I got up for good at around 6 and fed Nimo a mash and then tried to get myself dressed and organized. When Nimo was done eating, he wanted to go for a walk around camp (I'm beginning to suspect that horses are as demanding as 4-year-old girls...). After Nimo's walk, I headed to the camp tent to pick up a little breakfast and drop off one more thing at the finish crew area. And then somehow, it was time to start putting on hoof boots and tack.
I put the hoof boots on first, and had a little shock when the second of two Velcro straps on the gaiter of Nimo's left hind boot basically came off in my hand as I was fastening it. The boot doesn't need the second strap to function, luckily, but I worried that without the second strap, the gaiter would be more prone to failure. It was actually the gaiter I had recently replaced, so it was brand new. Very frustrating...
Then I saddled up and tried to get on my horse. At that point, I realized I was still wearing my regular shoes - no boots and no half chaps. This is what happens to a perfectly good brain after you have a child...I went back to my trailer and got my boots and half chaps on and then I was in the saddle for good.
The friend I would be riding with and I went over to the start line to check in with the start volunteers and then walked the horses around for a few minutes to get them warmed up before the start time. My plan was that we would start a little behind the front runners, sort of in mid-pack. That strategy had worked well at Foxcatcher, and I had no reason to think our horses couldn't produce a pretty good pace for the first 5-6 miles, until we hit the 2-mile climb that has become infamous on this ride.
So we watched the start line from maybe a quarter mile down the road and when it looked like at least 20 riders had started, we headed toward the start line. There were only 42 riders scheduled to start the ride, I think, so I figured we were in good shape. We tried to stick to the rule about walking the first few minutes after the start, even though our horses were kind of wound up. Nimo was excited to trot until he realized there were onlookers with cameras just past the start line. At which point, he wanted to stop and say hi, and I had to encourage him to keep going. (Ahhh, the price of fame...)
|Nimo just before the start line. Photo by Melissa Lizmi.|
As luck would have it, the first Easyboot failed and started flapping around Nimo's foot. I could hear the thwapping sound with each stride, but we were in no position to stop right then. Thankfully the gaiter held and the boot continued to stay attached to Nimo's leg while we trotted on a single track through the forest. When we emerged from the woods onto a road, I realized there was a good place to pull over. We managed to get the horses out of the way of what seemed like a never-ending supply of additional riders, and I got off to fix the boot. It looked like it just hadn't been tightened enough - it was a newer boot and I probably should have taken more time to make sure it was tight before I got on in the first place. But it was lucky that I got off and took a good look at my horse, who was breathing very heavily and lathered in sweat. Our pace wasn't necessarily too fast, but all the adrenaline and excitement from all the other horses around us had put Nimo and my friend's horse in a bad place from a metabolic standpoint. I told my friend we needed to slow down a little and let the horses settle even though that meant wrestling with them.
And so on we continued. We hadn't started the climb yet, and I suspected we were probably about 4 miles into the ride. I had forgotten to start my GPS, but the trail has a number of benchmarks for mileage, so I wasn't too worried about it. It was 8:30 and I was already questioning my sanity.
From then on, my friend's mental state deteriorated, and I have to admit that mine did too. A boot failure so early in the ride did not bode well, and I always feel this terrible pressure when I use hoof boots and ride with someone who doesn't. I know that people who routinely shoe their horses just have no patience for hoof boot issues, and I always get a bit frazzled when I have to get off and then hope I can find something equivalent to a ladder to get back on.
But more than that, the excitement at the start had drained the little strength I'd had when I got on. I could feel both a back spasm and the beginning of a migraine coming on, and nothing sends me into a depression faster than the thought of a migraine. Wrestling with Nimo is a workout like none other, and it's something I haven't had to do in a very long time. The situation was so similar to what happened at my first ride at Fort Valley that mentally I think I was having flashbacks. Except at Fort Valley I was by myself and now I was with a friend who was becoming increasingly upset with me. And that was much, much worse than being alone, I found out.
My friend had not done the OD trail before and while she had done intro or "half" rides before, this was by far the most challenging situation she'd found herself in on her horse (she had conditioned on mountains, but conditioning when you are in a non-competitive situation is different than when your horse turns into a adrenaline-charged lunatic). And as we got farther along the trail, my insistence that while the trail did have rocky sections, there were plenty of places to move out seemed to her to be a lie. And I have to admit I was questioning my memory. There were so many rocks on the trail. They were never-ending after the first few miles and they were often 2-5" in diameter and sharp and loose, making the footing seem terrifying to someone unprepared.
We also had trouble with the trail markings. The vast majority of the trail was really well marked, but there was one place where all the ribbons switched to the left side of the trail despite there being perfectly good places to put them on the right, leading me to believe that somehow we missed a turn and were going the wrong direction. I was torn between continuing on just to get the bloody ride over with or turning around to see if we could figure out where we went wrong. As it turned out, somebody just marked the trail on the left for awhile...And there were other places where there were trail intersections and no ribbons. We weren't the only ones to have trouble. More than once, we were either asking if someone had seen a ribbon or being asked if we had seen a ribbon. At one point, we had a conference with other riders to get a consensus on the best direction to take. All of that was slowing us down and eroding our confidence.
