I buzzed around camp getting everything ready while Gem ate her breakfast.. With a full Camelbak slung over my shoulder, we wandered over to the start. The one thing I really need to get used to in the SE is the pre-ride check in. In the MW the trails just opened and off you went as you saw fit, but down here everyone has to be at the start 15 minutes before. I stayed on foot until the trail opened and then watched as everyone scampered out of camp and down the trail, each with their own dreams, fears and goals in mind.
|All tacked up and ready to go|
Once the last rider was out of sight, I hopped on up and headed down the trail. All three loops began on a paved road covered in loose gravel and immediately headed down a short, steep downhill. I wanted a controlled trot. Gem wanted to gallop. I won. Briefly.
At the bottom of the hill was a sharp 90 degree left hand turn into the woods. Fearing that people might miss it, the RM stationed herself in front and guided everyone in. We turned left. And then the world exploded. The best I can figure is that Gem took the opportunity to ditch the annoying fly that was holding her back. She leaped over a large rock spanning the entrance, dropped her right shoulder and bucked. I, very ungracefully and very much not happily, flew over her right shoulder and landed with a thud in the mud. Right in front of the RM. She came running over and helped hold my idiot mare as I just about as ungracefully re mounted. What a start to the day!
Well, I figured that the worst was probably over with now and it was a great way to leave an impression 100 yards away from the starting line. Then I remembered that she dumped me during our first 25 together (although that was around mile 20 or so). I didn't recall agreeing to this tradition.
As we moved on down the trail I was tense, slightly miffed (ok...very miffed) and my mood wasn't much improved from the day before. It was looking like a long 50 miles. I made note of the trail as well. What had been described as "beginner friendly, few rocks and no hills" was panning out to be very much the opposite. The trail was strewn with palm sized rocks, slick mud and deep erosion lines from the previous week's rain. The rocks were easily displaced and Gem was slipping and sliding a lot more than I was comfortable with. She was locked onto the horses that she knew were up ahead and I spent the first 2 miles fighting to keep her to a dull roar and praying that we wouldn't fall in the slick conditions.
|Blurry, but there are a ton of rocks, mud and slick leaves|
Two miles in we caught up with the riders in front of us. They asked if we wanted to pass, but I was happy to stay behind and asked if they would mind us tagging along at a safe distance for a while. They didn't and Gem and I settled in about 2 horse lengths behind them and cruised along.
Unfortunately, their pace was much faster than I had wanted and I quickly became worried that we wouldn't be able to keep this up for very long. At the 3 mile mark we found the creek that we would follow for the next 5 miles and they peeled off to offer water to their mounts. I decided to push ahead to see if I couldn't create a bubble of our own and focus on a more sedate pace, but they quickly caught us again when Gem stopped to drink/stall at a puddle.
I sighed and settled back in behind them mentally preparing to get pulled at the first hold. I didn't see how we could keep this pace up for 50 miles when we didn't train at such a pace, the footing was slick in most spots and deep in others and her bare feet were bound to get destroyed with all these rocks. And then the hills (that weren't supposed to exist) began. They were blissfully short, but I don't think I've taken Gem up anything as steep as those before. They were near vertical and she huffed, puffed and did her best to propel us upwards while the rocks slid out from under her straining feet.
|I got off a to hand walk her up the extremely steep hills. It helped to stretch my legs out too|
We sped away along the trails and honestly the first 10 miles are a blur filled with mental decay on my part as I yelled and screamed internally at the pace, the footing, the hills and life in general. I was unhappy even though I was spending a beautiful morning out on gorgeous trails with new friends and if that kept up we would definitely be pulled at 20 miles.
But then something magical happened at mile 10. I got my head out of my own ass. I don't know what finally forced me to do it, but I am sure the unflappable husband riding ahead making comments about how much he liked Gem and the solid riding of his wife had a lot to do with it. Whatever it was, it stuck with me the rest of the ride and I relaxed, breathed deep and enjoyed myself for the first time since I had left home. Gem was enjoying the pace quite a bit (much to my surprise) and kept right up with the other two. We leaped frogged our way down the trail with me leading a ways here and there, but mostly I tried to stay back and not intrude on their day. We talked some, kept quiet a lot and just kept going forward. Gem drank at every single water puddle, stream crossing and creek and ate all the grass she could shove in her mouth along the way.
