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

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Old Dominion 50 III: The Race to the Finish

We walked out of Laurel Run and soon picked up a trot on the fine gravel road. Both Lily and Q had hit what Liz called the afternoon doldrums, which is common in 50-miler and 100-miler horses. I was having to push Lily to keep her at a trot. Liz decided we would trot in the sunny parts of trail and walk in the shadowy portions of it. This worked out well in the beginning, until all the trees disappeared and we found ourselves riding under pure afternoon sunlight with its accompanying heat.

Lily was panting and I kept checking her neck to make sure she was still sweating. She was, but not a whole lot...I started second guessing everything. Had it taken this long for her to start really sweating before? We were walking 50% of the time now...would she sweat more when we started sustaining the trot longer? Or would she stop sweating entirely? Should we have called it quits at Laurel Run? What if the heart murmur returned? My mind spun into a black hole of worry.

I let her break to a walk and poured water over her neck and shoulders, scraping off the excess with my hand. Liz and Q trotted on, the distance between us increasing. When they were about to disappear around the bend in the trail, I asked Lily to trot. She pricked her ears and willingly picked up a trot, continuing until we had caught up to Liz and Q. When we were about a horse length behind them, Lily asked to walk. I let her. Q and Liz continued trotting. When they had almost disappeared, we picked up a trot again. I thought of Funder and Dixie with their walk 12 steps/trot 12 steps strategy at 20 Mule Team as Lily and I continued on in this fashion. (And if you haven't yet read Funder's story of her first 100 mile ride at 20 Mule Team, go read it now! I hadn't even done an LD and I was texting Liz afterwards, "Liz!! We HAVE to do a 100 together!")

The Team Fixie method worked well for Lily, allowing her to take frequent breaks while not slowing everyone's pace down even further. I made sure to frequently pat her neck and thank her for carrying me this far, and tell her what a good girl she is, what an amazing horse she is. Her ears pricked happily every time I did this. Every time we walked, I dribbled water over her neck and shoulders and squeegeed it off with my hand. We still maintained a 5 mph average pace, though I knew Liz and Q could have really made up time if they hadn't been holding back to pull us along. Best friends are the best y'all.

We passed several small creeks that flowed under the road but would have been very difficult to access with the horses. We had been going for a good 6 miles at that point under a blazing sun with no water for the mares to drink. Liz was thinking along the same lines as me: before I knew it, she had pulled Q onto the side of the road and ridden down a short rocky slope to a nice wide stream below. Lily and I followed. Q stepped into the middle of the stream and drank deep gulps. Lily tried to follow but ended up with a sapling stuck and bent between her front legs. I couldn't get Lily to step around it and we realized then that if Lily did step back, that sapling was going to whip up and potentially spook the living daylights out of both mares. Liz told me to get off and I did. I was able to lift one of Lily's front legs and get her unstuck from the sapling with no one getting hurt.

I led Lily into the stream and she took many many deep gulps. Q finished and they stepped out of the stream, climbing back onto the road. Lily drank for another good 5 minutes. Once she was done, I mounted up again and we followed Liz and Q at a trot on the way back up the road. It was like the mares had recharged batteries: completely different horses after being able to drink.

The last few miles on this trail doubled back onto familiar terrain. Lily and Q recognized it before we did and perked up even further. It helped that there were several tiny creeks flowing across the road, with pools of water deep enough for the mares to be able to continue drinking. And around this time, I got to witness in person the nastiness of Q's spooks. Twice she spooked on Liz and both times Liz ended up on her neck, almost falling. Q would be trotting along with her big lofty stride, ears pricked and glancing at things out of the corner of her eye. Nothing unusual about her demeanor, at least to the outside observer. However, she would suddenly slam on the brakes without any kind of warning while simultaneously dropping her head, dropping her right shoulder, then spinning hard to the left, doing a perfect pirouette on her haunches each time! It was dirty and it looked completely intentional, especially given the fact that we'd been riding a good 40 miles by that point without barely any issue from Q. Liz can stick a horse, let me tell you. I would not have been able to ride out those spins. 

After the second spook, Lily and I took the lead again to prevent further shenanigans from Q: if another horse/person/animal is in the lead, Q is automatically a million times more confident. Having perked up significantly on the now familiar trail, this time Lily was happy to be the pace setter.

Around this time I realized we had two riders on gray Arabians behind us. They never made a move to pass, always staying a couple of horse lengths behind us. I realized that we were pulling them along. It was a great feeling to be able to help others get through this last long loop of the ride. 

