Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The OD 2018 and Some Endurance Musings, part 1

I've been quiet on the blog, not because I haven't been doing anything, but because I've been adjusting to a new reality.  I was all set to continue blogging at least occasionally in January, but something happened at work that was very stressful and disruptive.  I still haven't figured out how to write about it using words other than the four-letter kind, and because the situation so drastically impacted my daily life, it has been hard to write without discussing it. 

Basically, I now have a different work schedule that has resulted in me needing to commute to DC much more frequently than I used to.  The schedule was forced on me (and all of my other co-workers) without regard for the huge impact it would have on our lives, especially because the previous telework policy had been in place for over a decade and people have made decisions about where to live and buy houses because of it.  The schedule change was not due to a performance deficiency on my part or a change in my job that would require my presence in the office more often. 

Because we have a young child, my husband also had to change his schedule to make sure we could cover child care.  This means my husband gets home later on most days.  My time to ride has been negatively impacted, and we are now able to have dinner as a family only 3 days a week.  My husband and I are exhausted and struggling with the new schedule.  I have no expectation that the situation will ever improve (despite multiple legal actions which will probably fizzle into nothing or take until I am retired to resolve) and so we are doing the best we can.

One other issue is that when I discovered the need to change my schedule, I got very stressed.  As a part-time employee, the outcome for me was not immediately known, and there was a period of time when I seriously thought I would have to quit because I would be unable to afford full-time child care on a part-time salary.  The worst-case scenario did not come to pass, but I didn't know for sure for almost 2 months, which meant a lot of sleepless nights and worrying.  My health, which was not great to begin with, certainly suffered.

I became concerned that I might have a thyroid issue because I had so many symptoms of hypothyroidism.  However, testing indicated that my thyroid function was normal.  I've done my best over the past few months to try different eating strategies to see if my health will improve, and I've seen the occasional improvement as well as some weight loss.  But, the bulk of my symptoms remain.  Mostly I am exhausted all the time.  Chronic fatigue doesn't really fully describe the level of exhaustion, but it is probably the closest accepted phrase.

Anyway, I am hoping that over time, the diet change will help (I'm using many of the strategies from the Bulletproof Diet, but not all).  I'm still adapting to my new schedule and my husband's, and I think it will just take time for me to figure out how to manage all the things that I need to do.  I am definitely getting more sleep now than I used to and suffering from insomnia less, but I don't think I can erase over 5 years of not enough sleep with a few months of more sleep (but still never enough).

I don't have good answers right now about what is impacting my health, but if I do every figure it out, I will definitely write about it.  While I have been working on my health, I did continue to ride as much as I could, and Nimo and I did condition for the Foxcatcher 25 ride, which was held in April.  Unfortunately, we ended up not going because the forecast included rain and possibly snow (flashback to the misery of 2 years ago!).  As it turned out, the weather would really have been perfect for Nimo (cool and cloudy), but my daughter had been up vomiting all night with food poisoning two nights before I would have had to leave, and I was really in no position to be driving on the interstate hauling a horse, so it is probably a good thing I didn't go.

Instead I turned my attention to the OD.  I suspected that I wouldn't be able to compete because Nimo wouldn't have enough time to get fit (being fit for Foxcatcher and being fit for the OD are two completely different things and there was a clinic and a vacation and some other things in between), but a friend suggested we sign up to drag ride.  It totally seemed like a good idea at the time...

We didn't have nearly as much time mountain riding as I would have liked and for some reason, Mother Nature decided that for 3 weeks in May, it would rain almost every day.  That made it hard to get a lot of riding in, even at the barn during the week because it was either raining or the arena was a swamp.  I did my best, and I definitely rode in the rain multiple times, including the Sunday before the OD, when I tested my Muddy Creek duster for the first time in 2 years to see if it was still waterproof.  (It mostly was.)

And so it was, that on June 8, I headed out to the OD base camp for not one, but three rounds of drag riding.  The main plan was to drag ride for the first loop of the 100-mile distance on Saturday.  This loop is the same first loop as for the 25 and the 50, and I've ridden it twice before.  It's a tough loop that is 16 miles long and includes a 2-mile climb in the middle plus more rocks than on any trail I've ever seen.  But, I figured even if it was blindingly hot, we would be on the trail very early in the morning and likely done by 9 am, so heat would be less of a factor.  But then I got it in my head that it would be fun to also ride the last loop of the 100-mile distance.  It is the same as the last loop of the 50, so we could theoretically arrive on Friday by noon, check-in, vet-in, and ride the 6.5 mile, relatively easy, loop in the light.  And then we could ride it again on Sunday at about 4 am in the dark, but as it was getting lighter.  It would be a lot of miles for Nimo (almost 30), but I figured that spread out over three days and during times of the day that would be less likely to be hot, it would be fine.  Ahem.

