by Nancy Sluys
October 12 2015
The time leading up to the National Championships was filled with question as I tried to decide which horse to ride. Zanie (FYF InZane+/) and Able (R-Kons Able) were both showing that they may be ready. In my original plan Zanie would do the 100 but she had a minor lameness issue earlier in the summer that made me decide to ride Able in the 100 instead. A week before the ride Able developed a cough and had to be treated so fate decided that Zanie would be the one after all . A month earlier she had won reserve champion at the AHA Distance Nationals at Big South Fork in the 2 day 70 mile Competitive Trail Ride so I knew she was fit enough but the question of her previous soundness problem plagued me as the trail would be very tough. She had been feeling great and very sound since Big South Fork so I put my faith in my tough mare and headed to Orkney Springs on Wednesday. Although my ride wasn’t until Saturday I planned on crewing for some in the 50 mile championship on Thursday. This would also give Zanie a few days to get adjusted.
The week leading up to the ride was very rainy and I was concerned about the footing but being mostly on a rocky mountain the trail drained well and held up just fine. The camping field didn’t fare as well and part of it remained unusable throughout the week. Other than that, the camp was beautiful and reflected all the hard work done by the Old Dominion organization to make it ready for this national event. The hospitality was unmeasurable as smiling faces and helpful people were everywhere they needed to be all weekend.
Crewing for the 50 mile ride on Thursday was fun and I was proud of our group of riders and how well they did. Jesse Jarrett won Middleweight Champion, Gina Hagis won third overall and her horse, Lumina, reached her 3000 miles and Tom Hagis won 11th. Roxanne Ciccone did not fare as well as her horse, Mister, stumbled and received a puncture wound causing lameness and earning her a trailer ride back to camp. After the 50 mile awards I had organized a jam session to celebrate the day and treat the hard working riders and volunteers to some good southern music. Being a banjo and fiddle player I couldn’t let this event go by without a little celebrating! A couple of musician friends who lived nearby came to join Bill and I, as well as Paul Sidio from Missouri, who not only brought his acoustic guitar but his electric guitar with battery powered amp! As we searched for common ground we ran through a few fiddle tunes and folk and country songs and we were coming together nicely. As usual a request from the audience for Free Bird came up. Usually I would pass this one by but being a well rounded musician Paul knew it and grabbed his electric guitar and began playing. Everyone joined in and I managed to find my way on the fiddle and we pulled it off nicely!
Friday was filled with preparations for the big ride on Saturday. I organized and packed all the things that would be needed by my crew for the many vet checks along the way. I took Zanie out for a little shake down ride to make sure everything was a go and to stretch her out a little. She felt good to go. Becky Pearman, the ride photographer, was taking complementary portraits of all the horses and riders participating in the National Championship so I brought Zanie over for her picture.
Saturday dawned a little overcast but clear of the rain that fell the night before. The temperature was crisp in the 40s. The horses were eager as the ride started and trotted briskly down the gravel road heading for the right hand turn that would carry us up the mountain. We passed the smelly turkey farm that was now disgusting but later in the night would be would be welcome as it would signal the last half mile before the finish and we all hoped to be smelling it later! The riders were in a big line going up the mountain and I was in the middle of the pack with horses tightly packed in front and behind. Zanie kept her cool and did her job, briskly trotting up the mountain. When we reached the top and the water tank, the sun was just rising over the mountain where a nice view opened up and I was able to snap a good shot with my pocket camera.
The fall colors had intensified with the cool weather and the leaves were breathtaking, especially on the north side of the mountains. The ride was still tightly packed as we made our way into Bird Haven and the first vet check. I was at the end of a big group who were the first to arrive putting me at 16th place as I was timed in. My fabulous crew, husband Bill and friends Holly and Roxanne, started to get to work. Bill pulled the saddle and put the heart monitor on Zanie and her rate was dropping, 78,72,68, the gals put water on her neck and her heart rate shot up. She didn’t like that cold water at all so we quit the water and took her right in to the vetting area. She pulsed in at 58 and by the time we got to the vet her CRI was 56/48 causing the vet, Dr. Jim Baldwin DVM, to ask if I had trailered her into the vet check!! I had been a bit nervous about our fast pace coming into the check, covering the tough 15.7 miles in 1:44, but this information surely eased my mind! We had passed a bunch of horses right then on recovery and went out on the second loop in 11th place. I decided to let her move out and see where it got us.