When we were about 2 miles from Bird Haven, the riders caught up to us and passed us on a wide section of trail, pausing briefly to say hello, ask us how we were doing, and venting about how very done with the trail they were by that point. We sympathized and continued on at our pace. With the girls on their grays in front of us, Liz and Q took the lead once more, Q able to follow behind the grays to set a faster pace for us. 

We trotted to the second-to-last creek crossing before Bird Haven, then dismounted. I loosened Lily's girth and removed her bit, and both Liz and I hand walked our girls into the hold.

Upon arrival we were told, "You have 15 minutes to pulse down and get to the vet. Nothing more." Crap. We took the mares to our area, where Mike and Charles had set everything up for us. 

I stripped tack while Lily tried with all her might to eat her mash. We ended up having to move her away from it, under the canopy the boys had set up so she could have shade. I put a bucket of water in front of her while we sponged and scraped her, trying to get her to cool down STAT. Lily was PISSED about not getting her mash. She shoved her head in the water bucket but when she realized it was just water, she pinned her ears and started pawing until she knocked the bucket over! "WHERE IS MY MASH??!!" We brought more water over and continued sponging and scraping, adding rubbing alcohol to the mix.

Mareface was already worked up about not getting food. Adding the alcohol ended up being a bad idea: I used to use this method with her all the time in South FL to cool her down but had not used it since then and she had forgotten...she started twitching in resentment over the cooling sensation of the alcohol. In retrospect, I'm pretty sure this did not help matters.

Our time was up: we had to present to the vet. Q passed with no problems. The vet was aware of the issues we were having with Lily and encouraged us to let the two mares just stand together for a minute. We did and Lily's respiratory rate finally dropped. The vet ausculted her...her heart rate was at 64, the maximum allowable to pass. 

I trotted her out, hobbling as I did so, thinking "Rider gait: C-"...I should have had Charles trot her out for me to give my ankle a break. Me gimpily jogging next to my horse was not helping Lily look better.

The vet said she had some gait asymmetry but he thought it was probably from the laterally mismatched boots. I told him I could fix that. He ausculted Lily. Her heart rate was 72. Not good. No heart murmur though. He held our card and gave us 15 more minutes so Lily could continue recovering.

I brought over some extra sloppy mash for the most demanding of mares and she slurped it all up greedily. She continued to ignore the water bucket but her mash had been so wet that it counted more as water than as a meal. Once she was finished, she dragged Charles over to the lushest grass she could find, which she attacked fiercely while I swapped her Vipers out for the remaining Gloves.

15 minutes passed. The vet came back.

I never even bothered to remove my helmet at this check.
Lily's heart rate had dropped to 60. I trotted Lily out again. The vet noted that her gait had improved with the matching boots. Lily's heart rate was 68 after trotting. I winced. The vet, who was a very kind older man with a soft voice and a warm demeanor, asked me, "Is she eating and drinking on the trail?" I couldn't help grinning with pride thinking of Lily's efforts to take care of herself. "Oh yes." I said. 

He believed me. "I will let you continue," he said, "but I'm concerned about her metabolically." We discussed the plan for the last loop. It was only 6 miles and we had an hour and a half to complete it. We could do the distance at a walk and still make it. I assured him that we had no intention of going fast; we just wanted to finish before 6:45 pm. 

We tacked Lily up in a hurry and I mounted up, with difficulty as the pain from my left ankle was now affecting my ability to get on my horse.

We trotted off towards the last loop. Because of the time it had taken to get Lily tacked up, we now had an hour and 15 minutes to get through those last 6 miles. Not a lot of time.

My ankle was killing me at this point: for the first time it was hurting while in the saddle. I was certain it had to be sprained and I started to doubt I'd be able to go to work on Monday at the rate we were going. I silently asked Daniel to make it better...and within minutes the pain had disappeared. Call me crazy. But that ankle did not bother me again for the rest of the ride, for the rest of the day, for the rest of the week. In fact, later that evening when I removed my socks and shoes, there would be no swelling, no bruising, no irritation of any kind.

Most of this trail would be familiar: it was the same trail as the first 6 miles of the first loop. Lily and Q powered through it, trotting the inclines and straightaways, walking the downhills simply because Liz's and my legs couldn't take it anymore. I had a fresh horse all over again: knowing that she was heading home, Lily trotted out willingly, happily, easily, and even asked to canter up some of the hills!

Trotting up hills
And then we were back at the road that would take us into ride camp. And only a few minutes left. I urged Lily into a canter and Liz and Q followed. We slowed to a trot as we came within sight of ride camp and tried to hold hands so we could cross the finish line together, but every time I took one hand off of the reins, Lily would stop to stare at a crazy Arabian running around in his pen next to the ride camp fence.

