Day 1

Race Day One, Start to Urtuu #1. Horse; “Tigger.”

Having put down a charitable helping of vodka (5 or 6 shots worth in a coffee mug) intelligently followed by a gratuitous amount of warm Tiger beer the previous night, I awoke in less than prime condition. The morning air was rent with nerves and excitement and the electricity of the adventure we were all about to embark upon wiped the body aches from my vodka-contorted sleep right away. It was time to finalize our gear and weigh it all in. Luckily the morning was cool and Adam and I decided to wear as much gear out on us as we could manage, knowing we would pay the price in the heat of the day (we did, I believe I made a substantive contribution that first morning to the eighteen pounds I would loose in ten days of racing). After making pain-staking last minute decisions on what not to bring (I discarded a tub of peanut butter and some honey that Sara Cuthburtson took off my hands and that I would later fantasize about a couple goat-ridden days into the derby) we were all weighed in! I took the opportunity to sleep off a little more of my headache and pillowed my head on my saddle, awaiting the inevitable. After a blessing, a quick overview of the course, and a lesson on how to hobble our horses Adam and I devised a plan to choose the quietest looking horses we could get. We knew that 48 riders jetting off from the start line had the potential for real chaos and we wanted to be able to stay together and not fall off. (Our only goal during the entire race was to finish and finish together, we never planned on setting any records). I assessed the quiet gelding being used for the hobbling demonstration and decided that if he was calm enough for this he was my horse. I also surmised that if the herders worked with him this often then he probably was fit as well, and he looked it. When we approached the horse line I zeroed-in on the tawny tiger-striped gelding, abandoning Adam to make his own choice. Once I delegated the tacking of him I found Adam trying to decide between two overly excited geldings and I realized we should probably switch horses- neither choice looked very calm, but it was too late, my horse was tacked with my gear and people were mounting and circling the line. I chose the younger looking gelding, he looked like he would enjoy the solid company of my gentle striped gelding I had lovingly decided to name “Tigger.” The name fit him well, he proved gentle but tenacious. After mounting up and watching some explosive incidents (In particular I can still see Sarah’s horse rearing straight skyward with her), I felt we had chosen well as our two geldings seemed to enjoy one another’s company well enough and neither of us experienced any fiery displays. Soon we were all headed towards the start line, Adam and I purposefully hanging back, determined not to loose one another in an explosive start. (This is also, by the way, the last time I saw Sam Jones). As we paced our horses back and forth waiting for the flags to drop and nearly 50 horses to begin a raucous charge we programmed our GPS’s and made a plan. It looked as though Adam’s horse would out-engine my own and I told him to just hang-on, I had confidence that Tigger would do my bidding and we planned that I would try to just follow him as it looked like I’d have more control. I also assumed GPS duty. In the rides that followed this was our plan. Whoever got the calmer horse was in charge of taking readings, unless it was me, and then Adam double-checked anyways because men are just that way. What seemed like both forever and no time passed and suddenly horses were exploding out past the start line. Adam and I continued to circle and only when the path was clear did we cautiously approach the scary flags that adorned the start line. Our horses leapt over the shadow of the flags above us and we allowed that momentum to let us surge forward. We were off! Our two geldings raced together across the steppe quickly passing the bulk of riders. We watched as several fits of bucking erupted to the left and right of us and we cringed as two separate riders were pitched in our wake, but our geldings plowed on, determined. One of the most exhilarating feelings in the world is going full-gallop side by side with another person (if you are special like me you envision something like the riders of Rohan charging forward into battle) and though the heat of the day was already washing over us, we couldn’t help but smile. After some time we found ourselves riding with Chris Berkers and the three of us were already becoming expert marmot-hole dodgers. As we neared the first horse station we stopped at a GPS designated well and a little Mongolian boy kindly and obligingly watered our horses for us, lifting a bucket into an improvised tire trough. I cringed at this point as my knees were already hurting and my problem bridle had already broken. I gingerly took my feet out of my too-short stirrups and tested this. Tigger was not a fan of my loose feet flailing about without a proper stirrup and he spooked forward with a warning. I waggled them experimentally until he gave up his jolts of dismay and I spent the rest of the day basically stirrup-less (to the varying chagrin of my three mounts) until I could spend the proper time adjusting them that evening. When my bridle broke at the crown mid-ride I leaned forward and hung on to the two pieces, an egregious act in Tigger’s eyes (he again showed his discomfort with a warning bolt) and mid uncontrollable canter I tied the pieces back together. I knew if I had to pull hard the bridle would come undone and come off and I thanked the stars that Tigger was not of the mind to put his head down and buck. About a kilometer out we slowed to a walk and I think we may have high-fived one another; we had made it to our first horse station. One down, twenty-seven to go!

