"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Old Dominion 50 Mile Endurance Ride I: Prep

Lily and I rode the Old Dominion 50 mile endurance ride on Saturday June 14. 

Those of you who are my friends on Facebook already know how this ends. :) But since I had only shared my plans for last weekend with maybe 10 people in the world, you'll get the full story now!

Yup, that's us!
Photo by Becky Pearman
There are two things which I have wanted to do for a long time, the first of which I have shared with y'all:

a) To ride endurance, something which I've dreamed about since I was 13.
b) To take a rescue horse that was nothing and do something great with him/her. This statement used to be on the blog sidebar way back in the beginning of this blog. I removed it when I started to struggle with finding a discipline that both Lily and I would be happy in.

We didn't have endurance in Puerto Rico. It's not a sport there. But I was fascinated by the photos of Tevis and Cougar Rock and avidly read anything about endurance that I could get my hands on. I bought biothane tack for my Pasos because in a hot humid climate, it only takes 24 hours for your leather tack to mold. And then I moved to the continental US. The sport returned to the back of my mind when I owned horses again here. It came to the forefront when I got Lily. She loved the trails in FL...but then she became anhidrotic in the brutal round-the-clock summer heat + humidity down there and I ditched any plans of long distance riding with her...until we moved to the Northeast.

Except Lily initially couldn't handle the common trail obstacles here: ditches, water crossings, mud, bridges. It was terrifying to ride her on the trails because she could be so unpredictable, but I had been getting my wits and information together to condition for the No Frills LD in 2013 (which I never shared on the blog). And then Lily came in from the pasture with a ligament injury. Our rehab for that ended in early summer 2013...and I was thrilled when I realized that not only was she sweating great, she was also able to tolerate heat a million times better than she had in FL after experiencing a true winter here (this is considered THE cure for anhidrosis). Around that time I decided I was done done done with arena work and we were going to start hitting the trails no matter what...with the ultimate goal of doing an LD sometime in the near future (LD = Limited Distance. Limited Distance is a ride from 25-35 miles in length usually). Again, something I didn't openly share with y'all.

Originally it was going to be last year's Fort Valley but I didn't have a means to get Lily there at the time. So Charles and I crewed for Liz instead and I got to see what endurance was like in person. And I loved it. Liz did her first 50 on Q. While both Liz and Q made it seem easy, at the time I figured I'd be happy if Lily and I just did LDs forever. At the time I couldn't fathom riding 25 miles, let alone 50.

We continued with our training over the winter, religiously clocking in 20-30 miles a week, rain, snow or shine. We did hillwork, we did long slow distance (called LSD in endurance circles), we did speed reps in deep snow, we did shorter harder rides, we did a mile on pavement every other week to strengthen Lily's hooves and tendons. I researched different training methods including the recommendations of the AERC itself. I liked Liz's straightforward way of conditioning Q for Fort Valley and I followed a similar program (note: I used training programs for conditioning a horse for a 50 mile ride, even though we were planning on doing an LD. At the time I wanted to guarantee that 25 miles would be easy for my horse.) And I started really focusing on my own rider fitness.

And then we did a trial run the last weekend of February/first weekend of March 2014. I decided to do up to 25 miles if possible. I chose the park across the street with its rocky footing as the setting and had Charles come to the barn so we could do a vet check halfway. We did 20 miles and at the end, Lily and I still felt like we could have continued. I wasn't even sore the next day. And suddenly, 25-35 miles seemed way too easy. I could see the distance in my head and knew we could do it without any kind of problem. I shared my thoughts with Liz, who has become my #1 mentor, follows my blog and knew the details of how I was training. Her response: "Dude, you guys can totally do a 50!" After comparing notes with Liz, doing more research and seeing some of my fellow endurance blogger's training schedules, I started to feel a lot more confident about this possible decision.

We did a high mileage weekend when Liz came to visit us in March. Lily was a rock star, making everything we did seem monumentally easy for her. She was ready. And I signed us up for No Frills in mid-April. Not the LD. The 50.