And the whole plan got started without a hitch.  My daughter helped me give Nimo a full bath (including washing his mane and tail!) on the Wednesday before the ride.  Then on Thursday, I did my usual Target/grocery shopping run and got the truck loaded in the afternoon.  On Thursday night, I did a quick trim on all four feet so I could get Nimo's hoof boots on for the ride.  I also experimentally applied Hoof Armor on his hind feet for the first time. 

I hadn't told anyone because the OD requires hoof protection on all four feet, but I was planning on doing the 6.5 mile loops with front boots only.  I've ridden that section of trail before (it is a slightly shorter version of the last 9-mile loop of the 25-mile distance) and it is rocky, but not enough to justify the torture of putting hind boots on.  I'd been training Nimo completely barefoot over the rockiest trails I could find for months and months and he was completely sound barefoot over rocks.  I did plan to put four hoof boots on for the 16-mile loop on Saturday, but I was hoping no one would notice his bare hind feet for the shorter loops.  I added the Hoof Armor just in case.  I've had it sitting in my garage for months and have never really felt like I needed to try it because Nimo has been doing so well, but I figured what better time to try something new than the night before a ride?

My only two issues were that I didn't have the talc that is recommended for sprinkling on after application and I had a stiff bristled brush for cleaning the hooves before application, but it wasn't a wire-bristled brush.  I decided to wing it by using the chalk my husband uses to put on his hands for climbing instead of the talc.  I have no idea what is in the chalk, but I figured it could theoretically have talc in it.  And I scrubbed really hard with the brush I had.  The application itself went very smoothly once I figured out how to put the cartridge in the thing that looks kind of like a caulk gun.  I followed the directions and put a couple of lines of Hoof Armor sort of around the sole and frog and then used a latex gloved-hand to spread the stuff out as thinly as possible all over the sole and bottom of the frog.  The texture of the Hoof Armor was sort of tacky, making spreading it thinly a little challenging, but it only took a minute or so per hoof.  Then I sprinkled chalk on the hoof and let Nimo chill for a while and I braided his mane.  The directions recommended that the horse spend a couple of hours in a stall on bedding or in the pasture to allow the Hoof Armor to fully cure, so when I was done braiding, I just turned Nimo out into his field, which is part grass and part dirt.  Miraculously, it seemed mostly dry, so I hoped the curing process would work.

Then I washed out a few buckets and rinsed all the hoof boots I would be taking, loaded a bale of hay, and called it a night.

The next morning, I was up around 6:30 to pack the food that needed to be cold and load a few last-minute items.  I was headed to the barn a little before 8 and got Nimo loaded up in good time.  I was meeting a friend partway to the ride, so we could drive and park together, and we connected a little after 9:30.

The drive to the OD is not too long - about 2 hours from the barn, but it does involve merging from I-66 to I-81 and then driving on 81 for about 25 miles.  That merge and subsequent 25 miles are mostly terrifying.  The merge is terrifying because it is a left-hand merge and 81 is packed full of semi-trucks that are driving at approximately the speed of light.  81 is terrifying in general because of the speed of traffic and because it is always heavy, with practically bumper-to-bumper cars and trucks going 75-80 miles an hour.

We did survive both the merge and the 25 miles once again, possibly thanks to the endurance ride gods and also thanks to a semi-truck driver who did something unimaginable.  He was behind me as I merged and when a miraculous opening occurred for him to merge, he did so and then waited for me to merge in front of him before passing me and moving on ahead.  He effectively blocked the faster moving traffic so I had time to merge, and I am eternally grateful.  Normally, someone behind me would have sped up to block my merge so they wouldn't be inconvenienced for even a second by my slower speed.

The rest of the drive was uneventful, including the last few miles into camp, which include a steep grade and crazy winding road.  My truck is 14 years old now and I worry the transmission will fail at one of these climbs (we had meant to replace it this year, but the transmission on my husband's car failed first and we had to replace his car a few weeks ago, so no Nissan Titan XD for me for awhile...).  I'd had the transmission serviced a couple of weeks before the ride and the mechanic said it looked good, although we will need to make a couple of expensive repairs on non-transmission things later this summer.  It performed will on the steep grade and we made it to camp just after 11.

