Day 4

Day 4, Horse Station 8 to 9
Horses; “Shadowfax & Follow That Cab”

They tell you if you can just make it past day three, it’ll all get easier. Miraculously, this is true. The pain in my arm had gone from fully paralyzed to completely mobile. All the aches and irritations in my body had disappeared the morning of the fourth day, as though my muscles had collectively decided that all the warning signals they had been sending were in vain and why bother? On top of that, due to our grievous navigational issues the day before, we had officially blown our lead (not that we were way out in front but we were hovering towards the head of the pack until day three’s end). With no pressure to keep up the strict pace of front-running, we decided to really enjoy our ride (or rather I got fully on board with Adam’s laid-back approach). We really only had to cover three legs a day from here on out in order to finish before the tenth-day cut-off. It was doable. Though I awoke still unable to pee and shaking from dehydration, I was light-hearted and determined to navigate well. I also had lost almost all my fear. We were last to get to the horse line that morning (shocking!) but we no longer cared. We were finding that “the wilder, the better,” motto was working for us and we found ourselves having more fun on the slightly nutty mounts that the discerning riders before us often overlooked. I frowned as I surveyed the barren horse line that morning. Three decent choices remained. I watched Anna Christina choose the light grey stallion I had hoped to get for one of us and scuffed my boot into the wet dirt with annoyance. Adam still didn’t have his tack outside so I couldn’t even get us saddled let alone choose the right horses. I paced and stared at my options. I found one and grinned. It looked like the perfect match for me; as long as I was willing to face mortality. A large black gelding stood triple tied to the horse line. He squealed and turned despite the hobbles that held three of his legs in place. With the spare one he struck the dirt with malice. I pointed him out to a herder and gestured I wanted him tacked with my stuff. The herder smiled and shook his head no. I went to the next. Same reaction. The third one warily agreed and suddenly all of the herders were interested. Anna’s little stallion bucked wildly and she changed her mind just as Adam finally emerged. “Take that one!” I advised happily as Anna went for a calmer gelding. Adam’s grey stallion got tacked with the help of two herders and it took just four men to subdue and tack my gelding. As he kicked wheeled and bit I asked one of them to ride him first, to get the inevitable bucks out. When this was translated the herders just laughed at me and shook their heads, pointing at one another and cracking jokes. The translator told me “they say they are too scared to ride him,” and though they were joking, I could see faint lines of worry. Finally a younger man volunteered and as three men aided him up we all waved goodbye to him and he saluted as they let the stallion go. And go he did!!! Four rodeo-quality bona-fide bucks in the rider came flying off and with two more my saddle was beneath him. I watched in horror as the stallion caught my saddle in his hind legs, ripped it off, and double-barreled it yards behind him. Two Mongolian riders were already up and he was quickly caught, de-bridled, and turned loose. “He was no good for racing today,” the translator informed me, and I had to agree. Only two horses remained and neither looked promising, while Adam’s horse looked great. Clearly pleased with my tenacity, one of the riders gestured and rode off to a nearby ger. “He is getting you a good horse. No good horses are left, he is getting you his young stallion.” I didn’t wait long. The rider returned with a spindly, tall black stallion. He was nervous and spooked as he was saddled but when they brought Adam’s stallion near he calmed down immediately. The herders told us we had some of the fastest horses so (though skeptical as many herders like to tell you such things) we decided to calibrate our GPSs and have a plan of where to ride before we got on. It looked like we just needed to head straight down the valley. We mounted and the herders jumped back. We were off! Our stallions looked one another in the eye and were gone. My eyes teared until the rushing earth was all a blur. I let my reins go and held on for the ride. These two were certainly fast! My horse would ride abreast with Adam’s and then the older stallion would flick an ear and my horse would respectfully jump a few feet sideways and fall back. Everything about this leg was great! We navigated well and rode so quickly that we passed everyone around us, coming into station nine with great time! As we bolted away from the station and hit about 4 or 5 kilometers out, we noticed giant buried pipelines diverting across the valley away from the closest Soum. The twin pipes were about four or five feet in diameter and laid together with about a six foot gap of separation. They were also covered with earth so that it looked like the steppe grass was but a rug, poorly concealing their existence. As the twin pipes loomed up before us I pulled back on my stallion to slow his approach, uncertain how he would tackle large round earthen obstacles. Nothing happened. We both pulled back but to no avail. We were hurtling into an intersection with the large pipes and we had no say in the approach or execution. We hung on. Our horses scrambled up the sides, dead run, and threw themselves across the six foot gap in between. As my stallion’s feet left the earth I glanced sideways at Adam to see his little grey horse rocketing across the gap like a Rolex-Kentucky jumper. I stared in awe and realized my horse must be doing the same! The two cleared the gap, landed on the rounded surface of the second pipe, and barreled back down it without skipping a beat. We whooped with exaltation. These horses were incredible. After completing the first twenty kilometers strictly bolting and galloping (the galloping was a negotiated and ‘slowed‘ pace from what they preferred to do) we finally got to walk for a short while. At this point we had decided on names for our incredible stallions (or rather I told Adam what I had named his horse for him) and they lived up to them splendidly. Adam’s stallion seemed wise and had the perfect coloring so he became Shadowfax and my horse got a lengthy race-horse adjacent title that was more the command I had given him “Follow that Cab!” We ended the ride trotting in and had no trouble getting our horses heart rates down. Horses and rides like this leg seemed perfect contrast to all the heartbreak of the day before.