Since many of you are not endurance riders (thank you for reading anyway! :) ), I will explain about these races: No Frills is part of the Old Dominion Triple Crown endurance rides hosted every year in Virginia. They are held in the mountains of the George Washington National Forest. All 3 rides (the No Frills in April, the Old Dominion or OD in June, and Fort Valley in October) are difficult, involving very rocky footing where boots or shoes are absolutely mandatory, with multiple steep climbs up mountains. The Old Dominion in June is considered the very hardest of the three rides, not only because of the mountain goat appropriate footing and extremely steep climbs, but also because of the weather factor: June weather in this area can be rainy, mild, or muggy hot, with muggy heat predominating. The Old Dominion is considered the second hardest endurance ride in this country, second only to the famous Tevis. In fact, the OD ride is considered the Tevis of the Northeast.

If you Google "Tevis endurance ride" you will come up with photos like this one. Actually, if you just Google "endurance riding" you will still come up with photos like this one.
This is the famous Cougar Rock, one of the most dangerous sections of the Tevis ride.
This is Lisa Ford and GE Cyclone who finished 9th at the 2010 Tevis Cup. Photo from Easycare Inc.

My idea was to do our endurance riding + 50 mile debut at No Frills, since the climbing was not quite as hard as what you would do at the OD and the weather would be cooler. Again, more things I didn't share on here. I mentioned I was doing a ride, but I didn't specify that we were going for the 50 miles! It was mentioned in a couple of my blog comments though.

And then Lily had that ulcery episode following a bad batch of round bales. She was given time off to recover and gain weight while receiving treatment. And then she came in from the field dead lame on all fours after a combination of 72 hours of rain + deep freeze + spring grass. It was hard to tell if it was laminitis from the grass or severe bruising from so much rain + standing in mud followed by the deep freeze. We pulled her off of both the mud and high sugar grass, treated it as both and she recovered within the week. We missed No Frills. She had 2 more weeks off for good measure and then we were cleared to go back into full work by my vet. When her insulin resistance test came back negative, we were cleared for Lily to return to pasture full time. My vet decided that the episode she had must have been severe sole bruising (she sees A LOT of this during wet springs like what we were having at the time) and I had to concur after Lily was fully transitioned back onto her regular diet and uneventfully placed back in her field full time sans grazing muzzle.

We continued with our training. Despite the 4 week break, Lily had held onto her fitness as if she had not missed a single day of conditioning. Not only that, but with the advent of grass on the trails and hotter weather, she was doing a stellar job at proving she could take care of herself on the trail by eating and drinking whenever she was given the opportunity.

The OD was coming up in June. Gracie came into our lives. Gracie was doing well with her conditioning and Charles and I considered entering the OD together and doing the LD together on the two mares. However, after doing hill sets with Charles on the bridle path behind the barn and seeing how long it took Gracie to recover afterwards, I decided she was not ready for an LD yet. We were less than a month out from the Old Dominion at the time and I didn't want to push Gracie that hard so soon. There was also a cost factor: I had a pair of boots for Gracie's fronts but still needed some for her hinds and spares: $$. Plus the OD is the most expensive of the Triple Crown and it would have cost over $400 for both Charles and I to enter with both horses even if Gracie had been ready.

I had 2 options: do the OD 25 by myself or do the 50 with Liz. I hemmed and hawed and went back and forth on this in my mind. I wanted to do the 50 miles. Lily and I had been training for a year now to get to this moment. However I didn't like the fact that it was in June and that we had had a lot of hot humid weather in May already. Lily was handling the heat just fine, but I wasn't so sure about her being able to handle it over 50 miles of rough terrain.

She continued being a superstar through her conditioning so ultimately we signed up for the 50. If the weather promised to be too hot or muggy come ride weekend, we would switch to the 25 on arrival: you can make changes to your entry before the pre-ride vet check. I sent my deposit the day before the early entry cutoff date of June 1.

