Day 2

Race Day Two, Urtuu 3 to Urtuu 4
Horse; “Chip”

After much pointing and laughing at the pink lipgloss I was wearing and much admiration of my half chaps the herders had picked out two horses for Adam and I. We had just enjoyed my favorite breakfast of the derby; rice with goat milk, sugar, and raisins, and were only just beginning to feel the soreness a full day of riding had rent on our bodies. The day was bright and sunny and we felt optimistic, until we laid eyes on Adam’s mount. A volley of riders had risen at 5:30am with us and an ensuing crush to get a good mount had followed. When 7:30 hit everyone but the two of us (per usual) was ready to go. I was itching to ride out but Adam always had me methodically check my GPS and my gear (an annoying habit that I’ll begrudgingly admit saved us several times) and we eventually mounted up. His fat shaggy chestnut didn’t look promising, but I had gotten a stout little paint (my affinity for paints has grown beyond measure since the derby). I named the pretty grullo paint “Chip” as he embodied the good nature and beautiful lope of every nice work and show horse that I have known to don that very name (due to certain bloodlines a lot of horses in the late 90’s and early 2000’s had Chip as a barn name). We lit out after the other riders, both able to check our GPSs consistently as our horses were quite well behaved. For a short while we rode with Rose, she came up behind us after having had a night out, having not made Urtuu 3 the night before, and we exchanged stories quickly as we cantered along. Suddenly disaster struck. Most of the time the derby is incredibly bi-polar; amazing moments are often followed by gut-wrenching blows and about twenty minutes later, having survived the latest crisis, you are on top of the world once again; this was no exception. As I yelled something at Rose, a strange stuttering movement caught my peripheral vision. I turned just in time to watch Adam plummet to the ground and his saddle swing beneath his chubby steed. I pulled up and wheeled towards them asking if he was okay, my eyes never leaving the fat chestnut, afraid he’d use his freedom as a one-way ticket back to Station 3. Adam nodded and stood and we both slowly approached his horse. If the gelding could have managed it I think his face would have been a mask of surprise and concern, and he would have probably had beads of sweat coming off his chubby brow. Rose held her horse back long enough to make sure Adam was okay and then bid us farewell, there wasn’t much she could do anyhow. I think that is when Stumbles got his name. Apparently after a little galloping the chestnut had let out enough air to have a loose girth but he had fallen into a marmot hole and that’s when the saddle and Adam had come loose. As Chip and I approached Stumbles I felt that tense moment that any equestrian has felt when catching an elusive horse at pasture; that moment where you can almost grab them, but it is uncertain whether they will flinch and run at the last second. That moment that the horse knows this is his last chance for freedom. In slow motion Stumbles began to turn away but his inherent laziness and my desperation allowed me to just catch his lead rein. I let out a breath. I dismounted and the two of us righted the saddle and wrenched up the girth as Stumbles ballooned himself once more. We made it a point from then on to check our girths twenty minutes in to each ride. Apparently puffing out during girthing is a trade secret passed intracontinentally from horse to horse. We remounted and loped off, finding a short-cut through some rocky steppe hills and eventually coming out ahead of everyone that had left before us. As we returned to the valley we were once again dodging a multitude of marmot holes and I think this is when the Marmot Army jokes started. (Yeah it eventually got shortened to ‘Marmy,’ as hysteria set in on the days to follow). When you ride across sketchy ground you are told to whistle to alert your horse to pay more attention and the first few days I all but wore it out. I think all of my mounts thought I was quite the alarmist, whistling at every patch of uneven earth and every marmot-pocked quarry. Every horse you ride has a different approach on how to deal with marmot holes. Some jump the dodgy mounds of earth, others make theatrical leaps sideways around them, and others take the “Indiana Jones approach,” as I came to call it. Chip was the later. The Indiana Jones approach comes from a scene in my head where as some hanging bridge is collapsing Jones outruns its collapse with a sheer burst of speed and just barely makes it to the other side. I think physics is against this method and I field tested it a lot with Chip. As we came to one particularly large patch of holes I knew what was going to happen. I closed my eyes and leaned way back, legs braced in front of me as Chip shifted gears. The paint gelding propelled himself across the gap, determined to outrun the collapse of earth beneath him. We almost made it. I felt his face and withers plummeting into the cavernous depth of Marmot engineering beneath me. I felt his hindquarters bucking up behind me. I knew we were headed towards a somersault. I quickly wrenched up Chips head and threw my weight back onto his hindquarters as if he were bucking and he seemed to silently agree. Chip too began to counteract inertia. His legs flailed out and he shoved off his knees and up we went before we tipped forward and over. As we stumbled up I stopped to check his legs and give him a good pat; both our hearts were racing. I turned to see where Adam was just in time to watch his ingenious mount wander into the very hole we had just created. Stumbles really earned his name. As we continued Stumbles fell in about every hole he could find and we slowed to a trot to accommodate his drudgery. About 3 kms out from the next station I turned to say something to Adam and instead watched Stumbles drop into a deep marmot hole and pitch Adam over his withers and head. I repeated the earlier procedure, luckily catching the chestnut once more. Having made good time and worried about the state of the unfit Stumbles, we walked the rest of the way in and even dismounted when we were a little ways out, letting the chestnut catch his breath. We rode in first that morning, having outridden all the others who had left before us and we felt pretty good about ourselves. Chip passed the vet check and I made my way to the Urtuu to get more warm water (it was usually warm from being boiled) and some fried dough bits. My stomach was aching and I felt slightly dizzy but I ignored the feelings, too anxious to ride out with our lead. When Adam didn’t join me in the ger I came out to find him holding Stumbles, surrounded by vets. His face was stretched with concern. “His heart rate keeps going up,” he explained. “He’s pretty out of shape,” the vet told us and a herder translated that he should probably not have made it to the horse line. We ended up spending two and a half hours at the station making sure Stumbles was alright and watching him get a precautionary IV drip. He ended up alright but by then, we were a ways behind everyone who had left the station with us that morning. Luckily our break was not a complete waste as Adam, who had had to loose a tremendous amount of weight to come in under the 180 pound cut-off at 6’2”, had found that his compression shorts no longer fit him and had been contemplating needing to drop out due to a lack of support. Race photographer Richard Dunwoody came to the rescue and gave Adam a pair of his tighter briefs; an event that caused a lot of jokes and teasing but ultimately saved Team Fall Risk. I also realized at this point that my right arm no longer moved above waste level. Among many other aches and pains the constant movement of holding the reins in my right hand and letting it swing along with my horses’ movements had annihilated the muscles there. I truly could not lift the arm. As we rode out half of us was in a great deal less pain.

