Biltmore, May 2016
Someone asked me again recently what got me interested in endurance. It’s kind of an odd niche in the horse world to stumble upon as a relatively new horse person.
I thought about it: I didn’t stumble into endurance riding as much as I’d heard about someone who rode 100 miles in one day and being somewhat drawn to extremes I thought that was an awesome goal to aim for with the young horse I had just started (at 4) and who wasn’t even riding on trails yet.
I like big goals. I like challenge.
It so happens that 100 mile one day rides fall into the umbrella of endurance riding.
I didn’t hear about endurance and say “sure, I’ll try out a limited distance or an into ride and see if I like it…” I started with the goal of 100 and set out to find the steps to get there.
I head a Freakonomics podcast recently regarding successful people, goals and grit.
Gritty people are the ones who set out to do something out of the ordinary then find the steps and keep walking those steps no matter what the weather, inconvinience and discomfort.
I ran a marathon even though I don’t love running to see if I could.
I participated in the local triathlon (3 years actually) even though I didn’t know how to swim and actually hate riding a bike.
And I probably took on a practically feral horse to see if I could successfully start and train her.
Do I have what it takes? Do I have grit?
The loneliest 7 miles of our lives.
For the first time today she’s begun to stumble. Her feet were heavy. She begged me to slow to a walk.
Have I asked too much? Am I going to break my horse?
It was warm in the late afternoon. The sun had come out and we were both tired. Mile 48 out of 55. Farther than either of us had ever gone in one day.
No way! We are not quitters! I know you are tired- you can walk a minute but you need to trot!
We hadn’t seen another soul in at least 45 minutes. A trio of riders on the 75 mile course passed us at a pace Khaleesi couldn’t manage this late in the day though she did try for a while and calling after them as they slowly left our view across the endless pasture roads.
If we slow too much this cycle will never end. We have got to get back to a familiar trail into base camp I know she’ll perk up if she only knew how close we are. We can’t afford to slow to a halt right here at the edge of the woods.
The last loop seemed endless and we were losing steam. How could I encourage her to give more than she already had? I knew she was not in physical distress. She was tired. She was mentally tired too. I didn’t want to ‘beat’ her but I didn’t think she was truly ‘finished’ either.
Think of why people have a personal trainer- to be the one to say YOU ARE NOT DONE YET! YOU HAVE ONE MORE REP, one more mile, you have it. Dig deeper.
You aren’t the slave driver you are the gym trainer.
YOU DONT GET TO QUIT NOW! TROT ON GIRL! YOU CAN DO THIS!
She didn’t quite believe me. I might not have completely believed myself. But we picked up a trot that might have been faster than her walk.
You get what you need (recurring theme of my life)
Just then Tom Hagis came upon us also headed to the finish line for the 75 mile.
He had a good pace and seeing another of her kind Khaleesi came alive and hit her stride again. We followed Tom a couple miles to familiar territory. I was so thankful an Angel showed up exactly when we’d come to the edge of ourselves.
Tom got off to walk a steep hill and we had enough juice now just 3 miles from the finish to go on!
I knew it! I knew you could! I knew you had it in you!
She moved forward again covering the ground with a second (or maybe third or fourth) wind until we crossed the final bridge to the grass ‘landing strip’ they made for the finish line.
At the ride meeting we were given permission to race off and all alone, just like we’d ridden almost the entire day we hit a canter and ran that last 500 yards. It was a race off against fear and failure. I was laughing out loud with joy.
We did it!
Until about 10 yards from the finish line- she stopped cold.
What is the deal with the tent? Why are those people all looking at us?
I had a feeling her first true finish line crossing might cause her pause, so we stopped and I let her look and process. The finish timer shouted to us-
What’s your number honey?
213! This is our first finish line- she’s not quite sure what to make of it.
I waited for her to take in her surroundings as people watched us stand just short of the finish line.
Take your time- we’re here. You’ve earned a minute or two if you need it. The finish line is a human concept- I will wait for you.
Official finish time 6:08 pm. Start was 7am.
Loop average speeds:
- Loop 1 orange (14.5mi): 6.9mph
- Loop 2 yellow (14.9mi): 7.2mph
- Loop 3 blue south (11.1 mi): 6.3mph
- Loop 4 white River (14.1mi): 5.9mph
This weekend green to 100 reached a milestone step toward the big goal. We completed an endurance length course and were considered fit to continue.
Now we can say we are an endurance pair.