The Old Dominion is a beast of an organization and I mean that in a good way! They have been hosting this particular ride since 1973 and it shows. They hold one of the few 100 mile rides in this part of the country. Think of what it takes to clear a mile of wild overgrown trail covered in brush, thick bushes and stuff like poison ivy. Multiply that times 100 and factor in vertical climbs over boulders on the side of cliffs. Add some 85 degree weather and 60% humidity. I honestly have no idea how they do it and was incredibly impressed with their efficiency and the level of detail to which they have managed to organize the entire event. Within 24 hours of me sending my entry I had an e-mail confirmation from them letting me know they had received my entry, plus driving directions to the race site and detailed lists of the amenities that would be available at this ride, including plenty of hot food and hot showers (!!! A rarity at endurance rides, let me tell you!)

We had one final 15 mile ride at speed to check my equipment. I had been debating riding in my Wintec for this ride because it is lighter in weight, but after realizing how uncomfortable it was for downhills for me and how sore Lily's back was afterwards, I decided there was no way in Hell we were doing long distance in that saddle. So I finished gearing up my Alta Escuela for this ride.

Since all of this had been decided pretty much at the last minute, Lily didn't get the kind of taper that I had done for her for No Frills (it should be a month of slowly decreasing work), but I made up for it by giving her off the last 2 weeks before the ride. She didn't get ridden at all. 

The weather forecast for the entire week pre-Old Dominion called for rain every. single. day. Plus 3 mares were added to the mare field. I was a nervous wreck, terrified something would happen to Lily at the last second before the ride. With all the rain we were supposed to get, there was no way I wanted her standing outside in the mud 24/7 for a week straight. I talked to BO and she okayed me bringing Lily up to the main barn and keeping her in the dry lot until Friday June 13th, when we would leave for the OD. This proved to be excellent, as I could give her an extra meal at lunch and provide her with free choice grass hay. We did some active rest: I lunged her for 10 minutes every day to make sure she stretched out and moved out. And also to make sure she was still moving great. Yup, I was that paranoid!

I was SO superstitious about the whole thing that I didn't tell anyone about my plans except Liz, Karen, Charles, and Kathy. They were the only ones that knew I'd signed up for the 50 miles. I told everyone else that needed to know about my riding plans (BO, Carol who would be my ride to the event, my mom, and a couple of other people at the barn) that I was either doing the LD or simply omitted the distance entirely. I was so superstitious in fact, that I didn't pack anything until Thursday. I paid dearly for that, as it meant that by the time I got home from work and finished packing all of our stuff, I only had an hour left to sleep before we had to wake up to head to the barn!

Carol and her hubs Ride Vet, whom I shall call Nick for the purpose of these posts, had told me to be ready to leave by 7:00 am. Nick was volunteering as a vet at the OD and Carol was drag riding on Katie. They wanted to be in Orkney Springs, VA, by noon and we were leaving so early so we could avoid rush hour traffic.

As it turns out, Carol and Nick had also waited until the last minute to pack and were running an hour late on Friday morning.

We packed everything in the trailer and the mares loaded up without issue. Lily actually self-loaded for the first time ever! Charles and I got into my car and we followed Nick and Carol to Orkney Springs, VA.

This could just as easily be a scene from my home island.
I love our part of the Northeast!
We drove through some serious rain bands.
The 2.5 hour drive took closer to 4 hours due to some insane traffic jams as a result of 2 different car accidents involving semis.

Umm ouch :(
I was all, "Look! More horses! I'm sure they're going to the OD too!"
This was while we were stuck in the traffic jam corresponding to the second accident.
We finally pulled into the Old Dominion ride camp. And yes, I gasped when I saw this: 

Oh yeah. That's NOT the mountain we would be climbing.
The one we would get would be bigger, steeper and rockier.
We parked at the far end of camp, at the opposite end from both the start line and the vet check. Nick and Carol were assigned one of the drag rider parking spaces. Charles and I parked next to them. I unloaded Lily and set her up with a haynet and a bowl of extra sloppy beet pulp mash while we waited for Liz and Mike to arrive with Q.

