For years I have talked and dreamed about doing a 100 mile endurance ride and especially the Old Dominion. The stars just have never lined up for me to do one due to scheduling of my real life or horse issues but this past weekend my 100 mile dream came true!
After the Biltmore ride when Blue and I took a wrong turn and ended up doing almost 60 miles and finished looking good I had a feeling that we could do the Old Dominion or at least give it a try. I went ahead and sent in my entry before I chickened out, after all, no matter how far I would make it the experience would be quite an adventure.
My husband Bill and my friend (and massage therapist) Lisa agreed to be my crew and we did our best to organize everything. A big feat in itself since I did not know what exactly I would need and all the vet checks were away from camp. I was most worried about keeping myself going and hydrated because I have had some past experience with heat stress and upset stomach on hot rides and I didn’t want to be the weak link in the team. I did some research on the internet about what marathon runners and bike riders do during a race and stocked up on some energy and electrolyte products to help me along. We also brought along a lot of food possibilities to entice me to eat even at my low times. We had sushi rolls, flank steak, roasted veggies, muffins and all sorts of great food, which we shared with others that were hungry as well. The sushi was a big hit!
The night before the ride at the ride briefing they encouraged the formation of teams. I overheard Laura Hayes, who was sitting across from me, say that a member of their team couldn’t make it so I asked if they minded if I took her place. Our team was Bill and the Babes and consisted of Bill Taylor, Laura Hayes, Libby Lopp and myself. Our crew was also Bill and the Babes since Julie, Bill’s wife and crew, had decided to ride with Bill Sluys and Lisa and all crew together. Since we were planning on riding slow Bill T, Laura and I decided to ride together the next day. Laura was riding a fairly young horse, it was Bill’s horse’s first hundred and it was Blue and my first hundred as well.
I was hoping for cool weather but although the temperatures were a bit more moderate than the previous weekend the humidity was off the charts. We left camp at 5:30 am wearing t-shirts with my glasses fogging up. The three of us walked out of camp and proceeded down a gravel road for a half of a mile or so before we hit the trail, which started climbing immediately. The climb was gradual (I say gradual but that is in comparison to what lay ahead!) at first with some ups and downs but soon became very steep as we came out of a hardwood forest into an open gas line area. Laura and Bill got off and walked and tailed for a while and I did too for a few minutes until I realized that I was not used to it so got back on my horse. It was beginning to get pretty hot and I didn’t want to stress myself too much at the beginning of the ride and Blue is used to carrying me everywhere down the trail since he is a seasoned NATRC horse.
We continued on single track trail through hardwoods climbing to a ridge that was much more alpine with scrubby trees and lots of mountain laurel that was blooming profusely, sometimes creating a tunnel effect. It was just beautiful and the occasional views we glimpsed were spectacular. The footing was sometimes good and sometimes very rocky and slow but we seemed to be keeping a steady pace. By now the horses had become acquainted and were establishing a hierarchy. There were two geldings, Blue and James(Bill’s Horse), and the mare, Mo, Laura’s horse. Blue must have told them unconditionally that he was the leader because after a while neither one cared to pass him so he led the way.
After riding the ridge for a while we descended down a steep gravel road for several miles. Laura suddenly felt that her horse was off and sure enough she was bobbing her head consistantly. Thinking that she might walk out of it in a minute we continued for a ways until she realized that the horse had lost a shoe. I had an Easyboot and offered it to Laura. Since she was entered in the Cavalry Division she had to think about it for a minute, as the assistance would eliminate her from that part of the competition. Looking at the map and realizing that it was still quite a ways to Rogers Field Vet Check where the farrier would be she accepted the boot and dropped out of Cavalry. We were on our way again but it wasn’t too long before the boot had fallen off. We went back a ways to see if we could find it but alas, it was not to be. I had one more boot and again offered it but with some tips to make sure that it would stay on.
We got back on a wooded trail that later came out into a gas line for our first check which was a gate and go. We pulsed down and trotted for the vet and were on our way.