We gave up and Liz crossed the finish line ahead of us. We crossed at 6:44 pm, with one minute to spare! We were dead last, but we had made it!

We dismounted, loosened our girths and I removed Lily's bit. We walked the mares back down to camp and stopped at the first water trough we found to let them drink. We had 30 minutes before we had to present the horses for the final vet check.

Lily had her extra extra wet mash while Charles and I worked on sponging and scraping her. She ended up getting a full bath with this process as I washed all of the dry salt off of her. Her heart rate dropped to 60 while she was eating and then shot back up to 72 when Liz took Q away first for the vet check. Lily didn't whinny or act up at all like she would have at another time, but she did notice that Q had gone. My mare has improved so, so much in her herd-boundness but I realized then that her attachment to a buddy horse really can still be a problem even at a much more subtle level.

Frustrated, exhausted, upset, defeated, and fairly confident that we would never pass this last vet check, I untied Lily just as Liz called out, "Hurry up! We're almost out of time!"

We walked fast all the way down to the ride camp vet check, making it in exactly at the 30 minute mark from our finish time. Liz and Q passed their final check with flying colors and then it was our turn.

Lily's heart rate was 64. No heart murmur. She had A's all across the board except for a B on mucus membranes.

Charles trotted her out for me:

Photo by Dom
The vet ausculted her again. We all held our breaths.

Photo by Dom

"She's at 60. Congratulations! You completed."

We passed! Not only did we finish, we completed.

What Lily looked like after completing 50 miles.
All of these photos by Dom.

My rider card at the end

Some people go through life chasing for this dream. They train for years, they go through multiple horses searching for the one horse that will successfully carry them over 50 miles or more. 
And here goes my $1 mutt, the horse that nobody wanted, my goofy little Florida-bred TB cross with the wonky conformation and toothpick legs, and on her first attempt she completes one of the most difficult endurance rides of this country over terrain like none she has ever experienced before in her life. 
I may have cried a little...She is The One. The Heart Horse.

Photo by Dom


Back at our camp site, the mares got fed and watered. I washed Lily's legs again and poulticed them for the night. She ate everything in sight.

She barely lost any weight during the ride. Horses that don't take care of themselves can lose up to 100 lbs during an endurance ride.
Charles had to leave because he had to work the next day, which was a huge bummer. Nick and Carol would be at the OD until the next morning because Nick would be volunteering at the vet checks until the 100 milers had gone through. Thankfully, Dom, Mike, Liz and Mike were all planning on staying until Sunday too!

The 6 of us before Charles had to go.
Our neighbor, whom Liz knew from previous endurance rides, offered to keep an eye on Lily and Q while the remaining 5 of us drove into town for dinner. There was a small family-owned restaurant that had been recommended by ride management and we made it only 30 minutes before they closed. The place was packed. It took a while for our orders to arrive but we were having too much fun joking around and catching up: we barely  noticed. Dom and I discovered that we shared a love of chocolate milk. Everyone else was drinking water or adult beverages, and here Dom and I were drinking our chocolate milk! Hey, it's one of the best things you can drink post-workout!

Another thing you learn after you've ridden your first 50 mile endurance ride: Have you ever been on a boat for more than a few hours? Especially on choppy seas? If you have, you will have experienced "land sickness" upon returning to dry land. It is the opposite of motion sickness: you may be sitting or standing still but your body still remembers the sway of the boat in the ocean. The sensation of being still but still feeling like you are moving can actually make you quite dizzy! I was sitting in my chair at the restaurant and I could still feel the movement of Lily's trot. Fascinating. And so cool.

Someone asked me if I would do it again. I thought of how every single muscle in my body hurt, how I was really looking forward to crawling into bed sometime in the near future, how I was delirious from exhaustion and dehydration, and how awesome my mare is, and couldn't help grinning.

Dom took one look at me and, before I could open my mouth to even try to put into words what I was feeling, said matter of factly, "You are totally addicted and you will be doing this again." I burst out laughing. She was right.

After dinner, Liz's Mike took Liz and I to the area where the hot showers were located. It looked like some sort of campgrounds with cabins. By this point it was after 10:00 pm and the place was dark. Mike got out of the truck first and scouted out the area, discovering where the ladies' showers were. Liz and I grabbed our stuff and hurried in to shower as quickly as possible while Mike stood guard outside the door. The water from the shower was blissfully hot, making me feel human again.

