Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Blackwater Swamp Stomp 2017: The Ride

The day of the ride started off at a very chilly 25 degrees.  Thankfully, I was mostly warm in my tent due to my Little Buddy heater.  I think I maybe should have brought one more lightweight blanket, but certainly having the heater was much better than not!

The only reason I can camp in below 50 degree temps!
At about 5 am, the camp started waking up, but because the Intro ride was not starting until 10 am, I felt no desire to drag myself out into the cold.  I figured I could stay warm until about 7.  Regrettably, I neglected to inform Nimo about this plan, so at about 5:30, I heard a gentle nicker saying, "Hey, just so you know, most of the other horses are getting fed, which is making me hungry."  I did not respond and snuggled deeper into my blankets.

Closer to 6, Nimo whinnied again with a little more urgency.  "Hey, human, I would like my breakfast now!"  I still did not respond, and congratulated myself on being able to stay in the warmth instead of freezing like everyone else.

As 6:30 approached, Nimo let out a panicked cry.  "SOMEONE HELP!  MY HUMAN IS DEAD AND I'M GOING TO STARVE AND DIE ALONE!"  Me:  "OMG, seriously?  Aaaarrrrggggghhhhh, I am getting up."  Nimo:  "Oh good, you're awake!"

And so it was that I emerged from my tent into the frosty cold just after 6:30.  I gave Nimo his breakfast mash and wandered off in search of some coffee.  I ended up getting some hot chocolate instead, which seemed more appealing somehow.  Then I checked on my friend, who was also up taking care of her horse.

Ride camp at sunrise
After Nimo was finished eating, I took him for a 20 minute walk around camp to stretch his legs and also because he kept giving me the eye that said he wanted to go out and explore.  Many of the competitors were out and about warming up their horses, but the real excitement was when several horses broke out of their confinement system (I have no idea what type) and ran around camp briefly.  They were captured fairly quickly, but while they ran around, Nimo demonstrated some really nice passage:)  (Note that I am not making light of horses escaping, especially given what happened at a ride in Texas recently, but in this case, I don't think anyone was injured, and the way the camp was set up sort of created a funnel for any loose horses.)

I got Nimo set up with more hay, and spent some time chatting with my friend as well as others in camp.  What I was kind of worried about was Nimo freaking out while the 25- and 50-milers started.  His pen was close to the starting line and he was right near a lot of action, including hyper horses ready to start.  But I needn't have worried.  Nimo was so quiet through it all.  He just watched everyone start with interest, but no crazy vocalizations or trying to run around or buck.

Nimo watches the starting line with interest

It was actually kind of fun to watch all the riders head out and then spend a little time by the camp fire chatting to others in camp.  I talked with one lady in particular who had lots of experience training horses and crewing for top-level riders and while what she talked about was really a different world than the kind of riding I do, it was still interesting to hear her stories and process.

Finally, it was time for me to eat some breakfast, get my riding clothes on, pack up a few things so I wouldn't have to do as much after the ride, and saddle up.  Shortly after 9:30, my friend and I were mounted and ready to ride, so we walked the horses around a little to start warming them up and then headed over to the Intro ride leader's trailer.  I had previously contacted her about the possibility of my friend and I riding on our own instead of with the group.  My friend was a little anxious about riding in a larger group (I think there were over a dozen riders signed up with a maximum of 20), so I figured if we rode separately, that would help keep the group size down a bit.

Plus, I had started feeling guilty about signing up for the Intro ride when it was clear how much attention the ride managers were giving Intro riders.  I remembered the one Intro ride I'd done several years ago and how little attention was given to organizing it, so I had mistakenly assumed the same would be true for this ride.  But, the ride managers actually took the Intro ride quite seriously and were great about communicating in the weeks and days prior to the ride and at the ride itself.  They saw the Intro ride as an opportunity to really help interested riders learn about the sport and make sure they were safe on the trail.  If I was a new rider, I would have been so thankful.  Instead, I felt guilty for taking resources meant for newer riders.

So, we checked in with the leader and got her permission to head out at about 9:40.  We checked in with the timer at the start line, and then we were off.  And by off, I mean sort of walking and wandering around.  I forgot to start my GPS on my phone before we started, so I was fiddling around with it while we started, which left Nimo to his own devices.  Mostly he tried prancing a bit and not walking in a straight line.

Dom's husband, Mike Turner, caught this impromptu photo of us as we walked out.  Used with permission.
Once I got the GPS going, we walked for another few minutes, and then started trotting.  And we trotted and we trotted.  The trail was so amazingly perfect for trotting. It was pretty level, with good footing.  And for about half an hour I sort of thought we might be able to do something like trot 10 minutes, walk 5 minutes, trot 10 minutes, walk 5 minutes over and over for the whole 13 miles because the terrain was so consistently easy to ride. 