 

Race Day Two, Urtuu 4 to Urtuu 5 PART ONE
Horse; “Hovercraft”

This was one of the more eventful legs. The herders, eager to make up the misfortunate pick of a horse like Stumbles, had chosen us two incredible and fast mounts when we were finally ready to leave station four. They were as anxious as we were to catch us up to the riders ahead. As we emerged from the ger we found two chestnut geldings wheeling about with our tack already on them, a herder holding their bridles impatiently. The littler chestnut pranced and Adam’s horse spun. We decided we should check and calibrate our GPSs before mounting, and a good thing we did; we were off like a shot as soon as our feet found their stirrups. If it hadn’t been for his constant pull to one side or another Adam’s horse may have outstripped mine in speed, but his constant, insistent attempts to drag Adam to every passing ger soon wore them both out and I was having to slow my little gelding to keep pace. This was our first experience with Mongolian mastiffs. Upon getting too close to one of the gers, a small horde of rag-tag hounds lunged out at Adam and his horse. Now most of the time the dogs you ride by just want to make sure you get on your way and leave the premises in a timely manner, nothing vicious, just a strongly enforced warning and your mount usually takes heed. These were not those kind of dogs. Adam’s horse slowed and began prancing and hopping around in fear and the dogs jumped and snapped at Adam’s legs and his horse’s face. A surge of anger swept through me, “that’s my teammate and our pony you’re biting at!” I thought. My gelding and I charged into the mess, my lead rope being brandished like a flail. “Run!” I yelled to Adam and our horses split in different directions, the matted and angered mutts now in hot pursuit of me. The brief endowment of bravery drained quickly from my veins. I “chued” my gelding for more speed and he obliged, eager to outrun our pursuers. The four of us rode hard, the sound of snapping jaws eventually subsided and Adam wrenched his mount back onto the two-track road against its wishes to drift left. We wrestled to slow to a trot to check GPSs and allow our horses a breath, and the moment felt peaceful; we could see patches of storms up ahead but the air hung stagnate as it does before a storm, and we reveled in the calm moment. We even got to wave at a derby crew SUV as it flew past us! Soon our horses had regained a swift canter and we were just relaxing into the gait (the inner peace that comes from absolutely knowing you are headed in the correct direction as confirmed by both a crew vehicle and your GPS is unrivaled) when we met our next obstacle. As we passed close by another set of gers two young teenage boys rode out along side of us, encouraging us to come have airag with them. If we hadn’t been soo far behind due to the mornings delay with Stumbles, we may have joined them, but we did our best with hand signals to convey we needed to keep going and that we were in a race. They then began to herd our horses with their own towards the ger and Adam’s horse was delighted to finally be granted its wish and he fought harder to stay his course. The situation turned from friendly to tense; the boys were not heeding our polite rebukes and when you cannot speak the language, miscommunication is a certainty. One boy rode up next to Adam and the other next to me and Adam and I began to canter though there was no chance to outrun them. We were halfway into a 35km leg and they were on fresh horses. We hoped that they would get the picture if we just kept heading down the road. The boy next to me bumped his horse into mine, much like a car might nudge another to get it off the road and I yelled at him in alarm, causing him to circle back towards Adam. The boy next to Adam took a more direct approach and reached down and grabbed his bridle, dragging his horse back towards the ger, my pursuer was now grabbing the other side of Adam’s bridle. I slowed up ahead and realized the boys meant no harm. They had smartly chosen not to touch me and my horse as I was a girl and they knew their intentions would have looked suspect. I realized that that was why they were pulling at Adam, they really did just want the funny-looking foreigners to come drink with them. I yelled this to Adam and he agreed, but it seemed we were going to have to forcibly disappoint them anyhow. My horse decided it was time to push on and he cantered out ahead away from the three riders behind us so I never saw how Adam disentangled himself, but soon he was riding up behind me, no one in-tow. I looked back to catch the crestfallen faces of the two boys, and I waved goodbye, which they then returned with a smile. We decided to gallop just in case they changed their minds about letting us continue.