Mareface actually cocked a leg and took a nap despite all of the hustle and bustle of horse trailers arriving and riders setting up camp.
Seriously guys: this horse has come SUCH a long way!
Lily says, "YAY MASH!!"
Lily would be corralled with Liz's girl. In the meantime, Charles and I helped Nick and Carol set up their camp site. 

Liz and Mike arrived about an hour after us and we all set up camp not too far from Nick and Carol. We let Lily and Q get re-acquainted in Liz's electric pen while we went to get our rider cards and paperwork.

Q says, "Whut?"
They got along so, so well. We didn't hear a single squeal or a scuffle from them during the 48 hours that they were together. Lily adores all other horses but she has learned that not all other horses adore her back. She loved Q from a distance, respecting her space, and Q seemed to welcome the company nonchalantly.
This beauty was hidden behind the trees on the far side of the corral.
It took about an hour for us to get our registration stuff because they were having problems with the computer system.

The weather for Saturday, ride day, was supposed to be gorgeous: sunny with temps in the high 70's and low humidity. So I didn't change our registration: Lily and I would officially be riding in the 50.

We walked back to our camp site afterwards, got the horses and vetted in.

All horses that are going to compete must be checked by a vet prior to the start of the race. Vets do a full physical exam, checking the horse for pain, and/or swelling along his back and legs; they check hydration status by looking at skin tenting and capillary refill time; they auscult your horse to check for any arrythmias and get a heart rate; and they listen to gut sounds. If everything looks good on the physical, you trot your horse out for the vet. Here they assess impulsion, attitude (bright, alert, willing), and check for any apparent lameness. You can vet in either the afternoon before your ride or the morning of the ride, prior to your start time.

Lily vetted in with all A+'s across the board and a heart rate of 32...despite having pranced excitedly all the way down to the vet check! She was so eager in the trot out that she broke into a canter! 

Ride card after our initial vetting. :)

Beaming on the way back to our camp site.

Love her soft eye and happy expression. She's practically smiling!
She then pranced all the way back to our camp site, channelling her inner Arab. Goofy horse. :D

Charles and Kenai share a mutual adoration.
Liz and I tacked up the girls and went for a short ride with Liz's friend Jen on her Arabian to explore part of the first loop of the next day's ride. We rode maybe a mile and a half up the trail before we heard distant thunder and the wind started to pick up. We decided to turn around and head back to camp before it started to storm.

Our shared campsite. That's Liz's and Mike's tent on the left, ours on the right.
Thank you Kathy for letting us borrow the tent and canopy!

Full moon shining after the skies cleared.
The skies turned dark and ominous and it sprinkled a bit but thankfully never actually rained. As we were finishing putting stuff away for the next day, an unfamiliar car parked next to mine. 

"Saiph!!" a voice said. I looked up and it was Dom! Her and Mike had just arrived! Liz had mentioned Dom might be riding in the OD, but it was still a pleasant surprise to meet her in person for the first time. I got wrapped up in a hug, Charles was introduced and within 5 seconds we had all hit it off as if we had known one another for years. 

Ah, the joys of meeting fellow bloggers! Especially bloggers whose adventures I love to follow! :)

We all went down to the vet check area for the ride meeting where we were fed dinner (lasagna, garlic bread, salad and homemade cookies!) Ride management introduced themselves and we were showed maps of the trails for the three distances (25, 50 and 100 miles) and told about any particular things we should be aware of for the next day (like start times for the 3 distances, length of vet checks, water availability on the trails, etc).

The 50 mile ride had 3 away vet checks: the first and third checks were at Bird Haven where crews were allowed, and the second check was at Laurel Run. No crews were allowed at Laurel Run but they would have volunteers there to help us untack for the vet check, hold our horses while we used the restroom, and bring water for the horses. Food would be provided for both riders and horses.

