July 2, 2009 -- Teamwork proved key to the successful running of the 35th Old Dominion Endurance Rides, held this June in the Appalachian Mountains along the Virginia/West Virginia state line. Throughout the ride, teamwork made the difference: between horses, riders and crew, between ride management, veterinarians and farriers, and between radio operators, drag riders and emergency rescue personnel.
By June 12, 158 horse and rider teams had arrived at base camp outside Orkney Springs, a quaint little town located at the foot of Great North Mountain, part of the George Washington National Forest. Of the 33 100-mile teams who started on the humid morning of June 13, 24 completed. Of 69 55-mile teams who started, 56 completed. And the 25-mile limited distance ride had 43 starters and 40 finishers, a 93 percent completion rate.
Since its evolution from the U.S. Calvary Mounted Service Cup, the Old Dominion (OD) endurance ride stands out as a true test of teamwork between horse and rider on a spectacular, but undeniably difficult trail. In addition to the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) and Eastern Competitive Trail Ride Association (ECTRA) sanctioning, the 55- and 100-mile distances of this year's event also served as the Arabian Horse Association Region 15 Championship.
By June, the spring rains had pelted the Virginia landscape for several weeks, so trails were muddy and footing was slippery. The rain held off most of ride day, and ominous clouds rolled across the sky, bringing cool breezes and keeping temperatures in the low 80s. The air was thick with humidity that made pulsing down tough.
Trailmaster Gus Politis, assisted by several OD members, marked this year's trail. Old Dominion Endurance Rides, Inc., board member John Marsh said the 100-milers faced three major climbs: a 1500' climb to the top of Great North Mountain at mile 6, a 1600' climb to the top of Devil's Hole 40 miles into the ride, and a 1000' climb up Little Sluice Mountain 70 miles into the ride.
Marsh noted that the majority of trail consisted of rolling, forested terrain over a combination of trail and Forest Service roads with frequent elevation changes of 300 to 400 feet. Riders enjoyed the display of mountain laurel in full bloom, along with ample streams for drinking and plenty of grass on trail for horses.
Veterinary checks at five locations revealed scene after scene of the incredible synchronization between riders and crews, as well as ride management, station heads, timers, volunteers, vets, farriers, and traffic control.
Shortly after 9:30 p.m., OD member Claire Godwin, DVM, on her 10-year-old Arabian gelding EH Ahmose was first to finish the 100 miler in 12 hours and 17 minutes. "Ahmose is a cantering horse, which held him in good stead on this ride," said Dr. Godwin, who was thrilled with her first 100-mile win on a horse who had never before done a 100.
Dr. Godwin added, "The trail was challenging, but doable--a blast. The miles melted away since the scenery was so gorgeous." The Godwin family epitomized teamwork: daughter Katie crewed for her mom and husband Pete assisted with trail marking and filling water tanks at key points along the trail.
Stagg Newman and Ruth Anne Everett rode with Godwin most of the day, with teamwork and sportsmanship going hand-in-hoof. All three watched each others' horses for problems and Newman even lent Dr. Godwin an hoof boot when Ahmose lost a shoe.
Everett's Anglo-Arab Razz crossed the finish second and earned the best condition award. Katherine Shank on WindDancer-Bey was top finisher in the 100-mile Calvary Division, which precludes receiving any outside assistance. Shank also received the Old Dominion Trophy for the team that demonstrates optimum performance based on the horse's post-ride recovery and condition.
In the 55-miler, Bonni Hannah finished first on Rezus Respite. Kara Lee Thomas finished second on AF Big Bucks. And junior Hunter Green was third on Gotcha Covered PW. Veterinarian Meg Sleeper's horse Syrocco Gabriel received best condition.
As with most endurance rides, not everything went as planned. Two situations demonstrated the sound leadership, solid teamwork, and invincible spirit of OD ride management, who handled each situation with urgency, care and professionalism.
Around 5:00 p.m., one 55-mile team was unaccounted for--an unwelcome discovery considering that night was approaching and the mountainous terrain had intermittent cell phone coverage.
OD ride management initiated a search and rescue operation with the Shenandoah County Emergency Response Team, Orkney Springs Volunteer Fire Department, volunteer radio operators and drag riders. For six hours, drag riders, motorcycle riders and ATVs combed the marked trails and side trails.
Just before midnight, drag rider Lynn Golemon located the missing horse and rider unharmed, at the Bucktail vet check in West Virginia. Golemon was driving her rig back from the Big 92 vet check when she heard the rider whistling to attract her attention.
The rider had missed the sign indicating a left turn for the 55-milers leaving the second vet check, instead continuing straight on the 100-mile trail and eventually arriving at Bucktail. Since all of the 100-milers had long since passed through, the check was closed, but fortunately the rider remained in place until help arrived.
In another incident, one of the 100-mile horses quit in a remote location between the 82-mile gate-and-go and the 94-mile veterinary check. Drag riders Karen McMullen and Jamie Bladen discovered the horse and rider about 3:30 a.m. The horse was exhibiting dehydration symptoms, so they administered field first aid using a squirt bottle to get water into the horse, and offered moral support to the rider.
McMullen used her multi-use radio service (MURS) radio to contact base camp, guide emergency vehicles to the site, and confer with the treatment vet. Extraction maps developed by John Marsh proved invaluable in pinpointing the rider's probable location and head drag rider Zoe Sollenberger hiked in to assist.
As daylight approached, OD members cleared the narrow trail with chainsaws so a rig could reach the horse. Treatment vet Lynne Johnson, DVM, checked the horse before releasing it for the ride back to base camp around 7:00 a.m.
Co-ride manager Nancy Smart said, "The safe extraction of this horse showed how important drag riders are, how critical radio operations are, and how lucky we were that John Marsh developed extraction maps of the entire course."
AERC Vice President Laura Hayes, who rode the OD 100 in 2008 and volunteered this year remarked, "The magnitude of coordination to put on a continuous 100 mile ride is incredible, and the Old Dominion club does it with class. Kudos to a great group of dedicated endurance riders."
OD Vice President and co-Ride Manager Joe Selden said, "The tremendous success of this year's OD was due to the terrific team effort from all involved." That teamwork started with the ride management and involved a variety of participants, including the Shenandoah County Emergency Response team, members of the Northern Virginia Trail Riders motorcycle club, who checked all of the trails ahead of the riders to ensure markers remained in place, the volunteer fire department, who prepared several excellent meals as well as assisting with the search for the lost 55-mile rider, head vet Nick Kohut, DVM, who led a top-notch team of 13 veterinarians, and 10 amateur radio operators, who ensured ride management had radio communications with station heads, vets, and drag riders, and finally Henry Mulbauer, who timed the finishers until the wee hours of the morning as he has every year since the inception of the OD ride.
Zoe Sollenberger led an indomitable team of 18 Old Dominion Drag (ODD) Riders, many who are wilderness first aid trained and amateur radio licensed, and three who are search and rescue trained. The ODD Riders proved, once again, that drag riders are the unsung heroes of endurance. OD board members Mary Howell and Bonnie Snodgrass coordinated more than 30 volunteers serving as timers, vet scribes and pulse and respiration (P&R) takers.
Finally, all OD participants owe a big thanks to OD board member Gus Politis, who single-handedly built the quarter-mile gravel road, now called Politis Boulevard, that runs the length of base camp, greatly reducing the chance of trucks and trailers getting stuck. Politis coordinated the movement of several hundred dump truck loads to the site, spreading the gravel between loads--a gargantuan effort by a dedicated man that greatly improved this critical aspect of the Old Dominion.