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

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Old Dominion 50 Mile Endurance Ride II: The Mountain

The Old Dominion 50 is broken up into reasonable distances:

  • First loop: 15 miles, then a vet check with a 45 minute hold (this means you get a 45 minute break where you and your horse can eat, drink and rest before having to continue). This vet check was at Bird Haven, where Charles and Liz's Mike would be there to meet us and crew for us.
  • Second loop: 16 miles, then a vet check with a 30 minute hold. This was the farthest vet check for the 50 milers at an area called Laurel Run. It was a very small area  so crews were not allowed here, but the OD provided plenty of volunteers to help us untack for the vets, tack up again, hold our horses while we peed, etc. They also had grain, hay, and beet pulp for the horses and water, Gatorade and sandwiches for the riders.
  • Second loop: 13 miles, then a vet check with a 20 minute hold back at Bird Haven. Charles and Mike just spent the day here, waiting for our return.
  • Fourth loop: 6 miles, and return to base camp. At base camp we had a 30 minute break after crossing the finish line and then we had to present our horses for the final vet check that would determine whether we ultimately completed or not.

When you consistently have been logging in single 10-15 mile rides pretty much every week, breaking up a 50 into this kind of smaller distances makes it seem so much more doable.

Liz and I trotted out, Lily and I taking the lead.

This first section of the first loop took us through a beautiful forest splattered with pine trees that reminded me more of something out of Northern California than of the forests of the Northeast. The footing was rocky but no worse than that of the park across the street where we've trained so much on. Lily trotted over this footing easily and confidently.

Within a few miles, we found ourselves trotting on this soft single track trail splattered with rocks, with a sloping drop into nothingness on our right and steep mountain on our left. I quickly eyeballed the drop next to us and chose to completely ignore it, focusing instead on the trail ahead. Lily didn't care. She simply trotted on along that tiny narrow trail, surefooted as a mountain goat.

I had just grinned, thinking about her surefootedness, when Lily suddenly tripped. And I mean TRIPPED. Her front end completely dropped out from under me, almost face planting as she nearly went to her knees. I ended up on her neck with my chin between her ears. In that split second I squeezed my eyes shut thinking, "We're both going to die! We're going to fall to our deaths!"

In the next fraction of a second, Lily caught herself and immediately lifted her neck, throwing me back into the saddle with the momentum of her upright movement. She then just stood there. I was shocked by how fast everything had happened: one second we were going to die, the next we were fine. I think Lily was just as rattled as me. I threw my arms around her neck. "Thank you for saving us!" I told her. I looked down at the ground to see what on earth had tripped her. I had seen nothing on the trail. "I think she tripped on that log." Liz said behind me. "It looked like she got her hoof caught on it." I looked down and indeed: there was a small log that was probably about 10" in diameter that had been partially obscured by the soft soil and was now very evident after Lily had tripped over it. I twisted around to make sure all 4 legs were intact and there was no blood pouring out from anywhere. There wasn't.

We continued on at a walk until we were back in a section where we had solid land on both sides of the trail. Only then did we continue trotting.

The following section of moderate climbing was quite rocky, rocky enough that the cables snapped on Lily's left hind Viper. Thankfully Liz saw it right away and I dismounted to assess the damage.

I hopped off my mare and somehow my left foot fell in a hole by the side of the trail. Pain shot up my ankle and I thought, "Uh-oh." I ignored it and hobbled around, removing the Viper and replacing it with one of the Gloves I was carrying as a spare as quickly as possible. The pain diminished as I moved around Lily and the ankle didn't bother me when I mounted up again.

We continued.

Another mile or so down the trail, we picked up a canter to lunge our way up a particularly steep section. We'd reached level ground when Liz, who was doing an amazing job at keeping an eye on my boots, realized that my left front boot had completely lost its shell: only the captivator was hanging from Lily's hoof. I dismounted (wince: the ankle twinged again) to remove the cap and replace the boot with another Glove while Liz trotted off back down the trail to try to find the shell.

Within a few minutes, Liz returned victorious: she had found the shell! I shoved it into my cantle bag and we continued on our way.

Eventually we came to a much longer and very steep climb. I had heard about this mountain and had been expecting it. The footing was mostly loose shale rock and was one of the steepest climbs Lily and I had ever done together. Liz and Q took the lead, setting the pace for the climb. We had some amazing views of the surrounding mountains from some of the trail switchbacks.

Liz and I took photos of each other taking photos of each other a la Mel and Funder.