We returned to camp to set up the crew car (my car) and get our saddle bags ready for the following day. I had a full set of Vipers for ride day and a full set of Easyboot Gloves as backup boots that I packed into my cantle bag. Perk of having a horse with small feet: you can fit 4 hoof boots in your cantle bag!

Lily eating her mash dinner
"Really? A number on my butt?"
Rider numbers are written in grease crayon on the competing horses to identify them both during the ride (for vet check and volunteer purposes) and in case any of them escape their pens at night.
Old Dominion ride camp at dusk.
Carol stopped by and we introduced her to everybody. Carol is as much of an introvert as myself but has our same quirky sense of humor and in no time she was laughing at all of our shenanigans. We caught up with Dom, who would be riding another person's horse in the LD the next day. We all went to bed around 10 pm after feeding the mares mashes and tossing out multiple flakes of hay so they could walk around the pen and eat. Our alarms were set for 2:00 am so we could get up to feed a mid night meal.

I woke up before the alarm, startled awake from a dream by the sound of Daniel's laughter. I crawled outside of the tent into a world brightly lit by the blue light of a full moon. I could see my own shadow on the ground as if it was noon. The whole world was asleep. The trees behind our campsite were a wall of black, illuminated by a million lightning bugs, flashing in and out of the darkness, so bright they almost looked like the flashes of a thousand cameras going off over and over again. It was so beautiful it took my breath away.

Liz woke up around then too, also before her alarm. We fed the mares in opposite corners of their pen and crawled back into our tents. I fell asleep to the sound of Lily and Q slurping on their mashes outside, still smiling at the sight of the lightning bugs.

I woke up at 3:30 am to the sound of the bugle, the wake-up call for camp, mainly for the benefit of the 100 milers who would be starting their ride at 5:45 am. I drifted in and out of sleep after that, until our own alarms went off at 4:45 am. Start time for the 50 milers was at 6:45 am. We wanted to have plenty of time to feed the mares, feed ourselves, and get Lily and Q ready.

We walked down to the breakfast tent and I realized I was ravenously hungry: I grabbed half a bagel with peanut butter, a cup of coffee, half a banana and a cup of yogurt and stuffed my face while we wandered over to the start line to watch the 100 milers head out.

We cheered them on, then walked back to camp to tack up the Lilybird and Q-Bee. Lily had another extra-sloppy mash and her haynet.

Lily eats some more hay before we head out.
Dom and Mike showed up to wish us good luck and see us off. The 25 milers wouldn't start until 7:45 am so she still had plenty of time before she had to get ready.

Dom and Kenai
First 50 milers starting
Liz and I mounted up as the forerunners of the 50 were leaving the start. Lily was on FIRE, immediately taking off the second my butt was in the saddle. Liz and I trotted off. Lily was hyped up enough to have a meltdown over the shadow of a dirt pile (seriously mare?!) but thankfully I was able to get her past it without either of us dying and we rushed to catch up to Liz and Q as they passed the start line.

"Up" mare is "up"!
Team Elbow Sisters trotting away to meet our adventure
We trotted on down the gravel dirt road on our way to the trailhead. Liz asked, "So how does it feel to finally be here doing this?" I could only grin. I didn't have words for how it felt. I was thrilled beyond anything I could ever express but at the same time I had some trepidation about going head first into this unfathomable adventure. I couldn't imagine what this would be like. 50 miles on horseback was not something that fit in my head in a way that I could comprehend.

I knew we could do it. In my heart I knew that no matter what this ride threw at us, we would be able to surpass it. I looked down at Lily's happy ears as she trotted on confidently ahead and knew with every fiber of my being that she could do it. That she could quite literally go the distance.

I had no idea what was in store for us.

