June 12 2023
by Nancy Sluys
Sometimes you just have to hang your wishes on a star and see what transpires! Coming onto 2023 my hopes and goals were to ride Danny (Jets Danny Herlong), my mule, in the Old Dominion 100 mile (in one day) endurance ride, also known as the Beast of the East for it’s reputation of numerous rocks and long climbs! He was a bit short on his conditioning miles after only having done one 50 in 2022 on Thanksgiving weekend. I had backed off endurance for a while with him to concentrate on relationship building and training after our last mishap the previous January, which resulted in my 3rd broken bone from coming off this mule. I worked hard to rebuild my confidence and troubleshoot our relationship. Now we were back on track and getting ready for the year. This past winter was very wet and I had a hard time conditioning on slippery home trails in North Carolina. When the weather got a little warmer I went up to our place in the Virginia mountains where the footing was well drained and firmer and tried to get some good miles in but in early March Danny got caught up in barbed wire that was hidden in the leaves alongside a trail and got a serious cut on the back of his left rear pastern that took over 2 months to heal up. I thought our hopes were dashed as we just didn’t have the miles that I would have wished coming into a challenging 100.
At the AERC convention this winter in Jacksonville, Florida I won a free entry to the 55 mile ride at the Old Dominion so I thought that was a good revised goal to work towards. Between weather and a busy schedule I didn’t get the trail time that I had hoped for but I did get a good 2 days and 35 miles of mountain riding in 3 weeks before the ride. The week and a half before the ride there was an announcement that only 10 riders had entered the 100 at the OD and pitying the ride manager I decided to bump up to the 100 on a whim. After all, I figured I would rather start the 100 with the possibility of stopping if things weren’t going our way rather than finish the 55 with a mule who looked great, and like he could just keep going so I took the plunge and entered the 100. After all, some of the greatest endurance riders advocate that rest is good and Danny was certainly well rested!
Leading up to the ride Bill was having back trouble so I put out a call on Facebook for some crew and Ginne Ritter took the bait. She is a “professional” crew person so I knew I was in good hands and Bill could relax at home and take care of his back. The scene was set and I was committed. I arrived at ride camp a day early so we both could rest and I could have plenty of time to pack my stuff and work out some strategy in my mind. Since Danny is pretty non-reactive to other horses and keeps to his pace I decided that starting near the front of the ride would be a good idea so that later there would be plenty of horses behind me if he lost motivation later in the ride and needed a buddy. The weather report was very favorable with zero chance of rain and temperatures in the high 70s, a rare occurrence at the Old Dominion which if famous for brutally hot temperatures!
I met up with Ginne to get the truck packed with the crew stuff, feed and supplements for Danny and supplies for me. She was looking after Joey, Dr. Vicky’s (one of the ride vets) 7 year old daughter all weekend so Joey joined our team along with Rayna, a lovely young lady who was April and Daniel Johnson’s daughter. Team Danny was set! Joey immediately developed a special relationship with Danny and soon he was following her around like a puppy. She helped graze him and even trotted him out for the vets at check in and several of the vet checks. It was so cute how he looked after her and was so tender.
I awoke the next morning to 40 something degree weather and I had to ride out in a jacket, so unusual for the Old Dominion! The sun was just beginning to rise on the 5:30am start time. 13 horses and one mule started that day and 10 completed the challenge. As planned we started at the front of the pack and settled into a steady pace. After a half mile of road the trail turned off and began climbing right away.
Danny was ears up, bright eyed and very forward but ratable as we climbed and climbed to the ridge top. The trail ascended through hardwood trees, patches of beautiful blooming Mountain Laurel and small open meadows before reaching the spine. On the way up we hooked up with another rider whose horse was similarly paced. Jamie McArdle was trying for her first 100 mile completion after several failed attempts in the past. At one point the view of the early morning sun over the valley below opened up and I took the opportunity to snap a few photos, between the ears, of course!! The trail was rocky with occasional boulders but the footing was passable and we were able to make fairly good time reaching the first vet check at Bird Haven in 2 hours and 55 minutes for the 15.7 mile loop. Danny was setting the pace and was insistent that we walk all the hills but he made up for it on the downhills as he handily trotted down the mountain. Even on the first loop he snatched mouthfuls of grass while he was on the move. Mules are famous for taking good care of themselves and he was proving that right!
Danny’s pulse came down immediately and we were able to vet right through. He looked great! Joey did a great job trotting him out and the onlookers loved it! The vet check was at a private residence called Bird Haven and we were situated on a beautiful grassy lawn with huge shade trees. We would come back to this place late at night for our last vet check before the finish. Here Gina Hagis (my riding buddy from my Virginia home) hooked up with us to be an additional crew person. She had finished the 55 the previous day and did not want to leave her horse alone for too long so she was going to help at the checks that were closer to camp. It was so nice to just sit in the chair for a rest while my handy crew took care of Danny and made sure I had what I needed!