And then the second hoof boot came off as we started the climb. I had to pull over and let a rider pass (why is there ALWAYS someone right behind me when I have a hoof boot failure???) and the horses were upset about being passed. At that point, I just got the boot and got back in the saddle without replacing it. The gaiter had torn a bit, but it was otherwise useable. I was just DONE. My friend said something about why didn't I just put some goddamn shoes on the horse, and I almost snapped. (I'll explain my reasoning later, but this was just not the best time to have that particular discussion). I think I said something reasonably civil, but I was getting more and more upset by the minute.
Here's the thing. It turns out that my friend and I have vastly different strategies when it comes to coping with adversity. Despite the horses being too excited and despite a couple of hoof boot failures, I never once thought our ability to finish the ride was compromised. They are just things that happen on endurance rides. They've happened to me before and I survived. But they haven't happened to my friend before and she didn't have the experience that I did to know everything would be OK. So I wanted to make sarcastic jokes and self-deprecating remarks to cope with the unpleasantness while my friend preferred that I not speak at all. She also had a tendency to express herself very loudly and colorfully, particularly when we encountered more rocks on the trail (which was ALL the time).
As the miles went on, I took her unhappiness more and more to heart, and I felt worse and worse for encouraging her to start the ride. I imagined that our friendship was likely over. And I wrote the post for this blog in my head where I explained as briefly as possible that I was done with endurance riding. Then I fantasized about my life without endurance conditioning and rides. It seemed free of worries, and I imagined all the free time I would have to clean my house and do laundry and cook healthy meals (because cleaning a dirty toilet seemed vastly preferable to the situation in which I found myself).
Later in the climb, Nimo lost another hoof boot, and I just got off to pick it up and strap it to my saddle bags, got back on, and kept going. At this point, there were so many giant boulders around, I had no trouble finding a suitable mounting block. Unfortunately, after we reached the ridge, which is also rocky, Nimo started acting pretty sensitive with his feet. So I looked for a good place to get off again and put the boots back on (I'm not sure why I didn't put them back on in the first place, except that I was just in a bad state mentally). It wasn't hard to find a giant boulder to use for a mounting block, so I got off to put one boot back on and replace the one that had come off more recently because I realized the gaiter was hanging on by a thread and part of the buckle was broken. Nimo had slipped with his left hind and stepped on his right hind in the struggle to catch himself (unsurprisingly, there was a giant rock involved...), and it was too much for the boot to handle. The good thing about this particular stop is that both horses were finally settled enough to eat and they spent a few minutes munching on grass.
We kept trudging along the ridge, which had not gotten any less rocky since the last time I rode it, and finally emerged from the rocks and trees to the small clearing that marks the 10-11 mile mark of the loop. There is grass there and a water tank. I expected Nimo to drink heavily, but all he did was stick half his head in the water and play around. My friend's horse did drink, though. We chatted with a couple of ride-and-tie runners/riders for a few minutes and my friend quizzed one about the nature of the second loop, no longer trusting anything I had to say. The runner swore it wasn't nearly as rocky as this loop had been.
Then we continued down the three-mile stretch of gravel road. It is all downhill and really needs to be trotted to make up the time lost on the climb and ridge. But at that point, it was close to 11 am, and I knew there was no way we would be able to do the remaining 5 miles in 45 minutes. (You'll remember that the vet check closes at 11:45.) I wrote the ride off as a loss and congratulated myself on coming to the realization that endurance riding is a stupid sport. I thought about how wonderful it would be to get a trailer ride back to camp, pack up my stuff, and head home a day early for rest and relaxation at home. (My friend and I had originally planned to stay over that night.)
We did not move at what I considered to be a very fast pace down the road, but my friend's horse is gaited and his walk is quite quick, so Nimo alternated walking and trotting to keep up. Each trot step felt like it was ripping my insides out and scraping the skin off the inside of my knees. My core would have been able to handle the downhill trotting except that I'd exhausted it when I was fighting with Nimo the first 6-ish miles. And it turns out the skin really was being removed from the inside of my knees, although I didn't learn to what extent until later.
We also did some faster trotting on the less steep sections, and it honestly wasn't that long before we made the turn into the woods that meant we only had 2 miles to go. Out of curiosity, I happened to glance at my watch to see how late getting into the vet check we would be, and I had the stunning realization that we still had 15 minutes left. So, using my best matter-of-fact tone of voice, I gave a status update to my friend and explained that we had 15 minutes to go 2 miles if we wanted to stay in the ride. And then I left it up to her. She said she wanted to try to make it.
And so try we did. We moved out as best as we could. Our horses were still pretty fresh and happy to trot, and we were able to cover ground pretty quickly. But the minutes kept counting down. I didn't think we were going to make it. As we turned the final corner toward the vet check, we had 2 minutes left. I could see Bird Haven in the distance. We had a nice grassy trail leading into the in-timer area (probably the only decent footing in the whole ride), and I started yelling at my friend, "GO! GO! GO! Don't stop for anything! Just keep going!" She picked up the canter and I ramped up Nimo's trot and we raced toward the in-timer. My heart was pounding as we came up to the in-timer's tent. The timer was someone I knew, and I felt so much relief that she would be the one to tell me that we had missed the time by just a minute or two. Except that wasn't what she said. She said, "It's OK. You guys made it. You even have 45 seconds to spare."
And I started laughing while my friend was crying with happiness. We made it to the first vet check. It was 11:45.