I have been reflecting recently on the concept that gritty people are not always the easiest to…. Have as a daughter… Be friends with… Be married to.
Gritty people put tons of energy into things they are passionate about and can be selfish about how they spend their time.
Well I suppose that’s not a total surprise.
But- the interview continued – without that persistence the goals are left unachieved and leaves the gritty person unhappy, frustrated and sometimes depressed. That people around gritty people who love them want to see them succeed.
I do try to find some balance. I am thankful openly to the people who help me. Not only the people around my world who play small vital parts but of course my husband who is in the position to get the best and worst of me and often abides my riding hours (that rack up faster than my home project hours) mostly in silence and is even happy for me when I attain a step in my journey and helps send me only way in good gear and even a positive attitude.
He must understand me at least in part. I not only love but respect him as he is at least as gritty as I hope to be. He’s gone through some difficult times and never given up- and when he has a goal there is little that can stop him from success. I’ve certainly found my match.
The Biltmore Challenge Endurance Experience
The haul was long. Thankfully Ed told me the truck was not hauling properly and I needed to get it looked at. He was right and a new radiator meant smooth sailing on what could have been a stressful trip. Still. Asheville was a solid 7 hours including gas stops, mountains to climb and driving a farm truck and horse trailer through downtown to get to the estate! Khaleesi is a fantastic traveler and she doesn’t get stressed or upset in the trailer.
Arriving at the estate was stunning. This is a bucket list ride. In fact any horse person out there should either take a horse and go pay to ride there, or rent a horse.
Ed was right- there were times I felt like I was Lady Mary cantering through grass paths with Downton looming ahead on the hill. I never made it into the house but I saw a more of that 8000 acre property than most non-horse people will get to. It was lovely.
Upon arrival at camp we looked for Ricky and Amy Stone who had arrived on Wednesday and held us prime real estate as awesome team members!
They could be at the control check area and Ricky said to just move his truck – keys were in it- if they weren’t there. We found what seemed just like what they described and a truck in the middle of a held spot. I walked around the area and saw nothing else even close to fitting the description.
Well? I guess I’ll see if the keys are in it… Ok… Keys in ignition.
I started to move the truck and a guy came out of the adjoining trailer asking what on earth I was doing!
That is not Ricky!
Thankfully we had a good laugh as I showed him the description and text and apologized for starting to drive off with his truck! Turns out I wasn’t even close. This was the suburbs and we had to drive another half mile up to main camp where we had a downtown (primo) spot and Ricky was waiting for us.
He and Amy helped us quickly get the electric pen set up while Madge walked Khaleesi around and had some great tips for the fencing for me. (Don’t forget to pick up the extension cord wheel for the electric tape!) Check in, ride meeting, all easy.
Madge and I set up hammocks in the trailer and I slept ok. Our start time was 7am. It was a particularly cold night and morning but at least not raining!
I got up in the dark (4:45) to make coffee and get started. I never have ‘too much’ time ride morning and did not want to be rushed. I let Madge get some more sleep- gotta be good to your crew!
Our mentor Lyn was in camp as well and came through to see how we were doing and picked up some coffee on her way to watch the 100s start. My first rule of ride morning: always have enough coffee…. For you and anyone else who might need a cup!
All went smooth, I was tacked up and in the saddle by 6:45 and Khaleesi was excited but not wild. Just right for ride day.
Elise was taking a new to 55 rider through today and I said I’d like to join them on the first loop at least and see how it went. The woman she was with had an Arab who was a little excited and doing some fancy footwork from the start. We waited for most of the riders to get started before leaving camp and tried to help the settle in and stay calm.
The first loop was 14 miles and we were cool and fresh finishing in about 2 hours.
In the group of three we all took turns leading and Khaleesi loved being the front horse and stretched out ears forward at a great metronome trot around 7mph when she had the chance. At Leatherwood she wouldn’t go in front of our pack for anything. Here she shined as a leader but also did well in the middle and back. I was glad to work together especially to help a rider whose horse wasn’t always a happy camper but during this first loop I saw that Khaleesi and I had prepared ourselves for this, and it was time to go.
Time to ride our own ride- for the first time in an event.
Each vet check she had great scores and was taking good care of herself. Her heart rates came right down as fast as we could pull the saddle and get her through to vet. Her CRI recoveries were solid (best one was 60/54) and she had good grades on attitude and impusion. She was well mannered, stood still for the vet and is better at letting the them get cap refill (touching her gums).