Before I knew it, the first 20 mile loop was behind us and we were approaching camp.
The only part of the entire trail system that I was not fond of happened to be a part we would do 8 times that day. When you came in off the trail you had to go down the gravel/paved road about a quarter mile to a large gazebo that housed the timers, then walk back down that same road to vetting. Once the hold was up you had to go back to the gazebo to start the next loop which took you back past the vetting and down the steep hill to the woods. It was a lot of time on that darn paved/gravel road.
Anyway...the first hold was here and I quickly dropped tack. Even with the fast pace, Gemmie was not sweaty so I opted not to sponge her with the frigid water to avoid cramping. I didn't have a heart rate monitor, but knew she had to be down to at least the 64 mark, so I hopped in line for the vet. She pulsed in at 40! The volunteer taking pulses was very impressed. Unfortunately, the LD riders came in off their first loop at the same time, so I wasted about 10 minutes of my hold waiting for the vet.
I walked up to the vet and waited with bated breath. She had slipped and slid all day on those rocks, but she didn't feel off at all. She got a lot of A's but B for muscle tone due to a stiff left hip and B for skin tenting which I found odd with how much she drank all morning. She trotted out with A's for impulsion, her CRI* was 40/40 (everyone at the vetting area remarked how amazing that was and I got the best CRI of the day at that point) and we got the green light to do another 20 miles.
I had already committed us to going back to camp for the holds and I don't know if that was smart or not. We sauntered back and she scarfed down her food, ate her elytes and drank a half a bucket of water. I was soooo excited to see her eat!! She has never eaten anything at all, not even hay, at a ride before, but ever since that 5 hour debacle of a conditioning ride, she eats when offered. I ate some shaved rotisserie chicken breast which hit the spot, refilled my camelback (I had emptied all 2 L on the first loop) and eventually we walked back to vetting to tack up and head out. I met up with my new friends again and we all left right smack on time. It made my heart sing!
The second loop was basically the first one in reverse with only one small section changed. Gemmie was reluctant to leave camp and I began the loop a little worried that she was too tired to continue on. We lagged behind our companions for the first 3 miles, but then Gem locked back in on the task at hand, found a second wind and powered down the trail like we hadn't already gone 20 miles that morning.
I remained calm and focused myself and noted that the trails had definitely improved since the morning. The turning of the ground by the hooves and the sun coming out had really dried most of it and the second time around the ground was much less slick. The rocks were still present and the hills were still steep, but my perspective was changed and instead of stressing about things I couldn't change, I relaxed and enjoyed the sun on my face, the brilliantly colored fall leaves, the feel of my horse powering down the trail beneath me and the company of new friends.
There was one added section to this trail that required you to follow the creek bed. We all laughed at the description of "beginner friendly" trail as our horses plunged belly deep in the cold water and walked through the middle of the creek up stream to follow the trail. All three horses handled it well with the confident gelding/husband team leading the way.
|Walking up the creek bed|
|Sorry it is so blurry|
The day definitely warmed up as promised and soon I was wishing I had ditched my vest back at camp. Gemmie was covered in sweat as well and we stopped more often to offer water at the puddles. Unfortunately, as well as Gem drank during the first loop she decided to not drink at all this time around. I don't know if she was water logged from before or just the fact that she knew exactly where we were and wanted to just get it over with and end up at camp, but by the end of the loop I was getting more and more concerned at her lack of drinking.
We covered the second 20 miles at about the same pace as the first and pulled back onto the gravel/paved road about 2 1/2 hours after leaving. This time I sponged her neck and front legs to help remove the sweat. There was no line at vetting, so we headed over and pulsed in at 40 again pretty much right off the trail. She went down to a B- in skin tenting and an A- in capillary refill which was better than I imagined with barely any water intake over 20 miles. She was still sound and happy, A for muscle tone this time and her CRI was 40/48. I talked a bit with the vet over that and she wasn't concerned. She said that it wasn't unusual for the CRI to spike if the initial pulse was that low to begin with. Still I was concerned, so after we got the ok to do the last 10 miles I stopped by the vendor trailer and bought a different type of elyte which I promptly shoved down her throat.
