love, is truly screwed up. It was delivered to the camera fixing place just before Christmas, and I got a call that it was fixed and ready while I was in Texas for the holidays. So all of these pictures, as well as pictures of our Texas and Missouri trip, were taken with the crappy camera. (More on Texas and Missouri later. At this rate, much later. Like in 2016.)

At the hotel there was an expo with several vendors, as well as a tent where folks could make signs for their Iron People loved ones.

The kids and I walked back to the condo before James finished with his registration and such.

We stayed in the same set of condos we had been in before. Thanks to the Baumgardners, we had the routine down pretty well. This condo was right on the running part of the race course, so we could see him go by from the comfort of the front lawn of the building.

Blurry shot. Thanks, crappy camera.

We found some time that afternoon to visit the beach. The temperature was warm, the water was cold.

Here are some behind the scenes pictures. Above are the bicycles lined up for transition from the swim to the cycling phase of the race. Below are "special needs bags," which racers make up and check in ahead of time. They might have food in them, extra water, clothes, sunscreen, anything a race participant might need during transition.

Thursday evening we went to the condo his buddies were staying at, so I got to meet some of them. Friday they got together to ride and swim a little. Most of them had already done several Ironman races before, so James was the only new guy. While he was out and about the kids and I took advantage of the fact that we were in Florida enjoying warm weather after a few cold snaps in Georgia. Friday evening my folks and James' brother Jason arrived. It was so good to have the support! Race day also involved a lot of walking and waiting, so having more hands on deck to help with the kids was also invaluable.

Saturday morning James got up dark and early to head to the start. The race began at 7 AM, so we walked down the beach in time to see him off.

Before the swim. A proud moment for me!

Jason, James, and Chris B. It was a complete surprise when Chris showed up Friday evening to support James, and it was very meaningful. Chris had originally signed up to do the race with him, but his life was in a bit of transition at the time and he wasn't able to follow through with training like he needed to. James had no idea he was going to show up!

Us with Jason and Mom and Dad.

 Ready as he'll ever be!

The start of the swim is madness. Everyone starts at one time, so it's just a mass of flailing arms and legs, headed out to swim almost further than the eye can see. I wasn't able to get a clear picture of how far the buoys went out, but it was REALLY A LONG WAY.

The beach was very crowded. The participants swam out, around all the buoys, then back to the beach, ran through an arch that electronically recorded their time, then out to do it again.

The ocean was not kind that day, either. Some swells were 4 and 5 feet high. The crappy camera cannot accurately record what it looked like out there.

Jason and I tried to weasel our way up to where we could see him come through the first time. The kids and my folks stayed in a clearer area of the beach since there wasn't a chance we'd get everyone close enough to see him.

Here you can see some of the first of the swimmers coming back around to get in the water for the second time.

Look at the mass exodus from the water! James did manage to hear us yelling and waved when he came by.

We moved so we could see him come up the alley and to the bike transition once he was out of the water. He swam faster than he thought he would so he was off to an excellent start.

Here's an avid Ironman supporter. :)

Jason and I got a front seat view of his swim exit by moving forward a half inch at a time when someone would move a little or vacate their spot. We missed getting over to the bike transition in time though, so I didn't get any pictures of him leaving on the bike.

The cool thing was a former staffer (during our second summer of camp), who also interned with us a little while, was at the race supporting a friend and her husband. We hadn't seen her in a few years but she knew we would be there. It was great to see Beth and her husband and son, and she was able to get a few pictures. 

And he's off! Notice the cool disc wheel on the back end of the bike. It cuts down on wind resistance.

We knew we wouldn't be able to see any of the bike part since it went the opposite way of our condo, and because of so much bike traffic the course was  unmanuverable by a person who wanted to follow it in a vehicle.

So we went back to the condo, ate lunch, and went to the beach and pool.

Thankfully one of the pools was heated.

The hot tub was heated too.

Elizabeth practiced her swimming. I didn't let her swim much without a float all summer because we were always in the lake. I don't like the way the lake doesn't let you see a kid who doesn't swim very well yet under the water.

Jason, catching some rays. We were able to check in on James' progress online. When he passed through certain points on the race course his timing chip checked in and they updated points he had been through.

We set up a pop-up tent thingy on the narrow front grassy strip in front of our condo, where we sat to watch James come by on the run. The way it was routed he would come by four different times. We saw him three of those times, and after the third pass we packed up to head down to the race venue to see him finish.