A little more wooded trail then it was pretty much gravel road from there to the Rogers Field Vet Check and the boot stayed on.
We all passed the first check and Laura had the shoe replaced. Our crew was relieved to see us as we were the last to arrive. They had a nice place set up in the shade of some trees and we feasted on all the goodies from the cooler. Blue was eating and drinking great and enjoying being fussed over. I was thrilled to actually have an appetite and honed in on the veggie sushi. I was feeling amazingly relaxed and was having a blast.
As we left Rogers Field we passed lots of the 50s coming into the vet check. It was good to see some of our friends and slap hands on the way by. Everyone looked like they were having a great time. We got a mile or so down the road and disaster struck once again for Laura. The shoe that had just been nailed on came off! She headed back to the vet check not knowing if anything could be done about it. Bill and I were disappointed to have lost our team member and the geldings were devastated over the loss of their mare. They began sucking back a bit and the pace slowed especially when we hit the big climb. It was seven miles up a steep gravel road in the hot sun and our pace began to crawl at what seemed like 2 mph! I don’t think Bill T and I talked much on that climb, we were just willing our beasts up that mountain.
Since we were in the open and nearing the ridge I realized that I had a cell signal and called my Bill to see if he had heard anything from Laura. He said that as they were leaving the check they saw her heading back out with yet another shoe on her horse. We were glad for her and wished her the best.
When we finally got to the top there was a much welcome water tank and some friendly volunteers to greet us. Blue drank more than he ever has at a water stop, he just kept going back for more. Both we and the horses were hot but then a light rain started to fall as did the temperature as we entered another single track trail where the hundreds split off from the fifties. This one had the most beautiful areas of mountain laurel and some awesome rock formations. The trail was rugged and beautiful and the horses were revived by the rain, we steadily made our way alternating walking and slow trotting as the terrain allowed. The rain got harder and we both got soaked. I had decided not to carry my raincoat at that point because it had been morning when we left the last check and I didn’t realize that it would take us so long to get to the next one. I didn’t really care at that point though because the rain felt so good on my hot body. I started to notice that Blue was slightly hesitant and he started looking over his shoulder from time to time. All of a sudden I heard someone on the trail behind us and gave a hootie hooo and got one back, Laura had caught us! Our little herd was back together and the geldings were most happy. “I hate to quit!” was Laura’s answer to the problems of the day and was just the attitude one needed to make it through this ride!
We got to Bucktail Vet Check at 41.8 miles and once again our crew was relieved to see us. That 16 mile segment had taken us almost 5 hours to complete, we were dropping farther behind and we were not even half way through the ride. We would have to pick up our pace to make it to the next check before the cut off time. I pealed off my soaked clothes and replaced them with dry ones and this time tied my raincoat onto my saddle.
I don’t remember much about this next segment because this is where I made a grave mistake that almost cost me the ride. At the last check I had loaded up my saddle bag with some energy gel food and a package of electrolyte concentrate that you mix in your water bottle. They were both packaged in those little foil packs and I got one out while I was trotting down the trail, ripped the top off with my teeth. Thinking it was the energy gel I took a big gulp only to find out that it was the electrolyte concentrate. My stomach went instantly bad and it was all I could do to keep from throwing up. I realized what a horse must feel like when we force too many electrolytes down their throat. I had that same wrinkled up nose look that they get.
Soon the rain began again and this time with dangerous lightning and thunder all around us. I had first put my raincoat when the rain was light but soon took it off again because I was sweating profusely under it and thought I would be better off without it but then the deluge really hit. The temperatures instantly dropped about 20 degrees or so and the wind picked up fiercely. The horses bowed their heads and trudged through the rain even though their instincts told them to stay put and turn their backs to the storm. The wind was strong and being in the woods we prayed that no trees would fall on us. The trails became raging torrents irritating Laura and me since we were both certified AERC Trailmasters. We had been taught that the water must run off the trail not down it and by now we were nearly knee deep in raging water! The movement of all the rain and water and trees in the wind was not helping my sick stomach a bit either. I was hitting the low point of my ride and I was hoping that I would make it through. At this point I had been further down the trail on my horse than I had ever been in my life so if I had to pull I at least have had a good adventure. I kept thinking of Laura’s mantra “I hate to quit!” and it helped me to get through.