The next loop to Laurel Run vet check was a bit different than usual. A forest fire had gotten started on the side of the mountain and the day before Friday’s ride ride management had to reroute the trail because the Forest Service was bulldozing it for a firebreak. A nightmare for a ride manager but luckily they have a team of motorcycle riders who were able to unmark the original trail and remark the detour all before the next day’s ride!
The detour was going to take the same route that they used for the 2015 National Championships, eliminating the long, endless steep and rocky climb up a trail to the ridge and replacing it with a trail further down, past the fire, that also accessed the ridge. The trail up the mountain (that we would normally have done in reverse) was shorter than the other one but very steep and it was this very trail where I had broken my arm coming off Danny when he spooked back in 2018 on the way down. I could tell that Danny recognized it but he was non-reactive and it gave me peace of mind that our demons were in the past.
We did get a short time on the ridge and were able to enjoy some awesome views before descending down the 5 mile road into Laurel Run Vet Check. The recent drought caused the gravel roads to be as hard as cement and Danny’s metal shoes slipped on the downhills requiring a collected trot and intense concentration to safely navigate. At one point we got off and jogged down the mountain on foot for a good while to give them a break. Danny pulsed right away once again and was looking really good at 32.1 miles. He was getting really hungry and Ginne had a smorgasbord buffet of grain, mash and hay all ready for him and he ate everything in sight! After our 40 minute rest break we set off for our next destination, the Bucktail Vet Check which was another 14+ miles down the trail.
Leaving Laurel Run the trail turns back up the road that we just had come down to reach the ridge again. Jamie’s horse (I forget her name) and Danny thought they were going back to camp so kept up a good march up the road but the long stretch wore on us and the temperatures were rising as by now it was early afternoon. After discovering that Jamie was a fellow musician we passed the time singing songs that we each had written to each other and we laughed our way up the mountain.
After the road climb the next stretch of ridge trail has got to be my favorite as it is a narrow single track lined with flowering Mountain Laurels. It was slow going as we navigated the narrow along the spine of the mountain but the breeze kept us refreshed. The imbedded rock was a challenge but my handy mule navigated it perfectly and Jamie’s horse followed right along. By the time we got to Bucktail (vet check #3) at 46.6 miles we had lost some time, the heat of the day and difficulty of the trail were taking it’s toll but Danny was being his smart self and taking care by insisting on walking up hills and snatching as much grass as he could. The day was heating up more than predicted and was now in the low to mid 80s. It took a little more sponging this time but Danny recovered to the pulse criteria of 64bpm fairly quickly. Danny and I were both feeling good despite the rising temperatures and he was still eating like crazy.
The next time we would see our crew would be at Big 92 Vet Check (70.3) which was 23.7 long miles away with a 10 minute hold (Waites Run) and the Little Sluice Hospitality Stop along the way. Leaving Bucktail we hit a section of forest service road that was covered with heavy logging gravel for several miles requiring us to keep to the walk. After a while the footing improved and we were able to keep up a fairly steady pace but it was getting hotter and we spent extra time in the water crossings sponging to keep the animals cool. The roads were very hard which also kept our pace slower than normal to avoid excessive concussion on our mount’s feet. When we came on a more rustic dirt road we put on the steam and even did some cantering to make up a little time. When we got to Waites Run we had a 10 minute hold but only after getting the pulse down to 64bpm. Danny had gotten unexpectedly hot on that last stretch from the warm temperatures, strong sun and faster pace and it took him 10 minutes to recover. He came into the ride a bit overweight and that was hindering his heat dissipation somewhat but he had all As on his vet card so it didn’t worry me much. Jamie graciously waited up for us even though her horse had recovered quickly. By this point we both knew we were in this thing together and it didn’t take words to know we would be riding through the night together.
Glad to be back on the trail again, with the temperatures coming down slightly, we were able to make some time on a nice forest service road before turning onto the infamous Mail Trail, a long, steep and arduous single track trail where you can only manage a slow walk. Up and up we went as the sun started to set. Thinking back on my past Old Dominion rides I remember being much further down the trail by this time so I was getting concerned that we would be pushing the cut off times they had at each vet check. It seemed like forever before we came to the hospitality stop at the bottom of Little Sluice Mountain. I remember trotting all the way down this mountain in years past but with the washing rains we have had the past few years the footing was thick with loose rock and we had to keep to a slower pace. The lone junior rider, Maddie Compton, and her sponsor, Sarah Arthur, passed us on the way down to the hospitality stop. After a short rest and a little feed for the horse/mule we were on our way the 4 miles of gravel road to the Big 92 Vet Check where we would finally meet up with our crews again. By then we would have 70.3 miles behind us and hope of reaching the finish line was more of a reality.