It was at that point that we caught up to another rider, who had stopped to take off a layer, and when chatting with her, we realized that we were somehow off course.  (Remember the trail manager who said it was impossible to get off the trail...)  It was a classic case of us blindly following the rider in front of us and when she missed a turn, so did we.  We had to backtrack close to half a mile, but we got back on course and vowed to be more careful.  I should note that the turn was perfectly well-marked and that one reason we figured out we were off course so quickly is because of how frequently the trail was marked with confidence ribbons.  At another ride, we would likely have ridden for much longer before realizing we'd missed a turn. 

After getting back on the course, we rode a really fun, twisting and turning section of trail through the woods.  There were lots of little fallen logs too, and I just loved it.  After the woods, it was more riding on the edge of fields, down sandy roads, through the Blackwater River next to a beaver dam, and tons of other truly scenic trails.  I wish I had taken pictures, but the one time I took my phone out to check mileage, Nimo absolutely wandered well off the trail and into the woods, making it clear that I really needed to pay attention.  If you are interested, though, Dom did her usual brilliant job of taking tons of pics and if you check out her post on the ride, you'll get a good idea of what the terrain looked like.

The horses did a great job taking turns at leading and we kept a really nice steady pace of about 6 mph.  We absolutely could have gone faster, but I didn't want to risk the horses being too tired at the end.  Plus, with it being my friend's first ride, I figured 6 mph was plenty fast.  We were also in kind of a bubble, with only an occasional 50-mile rider passing us, so it was nice to be able to ride our own ride, so to speak.

Probably a little past the halfway point of the loop, we checked in with a spotter at the end of a little out-and-back section of trail (the ride had a couple of those to help with mileage) and there was a tank of water and hay for the horses, which was a really nice touch.  Nimo tried to pee on the hay, but my friend's horse did a good job eating it when we took a break for a few minutes.

Probably around 10 miles into the loop, both horses hit a little lag in energy.  The sun felt hot even though the temperature was probably only in the mid-40s, so we slowed things down a bit and enjoyed a shady lane to ride, almost went off course again but didn't because apparently the trail manager had expected that and put a pie plate with an X on it, so we knew immediately we turned the wrong way, and picked up the pace a bit.

With about 2 miles to go, I could tell both my friend and her horse were a little tired.  Not tired enough to walk the rest of the way in, but tired enough that I knew we would need to lead the rest of the way.  So I asked Nimo to go in front and with a little encouragement he did and then he surprised me by getting his energy back and he enthusiastically led all the way back to camp.  The last section of trail (maybe the last mile and a half?) was another super fun twisting and turning trail through the woods.  In fact, it was tight enough with trees close to the trail that after the ride, I saw someone post on Facebook wondering how the draft horses and Friesian had handled that section of the trail.  I did have to watch my knees a bit and focus on steering, but honestly, that is part of what made it fun.  We didn't go as fast as Nimo wanted to go because I knew my friend wanted to keep things a little slower, but it was nice to have both a horse that had plenty of energy and one that I was able to control.

And then we were back at camp, coming in the same way we left.  All that was left was to pull tack and vet in.  I headed back to my trailer to give Nimo a chance to drink and get a snack (and for me to do the same), pull off his saddle, and sponge him a little.  I wasn't really in a hurry because there was no specific time limit for the Intro ride and I knew the main group was still behind us.  But I still felt quite honored when the ride manager showed up at my trailer with a friend to "crew" for me.  They helped me with my tack and held Nimo while I sponged.  (I guess owning a charismatic Friesian does have some benefits!)

Then I took Nimo over to the vetting area for the post-ride check.  We waited for a few minutes and then it was our turn.  There was a bit of an issue when the vet was taking Nimo's heart rate because my friend's horse was next to him and started his trot-out, so Nimo's heart rate spiked.  The vet told me to go ahead and do the trot out anyway.  I wasn't sure my legs would work well (they seemed remarkably tired for a 13-mile ride...), but I guess instinct kicked in and they in fact worked enough to run.  Nimo trotted really nicely next to me and after we turned around the cone and started trotting back to the vet, it felt like he was floating.  I even heard someone say something about a distraction (it may not have been Nimo, but I was so distracted by just catching his movement out of the corner of my eye that I wanted to stop and watch him).  I've never felt him move like that in a trot-out before.  It was just lovely.

The vet finished going over Nimo (skin pinch, gum check, hands on his back and legs) and then she checked his heart rate again.  It was 52.  I guess the first reading she got was 64 bpm with the spike, so factoring in his current rate, she decided a 64/52 CRI was good enough to clear us (I'm sure if we had been competing in the LD or the 50, we would have needed to do a re-check because the finish pulse was supposed to be 60 or less, but I think things are a little looser for Intro rides).  My friend's horse easily passed the vet check too, which was great.  And so we were done!

