So, when an acquaintance from the endurance world invited me to go for a ride on August 5th, I was actually willing to go. I sort of had my sights set on doing the Fort Valley 30 ride in mid-October, and to have Nimo fit enough, I really needed to start seriously conditioning at the beginning of August. Unlike the Blackwater Swamp Stomp or Foxcatcher rides, which are in the easy to moderate range, Fort Valley is in the same category as the OD in terms of lots of rigorous climbing and really requires Nimo to be in great shape.
The temperature was only supposed to get to the low 80s and the humidity level felt pretty reasonable that day, so I was looking forward to getting back into the swing of conditioning. We'd had about 7 weeks of focusing more on arena schooling and doing regular, but shorter and slower trail rides as a way to let Nimo rest a bit after the OD 25 and also because I don't like riding in the heat and humidity, so I tend to whine a lot and wimp out during July.
The lady I was meeting was one whom I'd ridden with a couple of times before. I knew she had done 50-mile endurance rides for a very long time (probably decades), but within the last couple of years had started slowing down a bit. She does like to move out, but we were meeting at the 4-H Center in Front Royal, so I figured the mountain climbs in the Shenandoah National Park (SNP) that we would be doing would slow her down (some foreshadowing here...). She had also tempted me with the knowledge that we would be riding to some place called Jenkins Gap. I hadn't heard of it, but I was excited to broaden my trail horizons, and the lady assured me the ride could be done in about 3 hours. I should note at this point that I have a certain idea of what 3 hours of riding in the mountains is. That idea is not necessarily the same as what other people think it is...
Anyway, when I arrived at the parking lot, I was surprised to see several other trailers. (Usually I'm the only one.) I even knew one of the ladies there. I figured everyone else had the same idea - because it was such a lovely day, conditioning in the mountains seemed like a good plan. As it turned out, all these other trailers were there for the same ride I was. Unbeknownst to me, the lady had invited not just me, but four other ladies. That normally would not have bothered me in the slightest, especially because I knew one of them, had ridden with her before, and liked her company. But, all of them rode Arabs and all of them were 50-mile endurance riders, with the exception of one lady, who would be riding her horse that completed the OD 100 just 7 weeks prior.
To say that I was intimidated would be an understatement. None of these ladies was a particularly fast rider, but honestly there is just no comparison between the pace Nimo goes and the pace that fitter, 50-mile (or 100-mile) Arabs do. I was now not only worried about the pace being too much for Nimo, I was worried about the fact that I would have hoof boots on. I was only planning on booting up front because Nimo's hind feet had really been doing well over rocks and gravel and because it would be two fewer boots to have problems with. People who shoe their horses absolutely do not have patience with those of us who use hoof boots. And while part of me understands, the other part of me thinks that if someone I was riding with had a tack issue and needed to stop to fix it a time or two, I wouldn't be the slightest bit put out.
I debated simply bailing on the ride, but it takes me an hour and 15 minutes to get there, and I really did want to see this new section of trail. I also knew that Nimo would not tell me he could do something he couldn't and if he needed to slow down, he would. And I knew the first section of trail we would be on really well, so if we needed to turn around, I wouldn't feel lost.
I sent a silent prayer to the endurance gods that Nimo and I would survive unscathed and set off down the road with five other very nice ladies. We warmed the horses up by walking for the first mile or so and then as we entered the SNP and started climbing in earnest, we did a lot of trotting. I should point out that Nimo and I never trot up mountains. We do trot up hills sometimes and Nimo is getting better at it, but he really draws the line at mile+ inclines over rocks. However, he felt pretty spunky and we were able to keep up pretty well.
Once we got to the top of the mountain, we slowed down to cross Skyline Drive and then we would be going down on a gravel fire road. It is steep in some sections, so three of the ladies opted for mostly walking. The other two ladies wanted to do some trotting and without hesitation, Nimo wanted to go with them. He even led for a short distance. Because while trotting up mountains is not his thing, trotting down them is something he does seem to do well and enjoy.
We continued trotting as we got to the bottom of the mountain and left the park to travel down a quiet, gravel road. I had been on this road before, but usually only for about half a mile before turning around. That gives me a nice solid 10 miles with two climbs and I've always felt like that was enough. But it turns out to get to Jenkins Gap, you have to travel this road.
The two ladies I was with kept trotting, and eventually, the other three ladies caught up as we got to a t-intersection. We stopped for a few minutes to chat and let the horses rest and then three ladies decided to head back to the trailers because they felt like the ride was good enough. I probably should have gone with them, but Nimo still seemed like he was doing OK, despite the much faster pace. Plus, I knew this might be my only shot to figure out where this new trail was. I had also asked about the pace for the rest of the distance and the lady said they would mostly be walking because we would be on a mountain. And Nimo is generally pretty good as long as he can walk.