The night was very still and the temperatures still unexpectedly high with humidity and Danny once again took longer to reach the pulse criteria by 12 minutes but was otherwise looking good with all As on his vet card all day and he was still eating ravenously, he was just having a little trouble dissipating heat. I was experiencing my low period as well and my tummy was feeling a little poorly. Ginne had made some of her magic soup, packed with protein, with chicken, nuts and veggies and I was able to sip the broth which started to revive me. That soup was my lifesaver! I rested and rehydrated while Ginne and Rayna took care of Danny. Joey was fast asleep in the pick up truck. With the time that Danny took to pulse down we were dangerously close to our cut off time (the time they need to be pulsed down) for this vet check but we made it by 5 minutes.
Leaving Big 92 they say it’s all downhill but I have to differ!! The hills are more gradual but we were going up none the less. It was mostly gravel road from Big 92 to Laurel Run and by now the daytime temperatures had come down and a slight breeze had started up. Jamie was getting nervous that we would not finish the ride on time but I knew our pace and the nature of the trail that lay ahead and the animals were picking up energy, I was confident that we would certainly make it. We were able to pick up the pace and kept up a good trot on the forest service road but we had been warned that we would have to ride through the forest fire area and that we would hit thick smoke and embers on the side of the trail but other than that it would be safe going. Never the less when we did hit the smoke we had a tense time as it was thick enough that we had difficulty seeing the trail and it was burning our eyes making them tear and we were concerned for the animals. We chose to walk to keep their heavy breathing to a minimum but that caused us to take longer so I don’t know what would have been worse. We endured the smoke for at least a half an hour and also saw embers and flames in the woods. It was a surreal experience for sure!!
When we got to Laurel Run (78.3) for the second time we were happy to discover that we had gained 25 minutes, buying us some more time to make to the finish! Danny had picked up his second wind and was on fire (pun intended!). His pulse was down when he came in and all we had to do was strip his saddle and take him in. All his vet perimeters were As as they has been all day and he looked more than fit to continue. Gina joined us at this check and was a big help trotting out Danny so I could just rest. I had improved too and my tummy was feeling much better. This was only a 30 minute hold as they don’t want the horses standing around for too long in the night air getting stiff. We were back on the trail before we knew it and only had 6 more miles to go. We knew we had this as long as there were no delays along the way.
Once again the “all downhill” trail had more uphill than we had expected but we still made good time to the finish line. Just before you get to the gravel road to camp there is a big turkey house. When you smell that smell it is the best smell ever (even though it stinks!!) because you know it is only a half mile to the finish line and you have made it! As we trotted down the gravel road into the rising sun we decided that since we had endured the whole 100 miles together it was only right to tie for the finish. We crossed the finish line together to a small crowd of well wishers at 5:19AM, 23 hours and 19 minutes after starting with 11 minutes to spare! Later Ginne came up to me and said “11 minutes!!!! 11 minutes!!!!!” and I just smiled and said “I know my pace!” To finish is to Win is the endurance motto and we proved that to be true!!!
In order to get a completion your horse/mule must first pass the final vet check. Danny happily did his last trot out and to say he looked like he hadn’t done a thing was nearly an understatement! He did look just fantastic!! I was toast, though, and ready for bed!!! The next day I was sorry that I had not taken the time to stand for the Best Condition examination (award for the best conditioned horse at the end determined by a complete vet examination but also scored on time and weight carried). Since I was at least 4 hours later than the winner I figured we didn’t have a chance but I forgot about the High Vet Score award, which I’m certain he would have surely won! Anyway he got the best mule ever award in my eyes and heart and that’s the important thing!! He came into this ride with minimal conditioning but with a strong constitution, great conformation and a big heart. He dug deep for me, never quit and showed that he is a true athlete! It’s truly an honor to be his partner and I am humbled by him! I’m also thankful for my super crew of Ginne, Gina, Joey and Rayna! They totally rocked it and Danny and I wanted for nothing. It takes a good team for everything to come together and ours was a winner!
People ask me why I love to do 100 mile rides and I have to say it is for the deep connection you gain with your animal and what they can and will happily do for you. Also the challenge of pushing my body and mind to keep old age at bay! It gives me such a deep satisfaction and total respect and awe for the animal as well as human ability. Danny just loves going down the trail, it’s his job and he does it well!
Nancy Sluys and Jet’s Danny Herlong AKA Danny