The second leg to the Laurel Run vet check was 16.4 miles. They had changed the route from previous rides to allow riders to get further along the trail before dark due to the lateness in the year (the Old Dominion ride is in June). Instead of the long excruciating rocky climb we usually had, they replaced it with a shorter climb, less time on the slow rocky ridge and a 6 mile section of gravel road going down into Laurel Run. I was a bit nervous with the long downhill on gravel,worrying about Zanie’s soundness but she was moving well and had no intention of letting me slow her down. She acted like she knew what she was doing so I got out of her way and went with it. The riders were starting to spread out a bit as the trail had it’s challenges. I was still in the front group of riders, a position I am not as familiar with as I am usually more of a middle of the pack kind of rider but Zanie was moving easily and negotiating the mountainous terrain like the pro she is. We were having the time of our lives! By now I was mostly riding with Tom Hagis, Claire Godwin and Trish Juerling.
The horses were moving efficiently and enjoying the cool weather. The trail was sorting things out and the riders were not so tightly packed when we made it to Laurel Run. Once again Zanie’s pulse was down when we arrived so we wasted no time vetting in. She was starting to get really hungry and was looking for food. Since crews are not allowed at this location I was glad I had packed a bag to be sent there with her favorite alfalfa and peanut hays which she started to devour. I was getting hungry too and there was food provided at this stop but being gluten intolerant, I must be careful and they had sandwiches. I extracted the cheese and turkey from the bread, rinsed it off in a water bucket and I was good! After a 40 minute hold we left Laurel Run with Claire and her horse, Merc, and at that point we were in 5th and 6th place! Zane’s fast recoveries were working to our advantage.
We left Laurel Run by going up the same long gravel road we had come down to get there. The horses weren’t too happy with this plan and we kept having to convince them that it was the right way. We finally reached the turnoff to the right onto a single track trail, giving us relief from the relentless climb up the gravel road. This is one of my my favorite parts of the trail, along the spine of a long ridge, very alpine in nature, with lichen covered rocks. The horses picked up their energy with the change in direction and footing but soon the going became technical as the trail narrowed and became clogged with rocks and boulders. Zanie, being a mountain horse, was handling the terrain very well, placing her feet (which were protected with Easyboot Glue On boots) expertly between the rocks and maintaining a good steady pace. Claire and I were riding together at that point and we soon caught up to the front runners again, picking their way through the boulder and rock strewn trail. The pace here was slowed to a crawl but the scenery was spectacular and we were glad for the break as were the horses. The sun was starting to come out, making the colors pop! After a while the trail opened up a bit and allowed for some trotting. At one point, I’m not even exactly sure how it happened, I found myself at the very front of the ride for about a mile or so, it was a thrilling feeling! Of course Zanie has a way of setting a steady pace and sticking to it that is just a tick slower than most folks think they want to go, so I was soon passed. The 13.5 mile segment From Laurel Run to Bucktail Vet Check was shorter than the previous one in mileage but it took us much longer due to the rough terrain and we were glad to arrive at Bucktail and our longest hold at 50 minutes.
At Bucktail Vet Check, Bill, Holly and Roxanne were waiting for us with food for me and Zanie. She was going for the grain and carrots now, bypassing the beet pulp. The leafy, newly cut alfalfa was also on her menu and she once again chowed down ravenously as there had been very little forage on that last loop. Bill had stopped at a benefit barbecue on the way and had picked up some awesome chicken which hit the spot along with lots of fruit and coconut water. We were at 45.6 miles and I was feeling great. I was also using a new product called Tailwind Endurance Fuel which you can mix in your water bottle or Camelback that contains electrolytes, carbs and everything you need to keep going. It was working great for me and it was easier to keep sipping the drink than to remember to take electrolyte capsules, energy bars, etc. regularly and my stomach was feeling good, which can be a my weak link in a 100. Zanie took a little snooze after she had her fill of food and we were ready to hit the trail again. It would be about 25 trail miles until we would see our crews again with a 10 minute hold and a hospitality stop along the way and one of our longest climbs up and over Little Sluice Mountain.