This was the perfect first endurance ride for us. The trails were in great condition, they were easy riding for us, not much mountain climbing, and the weather stayed cool most of the day.
Things I noticed, used, or learned:
Her heat rate was solid. Most of our trotting was between 90-120bpm depending on incline. She rose up to 150 range only a couple times climbing a hill or in a really hot sunny section of trail when she started to get tired. I trotted right into camp each time at a good clip and she would be around 70bpm as I was dismounting. She is fit.
I learned to have a variety of horse munchies- between my Stone’s Run crew and green to 100 we had all kinds of mashes, hays, carrots and apples, hydration hay and beet pulp. Khaleesi ate and drank the entire hold like a vacuum cleaner (AWESOME!) but I need more variety of human food! In my LD rides a couple PB&J were great. After my second hold I would rather starve than eat a PB&J. And actually something cold in summer might help too. Watermelon in a cooler? A meat & cheese wrap? Maybe something lighter than wheat bread…
How much electolyes to pre make? This is the second time I made too much- I hate wasting it after a ride but don’t want to save it for a month. I also am afraid to come up short. This ride I electolyted before starting each loop and once 3/4 through the third loop where it had gotten hit and she was now riding more miles than we’d trained. It really helped perk her back up.
I did not do it at the finish. She was eating and drinking so well and looked so good I did not believe she needed it. That may not always be the case.
Going forward I will plan to make one for each loop and the finish, two extras for on trail if I need, and then have the stuff to make more if we need it. Also: get capped syringes!
Using our training… Energy
This course took us in and out of camp each loop. It got increasingly hard to ask her to leave camp alone with me. As I write this I feel I should clarify- there was never any question we were going, and those watching may not have even noticed her hesitation but I knew it was there.
She was not forward in her energy. This was not a serious problem for us, but it’s a place I used the force and it felt a lot like how I would have to drive her with all my energy out the iron gates at home when she didn’t want to go out alone. She did try a turn around in the last loop (who could blame her! We’d ridden close to 50 miles at that point and she likely wondered what on earth I was thinking!) She did move through and trust me but it was a BIG question.
55 miles can be the biggest arena you’ve ever been in when it comes to learning about your riding skills. I focused as much as possible on how I rode. I used the force as much as possible. Early in the day when we led our group of 3 through the orange trails- there were many multi pronged intersections and I looked well ahead down the trail or over my shoulder for tight turns and I tried to never need a rein to communicate which trail without any hesitation in our average 7mph trot speed. It was FUN! She was so responsive to my energy. We transitioned and turned as one- both fresh and eager. She gave mare ears to our pack on occasion but moved over on wide trails like a dream to ride side by side with Elise and Jubilee or to let the group pass.
Also I felt her begin to get heavy on her front feet in the third loop. I first asked what can I do about it and noticed I was getting tired and slouching forward. I sat up this loop engaged my core more and and thought of the line through my body lifting my head up to the sky from Sally Swift as well as the bubbling spring giving me energy from my feet.
It helped. She started powering more from her hind again and we floated off.
One thing I knew before but stands out to me for real now- you cannot get through endurance miles without improving your riding skills, and if you pay attention (which most endurance riders do or they wouldn’t be there in the first place) you have the best opportunity to improve. I struggled to stay balanced and light as we both got tired, but it was a challenge that I enjoyed.
That challenge was somewhat exacerbated by my ‘bum’ leg. I went into the weekend feeling almost 100% though I’m learning about minor injuries that hang on longer than welcome. I was tossing a heavy poop pile over a fence Friday and slipped on wet grass re-pulling my leg that had started to feel just about normal. (How do you reinsure your leg mucking poop?!)
Then coming in the home stretch on the second loop we were cantering a manicured grass stretch parallel to the finish line where they were setting up the tent and lights for later. When she noticed the tent going up in the distance (it had to be a football field away!) she jumped and took a sideways jig mid-canter. I stayed on just fine but it pulled my leg once again and now it was back to bothering me. Im not whining about my discomfort- it was minor – but the weakness did affect my riding and with one side ‘off’ I struggled to know if I was even in my weight.
I struggled to switch diagonals again- one side was off and she felt it. Every switch she would slow imperceptibly for a moment as if to ask are you ok up there? Or hey that is not right can you switch back?
I wasn’t sure if I should just ride that day on the ‘good’ side or keep switching to help build the other back. I tried to work out why the bad side was so off- was it in my hip allignment or in my weight in that foot? In the end after miles of trying to fix it on my end I found that on one diagonal I focused on the left foot and the other diagonal the right foot and it seemed to begin to smooth out.