We continued on our way. Lily was trying to rush up this steep grade and she wore herself out. She stopped. I urged her on and eventually she stopped again. I dismounted and led her up the mountain for about 10 minutes, enough to give her a break and enough to really make my ankle start throbbing as we negotiated over the rocks. I mounted up again and we continued on our way. The break from having to carry me had been more than enough to give Lily a breather.

We arrived at the ridgeline where we broke into a trot as we made our way through the forest. Soon I realized there was a person running along the trail behind us: one of the Ride & Tie runners. I gasped thinking of anyone running on foot up the mountain we had just climbed on horseback.

The ridgeline had even more incredible views, like this one:

The trail took us past 3 water troughs where we stopped so the mares could drink.

Yes, that's a Ride n Tie-er on the far left.
After this we were riding downhill on a fine gravel road with the occasional switchback. Groups of RnT participants started passing us, including runners on foot. We were trotting. Those guys were so hard core. The RnTers on horseback were cantering downhill past us too. The incline of the road was fine for trotting but not something I would have personally wanted to attempt at a canter.

Eventually we took a trail off of the road that took us through the woods. We were warned by other riders to be careful of the footing in that particular section as going downhill as we were doing it could be quite slick. We thanked the other riders for the warning.

We crossed a creek, next to which there were a couple of signs indicating that the ride photographer was up ahead so the photographer could get individual photos. Dom's Mike was also there, and he took this awesomeness:

Dom's Mike took this one of Liz and Q. They looked fantastic.
We crossed one more stream to get past the in-timer and we were at Bird Haven, where Liz's Mike and Charles were ready with food, water, and shade for both the horses and us.

Receiving my "in time" card from one of the volunteers
Lily vetted in with all A's across the board with a pulse of 52. I totally missed the issues that Liz had with the vet who thought Q's naturally swinging gait was odd. Q was passed.

Waiting for the vet
Trotting out
Vet looks at Q
After some confusion over how long this vet check was, we sat down to eat.

As we were finishing up, one of the volunteers came over to ask if we were leaving soon...the drag riders were waiting on us! Shit! We were the very last ones out of this vet check. We tacked up in a hurry, kissed our men, and mounted up.

We rode out to start the second and longest loop of the OD. The first 3 or 4 miles of trail was single track through woods. Lily and I led the way, mostly cantering in an attempt to make up for lost time as we were fully aware that right now we were in a furious race against the clock.

In the meantime, I knew Liz was worried about Q's hind Gloves staying on during speed work and I got very good at turning around mid flight to look at Q's feet to make sure all 4 boots were still on. "All four!" I called back to Liz. She'd laugh and say thank you.

Cantering those first miles of the second loop was the best idea we had all day. 

The trail started to take us uphill. And then we started climbing. We trotted as much as we could but the rocks on the trail started getting bigger. And bigger. And bigger. We HAD to walk: there was no trotting through this. Lily stopped and I got off to lead her. Liz followed suit. Just 5 minutes of vertical hiking on those rocks, and it made my whole body burn. We walked until we came to a bend in the trail then mounted back up. The pain in my ankle was just getting worse and worse.

It wa a good thing we got back on:  trail itself soon disappeared in the face of giant hoof and fetlock crunching boulders that the mares had to scramble over just so they could get to the next one. I was horrified. In several sections we had a cliff drop off to our right masked by trees, and a cliff/forest soaring above us on our left. The trail was so vertical that I could literally feel gravity pulling us backwards.

This was the moment when it hit me how absolutely insane it had been to think that this was an appropriate first ride of any kind for me and my horse. Sure everyone says it's a difficult ride. But no one tells you how difficult or what exactly makes it so difficult. And then there was someone on ECTRA and the Old Dominion Facebook page that had been saying how the OD 25 is an easy first LD for the horse just being started in distance riding. That makes you think that the 50 can't be that hard then. The truth of the matter is that this was right up there with saying, "I want Tevis to be my first endurance ride evah!"

There should be a photographer up there. I wish I'd gotten video of the climb we did, but I was too worried about my horse, about the nonexistent trail, about the cliff, to even think about it at the time. It seriously made Cougar Rock seem tame by comparison. If you go looking for photos of the OD trail, you will find NO pictures of this particular section. None. Nothing to even remotely do it justice. You think a Virginia endurance ride is going to have scenery like this:

This is the Virginia Highlands endurance ride. Photo by Liz from when she rode it with Mary Howell last year.
(I knew from reading and talking to others that of course the Old Dominion was NOT like this AT ALL, but this is the mental picture that most people would get when thinking about a ride in VA.)
Well, it doesn't. It absolutely does not. It was more like this:

Yeah. Like that. Now the Internet has a photo of the trail on the second climb of the Old Dominion 50.
You are welcome. ;)
This is the beginning of the climb, when it was easy compared to what would follow. You can get a notion of the incline though.