We piled back into Liz's truck and returned to camp to meet with Dom and her Mike. We grabbed folding chairs and a beer each and walked up to the finish line to wait for the first of the 100 milers to return. We had a vested interest in personally seeing what the horses and riders looked like at the end of 100 miles. Why? Because it is at the back of Dom's, Liz's and my head to some day give 100 miles a whirl.

We were all so tired that we could not stop laughing at this point. At everything and nothing at all. The volunteers by the finish line were, thankfully, highly amused by our antics and also participated in the silliness. They said we helped keep them awake!

The portion of road in front of ride camp was illuminated but beyond that was pitch black darkness. 100 milers ride with head lamps as otherwise they can't see crap while out on the trail at night. Thus, every light that we saw approaching in the darkness past the illuminated portion of road was met with several, "Oh! Oh! Oh!"s of anticipation and then a groan "Oooooh," when we all realized it was not a rider on a horse. It would be a car, a volunteer or a crew person.

We didn't care though. The second we realized it was not a rider, we started whooping, clapping and cheering, hollering at the top of our lungs, "YOU FINISHED 100 MILES!!! HOW DO YOU FEEL??!" I'm sure all of ride camp could hear us.

Thankfully, endurance people are all equally nuts and apparently all share the same sense of humor. Each person we cheered at whooped right back at us, raised their arms in victory, and played along.

My favorite part was when we saw a light beyond the illuminated road. The light was at head height on a person. It drifted down to waist level then suddenly hit the ground. "Uh-oh...that one died," someone said. We all snorted with laughter. It was someone on foot and their head lamp had fallen.

And then we did see a light higher up in the darkness. It was a rider trotting in on a gray Arabian.

It was 14-year old Bryna, the youngest person to ever complete the Old Dominion 100, on her mare Maddy. She arrived an hour and 15 minutes in front of the next rider. We stood up, clapped and cheered with much more control than we had previously, as of course we didn't want to spook her horse.

Bryna rode in looking like she'd just returned from an evening hack. Her horse was breathing hard, but was bright, alert and happy, with an expression that said, "Ohai! How are you guys all doing? That was fun!"

They would go on to win Best Condition as well. Endurance awards are not AT ALL like what you expect in other disciplines. The person that completes first (not necessarily passes the finish line first, but the first person to pass the last vet check) is the winner, but it is still considered a HUGE deal if you Top 10. If you arrive in the Top 10, you get to stand your horse for Best Condition. The vets do an extra-thorough exam and give an award to the horse in the Top 10 that looks best (in terms of fitness and recovery, not in terms of grooming) after finishing the race. In endurance circles, Best Condition is a far more coveted title than being the first place finisher. It means that not only did you arrive in the Top 10, you also conditioned your horse BETTER than anyone else in your distance division.

Speaking of Top 10: much earlier in the day, Dom finished 7th in the LD!

After that, we retired to bed. I checked on the girls, who were napping, Q lying down and Lily standing watch over her. They had plenty of hay, so I tossed them each a flake of alfalfa (I put Q's in front of her and she dug right in without bothering to stand up. Dinner in bed!) and crawled into my tent.

I slept like a log.

I woke up at 6:00 am to the sounds of our neighbors packing up. I was in and out of sleep for the next two hours, listening to the conversations of people around us. I overheard one conversation between a rider and the owner of the horse she had been riding in the 50. The horse did well speed wise but never pulsed down at the end so they didn't complete. The rider was gently telling the owner of the horse that he just didn't take care of himself during the ride; otherwise he would have recovered.

I thought about my mare, grinned, turned around and fell asleep again.

I woke up at 8:00 am and started breaking camp. Liz and Mike were also up and they followed suit. Dom and her Mike came over to hang out and help. I went to dump the ice water from my cooler and realized I still had 3 chocolate milks in there. I didn't want them to spoil but they were the only refrigerated item left in the cooler. Grinning, I told Dom, "I have chocolate milk! Do you want some?" Cue much excitement and giddiness. I may have made Dom's morning. :D Liz's Mike pouted like an 8 year old. "What about me? Can I have some?" So Mike received the third chocolate milk and we all made a toast.

Liz and I tied our mares to each side of the trailer and fed them as much mash as they wanted. If they finished their bowls and seemed to want more, they got more. In this fashion Lily finished all of the beet pulp + TC Senior I had packed for her. I had one happy, rehydrated mare.

