[Disclaimer: As I write this post, I do so knowing that my husband may veto its publication. While he grudgingly tolerates my it-sounds-over-the-top-to-say “public” persona, he’s a pretty private guy, and while I might be okay sharing with the world where I peed behind a bush in Vermont, being the subject of a blog post might cause a nay vote. We’ll see.]
My close personal friend Oprah says that everyone has a story.
Without question everyone who rides a horse 100 miles in one day, on what is arguably the toughest 100-mile endurance course in the world, the Old Dominion 100, renowned for its rocks, its heat, its humidity, and its unrelenting climbs and descents — they have a tale to tell.
It was not Richard’s idea to ride the OD 100. It was mine.
He loves the Vermont ride, and rode his first 100 there on Sarge last year.
But over the course of the now eleven years that the two have been competing, I’ve always believed the OD course was right up Sarge’s alley. He’s a mountain goat of a horse, able to climb nimbly over rocks and boulders without slowing, undaunted by huge climbs, able to make time on hard pack with his Amish road buggy trot, and possessed of a work ethic I’ve frankly never encountered in a horse. In short, and I say it repeatedly, Sarge is a rock star.
I’d suggested the OD 100 to Richard, I don’t know, perhaps 47 times and this year he said ‘yes.’ With an important out. As long as it wasn’t too hot. (A prophetic man might have said ‘as long as it isn’t too humid.’)
I crewed for my friend Mary Coleman and her famous heat-challenged Morgan, Hawk, in the 75 on this course several years ago, and still recall glancing at the outdoor thermometer on my Volvo at midnight as I drove back to camp. Ninety-six degrees. Epic.
[I still contend this was all Mary’s fault for having made up t-shirts for her crew. “OD 75. Done By Dark.” She and Hawk finished with a few minutes to spare just before 1 am.]
Sarge is half Morgan. Neither he nor Richard are big fans of the heat and humidity.
Richard is a beautiful natural rider, smart and resourceful and able to pace appropriately to leave some ‘gas in the tank’ at the end of a ride.
He came to horses later in life than some. He read about the Tevis 100 mile ride in Equus before I met him, and opted to buy a three year old unstarted rescued Arabian stallion (yes, intact). I met him at the barn where I taught a few dressage lessons on weekends. The stallion got gelded, Rich climbed a steep learning curve, we fell in love and married, and the rest is history — that gelding, Shantih, 24, competed in Endurance and is a retiree at our farm today.
Richard has a couple of crosses to bear. One that those close to us understand, but not quite. It is one that much of our endurance family is entirely unaware of, largely because Richard is not one to share or whine or ask for special favors or frankly, even acknowledge it.
It is a rare genetic condition called Pachyonychia Congenita.
Of course you’ve never heard of it. It’s that rare.
This short video does an artful job describing it: Pachyonychia Congenita
Of course I’ve done a lot of reading about the disorder. As a child, especially, Richard went to a lot of doctors. He was subjected to a lot of tests.
The words that best describe what Richard goes through were found in some written summary somewhere.
Richard is in exquisite pain pretty much all of the time, more so when he is walking, or there is any pressure on the skin of his feet.
It is not neuropathy, it is not orthopedic. There is no pharmaceutical fix short of narcotics and Richard eschews that path. The hour or day after a ride when fellow riders or ride veterinarians see Richard limping and comment on it, assuming he’s sore from the ride, we’ve learned to brush them off with a light-hearted comment.
“He looked bad before it started.”
“You should see the horse.”
It’s Grade 3 and if he were to be vetted like the horses, he’d never get to start an endurance ride.
On top of that and likely related, Richard developed Type 1 diabetes a few years ago. Unlike Type 2 diabetes, which is related to genetics and lifestyle and diet, adult-onset Type 1 (often called “juvenile diabetes”) is considered to be a result of an auto-immune response (or in some cases chronic pain).
What is humbling to me, and objectively remarkable about my husband’s response to these challenges is that he is a force of nature rather than a victim. He is a workaholic by nature, never one to use his pain as an excuse; in fact, he accomplishes more in a given day than a small army.