We had picked up the pace but were still dangerously close to the cut off time by the time we got to the Wates Run Gate and Go. I was still dizzy and sick feeling and wasn’t talking much. Blue still felt great and was thrilled that the volunteers had set up pans of mash that had a variety of beet pulp, grain and all sorts of goodies in it. He dove in and started sampling the different mashes and several kinds of hay. He was in heaven since he loves any food that is not what I brought!
At one point Bill was checking his horse’s feet and realized that the right rear was about to bust out of his shoe on the outside. The nails were loosening and the hoof wall was breaking apart. He had an Easyboot with him but when he put it on we realized that it was way too big and would never stay on. I tried one of mine but it was too small and would not even go over the foot with the shoe at all. The only choice was to continue and hope that it held. If it came off maybe I would be able to get the smaller boot on if needed. The volunteers told us that the next 11 miles to Big 92 was mostly gravel road so we vowed to make up some time. Focusing on keeping our pace up helped keep my mind off my stomach and I felt a little better for a while.
Along this stretch we caught up to another rider, Crystal Woodhouse and her Morgan mare, Misty. Blue, angry that he was no longer in the lead, charged ahead and passed them and any time Misty tried to take the lead back Blue would pin his ears and snake his head at her. This became their conversation for the rest of the segment. Soon Misty was subdued and like the others refused to pass Blue. They would just quit and let him regain the lead. They obviously had their own ideas about how to ride this ride. The competition was good and helped us to gain at least 30 minutes of our time. We got to Big 92 Vet Check with 45 minutes to spare before the cut off.
My crew, Bill and Lisa, took one look at me and were worried. Bill knows that look when I am sick and he feared that I would not make it. Lisa trotted out my horse as I was unable to at that moment. They tried to get me to eat and drink but nothing was passing my lips. Lisa started loading my packs up with crackers, cookies, protein shake, yurba matte tea and anything she could think of to get me eating once I got back on the trail. Big 92 was a 45 minute hold and I thought it would never end. My head was swimming and I finally went into the porta pottie and threw up. I was pretty pale when they put me back on my horse but I was not quitting. It was starting to get dark and we were only at the 65 mile mark. We were in for a long night!
The moon was nearly full and already well up in the sky by the time the sun had set and I was looking forward to my first experience with night riding. My stomach was beginning to feel a little bit better and I was able to drink a little tea and protein shake. I gradually started to recover except for a little vertigo that I was experiencing from riding in the dark. The trail was gravel road at this time and we were instructed to look for a left hand turn onto a woods trail. We trotted a long way and finally we came to it. It was a small, close, single track trail but it was well lighted with glow sticks. We had no problem negotiating it until it came out at a paved road intersection with three choices on where to go. We were dismayed to find no glow sticks in sight but a small pile of torn up ribbon indicating that some vandalism had taken place. It was really dark and foggy by this time and we cast about for a sign as to which way to go. We went down each choice for a while and found nothing. We really didn’t need to be wasting time at this point so I got out my map and really started studying it to determine exactly where we were. I figured it out and felt confident that we were to have taken the road that went straight after leaving the woods even thought my horse was convinced that left was the fastest way back to camp! About a mile up the road we finally came to a glow stick, yay! Our spirits were lifted and we trotted down the gravel road on to Rogers Field Vet Check for the second time.