 

Race Day Two, Urtuu 4 to Urtuu 5 PART TWO
Horse; “Hovercraft”
We took the next couple kilometers with speed and slowed only when we noticed just how dark the sky ahead of us was becoming. When you start off each leg you have important choices to make about what to wear. You never know if getting off your horse to change means he’s going to piss-off with all your gear so between the time it takes to get on and off and open up your pack and the gamble of loosing your horse in the process usually means you stick with what you ride out in for the entire leg. Adam surveyed the ominous clouds ahead of us and insisted that we should dismount and equip ourselves with rain gear, but I was hesitant. It looked as though we could ride through a bit of rain and come out on the other side of the cloud just fine; I didn’t want to chance loosing my horse. Adam stopped and dismounted anyways and I positioned my horse at his horse’s head, taking his lead rein and holding it tight. As he changed I could see the wall of rain approaching across the valley. We switched and I did the same and no sooner had I re-fastened my pack and swung into the saddle then the first bead of hail bounced off my helmut. A maelstrom of its mates soon fired down upon us and our horses huddled against the onslaught. I tried to cover my sweet little gelding’s face with my gloved hands but it did little, though he seemed to appreciate the effort. So intense was the initial downpour that at one point I looked down and I appeared to be covered in snow. We were quickly soaked through and between the roaring wind and the pounding of ice on our helmets we couldn’t exchange a word. I convulsed with shivers and we both pushed our horses forward, hoping that a trot would warm all of us up. The horses bowed their heads and ran into the raucous storm. After a rough fifteen minutes the hail subsided into a light drizzle of rain and I felt blessed that it lasted no longer, though my limbs were stiff with cold and I even had some light bruising from the hail stones. We pushed into a canter and headed across the valley, taking frequent readings from our GPSs. As we swept through the overgrown grassland I reached for my GPS (which had been attached at two points by quadruple knots to the front of my pack on top of being thrust into the front pocket) and suddenly realized that one and a half days of jarring trots had undone the safeguards; it was gone! I pulled up instantly. I had just checked it not too long ago but we had covered a fair amount of ground and the area we were in was thick with long grasses and various undergrowth. I yelled to Adam and we began to re-trace our path. I was certain I was out a GPS. As I was busy calculating the amount of time we should devote to the unlikely recovery of my GPS, Adam hopped off, bent over and began to walk something to me, a grin on his face; he had found it! After that the day seemed to get brighter; we had outrun the dogs, negotiated past tea-time with some aggressive Mongolians, lived through the hail storm and recovered an ill-fated GPS. And, we soon discovered, had made good time doing so! While others had taken the long way around, gotten ‘bogged’ down (in Mongolia this is always a literal reference) or waited out the storm in a friendly ger, we had navigated well and were soon riding with a small group that had left hours before us. We rode along in their wake, exchanging bits of news that we had each gleaned about other riders and crew and then we parted ways once again when we opted to cross marsh and river and they took the less-direct but more solid road to station five. We arrived in good time and Hovercraft passed the vet-check without issue. Cozy, the vet at this station, remarked that he was a tough little guy and when I looked puzzled he pointed out an odd scar on his nose. “Blood-letting,” he must have been sick and he lived through the illness and “the cure.” I patted Hovercraft, these horses have more in common with a honey badger than my horse back home I remarked, and I think that even made Cozy laugh.