Hand grazing

No stocking up the next morning! I was pretty shocked and very pleased. Lily notoriously stocks up after big efforts.
After we had most of our stuff organized and packed, we all sat down to talk while waiting for the Awards Ceremony at 11:00 am. I checked in with Carol and Nick to see where they were at packing-wise and let them know where I would be. They had just started picking up before breaking camp and Nick would be going down to the ceremonies as well, so there was plenty of time.

Liz, Kenai and I piled into her truck while Dom, Mike and Mike rode on the truck tailgate as we drove down to the meeting tent, whooping, "YOU RODE 100 MILES!!! HOW DO YOU FEEL??!!" Much laughter.

Brunch was amazing:

Old Dominion awards ceremonies are notoriously long, but for whatever reason they chose to start with the 50 milers. My name got called out before anyone else's! I had won the Turtle Award! The Turtle Award goes to the last rider to complete. The endurance motto is "To finish is to win" and this is their way of honoring that. The award itself was a rock painted by hand to look like a turtle. It was beautiful with some incredible detail on the shell. Even the underside of the turtle's shell was painted.

It wasn't just any rock either. It was one of the rocks from the mountain of Old Dominion. I burst out laughing when I was told that detail by the announcer. "You know those rocks that you are going to be having nightmares about for months? It's one of those rocks." I laughed and laughed and laughed.

But I didn't get just that! I also got a T-shirt...and a BUCKLE!

My Old Dominion swag!

Yup, much prefer this to the satin ribbons, thankyouverymuch. :)

Liz also received a buckle and a T-shirt. You received a free buckle for finishing your first OD 50.

After that, we drove back into camp to finish packing up the last odds and ends. Nick and Carol were pretty much set. Lily self-loaded again and I said my good-byes to Liz and Mike and Dom and Mike.

The drive home was uneventful, other than a stop at Sonics on the way back to our part of Maryland (yessss milkshakes!) Carol had had a blast drag riding on the OD; Katie had handled it like a pro with energy to spare. Carol was already making plans for drag riding at Fort Valley, the next ride in the Old Dominion Triple Crown, come October.

Lily and Katie unloaded at the barn without issue and Lily got put away in the dry lot with hay, alfalfa and another beet pulp mash. We'd had gorgeous weather up in the Virginia mountains but back at the barn it was hot and muggy. After Lily's efforts, I wanted her to have access to shade and a fan without having to compete for it this week. On Friday she will be re-introduced to her herd.

And me? My glutes, quads, calves, core and shoulders ached for the next 24 hours. I knew it was mainly from dehydration. By Tuesday I finally felt like I had had enough to drink and the soreness magically disappeared overnight.

There will be a review post of the ride: what worked, what didn't, changes in horse and rider fitness programs, and also my experiences as a noob endurance rider in this one-of-a-kind equestrian sport.

Dom was right: I loved it, I'm addicted, and I can't wait to do it again!

Now enjoy this helmet cam video compilation of the 2014 Old Dominion 100 mile ride by phantom13 on YouTube:

Or go to the link here
Totally worth watching!


  1. I have been following your blog for some time now and I have to say I know nothing about the fascinating sport of endurance riding except the facts you include in your blog, but I have to say it brought a tear to my eye to read "we completed". The amount of happiness, pride, and resilience you must have felt at that point is probably indescribable. Congratulations!

    1. It is still hard to put into words! Thank you JWall! :)

  2. So proud of your accomplishment. Glad Daniel and the boys were with you. Happy your ankle is better. Can't wait to read your review.

    1. Daniel and the boys rocked. Thank you for sending them! I don't know if we would have made it without them. I still get goosebumps!

  3. Woohoo! So proud of you guys - and so very jealous of your buckle. I wanna buckle!! ;)

    1. We squealed when we realized we were getting buckles! Here we were all ready to buy them! It was a wonderful surprise!

  4. So that sapling...I was more worried she was gonna try to move and get more tanlged in a bad way. A really bad way. The angle of the tree was really dangerous with her stance. I've witnessed similar things before and have heard of others. Some even resulting in broke legs! I didn't think her leg would break, but I did think she might freak out enough to cause harm to you in her effort to escape! It was a pretty dangerous moment from my perspective, so I'm glad it turned out so well with no injury.

    1. Oh no, I agree! When I got off and realized how she'd wedged that sapling between her legs (still don't know how she managed to do that!) I saw why you told me to get off in a hurry!

  5. Ok... so I both laughed and cried reading this entry! Great write up! I'm so glad you're hooked :) I knew it by that giant grin.



    1. <3 Can't wait for the next one! I hope you're there too! :D

  6. Congratulations! It sounds like all your hard work paid off:)

  7. Woohoo!! Congrats on completing your first fifty!! That is so awesome!