On the 5.5 mile trail to the Wates Run Gate and Go we passed and were passed by other riders. We joined up for a few minutes with Meg Sleeper, who had been in the lead and had to slow down due to a lost shoe and rode we rode for a while with Lisa Green. Kathy Broaddus and Ann Mebane and Pam Karner passed us just before we came into Wates Run. After having just ridden with just Claire for quite a while the riders were bunched up together again as we came into the gate and go. Meg decided to pull since even with an easy boot as a spare, her horse was a bit off. Some folks took a little longer to pulse so once again we were more spread out when we all left for the 19.2 mile stretch to Big 92 where our crews would meet us. I was still riding with Claire and Merc (the 24 year old wonder pony!) and we were still making good time until Zanie hit her nap time. It’s been very consistent on her previous 100 mile rides that around 60 miles Zanie will slow way down for an hour or two and take a big break. I have learned that it is her self preservation kicking in and just go with it because no matter what you say she is going to just do her thing and she knows best. Claire was getting a little frustrated because Merc had buddied up with Zanie and didn’t want to leave her. She asked if I could convince Zanie to move along a little faster but knowing what Zanie’s answer would be she would have to take it or leave it. About that time we hit the big long climb and Zanie just wanted to walk it. Claire moved down the trail with Merc and soon they were around the curve and gone.
The sun was getting low and with the acute angle of autumn and the changing leaves, the light was golden. We were by ourselves now and the silence took over and I was able to slow myself down too and really take in the beauty of the day. My horse felt good and I was glad to know that she is wise enough to take a break when she needs to. This will be her 9th 100 mile completion and she knows her job. I was also getting a bit weary and needed the break, the tough trail was taking a toll. I got off and walked a ways to stretch my legs and gave Zanie a break from my weight. It seemed like the mountain went on forever but I didn’t mind because we were in the moment, just enjoying the day. After a while I heard some riders catching up to us. We tagged along welcoming the company. About halfway up the mountain we came upon some bear hunters in 4 wheel drives with dog boxes on the back. The dogs had their heads out and were baying at us as we tried to get past them. The trail was too narrow so we had to follow them up the mountain for a long time. We all moved up the hill slowly like a parade and when we finally got to a wide space in the trail they let us go by. We met many more hunters with trucks and dogs. Sometimes we passed them and sometimes they passed us, the dogs baying the whole time. It was a unique experience and a little frustrating at times but it was giving the horses a good break and us a dose of comedy. It was certain that this obstacle was giving the front runners a big advantage as we probably had lost 45 minutes on that mountain navigating the hunters and dogs. When we finally got to the top we took a turn that that pleased Zanie, she felt like it was taking us somewhere worthwhile and picked up a good trot. I guess her nap time was over. We came down a rough washed out logging road and arrived at the hospitality stop. There they had water, hay and grain for the horses. Zanie was famished and I let her eat there for a good while, staying 10-15 minutes after the others had left. I didn’t want to leave when she was so hungry and let her stay as long as she needed to even though I knew our crew at Big 92 was only about 3.5 miles away. Soon we headed off alone down the gravel road.
We came into Big 92 as the sun was setting and was surprised that they had changed the 40 minute hold to 30 minutes. I wasn’t exactly sure why they did that but maybe because it was cooling off they didn’t want the horses cramping up. I was chilly myself and added a jacket to my layers. Bill had heated up some soup and had it waiting for me in a thermos which warmed me right up. I fished around for my headlamp and got it adjusted on my helmet. We were ready to ride alone into the night. I love the night riding for the strong bond you feel with your horse. You really have to depend on each other and the communication runs deep. Zanie had picked up some energy with the rest stop and was moving nicely down the road. I knew we had about 5 miles or more to do on the gravel road and so decided to play some music on my phone. Zanie enjoyed the sounds and it helped with the rhythm of her pace and helped the time go by on the boring road. It seemed as though we climbed, although gradually, for miles and I got off again to stretch my legs and give her a break for a mile or so. When I got back on we developed a system of alternating walking and trotting to keep time on the grade. We turned off the road finally onto a woods trail but soon we were back to road. Suddenly we came upon the Laurel Run Vet Check for the second time that day. The 8 miles from Big 92 had passed quicker than I had expected. Our crews were allowed to meet us there that time.