She ate, drank and rested back at camp and since we had our full 50 minutes this time I was able to lay a towel down and relax on the ground a bit while I ate and drank too. Still 50 minutes isn't much time and soon I needed to get back to vetting to tack up and head out one last time.
I promised Gem this was it as we made our way back to the gazebo to start our last loop. She had never been out 3 times before, so I was curious to see how she would react. The other two started out strong saying that they always forced their mounts into a canter on the last loop to wake them up early on. It worked for them, but Gem was not ready. The last 10 mile loop started down the paved hill, but then made a right hand turn and headed down a long gravel/dirt road before catching back up with the end to the first two loops. I watched as my crew got farther and farther ahead of us, but we had 4 hours to do 10 miles, so I didn't care.
I told Gem she could almost walk the whole thing if she needed to just as long as we made forward progress. After 2 miles, she once again perked back up and picked up a lovely 9 mph trot and we sailed down the trail.
This last 10 mile loop was magical for me. We were alone and while I enjoyed and needed the company early on, I really loved the solitude now. I took in the fading sun sparkling off the yellow and red leaves and the smile never left my face. When we were 6.5 miles out Gem started to slow down again and I told her it was just like our training loop back at home. We got this. This was easy.
From there on out I let her walk the steep hills, but we trotted the flats and easier hills. I even asked for short canter sections on the flats to loosen up her back and get her stretching out. I didn't want to over push her, but also didn't want her cramping up or becoming sore by taking too long out there. "Never hurry, never tarry" is my motto most of the time out on trail. With only a few miles to go we came across some LD riders who were turtling their first 25 mile ride. I slowed down to say hello and see how they were doing, but then asked Gem to keep trotting on down the trail. To my surprise and satisfaction she did so readily without even a single fuss.
Before long we saw the finish line on the back side of the gazebo and crossed it at 8 hours and 8 minutes. A heck of a time for our first 50!!! I was elated, proud of my amazing mare and extremely tired and sore. She felt good and strong under me and could have kept going if I asked.
We headed to vetting where I dropped tack one final time and we pulsed in at 40 yet again. The pulse taker was extremely impressed with us all day and so was the vet. Gem hadn't drank more than a sip or two on that loop either, so I wasn't surprised when her skin tenting stayed at a B- and her cap refill dropped to a B. She trotted out sound and her CRI? 40/36!!! The vet was amazed, remarked that she was definitely a keeper (is there a 100 in our future??) and said not to worry about the other markers. If she had been dehydrated there was no way her CRI would be 40/36 after a decently paced 50 miles. I laughed about the 100 saying that I had to survive a few seasons of 50s first. I was still concerned, so I spoke with the vet about ways to improve her drinking and the only thing we could think of was the fact that I don't feed a wet mash. More on that another day.
We made our way back to camp and she settled right in with her grain, hay and gulped and entire bucket of water down. I ate a little more, and then wandered back to vetting to close down shop before I got too sore to move. I refuse to make Gem carry even her saddle back after dragging me around all day (I won't even after a LD) and so I forced my aching muscles to work once more as I lugged all her tack, the buckets and saddle rack home. I made one final trip to wrestle with that stupid pop up and finally I was all finished and able to sink into my chair and not move.
|Gem 50 miles later, a little tucked up but looking great|
I know this is already too long, but I just have a little more to add. Friday night was a catered dinner and I ended up sitting with the same people I had Thursday night. Only this time I was in a better head space, so I was talkative and friendly. And you know what? I had a wonderful time chatting it up with those around me about the day. Two people had finished the LD, one had rider optioned at the first hold of the 50 and two others were going to do rides on Saturday. We all laughed, looked at our ride pictures (I bought both of mine and will scan them in soon) and shared stories of the day. I felt at home, content and when I went to bed that night it was with a smile on my face and dreams of our next 50 dancing across my closed eye lids.
|A beautiful sunset to end the day|
* CRI - Cardiac Recover Index. Take initial pulse, examine horse, trot out 150 feet or so and come back. Retake pulse 1 minute later to see how well the hear tis recovering from that minimal exertion. Should remain same or maybe 2-4 pulses above. If much higher, can be a sign of metabolic stress.