Parking was extremely tight because a huge area had to be closed to parking due to a recent 4-inch rainfall.  My friend and I shared what would normally be just one spot.  Luckily our horses like each other and we didn't mind the trailers being about 8 feet apart.  We were about as far away as we could be from the main tent and vetting area, but we were near other drag riders and we had good access to port-a-potties and a water tank with horse water.

We got our horses set up and then went looking for our drag rider coordinator to get checked in.  I also had a plan that I wanted to run by him regarding the logistics of our Friday ride.  As it turned out, we were not the only people who had volunteered to ride that short loop.  Normally, we wouldn't have four riders dragging such a short section of trail, but I had explained that I wanted to ride it during the day before we rode it on Sunday in the dark, and the coordinator had agreed with that plan.  However, that meant we needed transport for four horses to the Bird Haven vet check, which is where the loop would originate.  We would ride from Bird Haven to base camp.  There was no dedicated horse taxi for drag riders because no one had volunteered.  So that meant we had to rely on the horse ambulance to haul us.  Depending on medical situations for competitors, that might mean a challenge for getting all of us to Bird Haven.

So, my bright idea was to haul my friend's and my horse to the vet check and then find some volunteer to drive my rig back to camp.  That way, we wouldn't be inconveniencing an ambulance driver or causing a delay.  But I wanted to make sure that would be OK because parking is tight at Bird Haven, and I'd need to park my rig for a certain time before someone could bring it back.  This plan would also solve another issue, which is that we needed crew supplies at Bird Haven for Saturday's ride.  We would be riding from base camp to Bird Haven and the number of miles (16) as well as difficulty of the trail meant we would need to have hay, grain, and buckets for sponging our horses.  If I could haul the horses to the vet check on Friday, I could also bring our crew supplies, which would mean not having to haul them up there separately after we got back from our Friday loop.

As it turned out, the drag rider coordinator was competing and unavailable.  This left my friend and I in a bit of a quandary.  I wondered if we should bail on the Friday loop since there were two other riders already or just wing it.  We decided to wing it.  We walked to the registration area to see if we could get vet cards for the horses (drag horses need to vet in and vet out just like competitors).  Registration wasn't open yet because it was before 2.  But we needed to have the horses vetted in and ready to load on a trailer by about 3:30 to get to Bird Haven according to the schedule we'd been given.  And it was getting hotter and more humid by the minute, so we weren't excited about walking the half-mile back to our trailers, then doing it again in 45 minutes, then walking back to get the horses, and then walking back with the horses to the vetting area, then walking back to our trailers to get saddled, and then coming back to the vetting area for possible pick-up to Bird Haven.  So, we found the appropriate paperwork, checked ourselves in (including showing our up-to-date Coggins), and obtained vet cards.  (My friend is very resourceful!)

Then, we walked back to the trailers to get some lunch before bringing the horses to vet in.  Vetting didn't start until 2, so we waited until closer to 2:30 and then vetted in with no issues.  Shortly after arriving back at the trailers, we got the horses ready and reported to the horse ambulance area.  The other two drag riders were already there and they had gotten vests and radios.  We weren't sure how that was supposed to work and no one could tell us.  Also, there was no ambulance driver in sight.  We waited in the beating sun and stifling humidity for about 10 minutes before I possibly got a little irritated.

Please understand that I very much get that running a ride like the OD, where every single vet check is away from base camp (except the final ones) and there are multiple distances over multiple days (25 and 50 on Friday, 25 and 100 on Saturday, plus several ride 'n ties), is an almost impossible task.  I don't expect every thing to run smoothly.  But I did expect that there would be a way to interact with the drag rider coordinator, and I did expect that someone would be at the loading area to make sure riders got connected with trailers.

So, I decided to see if we could find the drag rider coordinator one more time (hopefully he was done with his competition) and if I couldn't, I planned to haul my self and my friend to Bird Haven and ride anyway.  (In hindsight, this was not a good plan, but sometimes when I am hot and irritated, I don't think very clearly.)  As it turned out, we met the coordinator on the walk back to his trailer/our trailers, and he agreed with my plan and also told us how we could get vests and radios.  I double-checked that I could drive my trailer through the end of camp where the vetting area and loading zone was (sometimes it is closed to allow for competitors to ride through) and the coordinator said I could.  So, we left our crew stuff at the loading zone and walked back to the coordinator's trailer where I picked up a radio and vests.  Then, we loaded the horses on to my trailer and we headed to the other end of camp to pick up our crew stuff and head to Bird Haven.