The scene we witnessed when we arrived was like night and day from the cheery scene we had left in the morning. The 2 inches of rain that had fallen had turned the field into a lake and our crew had to park at the road at the entrance. We took our saddles off there but had to slog through the mire a couple of hundred yards to the pulse checkers and vets who were stranded in the field unable to get their vehicles out. By this time we had gone 75 miles and if we could make our time, finishing this ride seemed well within our reach. My sickness had gone away, thankfully, and my energy had returned. Blue looked fantastic as the slow pace of the day was nothing more than he had been doing in NATRC for 2500 miles of competition. We were headed home and by now all the horses knew it. We took advantage of the pull of the horses towards camp and with renewed commitment set out on our second to last leg of the journey to the finish line.
Once again with our delay in finding the trail we were really pushing our maximum time. Blue and Misty had buddied up and he was really getting into his zone. He was really working the trai,l which had become slow and rocky again, trotting a few steps and walking a few steps trying to keep up the pace in the dark. We began pulling away from Laura and Bill. I didn’t have the heart to hold Blue back and wait up so I just let him do his thing with Misty in tow. I felt like Laura had enough experience to get her and Bill through and at that point they would somehow make it without us. I wanted to finish this ride so much by now and I know we would need the extra time on our last leg which was one of the most difficult, it was time to ride my own ride.
We came into the Pump Station Gate and Go to cheers from the volunteers who were surprised on how much time we had made up. We had gained about 15 or 20 minutes in 7.2 miles and things were looking good. Bill and Laura came in right after we did and we all pulsed down right away. Somehow Bills bad shoe was still on the hoof and Laura’s new shoe was holding as well. I had Easyboots glued on the front with shoes in the rear and all was well with my system. We were all jazzed and wasted no time getting back on the trail, we were going to finish this thing!
We started down the trail together again but soon Blue and Misty were pulling away from the others. He was on a mission to home. The trail became rocky and slow again but with his big walking stride he pushed forward adding a few trotting steps in when he could. The fog was getting thick and was messing with the light from my head lamp causing me to feel a little dizzy again until I learned to focus on a point ahead and ignore the water droplets that were swimming around my vision. We were so focused and thinking as one being, it was such a powerful feeling. The moon was getting lower in the sky and the night was dragging on. We came into the final vet check 30 minutes before the cut off time. Laura and Bill came in 20 minutes later and we were so relieved when they arrived. I don’t know how they were going to make it but don’t forget, Laura won’t quit, so I know that somehow they would.
Blue pulsed down right away but Crystal’s horse was hot and it took a lot of work to get her pulse down since we had hurried over some pretty rough terrain. The temperatures were still warm enough for us to be in t-shirts even though it was 2:30am and the fog was like pea soup. It became apparent that I would have to finish the last leg by myself and maybe she would catch me on the way. I followed the directions to get out of the vet check but when I got to the paved road the light sticks once again stopped. This was beginning to get frustrating because we had no time to lose, we had 9.5 miles to the finish line, 2 ½ hours to make it in on time and the toughest, slowest trail yet to do. Blue wanted to go left so we tried that for a while but saw nothing. I went back to the intersection and heard Crystal coming so together we took the other choice and soon saw a friendly light stick swaying in the wind.
We trotted up the road not realizing that it was the last real trotting that we would be able to do. The trail soon turned back into a single track and became rocks on top of rocks with the slickest, snottiest mud in between. This part of the trail really prayed on our minds. The moon had set and it was pitch black, the fog was messing up our head lamp light but we needed it anyway, my batteries were starting to die and I hoped they would last to the finish. I had lost the light sticks I had tied onto Blue’s breast collar earlier. Little glowing eyes were looking out at us from the bushes and sometimes I would recognize a deer or possum. One time some eyes darted across the trail in front of us and the body language suggested a fox or a bobcat. It was like the night creatures were cheering us on to the finish. This last leg had three significant climbs, each one steeper and higher than the next. Our pace became dangerously slow again as the mud and the 160 horses that had gone down the trail before us had made the trail nearly impassible. I was really worried about laming my horse in the last 10 miles so we were as careful as we could be while still trying to maintain at least a 4.5 mile an hour average pace. My worst fear was after all that hard work we would be a few minutes over time and not get credit for it after our horses had worked so hard for us.