Beth took a few more pictures for us. Here he is heading down the main road between the start and the condo we were staying in. The end of a 112 mile bike ride, the beginning of a 26.2 mile run.

Here he is coming towards us, the first time we got to see him after the ride. I was anxious to know how he was doing since he had been at it for about 7 1/2 hours at this point.

I picked up running with him for about half a mile so we could chat. He said he had been cramping since about mile 80 on the bike ride, because of a salt imbalance. He was eating salt tablets to try to get things stabilized. (Mmm, salt during a run! Yum!) The day had turned out hotter than anyone had expected.

Here he is coming back by us. The interesting guy in red to the right was doing the robot for spectators. You never know what you'll see at a race.

Jason ran with him for a little while this time.

Amelia the phantom photographer got a picture of what I was doing. (That's Beth in the background.)

There was a good deal of waiting between running passes. A vendor had a t-shirt that read, "Ironman Wife: See him swim. Wait wait wait. See him bike. Wait wait wait. See him run. Wait wait wait."

Here he is, the third and final time we would see him, a little more than halfway through his run.

He left us saying, "It's gonna be awhile." Cramping hadn't improved, and he was forced to walk a good bit of it. We waved goodbye and went up to the condo for a little while longer for snacks and regrouping before walking down to the finish. We still had high hopes of him finishing in under 12 hours, his goal, though judging from the online updates it wasn't looking too good.

The finish was extremely crowded, and my folks and the kids found a decent parking/standing place just past the finish. Jason, Amelia, and I walked down the barricades a ways to see if we could watch him come in. We snaked our way to the front and Amelia spent the next several minutes high-fiving everyone who came through.

Finally, with just minutes to spare, we saw him coming in ,and he was running!

James, finishing in darkness no one can see through in a photo, courtesy of the crappy camera.

Yes, that's him! 11 hours, 58 minutes! Man, what a proud moment for me.

James, on the other hand, wasn't feeling his best.

He kinda looked like a ship wreck survivor, just pulled from the waves. His heart rate wouldn't slow down and he was extremely dehydrated. I'd like to blame his scary appearance on the crappy camera this time, but it was for real.

He stood still while I went to find a medic with a wheelchair.

It's amazing how many people were in the triage area. Every now and then one would go by on a gurney, headed to an ambulance. I began to wonder if humans were supposed to be doing this kind of thing to their bodies.

After he got his heart rate down some and had some recovery drink and chicken broth he started to cool down and got really chilly. Lots of people were wrapped up in these lovely bedspreads. I guess a local hotel was remodeling or something and they were recycling. He was back there about an hour. Meanwhile Mom and Dad took the kids back to the condo, and Jason and I rounded up his gear and bike. Dad came back with the car to get him since it was apparent he wasn't going to be able to walk the mile back to the condo.

A few hours later he was looking better. He did it!!!

Here are a series of much better pictures than I was able to take. These are the photos the professionals took during the race.

 First time through during the swim.

Headed to the bike after the second lap.

I really like the cycling pictures.

This one's my favorite. He looks fast! He's so fast, in fact, that his helmet was actually melting and streaming backwards! Wow.

Transition to the run.

And he's running.

And running...

And suffering...

He picked up the pace and started running again for the last seven miles once he realized a sub 12 finish was within reach. This is sheer willpower.

Check it out. An official Ironman!

Saturday night was a bit rough as he was in recovery mode, so it wasn't too restful. That weekend also coincided with the daylight savings time change, so kids were up about 5:15 local time. I just gave it up and went ahead and got out of bed to try to keep them quiet enough for everyone else to sleep. We should have just gone on down to the pool!

James and Jason went back down to the race venue that morning. There was a store open with Ironman gear for sale, a lot of it with the words "Finisher" on it. (Like the jacket above.) Three of the kids went down to the beach with the grandparents while Shannon and I walked down to find the guys.

Then we found a really big chair. So we sat in it.

It was a really big chair.


We found the guys and some of James' friends, who I again failed to get pictures of him with. Not too long after that we headed back to the condo so my folks and Jason could leave for home.

We stayed through Monday and enjoyed our extra day of play. Tuesday we headed home, back to reality and normal life. Many lessons have been learned through this journey, by both me and my Ironman. It's sort of like when you go on a mission trip or work at a camp for the summer and you go home and try to share with people how incredible it was, and most folks don't really get it because they didn't experience it for themselves. It was a big deal in our lives, one we won't soon forget. James has put it his own words here:

Ironman Life Lessons

Does he want to do it again? I'm afraid so...