I had originally intended to actually ride in the 30 mile ride, but because of the crappy winter, I didn't have the opportunity to condition as much as we needed to be ready, so I thought helping out would be a great alternative. Initially, I thought I would offer to crew for a couple of riders I knew who were riding, but then a rider who has done the No Frills ride several times pointed out that because all the vet checks are outside of base camp and no rider is allowed to bring crew to the out-checks because of space and access issues, it would make more sense for me to volunteer for the ride itself. So that's what I did (I later found out that there was an Intro ride option, but by then I had decided to volunteer, and didn't want to back out).
Anyway, I left my house at 4:45 am to head out to the ride camp. The volunteers were meeting at 7 to head out to the vet check area, and I wasn't sure how long it would take me to get Star Tannery, Virginia, although the directions looked pretty easy. I've been known to screw up the simplest of directions, though, so I fortified myself with coffee and an extremely unhealthy breakfast pastry from the nearest 7/11, and got on the road.
As it turned out, I made it to ride camp well ahead of schedule and with no problems following the directions (I'm crediting the cheese and berry danish for that). I had enough time to track down Liz, who I knew had checked in the day before and was planning to ride the 55 mile distance. It was great to meet her for the first time and I was excited to see how she did on her ride. Update: You can read Liz' story of her ride at: http://www.liz-stout.blogspot.com/2014/04/no-frills-55.html.
I soon discovered that despite the ride organizer's and the volunteer coordinator's best intentions and planning, things at a ride really operate in a sort of controlled chaos most of the time. However, I did notice that at the start of the ride (I got to stand right at the start line), there were no explosive horses. Several people started immediately, while others trickled out, so my fear about my horse acting like an idiot because of all the energy is likely unfounded - at least at the No Frills ride.
Shortly after the start of the ride, all of the volunteers were assigned a vehicle to ride in to the vet check area. I got to ride with one of the vets for the ride, plus a gentleman who had finished second on the previous day's 55 ride and a couple of other volunteers. (And I was blown away to discover that several of the volunteers had ridden the day before - that is commitment!) It was great to hear everyone talking about their rides, and when people discovered I was new to the sport, riding a Friesian, and booting him, all I got was positive feedback and encouragement. It was really nice to have people be so accepting, especially because I know that booting in particular can be controversial.
I was assigned to be a general crew member, so my responsibility was to help out the riders and their horses as they came in to the vet check. We had put out crew bags for any riders who had supplied them, and we also put out flakes of hay, soaked beet pulp, and Fibregized for the horses to eat, plus full buckets of water for sponging. There was also a tent with food for the riders, which included chili, meatballs, PB&J and cheese sandwiches, chips, crackers, and apples. For a "No Frills" ride, I thought there were a lot of frills:)
|Individual "stations" with hay, feed, sponge bucket, and crew bag|
|Ring of stations plus the water tanks and step stool for mounting|
After setting everything up, we had a little downtime as we waited for the first riders to come in for their first vet check and a 45 minute hold. And shortly after 9 o'clock, the 55 riders started trickling in. I should note that these riders had done 18 miles in just over 2 hours over really challenging terrain. I'm still trying to figure out how they did it!
Riders continued to come in at a steady stream until late morning, when we had the remaining 55 riders coming in, plus the 30 riders. It was a bit chaotic as we tried to make sure everyone had water and food, plus we held the horses for riders who needed bathroom breaks or help untacking/retacking their horses.
Then, the first group of Intro riders came in, and we helped by holding their horses while they got something to eat and probably tried to absorb everything they'd been experiencing. I was pleased to notice that the Intro horses were going through the P/R stop and vet check, which is something that wasn't offered at the Intro ride I did at OD's Fort Valley ride last year.
The reason I think experiencing the P/R stop and trot-out for the vet is so important is because I definitely noticed 2 types of riders at the hold. There were the riders who came in very flustered after the vetting and weren't sure what they or their horses needed. These riders had a tendency to be a little anxious and/or confused, even though they had done several endurance rides in the past, and they didn't get a lot of downtime during the hold because they didn't really have a plan for the hold. The other type of rider came in to the holding area calmly and knew immediately if they wanted help from a volunteer or already had what they needed. These riders were able to quickly take care of their horses and themselves and then spend the rest of the hold relaxing. I am sure that for my first couple of rides, I will probably fall into the anxious/confused/not really sure what I'm doing group, but it is definitely my goal to develop a system for the holds so that I can actually use them effectively and not get stressed out or stress my horse out.
Unfortunately, I had to leave at around 1 to go back to base camp. I had something planned that evening that I needed to be back for, but I really wish I could have stayed for the rest of the afternoon. I admit that I started to feel a little invested in the riders I helped, and I wanted to find out if they made it through the ride OK.
I definitely think that volunteering at this ride was a much better use of my time than if I had actually ridden it. In her book, Endurance 101, Aarene Storms strongly recommends volunteering at a ride before you actually ride in one, and I'm really happy that I was able to take her advice. There is no question that I will be much better prepared before my first ride now. Among the lessons I learned:
1. Have a plan for the vet checks and holds, even if the holds are very short. Whether you have your own crew, a volunteer to help you, or are on your own, scheduling your time can mean the difference between the hold totally stressing out you (and maybe your horse) or being able to relax and feel like you're prepared for the next segment of the ride.
2. If something is really important to you at the hold (for example, that your horse eats out of a bucket/pan instead of off the hay/ground, that your horse gets carrots, or that you get a salty snack), make sure you pack it in your crew bag (or have it at your trailer for holds at base camp). I noticed that a few riders had expectations about what would be provided by the ride and they got a little frustrated when we didn't have what they wanted.
3. Label all the stuff you put in your crew bag and don't put anything in it that is really valuable to you. Some riders were better than others about what they put in their crew bags, and I saw a tendency to borrow things that were left out. I'm sure the riders using those items meant for them to be returned to their owner, but in all the chaos of the ride, borrowed items can get misplaced.
4. Don't sweat the small stuff. If you forgot to pack something that isn't critical to the continued survival of you or your horse, try not to make it into The Biggest Deal Ever. I know that I have a tendency to wail and moan if I forget to pack something that I really wanted, so I do understand why it is so frustrating, but it can be a real time-waster. Along those same lines, if you forgot something for a hold not at base camp, please do not expect that all volunteers will immediately drop everything they are doing to try to find or manufacture your forgotten item. Other people may need help too, and there is only so much you can do with baling twine and duct tape.
5. Try not to monopolize a volunteer's time unless you really do need the help. Even if it looks like things are slow and the volunteer has nothing better to do than keep you company while you lounge around enjoying the sun, remember that this downtime may be the only time the volunteer has to get a break and something to eat.
6. If you need something at a hold, try to consolidate your requests, rather than give them sequentially. While volunteers love to help, it can get a little frustrating when you ask for a water, then when the volunteer brings the water, you ask for a sandwich, and then when the volunteer brings a sandwich, you ask for more grain for your horse, especially when fulfilling each of those requests involves walking down a steep, muddy hill and back up again.
I really can't say enough good things about my experience. Without exception, every single rider I helped thanked me and while a few riders did have some challenges, none of them ever yelled at me or treated me with anything other than respect. I met some great people and learned so much that it absolutely made up for the 4 am alarm:)