His favorite expression is “I can rest when I die.”
While the diabetes diagnosis was a challenge at first, he exhibits incredible self-control with his diet. Our general practitioner hugs him during his check-ups because he is such a model patient.
I’m outing him when I share these challenges with you. With the exception of those who have noted the painful walk, and those in our inner circle, I don’t think our endurance riding community has a clue as to Richard’s story.
So let’s just say that Old Dominion presented some significant obstacles for Richard.
Unlike Vermont, the holds were set up such that sometimes riders would not have ready access to their crews. There was no on trail crewing. There was a “gate and go” as part of a twenty mile section of trail with only a skeleton staff manning the water tanks and keeping track of riders and their horses.
A week or so before the ride, Kathy Broaddus and Richard decided they’d try riding together if the horses paced well as a pair, and I’d help get Kathy’s crew items out to the holds where I was able.
I had a good feeling about the pairing. Both Rich and Kathy are pretty quiet riders, both pace in a similar way and have similar philosophies about the sport. They share a lot in common, including their taste in extraordinary life partners.
I joked with Kathy that she should force feed Richard a Lifesaver if he seemed out of it, or slurred his words, or had trouble doing mathematic equations — these are classic signs of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. She retorted that she planned to do other more embarrassing things to him if he got woozy but I knew, below the humor, he was in good hands. Not that I thought Rich would need it; he’s pretty dialed-in with regard to taking care of his blood sugar levels.
The OD staff accommodated us with kindness and empathy. I was allowed to come to a hold to ensure Richard had his testing kit to check his sugar levels, and the manager at the gate-and-go graciously toted some food out to Richard so he could get a substantial meal between “real” holds.
The day dawned muggy but with a bit of a breeze. Each hold of the morning, Bird Haven (15 miles) and Laurel Run (16 miles later) went seamlessly. Good crew spots, excellent pulse-downs by both Sarge and Fuji (Kathy’s horse), and vet cards with all As for both horses.
I’ve been crewing for Richard for a long time, so each of us knows the drill. Over the years we’ve each found our niche, not only in our sport, but in life. A division of labor, if you will. At home, Rich takes care of stuff, I take care of things that live, eat and breathe.
At rides, Rich’s job at the holds is to take care of himself, with me ensuring everything he needs is close by to limit time on his feet — test kit, a variety of low-carb snacks, drinks that won’t interfere with his blood sugar, ibuprofen, electrolyte capsules (we like Hammer Nutrition Enduralytes), and Tagamet to prevent tummy upset from the meds.
My job is to take care of the horse, get him vetted, ensure he eats well and gets cool, all of that “crew” stuff, with an occasional reminder (aka nag) to be sure Rich is eating and drinking enough.
By Bucktail, as we set up and waited for them, the breeze had given up, but the overcast skies kept the extreme heat at bay. In a case of cosmic timing, the sun came through the clouds as Rich and Kathy came into the hold, revealing that their crew had opted to set up on the sunny rather than the shady side of the road. Ugh, crew error! We quickly remedied that, took over most of Sarah Jack’s crewing space before she arrived (thankfully), and laughed over my apparent ineptitude.
Rich’s feet were sore enough at this hold that he opted to tack up early and ride Sarge down to the porta-potty before their out time.
He never once complained.
Kathy, who had critical help from her friend Beth Marshall (who was crewing a 100 for the first time), was incredibly self-sufficient all day long. In fact, she and I had a clear understanding that I would only help her upon request, and that she would be clear if she needed help with anything. And that’s how it worked. At most, I think I helped “catch” and straighten a saddle on the opposite side of her horse when Kathy re-tacked a few times. Lent some of our hay when Fuji was searching for OHF (aka Other Horse’s Feed, a favorite for many horses at a ride). Easy peasy.
It was a bit past dinner time by the time the foursome hit the Little Sluice hold at Mile 65.5; Rich noted that it was a good thing he’d gotten a substantial snack run out at the gate-and-go. He’d needed it.