We loaded our things and then were told we could not go out that way.  (Insert grumpy face.)  So, I maneuvered the truck and trailer and got us turned around.  We drove to the other end of camp and as I proceeded up the steep incline to get on the road, I remembered I should have put the truck in four-wheel drive.  But I kept going and while the rear tires definitely had some trouble with traction, we did make it to the top and continued on to Bird Haven.

My next hurdle was to convince the volunteer guarding the entrance to the vet check area to let me in to park.  I could tell my request was really frustrating because I'm sure she'd been told emphatically not to let anyone park a horse trailer there no matter what.  I explained the situation as completely and respectfully as I could, and she finally agreed to let me in to park if I could find a spot in an out-of-the-way place.  Which I did because at least the parking gods were with me. 

Then we unloaded the horses and our crew supplies and headed in toward the vetting area (it was a bit of a walk).  As we were walking in, a trailer with the other drag riders arrived.  According to our schedule, we were about 30 minutes late (it was about 4:30 and we were supposed to be there just after 4).  I prayed the last riders hadn't gone out yet, so they wouldn't be too far ahead of us.

And this is where the really frustrating part of this experience begins.  Because of the heat and humidity, ride times were significantly slower, meaning that many riders were still out on the trail when we got there.  The vet check had a 30-minute hold and the closing time was 5:30.  That means that any rider coming in by 5:30 whose horse was judged to be fit to continue could go on and finish the ride.  It was 4:30.  That meant we could be waiting until 6:10 to go out (we are supposed to give riders about a 10-minute start, so we aren't pushing them).

Now, if we'd brought supplies to keep our horses entertained for that long and it wasn't a bazillion degrees outside and I wasn't sweating the equivalent of my own body weight every 5 minutes, waiting for over an hour and a half might not have been such a big deal.  However, Nimo quickly realized where he was and as the minutes wore on and he saw horse after horse leaving, he got more and more agitated.  My friend's horse was fine mentally, but in about 20 minutes, he had eaten most of the hay we'd brought for the following day.  Thankfully, I had more hay in my trailer, so I got some more to replenish our supplies.

I'd also lucked out because three volunteers needed a ride back to base camp after the vet check closed and one of them agreed to drive my truck and trailer back.

So supplies replenished and truck and trailer managed, I settled back to see if I could get my raging lunatic of a horse under control.  We must have made 50 laps around the crew area and all that accomplished was pissing me off.  I am a bit embarrassed to admit that after waiting for close to an hour, I lost my mind.  I was tired, hot, thirsty, and very stressed.  One of the other drag riders noticed and she convinced a volunteer to come over to take my horse and walk him for me while she talked me down off a ledge.  I was ready to give up and just go back to base camp.  But when she explained that she was frustrated too and that she and the other drag rider had to find a trailer to load their horses back on because they were freaking out at the long wait, I realized I wasn't in this situation by myself.  We were all struggling with unmet expectations and the heat and the humidity.  And somehow, just talking with her calmed me down.  She also pointed out that I could get some water and Gatorade at the volunteer aid station and having a break from being around my fractious horse helped too.

Finally, after Nimo started performing airs above the ground with his volunteer handler (she seemed completely unphased, so either she had experience with big, crazy horses or was too tired to care about her personal safety), I took him back and decided to get on.  I know that probably sounds like a crazy decision, but I knew once I got on, he would understand that we would be getting on the trail soon, and calm down.  And that's what happened.  Once he realized I was getting on, he dispensed with some of his crazier antics and settled for slowly pacing around the start area.

And luckily, the last rider was going out at 5:40.  We gave her a 5 minute head start, vowing to keep our distance and not get too close.  The other two drag riders would be leaving a few minutes behind us (one had a young horse recovering from an injury and wanted to go slow while I knew Nimo would be going pretty fast).

We headed out down the trail with two very fresh, excited horses.  Nimo was sort of ratable, though, and we walked for at least 100 feet before he asked to trot.  First, we trotted slowly, and then I gradually let him out.  As we hit the first hill of the loop, he broke into what might have been a gallop.  My first thought was, "I hope he doesn't buck me off in his exuberance" and my second thought was, "I hope I don't lose a hoof boot, because there is no way I'll be able to turn Nimo around to get it."  Fortunately, the short sprint up the hill resolved Nimo's energy issues and he settled into a 10-12 mph trot.  Also, both hoof boots stayed on.