 

Day 4, Station 9 to Station 10
Horse; “Jenkins”

As we dismounted Shadowfax and Follow That Cab I told the herders what wonderful horses they were and we picked out two fidgety anxious geldings from a well-stocked horse line. The herders obligingly saddled them and I walked up and down the line taking in all the beautiful horse flesh. One flashy paint had a mane that touched the ground and when a herder saw me looking at him he pulled him off so I could take a picture of him. I thanked him by unloading the racing goggles that wouldn’t stay on my face and he wore them around the camp laughing about them until we left. I felt too sick to eat and Adam and I were both slightly concerned about the fact that I hadn’t peed in forty-eight hours, but I figured I could at least make it to the end of the day. I was anxious to mount up again and get going as I shook a lot when I had to stand on my own two feet. I felt much better with a horse underneath me. The crew, however, informed us to wait as the herders were going to the next station and they wanted us all caught up, so that the field was not so spread out. If I hadn’t been soo sick I think Adam and I might have ridden off ahead to avoid the escort but I had no capacity to argue. I also understood the crew’s mistrust of our navigational skills and understood that they were having trouble offering adequate support for the number of riders so widely spread across the map. We waited until the bulk of the field behind us had caught up and an hour later we were all mounted and off on what felt like a pony-ride. My horse was moody and proud and I uncreatively called him “Jenkins,” as I imagined that every time I urged him forward he said (in a snooty British accent reserved for butlers) “no, I am sorry sir.” I followed in line with the other derby riders, chatting happily about everyone’s experiences until we settled into the bone-jarring trot. Then my stomach started to make funny noises… the kind of noises that are an eviction notice to your most recent meal. Imagine having food poisoning. Now imagine being set on a broken washing machine mid-spin-cycle. Now imagine someone shaking you by your shoulders and your waist. Now imagine being softly punched in the gut on top of this. This is roughly the state I was in by the end of the ride and it was a near-miss by the time we reached the hole in the ground with a tarp divider that one charitably refers to as a ‘bathroom.‘ Adam and I cantered in and he held my horse before vet-check (usually a no-no) but the vets understood when they saw the desperation and slight bit of feverish sweat on my face. I ran to the bathroom (which faced the on-coming riders) and got there just in time to give them a lovely visual greeting. I waved for good comical measure, all modesty long-since lost (we had all been forced to pee in a gutter alongside the road on the way to start camp and ever since my decency had swiftly eroded to nothing) and I felt a thousand times better upon my return to the horse line. Our horses checked out just fine after trotting and galloping the entire way and the herders assured us we had all not been pushing our horses hard enough. We took note. With all of the riders coming in at once everyone was frantic to pick new mounts for the final leg of the day so Adam and I shrugged and decided to go with whatever was left; it had worked incredibly well that morning. We went in and loaded up our water and Adam devoured most of his body weight in goat soup. I decided to start taking antibiotics at this point and passed on food; I didn’t want to spend another leg worrying about which end my stomach contents would come out of. I sat and rested until we were ready to continue.