This part of the trail seemed like it would never end. Just when it seemed like we were done climbing the trail would dip down only to climb further up. Sooner or later we would have to go down. We thought a lot about Laura and Bill and were hoping that their ride was going well, sending good energy their way to help them along. Finally we started going down more than we were going up and it seemed like we really were getting close. It probably took us an excruciating hour to get off that mountain as going down was much slipperier than going up. Blue just tucked his butt and slid down a lot of it except where the rocks would stop him from skiing all the way to the bottom.
We came to a big water tank and celebrated because we knew that we were just a mile or two away now. Still it seemed to go on forever when all of a sudden an awful smell met out noses. At first I thought it was a dead thing in the trail until I recognized the putrid odor of the turkey farm that was right on the gravel road to camp. One more little slide down and we were on the gravel road with less than a half a mile between us and the finish line!
It was 5AM and the sky was becoming pink with the rising sun. We had ridden for almost 24 hours to get back home! My heart was pounding and my excitement was building but there was a heaviness in my heart because my hope was waning that Bill and Laura would make it. All of a sudden I heard a rattling of hooves on the gravel road behind us and here they came hooting and hollering! Laura’s horse, missing the company of the mighty Blue had picked up the pace and made up that lost 20 minutes and caught us. I had a great idea that we would all hold hands and tie for the turtle but Blue had other ideas, he was not going to lose this 4 horse race and charged ahead as the others tried to ride up even with us. As we rounded the last curve we saw a small crowd and the lights of the finish line. Blue became animated and elevated, prancing down the road, spooking to the left and the right a bit. I could not believe this horse had just gone 100 miles! It was overwhelming and the tears began to flow as I dismounted and gave my amazing horse a big hug around his neck. We had done it, completed our first hundred, the toughest on the east coast and so had the others!
Mary Farris and Gina Hagis, my 2 best riding buddies, were there to meet us at the finish and accompanied us and my faithful crew to the final vet out. Blue vetted out with all A’s with a B on gut sounds (typical for him) and an overall impression of A-. Wow, I couldn’t have asked for better and was quite proud of my horse and the way I had ridden him. I’ve seen what he looks like when overridden and that was not this picture. He looked like he could do it all over again. What an accomplishment. It was the most fun and challenge I have ever had on horseback and I truly can’t wait to do it again.
I would really like to encourage more people to attempt a hundred mile ride as my experience proves that with careful pacing and a little luck it can be done. If an 18 year old competitive trail horse with only 4 50 mile completions and a 50 something year old rider can do it, so can you! This was the most significant challenge I have ever attempted and I can’t begin to tell you the strength and confidence in my own power and that of my horse and our partnership it has given me. It is overwhelming and so worth it. I understand now the real meaning of endurance!
I would like to thank first and foremost my crew, husband Bill and friend Lisa, who really got me through the tough times, Laura Hayes for helping me to trust our slow pace, Bill T for his quiet companionship, Crystal and her feisty morgan mare for giving us a spark when we really needed it, Ann Stuart for suggesting I use Body Glide to prevent Blue from getting scratches (it worked!), Meg Sleeper and Tom Sites for their pre ride advise to ride it like a CTR, Mary Farris and Gina Hagis for telling me over and over that my horse could do it and getting up at 5am to meet me at the finish and Garrie Bates for telling me it was time to start living my dream! Thanks go to Libby Lopp for finishing 2nd and pulling up our team score, the team of Bill and the Babes finished 2nd in the team competition on perseverance, we just wouldn't quit!
Also thanks to all the volunteers who worked tirelessly to provide us with a well organized challenging and fabulous event that will go down in my minds history as the best thing I have ever done! As a previous ride manager and trail master for a competitive trail ride I know what goes into preparing an event like this and these people made it look easy! Thank you so much and see you next year!
Nancy and Blue