So we continued on. We trotted maybe 1.5-2 more miles (that is not something that was clear to me based on the previous discussion) and then got to another entrance to the SNP. The Jenkins Gap trail. What I didn't understand was that the trail was 2 miles long and involved a climb of 1,200 feet with no switchbacks. I also could not understand why the other horses were CANTERING up the mountain (again, I reference the previous discussion). It was at this point that Nimo had really had enough. He slowed down to walk up the mountain for a bit and then he stopped as if Stephen King's Dome had appeared in front of him.
At first I worried that he was cramping or tying up, but after a few minutes of investigation, it appeared that he was just tired. (For those few minutes, though, I realized how vulnerable we were. We were alone, there was no cell phone service, and the road was about a mile back over treacherous and extreme footing.) So I let him rest. We were in the shade and there was a lovely cool breeze. The other riders were quite a ways ahead of us at that point, and I wasn't too fussed about letting them go on. It was an out-and-back trail, so I could head back to the trailer at any time without fear of getting lost.
|This is the point on the trail where Nimo stopped. He's actually standing on a sort of level spot, but the trail does keep going relentlessly up...|
In what seemed like no time, we were back at the road. I kept Nimo walking because I really wasn't in a hurry. He seemed fine and I knew the other ladies would catch up at some point and we might trot some more. Which is exactly what happened. Maybe a mile down the road, I heard the sound of three horses trotting on gravel. Nimo heard it too and picked up his pace. He started trotting on his own and actually stayed in the lead for awhile after the other horses had caught up.
We kept trotting for another couple of miles maybe and then we were back to the other section of trail within the SNP and thus, another climb up a mountain. The other horses continued trotting and I've got to give Nimo credit for trying really hard to keep up. But about a third of the way up the mountain, he'd had enough, and slowed to a walk. The other ladies once again continued on (cantering again, by the way), and we trudged up the mountain.
About a quarter of a mile from the top, where it gets quite steep, Nimo stopped to let me know he'd really like it if I carried my own self the rest of the way up the mountain. I kind of laughed and got off, because after almost 3 hours in the saddle, I felt like walking on my own two feet would be more fun. So I huffed and puffed up the rest of the climb with Nimo at my side.
Then we crossed Skyline drive. I had planned to get back on at that point, but I really did not feel like riding anymore, so while there were plenty of large rocks and tree stumps to use as mounting blocks, I stayed on foot as we descended. And I discovered exactly how hard that trail is. I've never hiked it before and I now have a whole new appreciation for what Nimo does. It is a single track trail through the forest and the surface is full of these 2-3" diameter rocks that are loose and roll around the minute you step on them. I can't count how many times one foot or other slid out from under me, and I almost fell at least twice, being saved only by grabbing on to Nimo's breast collar.
Meanwhile, Nimo was calmly walking just behind me and never taking a bad step. I'm sure he must have been thinking how much easier it is without the human on top of him! Or maybe realizing that walking wasn't my strong suit...
After a mile and a half or so, we got to the trail head, where there are two huge rocks that are perfect as mounting blocks, and I got back on. We had about a mile left to get back to the parking lot, and I figured gravity would get us there:)
And so, a little over 3 and a half hours after we started, Nimo and I sauntered into the parking lot. I was glad to see the other ladies were still there and no one was organizing a search party yet. As it turned out, we were only about 20 minutes behind them, which I considered to be a pretty impressive feat. Also impressive was that I had zero issues with the hoof boots and Nimo essentially did 15 miles over rocks and gravel BAREFOOT behind at a pretty good pace. There was some very minor chipping, but otherwise his feet looked great, and I never felt an unsound step. WhooHoo!
As soon as I got off, Nimo started chowing down on grass, so I let him eat for a few minutes. Then I took him to the trailer, untacked him, gave him his post-ride mash, and started sponging him off. A couple ladies came over to make sure Nimo was OK (he was) and chat for a few minutes.
And then, it was time to load everything and head out.
While I didn't get to see the actual Jenkins Gap (which I'm told is a pretty amazing view in the winter time), we did get within a mile of it, and I could easily get back there by myself (at a slower pace). My understanding is the distance is about 17 miles total, with three climbs. I'm not sure about how much elevation change there is, but if the Jenkins Gap trail is 1,200 feet, then the other two climbs must be in the 800-1,000 range.
And all of that means the Jenkins Gap trail is PERFECT for training for Fort Valley. There are three climbs at Fort Valley too (although one is not that significant) and the way the climbs are basically compressed together makes for a very nice conditioning ride.
Plus I now have a much better idea of the pace that 50-mile riders train at over that kind of terrain. I don't know if that pace will ever feel comfortable to Nimo or I, but I have to give him credit not only for keeping up as well as he did, but even more credit for knowing when he needed to turn around to have enough energy left to make it back to the trailer. He was tired, but not the most tired I've ever seen him, and he ate really well after the ride, which he doesn't always do, even on easier rides, so I was pretty proud of him.
After that ride, I was pretty optimistic about our chances of being able to train well for Fort Valley, and I was even looking forward to it. My only hope was that the weather would stay halfway decent, so I didn't feel like I was going to die from heat exhaustion after every conditioning ride...