We'd think we were almost at the top but would then realize that the trail continued. And continued and continued. Rocks, rocks, rocks. I told Lily that if she wanted to spook at rocks for the rest of her life after this, I would completely understand. I had a feeling I would have nightmares about those goddamn rocks for the next week at least. Another bend in the trail and both the mares and us would get excited, thinking we were almost done...but it would continue. We'd look at the forest around us, feel the wind blowing, and think we just HAD to be close to the top. Where was the freaking ridge line?! On and on and on. You couldn't stop. You couldn't turn around. You couldn't even dismount to lead your horse because the rocks were so big it would have taken both you and your horse even longer to get through this section. My biggest concern soon became that if anything happened to any of the four of us, there was no way to get an ambulance (human or horse) to us. It was too remote, the terrain too difficult.

It was 5 MILES of hard, vertical, rock-laden climb. Liz, who never ever complains, finally blurted out, "Who the hell makes a trail like this without switchbacks??!" There were slight turns in the trail but not what anyone would call a switchback.

We despaired, and we hoped, and we despaired again. I started groaning in frustration every time we realized that it continued. "OH.MY.GOD!!!"

"This too shall pass." Liz said. She is the best riding partner. She was right: it would pass. It had to. It would end. Soon. Right? Right??? I stayed quiet, keeping all of these thoughts to myself, and prayed to the Goddess, to Uncle Daniel, to just get us through this section alive and well.

Lily finally stopped. We had arrived at yet another vertical climb. She couldn't continue in the lead. She was done. Liz and Q were able to squeeze past in this section. Seeing Q leap up the next section of trail, Lily found it in herself to continue.

And then...and then the trail leveled. We were still climbing, but it was a reasonable climb. The mares were still working but not quite as hard. We eventually came to a flat stretch that the mares chose to trot through, to my surprise at least. Lily was like, "FINALLY!"

There was a gorgeous section of trail where we were pretty much sweeping through mountain laurel in full bloom, the ground almost obscured by the growth, which meant we had to continue walking because neither us nor the horses could really see the rocky footing underneath us.

It was beautiful. But note how little you could see of the trail underfoot.
There was more climbing involved to get through the ridge line itself. We were so done with climbing by then. But nothing ever as bad as that particular Ultra Rock section.
When the trail finally started to take us downwards, we went through this beautiful fern section.
And then we were going downhill. Lily and Q were both tired by then. The trail turned into soft deep loam splattered with rocks throughout. Both mares were tripping. Liz ended up getting off and jogging Q most of the way downhill. I wanted to do the same. I really did. But I knew my ankle would not have survived. So I stayed out of Lily's way and let her follow as best she could.

At the end of this section there were two water troughs and we let the mares drink as much as they needed. We were all quiet, beat. Liz splashed water on the mares' necks and mounted up again.

The following section was a two lane gravel road. We were still going downhill but the incline was reasonable enough that we decided to trot as much as we possibly could just to try to make up time.

Lily and I had both hit a wall by this point. My mare was exhausted and I felt demoralized. That second climb had killed me. Lily trotted on but I had to keep my leg on her or else she'd peter out into a walk.

Right around this time I realized that my shins were on fire. One thing they don't tell you is that at around mile 32 of riding up and down steep mountains, your shins will be so overworked from your legs absorbing the brunt of the shock from trotting on inclines that it will literally feel like your muscles have been lit aflame. Liz was in the same boat as me. We didn't really talk during this section, we were just too focused on getting it done.

Right around this time also we had two ladies on faster Arabians pass us at the trot. They were riding side by side so they took up the whole road in front of us. They'd get ahead of us then stop suddenly for one reason or another. This meant that each time they stopped, we had to bring our own horses to a sudden halt or walk so we wouldn't bump into them.

Each time we had to stop suddenly, my shins screamed. It felt like the muscle was being ripped from my bones.

We'd pass the ladies and trot on, and eventually they would pass us again and repeat this stunt.

By the third time they did this I was so ENRAGED at them and in SO MUCH PAIN that I was ready to beat them over the heads with my boot-laden cantle bag! AAARRRGH!! I said nothing but I was fuming. Liz voiced my thoughts, "I am really done with these two women."

Finally, finally they passed us and they stayed ahead and we never ever saw them again. Relief.

We trotted past a paper plate sign saying "water" with an arrow. We followed the arrow and discovered that right next to the road was another stream. We took the mares to it and they both drank thirstily.