 

Day 1, Urtuu 1 to Urtuu 2. Horse; “Dudley”

Riding into horse station one was a bit chaotic. We weren’t yet experts at the vetting process and were swept up in a barrage of commotion. Our horses came in with excellent heart rates and as soon as we had turned them back to the herders Adam was off to find food and I concentrated on fixing my bridle. (Adam was quite keen on the eating, while I lost weight due to an amalgamation of dehydration, jiardia-adjacent symptoms, and a lackluster appetite for meat comprised mainly of fat, he successfully gained weight over the duration of the derby). A roll of guerilla tape and a spare pack fastener later I had replaced the broken chin-strap and created a frankenstein bridle now consisting of untreated goat hide, tape, and new-age synthetic strap. (A combination that held up the entire derby but did not make it past the enterprising jaws of my dog upon my return home…). We decided that we had not yet mastered the art of choosing our own horses and asked the herders to pick two horses that would travel well together. We ended up with two fairly heavy, shaggy ponies. (I later decided that geldings with an overgrown mane probably hadn’t raced in awhile as the buzz cut is reserved for race horses and I began to pick accordingly.) As with every ride you get to really know your horse in the first twenty minutes and by minute twenty-one I had pinpointed my chestnut gelding with the perfect name. “Dudley.” It matched his lumbering gait and went well with the title ‘Deadly Dudley,’ as he occasionally chose to spin backwards and make bids for the previous horse station. The scenery was vastly changing. Whoever knew that scrub-land could be endowed with such a range of colors, textures, wildflowers, and treacherous horse-flipping holes? We had begun the morning in rocky grassland, galloped through red-tinged salt flats and were now in the middle of wild-west grass ranges. The wind was picking up and we could see storms swirling in the far distance. The grass rippled and undulated all around us and we were swallowed into its midsts. We spent a majority of this leg rambling along alone. Both of us were silent and contemplative as the wind made conversation impossible. For a short while we caught up with some derby riders, James, Jess, and Wendy I believe, and we raced one another happily until our groups eventually parted. We later rode with Katja and Anita as well. At the end of the ride a group of us coalesced and there were already stories about kicks to the face and untimely partings from the saddle. Our horses came in once again with an exemplarily heart-rate (by no means had they ever seemed to exert themselves in any way…) and we were quickly choosing new mounts. It was 5:30 when we rode in and a quarter after six by the time we left, so we had limited time to make it to our third urtuu before the 8:30 cut-off time.

 

Day 1, Urtuu 2 to Urtuu 3. Horse; “Dundee”
This time we emphasized ‘fast’ to the herders and they chose us two extraordinary mounts. I found myself looking at a lean, blue-eyed paint and I liked his rough exterior. His svelte build spoke of speed and his scars of ruthlessness; everything I would need to finish the leg in about two hours. He was also devilishly handsome and I dubbed him “Dundee,” right away… I think he could have taken a croc or two no problem! Adam got a strong bay and we were off at a run before we could orient ourselves! Luckily, a majority of riders were heading out at the same time and we hastened to keep their grueling pace; everyone felt the pressure to make the next station before penalties would begin to incur. About halfway through our ride we had the fortune of catching up with Amy Wallace-Whelan, an incredible endurance veteran who helped us estimate the pace of our horses down to the km per hour! As I strove to keep my horse in the sweet spot below over-exertion and just above too slow, Adam was struggling with his own, shall we say, ‘man issues.‘ For me this leg was a blast, I had a great, fast horse whose biddable nature was ready to give everything to get me there on time, but I think Adam suffered quite a bit. His horse was far from comfortable as mine was and the ground-covering trot was not doing him any favors. In an all-out effort to make it to the station on time we pushed a hard gallop for the last several miles and came in just under the wire at 8:34pm, giving us only eight minutes of penalty time (2 minutes per minute over 8:30 must be served and absolutely NO RIDING PAST 9pm!) In fact, the coordinates had changed since their input in our GPSs and a group of us rode past the station until we were flagged down by the crew, giving us time to dismount and walk our charges in. Dundee affectionally rubbed his face on my arm and I leaned on his neck as we walked in together. He was one of those really special horses and I did my best to convey gratitude for his valiant bursts of speed. He was the first ‘steppe rocket,‘ I had the privilege of riding. As I had this quiet moment of joy, having made it to the third horse station at the end of my first day of the Mongol Derby, I felt my heart swell Grinch-stole-christmas style and I think I laughed. As we lined up for vet-check and I scrubbed Dundee’s bald face I was shocked when his inner wild-horse took hold. He did not seem to like any other human but me. The vet approached and I nodded that he seemed very calm; an affirmation I quickly regretted as Dundee’s left hind leg shot out and cleanly swatted the vets arm with a swift crack as his stethoscope fell to the ground. The vet tried again and this time Dundee swung wide and aimed a near-miss double barreled kick. After about ten minutes of this I ended up holding the stethoscope to Dundee for the vet. It was a good reminder of what these horses were capable of. After Dundee and I parted ways Adam and I went to find lodging. Station three was packed that night and a second ger was erected to house us all. We had arrived later and so took residence in the makeshift ger. I found myself lamenting not having packed a bedroll or padding of any kind (a lament I would have every successive evening save two where we actually got a bed!) The ground was bare but the grass was at least soft inside the ger and with such a large group of us the 35 degrees outside didn’t permeate inside. I laid out my back-protector the long way and used my padded saddle as a pillow and was out for the count quickly. Funny how a full day in the saddle will put you to sleep just about anywhere!

 

 

 

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