We continued trotting for probably close to 3 miles when I decided we really needed to slow down.  Nimo was lathered from the humidity and anxiety and we still had two more rides to do.  Plus, we kept running up on the last rider, which I didn't like, so we slowed down to walk for a long while.

As we turned a corner, I was focused on following the blue/white ribbons on the right of the trail, when a group of 4-5 riders came trotting from the other direction.  Apparently, the trail was mismarked at that point and the riders had gone down the wrong section.  And it was the very section of trail that I'd been about to lead us onto.  There was clearly a blue/white ribbon marking it, but there were more blue/white ribbons going the other way too.  Definitely confusing.  (I didn't understand at the time exactly what trouble we'd have been in if we'd gone the wrong way - I'll explain later when I figured it out.)

I knew one of the ladies in the group was very experienced and trusted that she knew the right way.  We also radioed back to the other drag riders to let them know about the confusion.

We continued walking and trotting and aside from one near de-capitation due to a low-hanging branch, the rest of the ride was uneventful.  We finished the trail in one hour and 15 minutes, which was actually my target pace.  We'd been going much too fast during the first half of the trail, but slowing things down during the second half made our time more reasonable.

Both horses were dripping with sweat and thirsty, so we took them to the water trough area, where one of the volunteers who'd gone with my truck and trailer saw us.  She helped hold my friend's horse while my friend sponged and brought us sodas as we cooled the horses.  Now, Nimo was perfectly behaved and he stood like a statue while I sponged probably 15-20 gallons of water on him.  I'd left 2 buckets for us to use, knowing that we would need to sponge to cool them.  The horses drank a lot and Nimo kept trying to stick his whole head under water.  (He'd previously tried to climb into one of the horse water tanks located around camp, which is always a sign that he considers it to be too hot!)

We ended up waiting about 20 minutes before vetting in.  I wanted to make sure the last competitors to arrive were done before we went through and of course, I wanted to make sure the horses were pulsed down.  I could tell when Nimo was ready, maybe 15 minutes after we arrived.  His skin temperature dropped several degrees in a very short period of time (I had been feeling it every couple of minutes once I stopped sponging to see if I needed to start again.)

Nimo's heart rate when we vetted in was already at 48 bpm, so he was in good shape.  My friend's horse was closer to 60, I think, but both horses were overall in good shape and passed their vet checks.  Nimo did have quiet gut sounds in 2 quadrants, which is not that unusual for him, and I suspected the stress of the long wait before we rode had something to do with it because he seemed fine otherwise.

We decided to bring the truck over later to pick up our saddles and assorted crap from the crew area and started walking our horses back to the other end of camp.  My friend was a bit tired and having a cramp, so I took her horse so she could slow down and deal with the cramp.  Both horses walked like they hadn't even done a ride and I could barely keep up with them.  In fact, by the time I got them to the trailers, one of my legs had a cramp.  (Seriously, I wonder how I do this sometimes!).

I put both horses in their pens and then I reparked my truck and trailer.  The volunteer hadn't realized that we were doubling up on spaces and she'd parked my rig in what probably looked like a perfectly good empty spot right next to mine.  I had also told her not to worry about parking because I figured the last thing she needed after an exhausting day was to mess with parking.

I was unhooking my trailer, so I could take the truck to get our gear when I realized I'd forgotten to bring the wheel chock for my hitch.  Normally, that wouldn't have been a big deal for a short time, but when I started to jack the wheel of the hitch on the ground, it started sinking.  I decided that rather than cross my fingers and hope the whole thing didn't sink into the mud while I was picking up gear, I would just drag the trailer with me.

So I hauled down to the crew area and loaded up all of our stuff.  Then I maneuvered back to our parking spot and once again backed the trailer in (three cheers for me!).  I unloaded it and then worked on setting up my sleeping area.  I sleep in my trailer now, so I couldn't do anything until after we'd gotten back because I needed the trailer to haul the horses.  Meanwhile my friend had rested up and worked on putting dinner together.  It was a simple meal but one of the best I'd ever had (some kind of salad with vinaigrette dressing, avocado slices, and perfectly cooked shrimp).

We listened to the ride meeting on the loud speakers while we ate and rested and then I took Nimo for a short walk/grazing session and headed to bed a little after 9.  We had to be up at 4:15 the next morning to be ready to ride again...