Laurel Run was another 30 minute hold and the temperatures were dropping now into the upper 30s. Bill put a blanket around my shoulders so I wouldn’t get chilled and Zanie got a heavy wool blanket for her rump. I ate some more soup but Zanie wasn’t eating. We watched her closely but she seemed fine and had a good look in her eye so we decided that she was just taking a nap and didn’t get worried. I had stopped several times to graze on grass on the side of the trail before getting there so her belly was full. The 30 minutes seemed to fly by and soon we were getting ready to go again. As we were leaving camp I was told that we were still in 9th place.
We headed out of Laurel Run for the 13.4 mile stretch to Bird Haven. The trail has many technical areas and I knew the going would be slow so I warned my crew that it could be up to 3 hours before they would see me again. We followed a road for several miles and the climbs felt like they just kept coming. It was starting to feel like we had done twice as much up as down that day, could that be possible? I got off and walked a little more and just about the time I finished taking a pottie break and was getting back on my horse I saw a light coming and Tom Hagis had caught up to me. He had dropped back earlier in the day when Mustafa was slow to recover but they were picking up steam and he had made up 30 minutes since Big 92 to catch me. At that point, though, Mustafa only wanted to walk the hills there were lots of hills! Both horses were glad to see each other as they had been camp neighbors all week and they gave each other the motivation to continue at a faster pace. I had been riding alone for about 35 miles and I know Zanie was glad for the company and so was I. We trotted the flat sections and walked the hills, keeping our pace just a tick above 5 mph. We were almost to Bird Haven and our last vet check by that time and we were still running 9th and 10th with the nearest riders about 15-20 minutes behind us. Soon after we met up with Tom the trail turned rough and we had to pick our way through rocks and mud. Every time we thought we could trot for a ways an obstacle would slow us down. The horses were picking up strength but we had no where to go with it. We did end up making better time that I had predicted as we made it to Bird Haven in less than 2 and a half hours.
Bird Haven was just a short 20 minute hold and the vet advised us to get out on time and keep the horses moving down the trail so they would not stiffen up from the cold. Holly, Roxanne and Bill were getting really cold too and had spent the time in the truck trying to stay warm until I got there. Bill did have the camp stove set up and Roxanne had made some hot cider. I heated up some chicken from earlier in the day to give me a boost for the rest of the night. The hot food tasted really good! Before long we were mounting the horses again ready for our last 6.5 miles to the finish. About this time the next riders were arriving, we realized that if we just kept our forward motion going we would make it in to the finish and keep our placings. The horses were doing well. The trail for this last section is very technical with lots of rocks, mud, creeks and other obstacles to negotiate in the dark. I was thankful that I had packed a second head lamp as mine was fading. The going was slow but we kept pressing on, trotting wherever we could even if it was just a few strides. We came by the water tower we had passed in the morning and knew we were about 2 miles from camp. Pretty soon we started smelling it, the disgusting odor of the turkey farm we passed in the morning became the best smell ever as it meant that we were about to hit the gravel road and the last half mile before the finish line. As we trotted down the road we saw the lights of the finish line in the distance, we decided that we should tie and held hands as we crossed the finish line. There was a good sized crowd to cheer us as we ended our ride. Bill threw a blanket over Zanie and we hurried on to the final vet check before the cold set in. Zanie and Mustafa both looked good although understandably a little tired and both received their completions. Unfortunately one rider in front of us got pulled at the finish which made us now 8th place. We had done it, finished the 100 mile National Championship on the Old Dominion Trail and in the top ten!
For me it was a dream ride, everything just came together for us and flowed! I have my fabulous crew to thank for taking such good care of me and my wonderful mare. They went above and beyond, anticipating what we would need at any moment and they were truly a part of the team! Many thanks also go to the Old Dominion organization and the numerous volunteers who put together a first class event and made everyone feel well cared for and important. Every detail was considered and taken care of, it was just amazing. I was truly proud to be a part of it!
Happy trails, Nancy Sluys