 

Race Day Two, Urtuu 5 to Urtuu 6
Horse(s); “Amadeus & Nightmare.”

To be honest I do not know what provoked me to name either my horse or Adam’s horse for this leg, nor can I remember which one was more deserving of the name “Nightmare.” I think the names became interchangeable as my horse began the leg being a complete arse and Adam’s horse picked up the torch halfway through. We left in high spirits having enjoyed triumph over such an adverse day and both our new horses looked fit and were endowed with large strides. We rode away at a rolling canter (a bad sign as we soon wanted nothing that didn’t bolt away from the stations like a maniacal racehorse) and found a rode headed in the right direction making us good time. We even managed to just stay out of the shadow of the foreboding rain clouds; we weren’t eager to repeat the hailstorm of the last leg. Halfway through the leg we passed a Soum (Mongolian town) and caught sight of another group of riders. We galloped up to Krystal, Ann, Mikael, and a few others and let the herd of horses encourage our own to make good time. My horse was swifter than Adam’s and I kept checking out of the corner of my eye to make sure his mount was keeping up. Also having a non-desrcript brown horse and wearing a black windbreaker was Ann so I didn’t realize that the horse and rider in my periphery was not Adam at all, but Ann. We were breaking into a gallop and I was really enjoying racing back and forth for the lead when Krystal leaned over and asked me if Adam was going to be okay on his own. I stared blankly at her and turned to look at where I thought he was just over my shoulder. I cursed and pulled up, the other riders blazing by me. My horse did a small rear in protest and I battled with him to get him to ride off on his own. We galloped back down the road, a nervous twitch in my stomach; how long ago had I lost Adam? Was he still on the road? Minutes crept by as I desperately pushed my horse, retracing our trail ever-faster. Though everyone has made it back in one piece (more or less) from every derby that has taken place, there is an air of intensity that is hard to explain. You really are surviving. Really bad things really can happen. Most of all when you are by yourself. That was why Adam and I had agreed to ride together long ago in our pre-race training back in Ohio with Solange Ellis. We had a pact of sorts and the realization that I had just accidently left my teammate behind spurred something desperate in me. I felt like a foal without its mother. I wouldn’t forgive myself if his horse had dumped him or what if he had thought I had just pissed-off and had ridden along alone, without me? I rode as quickly as Amadeus’s feet would carry me, back down the lonely dirt path. When I saw him, I almost melted with relief. He was walking beside his horse, Nightmare having given up altogether as soon as the group had galloped out of sight. We only had an hour and fifteen minutes to 8:30 and a little over half the leg left to ride. Adam shook his head, dejected. I thought it through and jumped down. I was significantly lighter and much more well versed in the art of equine persuasion (AKA I could wield my lead-rein with greater authority than Adam at this point) and my horse still seemed quite willing to move forward; we would switch. We didn’t bother to adjust the stirrups and Adam cramped his legs into mine and I reached for his- the soles of my shoes just making enough contact to barely stand up. I willed my tired body to convey strength and I tensed up on nightmare, doing everything I could to propel him forward. Between strong kicks, whipping my rein lash like a helicopter blade just out of the corner of Nightmare’s eye and whooping and chuing loudly, I got him cantering again. We were off, pushing hard to make the next station in time. Because all my efforts were going into keeping Adam’s horse from stopping, I had to trust navigation to him. At one point I grumbled about our choice to leave the dirt road to ride up a hillside that looked like the gates into Mordor, but the move got us to a vantage point where we could see another, more direct route and by 8:15 we were only a few kilometers out. This was also the first day that I saw wild (or at least on-attended) Bactrian camels roaming the rocky hillsides and I marveled at them between kicks (they marveled back at how loud and obnoxious a rider I was). We pushed hard and I struggled to keep Adam and my horse in sight as Nightmare fought against me. The rain clouds made brilliant patterns as night encroached and the sun fell out of set but I had no time to admire the rainbows and red clouds it painted. By the time we finally made it my watch read 8:42 and we had 24 minutes of penalty time added to each of our cards; but we were in, and by no means the last to arrive. After a hurried portion of goat soup was imbibed, an entry made into my journal, we struggled to find space in the ger. I saw Rose again at this point and we talked briefly before huddling ourselves into a damp corner and passing out; I happily layered in Adam’s spare clothing as mine hung from the ceiling to dry. We had lived through another day.

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