We trotted side by side into the Laurel Run vet check and were thrilled to find Gail there, who was volunteering! It did wonders for our morale to have a familiar face there. It made it feel even more like we had guardian angels watching over us.

We untacked, offering the mares water and sponging them off as quickly as they could.

Lily drank water like a champ but she was panting, her nostrils flaring rapidly. I did not like that at ALL. I had not seen her do that since Florida.

We presented to the vet. A woman, brisk and efficient in her manner. We had B's all across the board: Lily's capillary refill time and skin tent test were delayed, which were the ones that concerned me the most. Her pulse was 72. We trotted out. She scored an A on gait, to my surprise, Bs on everything else. Her heart rate stayed at 72.

"She has a heart murmur," the vet said.


What?! I was so shocked that I couldn't say anything. She's been ausculted a million times since we moved to Maryland: both the vets I've had since moving here listen to their patients' hearts as part of their routine physical exam. She had passed two checks at the ride already without note of a murmur so this was a new development.The vet saw my expression and her manner softened. She explained, "It is common with dehydration and it is very likely that that's all this is," she said. Ok. I knew that already somewhere in my head. "I'm keeping your card but get your out time, go take a break, let her eat and drink and bring her back so we can see where she's at."

Liz's card had also been held. Her vet thought Q was lame. What?! They thought she was swinging her butt too much. Huh? That's how she moves! As we were trotting into Laurel Run side by side, I'd been admiring how Q still had loft to her gait and how bouncy and fresh she looked. She was NOT lame!

Liz was shocked when I told her about the murmur. I was ready to stop. I honestly didn't think she would recover enough to continue in the short amount of time we had (20 minutes), not after that god-awful climb we had gotten through added to trotting on a downhill grade for miles. Liz suggested that if she was passed, we could take it slow on the next loop. Trot as much as possible, walk on the downhills, dismount a quarter of a mile from Bird Haven and loosen her girth to give her extra time to recover before going into the check. I liked this idea.

I put food and water in front of Lily while continuing to sponge and scrape, sponge and scrape the water off of her. She drank a bucket and a half of water, ate some beet pulp, devoured some hay, and tore into the grass that was by our spot. Liz had been told to tack up prior to her recheck so she was getting everything set up. I went to the volunteer tent and snagged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for us and bottles of water. Volunteers would walk by every few minutes to make sure we didn't need anything. They were awesome. So awesome.

I wolfed down my sandwich and chugged my water and looked at Lily eating everything in sight. And her exhaustion was gone. Her respiratory rate had gone way down. I gently pinched the skin on her neck and shoulder and it snapped right back.

We had 10 minutes left before our out time. Amazed at my horse, I took her back to the vet. She welcomed us and listened to Lily.


Her heart rate had dropped to 44.
I asked the vet what grade murmur had it been before. "A III/VI". Guys, that's a pretty big murmur on an animal that had none previously. I won't tell you I wasn't horrified. She continued to listen to Lily's heart. "It is so slight now that I can't even grade it," she said. I started asking more questions and she said that she had talked to the equine cardiologist (one of the veterinary volunteers at that particular check was an equine cardiologist!! How amazing is that?!) and he had not been concerned at all. He had confirmed what she said: it is common with dehydration, which Lily had certainly been. He said that a horse that develops a big murmur like that when dehydrated probably has a very small defect: it is much more audible when the blood is thicker. He was not concerned, and my vet said that Lily looked great. She was impressed. We were declared fit to continue. She gave me my rider card back.

I asked for advice on what else I could do to keep this from reoccurring. Obviously keep my horse hydrated, which she was trying to do to the best of her abilities, but there's only so much water available on these trails, as we all knew. She outlined a plan for us that matched exactly what Liz had suggested. I thanked the vet profusely for taking the time to explain things to me and for her suggestions. She smiled, the briskness gone, and wished us good luck.

I returned to Liz and Q beaming and gave her the good news! Now Liz had to pass her recheck. I knew she'd be fine.

I tacked up Lily with help from Liz and a wonderful volunteer who held my mare while we got her ready. Liz snagged two water bottles for us: one for me to refill my bottles and one for Lily for later.  I mounted up, waiting by the out-timer and talking to Gail while Liz did her second trot out with Q.

She passed!

We had this picture taken  before continuing on our way:

Gail, even now while writing this, I'm still grinning over how absolutely wonderful it was to see you at this check!
It did so much for our morale!

We had already conquered more than half of the OD 50. We only had 18 more miles to go.

To be continued.


  1. How Intence and scary sounding trail! Glad Lily was able to recover that quickly.

    1. The mare has heart beyond my wildest dreams. I will forever be in awe of her.

      And yes, it was in this section that I realized why exactly this ride is considered the second hardest in the country. The Beast of the East. That's what they call it. It is a well-deserved nickname!