 

Day 4, Station 10 to Station 11
Horse(s); “Bolt” (And “Dolt”)

As everyone began setting out we went to see what horses were left for us. Everything looked short and fat, which didn’t always mean slow, but did mean it was hard to discern a good mount from a diabolical one. We sort of ended up with a combination of the two. Deciding to roll the dice, we asked a herder to find us two horses that would travel well together. We asked the translator for crazy horses and the herders just laughed, pulling two short, fat paints off of the line for us. The two geldings ground tied and barely woke up as they were saddled. This seemed to be a really bad omen. Looking back, I now realize that the herders never let the two geldings look at one another until we were on them. In fact, they saddled them butt-to butt, with no opportunity for eye-contact. I thought of protesting their choice, the chubby ponies couldn’t possibly be a good fit to get us to the last Urtuu in time, but I didn’t feel well and I thought it might be nice to ride a really quiet horse. We mounted with no aid from the herders, so quiet were our two bay paints, and shuffled off at a walk.
Now Station Ten was set right before a narrow concrete bridge that we had to cross to enter the valley, and it was fairly covered in traffic. We lazily conversed and I was mid-comment about how long it was going to take us on the two plugs we had picked when my horse caught Adam’s horse’s eye. Missile launch is a pretty accurate conveyance of the gear shift we experienced. One minute we were walking, the next, our horses were rocketing full blast out of the Station. I yelped and then laughed as we took off, then switched right back to terrified. I had absolutely zero control of my horse. I pulled hard left, then right, then gave up and began to yell warnings to the derbyists riding out in front of us. They were along the road out to the bridge and our horses were running at them blindly. I had a pretty good idea that my horse would have no qualms treating them all like bowling pins. “Watch out! We’re out of control! Guys move! MOVE!!!” is about all I could get out before we flung through their midsts. I looked over my shoulder and gave an apologetic look in answer to their varied glares. I think that’s when the stigma about the two of us being the crazy loud Americans started… I know the bolting games we played on later legs just got added to the stereotype, but this bolt was genuinely unprovoked and beyond our control. As the horses rounded towards the bridge horrible images of our equines careening into trailer trucks or skidding across the concrete effectively stopped my heart and I gave my horse some serious dental work in an effort to slow his approach. Bolt, as I had already aptly named him, paid me no attention. He launched after Dolt (Adam’s horse) and the two stumbled onto the just shy of full-gallop. I could hear their hooves skating across the concrete and I did my best to pull my horse to the edge of the bridge as motorcycles honked angrily. Luckily the horses shared our concern about crossing the bridge and my horse jigged slowly across. It felt like listening to elevator music before a bomb goes off. We erupted on the other side and shot across the valley.
Just as I was finally getting some control over my tiring paint gelding, a helicopter dropped low above us and Bolt and Dolt hit another dead run. I pulled with all my might to get Bolt to go more left down the valley but he blindly followed Dolt straight and I cursed the helicopter. What is that awful thing doing here anyways!? I assumed, in my panicked mind, that it was just an annoyance to me, someone filming derbyists departing Station Ten, but later learned someone had suffered a neck injury serious enough for a helicopter to be called in. Regardless it fueled our horses for another kilometer or so until we caught up with Per and Musse. The four of us then proceeded to take the long way into Station Eleven, keeping up a hard gallop most of the way. At this point our GPS units were refusing to cooperate, the lines dancing in ten degree increments making choosing a direct path impossible. We kept straining to choose the right track.
