The Tevis Cup, also known as the Western States Trail Ride, will return to the Sierra Nevada on Saturday, July 29 this year. Held annually since 1955, the legendary 24-hour, 100-mile endurance horse race follows the arduous Western States Trail from Olympic Valley to Auburn, though this year’s event will begin at Soda Springs because of trail conditions.
Unlike a circuit race, the point-to-point contest can be challenging for observers to enjoy and follow in real-time. Remote, dusty, hot, and treacherous mountain trail conditions can make keeping up with riders’ progress difficult.
Around 800 dedicated volunteers diligently plan, support, and work to make the race go as safely and seamlessly as possible for both participants and onlookers, not to mention veterinary staff whose job is to monitor the well-being of the horses.
“It’s a very difficult spectator sport because the horses are out in remote locations,” said Jenni Smith, a board member and 12-time race finisher. Smith, who won the 2015 Haggin Cup along with her horse Auli Farwa — the award for the top 10 finisher whose horse is in the most superior physical condition at the end — said the horses and riders briefly come into public view in certain locations and at checkpoints, then they go back out on the trail, which can make observation challenging.
In recent years riders elected to use GPS trackers if they so desired, which proved useful at times. Trackleaders.com hosts that data.
Last year three horses endured various injuries or mishaps. One fell from the precipitous trail early in the race and died from its injuries.
“It was a really difficult experience for everybody in the equestrian community,” Smith said.
Two other horses came off the trail and required rescue in the race’s later stages, including one horse that was lifted to waiting veterinary crews by a Butte County Sheriff’s helicopter. In that instance the tracker was critical.
“That gave us very definitive information about where the horse was,” Smith said.
She added that the trackers “proved to be more helpful than even we had previously understood.” Some riders who had pulled their horses from the race ended up getting lost in the dark trying to meet up with a rescue trailer. Fortunately, they were located with GPS and their locations were available for linking with the rescue trailers.
This year, for the first time, all riders will be required to use trackers and to affix GPS devices to the horse.
The GPS system, as well as the cutting-edge Starlink satellites and classic ham radio technology, aim to provide safety and peace of mind to riders, provide useful data and tracking information to the ride management team, and allow more opportunities for spectators to follow along than ever before.
Here is a rundown of the three systems, including links and helpful information for race day:
Organized by volunteer correspondents at various points along the route, a live feed on the Tevis Cup’s Facebook page provides viewers with access to live reporting during the race.
“We are a very small but mighty group,” said Crysta Turnage, a Western States Trail Foundation Board of Governors member who started the livecast in 2017. “Originally it was just me with my phone using cell reception.”
These intrepid volunteers report from several of the race’s 19 checkpoints, including Robinson Flat and Forest Hills, which have mandatory one-hour veterinary holds and therefore provide good opportunity for on-the-ground reporting. Riders’ crew, family, and friends often rendezvous at the checkpoints, especially the one-hour hold stops.
Last year the organization purchased a Starlink satellite system that it brings to the course’s more remote locations to provide Wi-Fi coverage.
Multiple teams on-site track the leaders and cover the veterinary checkpoints as riders come through. Reporters will be present at both the timed finish line in Auburn as well as the ceremonial finish line at McCann Stadium at the Gold Country Fairgrounds, less than half a mile past the timed finish.
Crews hope to interview riders on July 28 at Soda Springs — the day before the race — as it would be too dark to cover the start the next morning, and riders don’t typically do interviews during the race. On race day they focus on spectators, volunteers, crewmembers, and reporting on rider status and conditions.
Reporters can see questions and comments coming in from viewers and they will address these directly, just like any live feed host can do from their home computer.
“It’s such a wonderful way to interact with all the other people,” Turnage said.
Followers of this Facebook page receive a notification when the page goes live, but anyone can follow and watch by following the link:
• The Livecast is available at facebook.com/TevisCup and via a link on the Tevis Cup webpage.
• See archival data now under “more” on the Tevis Cup Facebook page then click “live.”
Not to be confused with the livecast, the webcast is the organization’s website updated manually on race day in an elaborate system with data collected and relayed by amateur radio operators, also known as ham radio operators. These individuals are on-site at the checkpoints, many of which are in remote locations along the route.
About 65 operators relay data such as how many riders have arrived and when, how many pull out of the race, and how many depart from the checkpoint with times.
Known by the organization as Net Control, where race communication and logistics take place, a central data collection center in Auburn records and uploads this information to the database and, almost instantly, the website displays a list of riders, their approximate times, and their relative positions, giving remote spectators the ability to virtually watch as the race unfolds.
This allows race organizers to know who has withdrawn and how many riders to expect at the next checkpoint, as well as who is leading and who is taking longer.
Click on a rider’s name and you can find their bib number (which is the way you can see who is who on the live tracker; more on that soon), as well as their profile, which includes photos and their horse’s information, and their times in and out of each checkpoint. On any of these webcast pages, by clicking on “GPS live tracking” on the left side menu, viewers can access the GPS tracker website, Track Leaders.
• The webcast will be available via a link on the Tevis Cup webpage on race day.
• Archival data can also be viewed here by clicking “the ride” dropdown, “2022-related” dropdown, and “2022 webcast.” Once there, clicking “GPS live tracking” on the left will bring up the Track Leaders GPS page.
The GPS Tracker
This is where this year’s mandated GPS tracking data is available. Used internally for following riders’ progress and locating anyone in need of help, the data is user-friendly and available to the public to show where a particular rider is in relative standing or where they may physically be.
“If a horse were to get lost it’s a lot harder to find than it is to find a human,” said Sési Catalano, the race’s head volunteer coordinator. Catalano, whose father, John McCullough, completed the Tevis 20 times between 1967 and 1994, began riding the Tevis in 1980 and completed the race 10 times.
In addition to horse and rider safety, the GPS brings this somewhat secluded race to the devices and homes of anyone who is interested in following along.
“It actually really upgrades the spectator value for the sport,” Smith said.
Track Leaders also hosts data for the Baja 1000 off-road motorsport race, Race Across America ultra distance road cycling race, and the Iditarod, among many others, and was excited to work with the Tevis Cup this year, according to race sources.
• The GPS trackers can be followed by clicking a link on the Tevis Cup webpage on race day or by clicking “GPS live tracking” in the left side menu of the Webcast.
• Access 2022’s ride replay at trackleaders.com/teviscup22f.php. This is the same page that will be available by clicking the “GPS live tracking” links this year.
The elements of tracking and technology each function individually. But to have the most robust picture, an observer would likely want to utilize all three elements on ride day.
“They are all critical in their own way,” Turnage said. “The live feeds we do are our best way to reach and interact with the public.” The webcast can provide a virtual picture of the field to both spectators and organizers alike, while GPS allows everyone to follow along as the action unfolds.
~ Bill Hatfield is a freelance writer specializing in travel, nature, and outdoor sports. After over 20 years in the tourism industry as a ski patroller, backcountry camp manager, and park ranger, he decided to slow down a bit and now delivers the mail and rides bikes when he can — across countries. Follow him on Instagram @bike_rack_on_tour.
New Book About the Trail
The traditional Tevis Cup route, from Olympic Valley to Auburn, is part of a longer and more historically significant network of trails. Contemporarily known as the Western States Trail, historic versions were used by Native Americans crossing the Sierra Nevada on horseback and on foot hunting, gathering, and trading; by miners trying to find an easy way to California’s Gold Country, as well as an eastbound Silver Rush when the Comstock Lode was discovered in Virginia City in 1850. The trail now also offers modern hiking, biking, and equestrian trails, and is home to events like the Tevis Cup and the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run, which just hosted its 50th event in late June.
A new book, States: The Places We Run, Celebrating 50 Years of American Ultrarunning History, published in June of this year, tells the origin story of 75 places along the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, including several spots now used as Tevis Cup checkpoint landmarks and locations including Soda Springs, Robinson Flat, Foresthill, and others. Co-authors Bob Crowley, Hal V. Hall, and Tim Twietmeyer collectively represent 58 Western States and Tevis finishes, and combined over 100 years of adventures, training, and volunteering on the Western States Trail.