  2. Dude, all of that sounds really scary. The rocks, the miles, the heartrate, the murmur. Props to you for continuing on! And, you know, it absolutely blows that there is a potential condition or issue with Lily's lub dub, but I'm sorta glad that it presented so you can be aware and precautious. Also, did you pop out with vetspeak and sway the vet to friendliness? :)

    1. Oh yes! I told her I'm a vet tech and she could give me full disclosure. That's when she mentioned she had talked to the cardiologist about Lily. It was beyond awesome to have this piece of information because it did indeed make me aware of a potential problem, how to manage it, and it also changed what I did with Lily's electrolytes, which ultimately ended up being a brilliant idea.
      I'll be having my vet listen even more closely next time she's out, just to see what she says, and I need to do a lot more research on electrolyting non-Arabs for endurance. More questions for the vet...

  3. I wondered the story of the first photo with the multiple styles of boots! And ughh, the rocks, sounds awful.

    My horse was also diagnosed one ride with a heart murmur. No one has heard it since. I'm so glad Lily has improved, and proven herself to have so much heart, but you have to take credit for all the training towards her success!

    1. She has all slightly different sized feet and it was driving me bonkers that she was laterally mismatched: I know you shouldn't do that. But the boots stayed on so well like that on each side for the two longest loops. I ultimately did put her in Gloves all around for the final stretch though.

      I'm glad Major was fine after his one time heart murmur diagnosis! What grade was his? Makes me feel better to know the same thing has happened to others. Hers never popped up again during this ride, which was a huge relief.

  4. I am guessing that the trails are somehow marked? But they still look scary and confusing!
    It is interesting to read both yours and Liz's takes on the event :)

    1. Oh yes! They had blue and white striped ribbon tied to the trees at eye height. Turns were marked with a striped ribbon and a red ribbon, but it could really get confusing when you started doubling back on trail. There were several people that didn't make it back in time because they took the wrong turn.

  5. I had done the rocks before (Maine and Vermont) and had done the climbing before (New York) but had NEVER done both at the same time like that. INSANE. Like I said... I can't believe THIS was your first ride.

    1. Ignorance is bliss. If I had had an idea of exactly how hard that second climb was going to be, this would not have been our first ride!

  6. I've heard an awful lot of stories about horses who have mild murmurs all the time and/or more pronounced ones when dehydrated. It sounds horrible, but it's pretty common and doesn't seem to be a major cause of mortality.

    Great story so far!

    1. I had heard of heart murmurs from dehydration but couldn't remember anything else about the subject. It was great knowing the cardiologist didn't think it was a big deal in our case, especially since she fully recovered. Glad you're enjoying the story!

  7. OMG those women! -_-

    Definitely could have done without them. Lol

    1. I think that's where a dressage whip would come in handy.

    2. LMAO Karen!! And you know what? I DID have my dressage whip with the boys at Bird Haven. I knew I should've taken it on the next loop!

  8. What a story! I knew something was wrong when the vets wouldn't give me your rider cards to give you an out time, but I didn't have the opportunity to come see you. I'm so glad that both Lily and Q made it through OK! And I think that horrible section of trail you did might be called Indian Graves. When I rode at Ft Valley last year, I was told it had been taken out, much to everyone's relief. But then my station head was talking about how they had to put it back in. I've heard that even top FEI riders find that section intimidating, so the fact that you made it is truly amazing!

    As for the OD being a good first LD, someone else told me that, but I assumed that because this rider did 50s all the time, she was a crazy person. I don't think the terrain for the 25 has anything quite like what you had to do, but I still maintain that if you have options, there are better locations for a first ride. Hence my volunteering instead of riding:)

    1. Oh shit!! THAT was Indian Graves?! OMG! Yes, I heard all about it when crewing for Liz at Fort Valley...the riders were relieved that that section had been taken out. It's legendary.

      My mutt is a badass. But our conditioning is getting an overhaul!

      I agree with you: whoever said the OD LD was easy is bonkers. You don't get Indian Graves, but you do get that 3 mile nearly vertical hike up the shale mountain that we experienced on the first loop.

    2. I did some more investigation and it turns out Indian Graves is at the Ft Valley ride and much worse than what you did at the OD. Something to look forward to, huh?:)

    3. Haha Liz and I looked up pictures and Indian Graves looks exactly like that second climb we did at the OD. It almost looks easier than what we did at the OD... I wish I'd gotten video. Here are photos of the terrain of Indian Graves for other readers who haven't seen/heard of the area before: