NAMPA — Casey McMillen jumped off a sprinting horse and onto a steer and wrestled it to the ground - three times in less than 36 hours.
That was the easy part.
Most of the 600-plus cowboys and cowgirls competing in the Snake River Stampede at the Idaho Center haven't spent the whole week there. Most have gone to, or are coming from, rodeos across the West.
McMillen rode twice in Salinas, Calif., on Thursday, then made the 12-hour drive to Nampa, where he took down his steer in 4.5 seconds Friday night.
"That's probably the worst part of what we do,'' McMillen said. "For a lot of athletes, it's good sleep, good nutrition, but for us a lot of times it's McDonald's and sleeping in the backseat of a van."
As many as 70 rodeos can count toward a competitor's battle to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo in December. With most crammed into a six-month span, most will take every chance to win money, even if that means logging about 70,000 miles, which is McMillen's estimate for what he'll spend on the road this year.
The cowboys and cowgirls team up to travel together, often in vans or trucks, splitting driving shifts while the others try - emphasis on try - to get some rest.
"It dang sure can get on you,'' said bareback rider Will Lowe, a three-time world champ, whose 89 points Friday were tops thus far at the Stampede. "Getting on a bucking horse, then into a van for 12 hours straight, that's tough, but you get used to it, and it helps traveling with people you like.''
Some entrants in the Stampede who competed earlier in the week headed to Salinas or Ogden, Utah, then planned on heading back to Nampa throughout the night to compete in Saturday's championship finals, if they qualified. Lowe said this week was more manageable than usual. He came Friday morning from Ogden, but next week he's planning to hit competitions in Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota and Colorado.
"That's part of why you do it, seeing all these places,'' Lowe said. "I bet 85 percent of the people I grew up with haven't been outside of Texas very much, but I'll go across half the country in a week, doing what I love, so that's pretty cool.''
Tie-down roper Stran Smith knows the grind of traveling from his 20 years with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. With three children, the 43-year-old has taken a lighter load, with Nampa one of the 16 rodeos he's competed in this year. Recalling a time in Nampa where he got there in time to jump on his horse minutes after arriving, Smith said he's now going for quality over quantity in choosing his rodeos. He was second Friday with a time of 8.3.
"It's a hard way to make an easy living,'' Smith said. "I love to rope, I love to compete. You're your own boss, you're your own team - you can set your own schedule, you figure out your travel, all of that. So that freedom is worth all those miles.''
The few seconds they spend in the arena in front of the crowd is what pushes the competitors through all those hours on the road, and a win makes it more than worth it.
"I'd rather run steers all day long, every day,'' McMillen said. "But it's a love of the game that keeps you going. Your buddies are always there, so it's like a six-month guys' weekend, and you just happen to be out there trying to win some money while you're at it.''
Lowe's 89 in the bareback was the best mark of the night, and the best in the first four nights of competition, all but ensuring a spot in Saturday night's finals.
Jason Miller's 4.3 seconds was best in steer wrestling, while Nick Sartain and Rich Skelton's 4.5-second mark in team roping was tops. Chet Johnson (77 points) led the saddle bronc, defending Stampede champion Justin Maass' 7.6 seconds led the tie-down roping, Sabrina Ketcham's 15.98 seconds in barrel racing led the way, and Josh Barentine had the top bull ride with an 85.
Dave Southorn: 377-6420, Twitter: @IDS_Southorn