There was some ominous thunder as the hold time wrapped up at Little Sluice. Still, the air was close, and I spent most of the time Sarge ate cooling him with the very last of our ice water. Rich wanted his rain jacket. I poo-pooed the request, but Kevin Pfoertsch grabbed it for him on his way out and as we passed Kathy and Richard on the forest road out of the hold, the skies opened and I laughed to myself.
Damnit, the rider was right, wife was wrong.
Well, once in a 100 miles was not so bad.
It was getting dark, and I was grateful to follow a two-person crew to the next spot, as those curvy dark roads and tricky turns would have been rough to navigate while reading the crew directions.
Lauren Run was open to crews this time around and I was able to pull our crew truck right up to where our muck tubs were stashed. (This location had also been where Hold 2 was held.) We had tons of ice staged there, enough to share some with other crews and for me to pour a nice tall Mean Patti Sippie Cup (thanks Mollie Krumlaw-Smith!) full of Diet Pepsi. (Sure, my doctor calls it poison. I call it Nectar of the Gods on such occasions.)
Dean Hilliard helped me move some things around. He’d worked yeomen at this spot all day, not only as an ambulance driver, but moving water, helping riders, anything that needed done. We had a lovely moment where we got to listen to whipper-wills calling in the night. Hurry up and wait, the art of crewing, with magical moments springing up from time to time between the tossing about of water bottles and sponges and syringes and slushies.
It wasn’t long before I saw Sarge’s green glow sticks bouncing down the road to the in-timer. This late in the ride, the horses are typically starving, and Sarge was no exception. He pulsed down rapidly and we walked up the hill to get the horses vetted. CRI 64/64; we promised to cool the horses as they ate, but we hadn’t wasted a single moment. Horses looked great; riders still happy. The day continued to run just as planned, virtually without hiccups. This was a short 30-minute hold and boy, it went fast. Sarge never stopped eating.
We set out for Bird Haven again. First hold of the day and the last. I snuck into a parking spot vacated by a front runner’s crew and once again set up ice water, feed, Rich’s cooler and his stuff beside his chair, and had an actual moment to sit and check in on Facebook to update our friends. Lindsey brought me a cup of hot chicken noodle soup, which tasted heavenly.
I contemplated changing my clothes, but it was pushing midnight — what was the point? I did grab a Wet One to scrub some of the mud and ick off my arms and legs, but Beth and I were fantasizing out loud about getting back to our trailers for a hot shower.
This was a mere 20 minute hold, 6.5 miles from the finish. In they came, Sarge even more hungry if that was possible. We managed to pulse down and vet through with tack on, saving a few valuable minutes. Lindsey held Sarge’s bucket to his mouth so I could sponge him a bit (more judiciously now, no one wants to chill warm muscles this late into a ride) and massage him here and there. I have no idea if it helped but it made me feel useful.
I asked Rich if he’d eaten something while I was vetting Sarge. He told me he’d had a V-8. When I started to suggest food options, he waved me off. Having ridden 100s, I know how that goes. There often comes a point where your digestive system rebels and the notion of chewing and swallowing becomes herculean. Rich was there.
Still, no complaints. No whining.
Off they went, and we headed to camp.
All day long I’d schemed and agonized over minimizing Rich’s steps. At Bird Haven, I told him to get his finish time, and just ride Sarge to the trailer, where he could dismount, I could strip Sarge’s tack and take him up for vetting. We had a good parking spot and that would mean Rich could avoid any walking.
Okay. Good. Done.
I know I cannot fathom Richard’s pain. I suspect few people can.
There is a concept in chronic pain and illness called The Spoon Theory.
Read more about it here: The Spoon Theory
I knew Richard was running out of spoons. Actually, I knew he’d run out of spoons quite some time before. He was riding on pure will.
At that hold I rubbed Rich’s shoulders and whispered in his ear, all teary. “You humble me.”
Poor Rich. His wife is a bit of a baby.
Off to camp. I puttered and fussed, emptied some items out of the truck, prepped for Rich’s return, laughed with Dawn and Lani and Lindsey and others. The 50s and LDs had mostly gone to bed. It was largely quiet but the smell of DMSO was lingering in the air, so strong sometimes I tasted it rather than caught its scent.