About eight kilometers from the final station of the day, the four of us disagreed about a fork in the road and we split up again, Adam and I finally convincing our horses to trot. It was those last couple kilometers that I really struggled. My stomach was churning again and I was severely dizzy. A few times I felt the need to clutch my saddle in order to stay on it, and I prayed my horse didn’t execute on the weakness I am sure he could feel. Finally I could hold my stomach contents no longer and I begged Adam to ride ahead. He seemed confused and offered to hold my horse but I explained it would be best for both of us if he got out of ear-shot. Luckily the grass grew in five-foot high tufts and offered semi-decent cover. Adam finally rode ahead and I collapsed off of my horse, hoping Bolt didn’t honor his namesake during my time of weakness. In an effort to not become too graphic, please imagine an erupting volcano…
Bolt, who had begun to graze placidly as soon as my feet touched the ground raised his head in wonder. He stopped chewing and wore an expression of “Holy mother of…!” as he witnessed things people have only seen in the film The Exorcist. As I finished being sick I pulled myself shakily back onto Bolt and he warily carried me off (I’m sure he was convinced I was part demon by now) and I patted him thankfully. The remainder of the leg was a blur of beautiful salt marshes and feeling like I might pass out. We rode into Station Eleven exactly on time and I knew I needed medical attention. Cozy (the vet) took one look at me and agreed. My horse came in with a slight limp I had not noticed at the end, and it was added to my penalty card. I felt badly for having been too sick to notice his condition, however slight it may have been. Adam volunteered to put our horses away and take my tack in while I went to go be sick again. By the time we had finished the vet check, only five of us were in the second ger that night and we found that all three beds there were claimed. Adam and I would be the only ones on the floor. With the giant beetles that wouldn’t leave us alone. Cozy came in to tell us that the medical crew was stuck a few hours away in a bog, and that it would be some time before they could arrive to give me an IV. He advised us to get sleep until they could get there. As I flicked the tiny aggressors back into the wall I began to laugh at the pitiful state the two of us were in. We talked in low voices as everyone fell asleep around us and I collapsed with exhaustion.
At about two or three in the morning they arrived. My blood pressure was so low and my fluid intake so minimal, none of my veins were discernible. The medics kept apologizing, though in the dark cell-phone light and conditions considered, I think they did a fantastic job! As they prepped the first needle Cozy took one of my hands and Adam took the other. They told me to look the opposite direction and Coz began to pet me like a deranged animal. “Easy there,” he crooned to me like a wild horse being vetted, and I began to laugh. The first needle pricked my arm and a medic cursed angrily, following up with an apology. A few more tries and they admitted they were going to have to put the needle in my hand. I cringed as I felt it root around under my skin. A particularly nasty (and gross) feeling. One look at the horrified faces of Cozy and Adam and I grimaced. The boys looked in more agony than I was! When the hand didn’t work they had me turn onto my back and a few stabs later, they got my left arm. They hung the bag from the ger “rafters” and I caught a few minutes sleep while the bag emptied into my veins. The vets and medics told me a few stories to keep us in good spirits and I was happy to be fixing the problem when Sarah admitted to me they would need to keep the needle in my arm overnight, in case I needed another bag of fluid in the morning. I was about to protest when she told me seriously “Listen, not peeing in over forty-eight hours is a bit of a problem. You can keep the needle in and take another bag of fluids if needed, or we can send you back to UB (the capital where a hospital would be).” It wasn’t a threat of any kind, she truly was worried about me, but I instantly became worried that I might not be allowed to finish the race, and I cursed myself for alerting anyone to my condition. Adam assured me all would be alright in the morning and I awkwardly held my arm out straight, using Adam as a propping-agent, and passed out. The next morning came and I was never so happy to pee in my life! The medics, upon learning this, allowed me to continue and I vowed silently to drink as much water as possible throughout the rest of our journey.

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