The other effect was at one point on the third loop I thought going up a hill (and the sun was out) she was getting a little tired, I thought I’d jog a little beside her – give her a break and change it up a few minutes. As soon as I hopped off and got started I remembered why my gym trainer said I was not allowed to run for at least 6 weeks.
Since I was off I decided to hand walk just a minute and was glad I did. We were about to cross under the blue ridge parkway and it was a tunnel. We’ve never done a tunnel. It wasn’t bad to try it on foot and she followed me just fine.
As I mentioned earlier we shared the road in some central areas near camp with everyone you can imagine! If we weren’t prepared for ‘everything’ before we sure are now: baby carriages, cars, motorcycles, bikes, runners, and a gaggle of segways (that kind of freaked me out) We passed cattle, pigs, goats and sheep over all kinds of bridges and the changes in pavement to brick was especially worrisome for her!
At one point we crossed under the freeway with loud semi trucks rumbling just above our heads. She had to think through some of them and I had to drive her with my leathers a few times, but she was solid for the most part. The worst was the jump while cantering by the finish tent. She even ended sharing the road pretty confidently with a biker (thanks Cathy! You’ve been training them about bikes for years as you ride by their pasture and wave to them.)
She had great hydration and gut sounds all day but she only drank when she was ready. She passed up many opportunities to drink but always grabbed a bite if she could (she could even grab a leaf branch on the go and sometimes would be seen carrying a small branch down the trail slowly working it into her mouth as she trotted along!). She did always drink eventually- however she did not pee until standing in line at the final vet check. It was light yellow but I had been slightly worried about her not peeing all day. I already stopped if I felt she was pulling off trail and gave her a chance. And she had 3 holds to go as well. She just didn’t pee! (For those that know us she actually pooped at a trot this ride (thanks Elise for telling me she was pooping!) That is huge for me considering she’s been known to stop the whole procession on a single track and toss me forward to drop a load then start up again!)
Speaking of sweat, eating and drinking: I weighed her pre-race at vet in and she was 973. After her final check she weighed in at 946. She lost very little! Lynn said that was amazing.
I believe I owe the fact that she had such a good attitude at the finish and the next days to the Simple Equine Teaching work.
I asked a lot of her and we did it together, she wasn’t a soldier, she was my partner. I let her communicate to me and tried to listen to her questions through the day. I did everything I could to encourage her and rub her when she was moving nicely and help her when she was unsure (the brick/pavement, the segway mob, the sheep…) I never berated her for spooking, stumbling or taking a wrong turn against my direction but redirected and told her how amazing she was doing. She physically could have gone faster but she wasn’t mentally ready yet. (SET RULE #1: NEVER PUT YOUR GOALS AHEAD OF YOUR HORSE) She will grow into herself if I am patient.
I believe in her. I am proud of her. I want to always listen to her questions so she never becomes a horse-robot. She came to the gate in the pasture the next day to meet me. That says a lot to me.
Physically she is great. Her joints have a little fluid but not bad and not sensitive. Her back is not at all flinchy and tight. No rubs or galls anywhere. She seems hardly the worse for wear.
I believe in the concept that your greatest strengths are also your greatest weaknesses and as I approach 40 this year I am beginning to think about who I am and ways to balance my personality without losing what makes me ‘me’.
I don’t want to take advantage or hurt people in my life, but I also will not live someone else’s concept for me. I hope that my grittiness also makes me a friend, wife or daughter that hangs in there when things aren’t easy. I hope it gives me the strength to not say things in the moment I will later regret. I hope it helps me to choose the hard route when I don’t feel like it. To build something worthwhile in my professional life.
In choosing not to squash my grittiness even when it makes me not so easy to live with, I hope I chose to have a life lived in joy and exuberance for truly living- and to spread these to others. For not fearing to fail but choosing to learn. To also give others a second chance and a third and a fourth because I’ve also been there.
I hope it can be used for good and not only selfish purposes.
Meanwhile Khaleesi rests up for the next two weeks and I turn my attention to work and travel to visit my mom (and attend a Buck Brannaman clinic!).
She needs to be ready for the next ride which will be the OD. The beast of the East. Registration paperwork goes in the mail today for the Old Dominion 50 in June. It should be a more challenging ride, but she is ready.
That girl has grit.
A whole day’s worth of pictures… I’ll include some here:
Final interview with the athlete.