So many treated horses, so many pulls. Our day had been so smooth, I was shocked to hear just how rough a day it had been on the horses and the treatment vet, Lynne Johnson. Our sport can be risky to horses and there but for the grace of God went our two that day.
I set hay out for Sarge and Dean helped me move a muck tub of fresh water into his paddock. I put a cold Kilian’s Red in the cup holder of Rich’s folding chair, alongside the bottle of BCAA capsules. Beer is so high in carbs he rarely drinks it, but I suspected it would taste good to him, and well worth it.
The riders just before Richard and Kathy came in so I started lingering a little closer to the finish line, watching and waiting. I was a bit crushed to not be waiting at the finish line to see them cross, but this plan was more efficient. Smarter.
And then Kathy came in with Fuji, but no Rich or Sarge.
Typical rider shorthand speak. “Sarge lost a shoe and he’s on the gravel road, walking in. Can you take him a boot?”
*#(&! “Is Rich down hand-walking?”
I’m not sure Kathy answered.
Lindsey and I grabbed our shoeing kit, a 0.5 Glove and got in her SUV to head up the road. We found them quite close to the finish line, left shoe off, nails sticking out of Sarge’s foot.
Richard, stubborn through and through, no doubt frustrated and worried — Sarge was ouchy at a walk on the road and we still had a soundness exam at the final vetting — refused to let us help.
He pulled nails. He rasped the edges. He tried to wrestle on the boot.
I sent Lindsey back to camp for the box full of boots and Rich walked Sarge in, carrying the shoeing kit bag, determined. I walked beside him. He crossed the finish line hand-walking Sarge. Not the glorious image of victory I know we’d both hoped for that night. 9th place.
The size 1 boot fit and we stripped tack at the driveway, me praying silently that Sarge would be sound enough for a completion. He’d looked better with the boot at a walk, but the soundness judging was, of course, at a trot. Thank heavens the footing was lovely soft grass, clover to be specific.
Art was all smiles and chatty as I brought Sarge over. I was less so, worried.
Within two strides of picking up the trot I knew it was all going to be okay. Sarge’s head was perfectly even beside me, he was willing and forward. He was sound. He was also wildly distracted by all of that luscious clover at his feet.
The crew would get a C- on this trot out (but I think Sarge got an A) for failing to keep the horse’s head up as he rounded the pylon. Sarge managed to snatch a mouthful of clover. From there it was a battle and one could almost see Sarge calculating whether he could eat and trot at the same time. He certainly tried.
“Good boy, good boy!” I was patting him even before we came to a halt. I knew we were all good. I was pleased that Rich got to see it.
I cried. I always do at 100s.
We stuck around to graze and giggle with Kathy whose Fuji completed in fine form as well. I bitched about my stubborn husband while he walked back to the trailer, only allowing Dawn to carry his tack because I believe she threatened his life.
I cannot possibly understand.
We laughed with our friends until it was almost dawn, me shushing from time to time as we got louder, keeping one eye on Sarge, icing his legs, making sure his muscles stayed warm and listening to him munchmunchmunch on hay and then doze, recounting tales of the 50 ridden and the 100 crewed, and volunteering and the crazy lady who was driving around, entirely confused it seemed, all day, trying to get from Point A to Point B as a volunteer. [It seemed only poetic that we watched volunteers lift her little car out of the ditch she drove into in camp the next morning; everyone has their challenges.]
I forgave Rich; he forgave me. We do the best that we can to take care of each other. And ourselves. Sarge for his part, continued to look like a million bucks. The horse, I’ve learned, is the stronger part of most teams. Sarge carried us all.
We all have a story. 100 mile riders certainly do, and motivations as different as each of their tales.
Their crews do too.
And this is mine. About someone who I (admittedly subjectively) believe to be just a little super-extra exceptional, his talented horse and a little 100 miles of trail that they call the Old Dominion.
(Top photo by Kate Rogers, Sweet Meadow Arts; OD on-trail photo by Becky Pearman Photography.)