Map of the Intro ride
I got Nimo set up with a post-ride mash and some hay, and then my friend and I lounged in our chairs and ate lunch (that we brought with us).  The ride was not offering lunch for the 25- and 50-mile riders (although there was plenty left over from the potluck the night before), but they were grilling burgers for the Intro riders (very thoughtful!).  I had meant to find the Intro leader after the group got back, but they must have come in when we weren't paying attention and once I sat down, my body did not want to get up, and I pretty much sat until about 2:30, when it was time to finish packing up and get on the road home.  (The ride manager had asked that no one leave until after 3 to make sure there would be no heavy traffic on one section of road that was also part of one of the loops for the ride so the horses and riders would not have to constantly watch for traffic.)

The drive home was pretty uneventful until the last hour, when it got dark.  My dashboard lights appeared to be burned out/non-functional, so I had to use the ambient light from my cell phone screen to see how fast I was going.  I later discovered that someone (absolutely, totally me) had messed with the dimmer dial for the dashboard lights and dimmed them to nothing (why would that even be option?), so that was an easy fix, but definitely annoying while it was happening.

I do plan to do a post-ride analysis, which I had stopped doing because I had sort of settled on all my equipment.  For this ride, though, I changed my saddle, stirrups, saddle pad, girth, and breast collar, so I figure those changes warrant their own write-up. 

However, in terms of the ride, I will say that the Blackwater Swamp Stomp has a permanent spot on my ride calendar forever.  This was the best ride I have ever been to.  The trails were so well-marked and beautiful and barefoot-friendly and relatively easy without being boring, which is great for a first ride of the season.  The ride management was friendly and accessible (plus lots of communication on a dedicated Facebook page before and after the ride).  The camping situation was great because the camp was fairly small, so even if you parked in the back, you still weren't that far from everything.  And I like that there were volunteers helping with parking to make sure space was efficiently used.  The four-hour drive to the ride was pretty easy (no mountains to stress my truck's transmission and no narrow, crazy roads with twisting turns).  And the atmosphere at the ride was friendly and drama-free.  I actually had the most fun on a ride that I've ever had.  A big part of that was Nimo - he was so much calmer at the start, with no pulling and fighting to go faster, and he did a great job alternating leading with my friend's horse.  He was just lovely to ride.  Plus, I had a friend to ride with that I had ridden with quite a bit, so we knew each other and our horses and it was almost like a team effort, which was really cool.  It also feel really great to see my friend complete the ride successfully.  It was, of course, her and her horse's effort, but I love that I played a role in helping them get ready and that we were able to lead the last couple of miles to make it easier for them to finish. 

All in all, this was a wonderful way to start a ride season that I wasn't sure I would start even three months ago.  And guess what that means?  I sent our entry in for the Foxcatcher ride in Maryland next month.  I love that ride too, and it was bothering me that I wouldn't be able to go.  I'm still not quite sure that Nimo will be fit enough for the whole 25 miles, but I've said that before, and he was, so I'll just see how things play out the day of the ride.  It's an easy enough ride to use the rider option at because the mid-ride vet check is in camp, so I can always do the first loop only.

So stay tuned for my post-ride analysis!


  1. Excellent!! So glad you had such a good time and were able to get to a ride again. Sounds like a really fun trail, and well-managed rides definitely go to the top of the list for permanent spots on the planning calendar.

  2. Come to NJ! Our trails have the best markers around and are similar in terrain to Blackwater :) I'm glad you had such a good time, and I'm glad we got to see you briefly. Nimo is such a good boy.

    1. Thanks, Dom:) I would love to come up to NJ to do a ride or two. Mustang Memorial is tentatively on my list:)

  3. What a great ride! I'm definitely marking it for next year for one of my guys. If the ride manager you're talking about is Mary - she's awesome! She's been my endurance mentor since 2013 when I really got into it. Wish I could have made it down this year, but life has been crazier than usual. Great ride recap =)

    1. Thanks, Liz! And yes, it was Mary - she seemed very accessible and concerned that the ride went well for everyone. I know it is impossible to make everyone happy, but I really enjoyed myself:)

  4. Ahhh that explains why I didn't see you on the trail. (And perhaps it is best you rode ahead of the others - when we passed some of the other intro riders there were at least two who looked convinced they were dying lol). I'll be at Foxcatcher too. Maybe I'll run into you there:)

    1. OMG - that's funny about the intro riders:) Although it wasn't that long ago that I would have felt like I was dying too! And please, if you see me (or more likely Nimo), come over to say hi:)