To be continued... ;)


  1. Holy smokes! I never realized just how much prep and thought and everything that was needed for endurance! But it sure does seem like a fun time, can't wait to read part 2 :)

    1. It was the hardest and most glorious thing I've ever done! And I'm so, so, SO happy that we prepared the way we did or the ending would have been very different!

  2. So proud of you both! I think I woke up that night at the same time you did, walking the dogs to the back door and staring up at the moon, thinking of your ride. Sans the lightning bugs, however (I've never seen one - we don't get them out here). It's incredible that you were able to do something you have been dreaming about for years, especially after your set backs.

    1. Karen, you and the fam ARE going to come visit east and we're gonna show you lightning bugs. I got to share them with the cowboy who taught me to pack horses into the backcountry two years ago, it was one of my favorite parts of those two weeks in the Smokies.

      And then, after the bugs, we'll ride and swim and play and climb and raft and.....

    2. And and and! Ditto what Liz said! We had lightning bugs in PR but NOTHING like what we get out here. It's my favorite part of summer.

      How awesome that you were awake right at that time. In my dream, we were sitting with you and Daniel at our camp site and you two were telling jokes. You were both so present during all of this. Thank you again for the thoughts, the love and the protection!

  3. This is so awesome. Congratulations and very well done- can't wait to hear the rest of the story!

  4. Ugh! So excited for y'all! And I'm glad y'all got to meet Dom - I feel like the blogger world is imploding sometimes.

    And I really, really get the superstition part of this. I feel like if I even mention, or hint, that I'm going to do something exciting, then it won't happen.

    This looks like so much fun! Even the non-riding part, but the kinda-sorta camping with your horse. That would be amazing.

    I'm excited to hear how the rest of it went!

    1. I knew that you in particular would get the superstition aspect of this: I had noticed you do exactly the same thing!

      Blogger meetups are awesome. It still amazes me to think that if it weren't for blogging, I would never have met any of these wonderful people.

      One of the perks of endurance riding is camping with your horse, especially when you have a horse that will stay in his containment system. There are a lot of nightmare stories of horses escaping getting lost in the woods at endurance rides and taking days to find!

  5. So many of my FB/Blogger friends (Liz and Dom included) did the OD...totally jealous of you all! Can't wait until I get to compete one day, for now I'll live vicarously haha

  6. Yay, so excited to be able to do something you dreamed about for so long! Can't wait to read more!

  7. I was so thrilled to see you there! You have no idea. I only wish we had ridden together. SOME DAY! I cannot believe you picked the OD 50 as your first endurance ride! SO much respect for you and the world's sweetest mare <3

    1. It was the best thing ever to have you cheering us on! I'm SO glad we finally got to meet!!

      In retrospect, I'm either absolutely bonkers or incredibly stupid for making this our first ride, but man...that makes having completed even more incredible. There are people out there that look for a suitable endurance mount for years, horse after horse, unable to find something that will take them over 50 miles nowhere near as hard as what we did...and my $1 TB mutt did it, did THIS ride AND completed, on her very first try...I still can't quite wrap my head around that!

      And yes! We WILL do 50 miles together! You, Liz and I on our mares! ;)

  8. *bounces and chants*

    I know the rest of the story. I know the rest of the story. Na na na na boo boo!

    1. Lmao Liz!

      You are the BEST friend! *hug!*

  9. You've done something really wonderful. Isn't it an amazing feeling, taking a broken horse and doing one of the hardest sports with her, all by yourself? I'm SO freakin happy for you two!

    1. It is an incredible feeling! I'm still on cloud 9!

  10. I was at ride camp on Friday night for the volunteer briefing (but didn't know you were there!). I had planned to be on the lookout for Liz and another lady I know, but when the thunder came in, I had to get my daughter (who came with me) back to the car and get headed home. I'm so glad you made it safely to the event and I'm excited to read about your adventures on the trail:)

  11. I wondered if you were around on Friday, but I remembered that for No Frills you had driven there the day of the race itself. Bummer! We would have looked for you! I'll just text you for the next one. :)