The stomach cramps came swift: gastrointestinal waves warning of an impending shit storm. I immediately regretted washing down my goat soup dinner with swigs of fermented horse milk. I felt sweat beads forming on my forehead, while across the dark tent I could hear the deep breaths of my slumbering Mongolian hosts.
It was my first night camping out on the Mongol Derby course, a 1,000-kilometre horse race through the wilds of Mongolia, and I was overnighting in a stranger's ger (aka a portable hut), in the unfortunate predicament of feeling I was about to shit my pants. Hours earlier I'd ridden up to this family after covering 100 kilometres of steppe, jumped off my horse, and through an impromptu miming performance told them I wanted to crash in their home. The race organizers had assured us Mongolian hospitality guaranteed we wouldn't be turned away and we could ask anyone along the route to open their doors and they'd happily oblige. My family just seemed bewildered that a white girl swathed in technical fabrics, with a GoPro stuck to her helmet, would show up on their doorstep begging for a place to sleep.
I sat up in bed and listened to their dog pacing outside, the same dog that earlier had lunged at me, teeth bared. I was saved by the woman of the home, who yanked it back by the scruff of its neck, screaming at it in Mongolian and body slamming it to the ground. It continued trying to dart around its masters to rip me apart, but they repeated the same disciplinary tactics until it whimpered and curled up in the shade.
But now it was the middle of the night and it was back on the prowl. I had a choice—shit the bed—or risk being attacked by the dog. In a fit of desperation, I dug through my pack and picked the third option: swallowing three Immodiums in an attempt to right my rolling stomach.
This is the logic of a Mongol Derby rider—a person insane enough to think it's a good idea to strap themselves to 28 different semi-wild horses in a mad dash across one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. Eleven months previous, I'd filled out an application, gone through two interviews and put down a $3,500 deposit (just a portion of the $17,000 entry fee) to guarantee that one of the 40 spots on this race would be mine. I was warned the Derby was difficult and dangerous with a serious fatality risk (previous riders have returned with broken necks and collarbones as souvenirs), but figured even though I hadn't climbed aboard a horse in almost seven years, my inner farm girl strength would help me finish.
But as I awoke the next morning at 6:30, the Immodiums having averted my first derby crisis, I began to wonder if I really had it in me to repeat this for another eight days. My tongue rolled in my mouth like a hunk of sandpaper, dehydration now setting in as my picky western palette rejected the goat-flavoured water my gracious hosts offered. I sucked the remaining drops of chlorine-tab treated water from my Camelbak to try to quench my thirst and slapped on a smile, scooting past the woman now sitting on her dog as the man of the ger readied my horse.
Ten minutes later, I was back in the saddle at a brisk clip counting down the remaining eight kilometres until the next horse station, where I could get a fresh horse. Three kilometres away, another dog began loping toward my mount and I as we trotted along a dirt road. In another two minutes it was barking and snarling and lunging at my pony. I screamed and took my whip to it, but it lunged again, missing biting my foot by a hair.
"I DON'T HAVE A FUCKING RABIES SHOT!" I yelled at it, kicking my horse into a gallop. The dog sped up alongside us and it took two kilometres of galloping to lose him, with me mocking him when he finally slowed his chase and it was clear we were pulling away. But my smugness was short lived as I realized I'd dropped my Garmin—the tool I needed to navigate the race—somewhere during the chase.
Two hours later I was on the back of a Soviet-era motorcycle, my arms wrapped around the waist of a Mongolian herder as we motored at 135 km/h over the steppe looking for my GPS. The locals seemed nonplussed when I asked them through an interpreter if someone would help me retrieve my GPS. It wasn't until I offered a 20,000 tugrik ($18) reward a guy jerked his head towards his motorcycle. I threw my riding helmet on as a safety measure when I caught a strong whiff of vodka on his breath, but I needn't have worried, because even through a boozy filter his reflexes and eyesight were better than mine. He found my GPS almost immediately, lying next to a pile of cow dung just 50 metres from where the dog started its chase.
For the next few days this was my Holy Grail tale when I came across other Derby riders. It seemed the bunch of us in the middle of the pack, who stood no chance of winning the race, were instead intent on topping each other for wildest story. And the tales that trickled down the line were good ones.
One girl just ahead of me had been coping with a horse that wouldn't move in the driving rain, so she got off to lead it the last few clicks to the next horse station. The horse thanked her by fucking off and kicking her in the head as he bolted past, just for good measure. She was OK because she was wearing a helmet, but a few minutes more of walking in the icy rain caused her to faint from hypothermia. Another girl was bucked from her horse and did a face plant on a rock, gashing her cheek down to the bone. I watched as she stoically laid in a ger while a medic sewed her face back together and a Mongolian woman sewed her shredded rain jacket.
For two and a half days I rode with a Swede named Thomas, a father of three in his late 30s who, early in our collaboration, on Day 4 of the race, confided in me his "dick was chafing."
"I've duct taped my dick," he yelled to me as we galloped across the steppe, any shred of personal dignity disappearing with as the kilometres ticked by. On Day 6, when he ran out of duct tape, he asked me if I minded if he rode for 40 kilometres with his hand down his pants, cradling his penis so it wouldn't rub against his balls anymore.
I told him I didn't give a shit, but "if you get bucked off out of stupidity I am NOT waiting with you for the paramedics."
That's what endless days of riding weird horses in a foreign land will do to your compassion.
At times my best friend was an Irish jockey named Paddy Woods who supplied me with a constant stream of painkillers to quiet the screaming in my knees and lower back. I mixed them with the Percocets I packed for the journey and at a horse station announced—perhaps a touch too giddily—to one of the race officials that I felt fantastic, to which she replied, "cool it on the pills," and told me a story from a few years back of two riders who brought morphine on the race and took so much they started hallucinating and got lost in the mountains for eight hours.
Paddy, Thomas, and I were the deranged Musketeers as we hooned about the Mongolian countryside, leaving locals with a backlog of stories to tell their friends for years to come.
On the first night we slept in a ger together, Paddy introduced us to his chainsaw snoring and we fought the urge to strangle him. Evidently, so did the man of the ger, who lit his lantern and glared at us until we shook Paddy awake and all moved outside and set our sleeping bags in a pile of goat shit for five hours of restless sleep before we were off again.
It's funny when you find contentment laying in goat shit, gazing at the Milky Way, a 52-year-old man's snoring cutting through the stillness. There were four more days of racing to endure and I still hadn't had a bowel movement, but I'd found a happiness that had evaded me for years.
I finished the race in nine days, in the unremarkable 50th percentile. I was 10 pounds thinner, unable to walk, and with much less inner thigh skin than I had when I started. I was now able to get drunk on a third of a can of beer and had the ability to drink any kind of water without getting sick. I celebrated my greatest athletic achievement by peeling duct tape off my chafing sores and sleeping for 14 straight hours.
I'd entered the longest horse race in the world hoping to have some life epiphany, to find a solution to my first world ennui, but the only great revelation I had as I crossed the finish line was that my hunger for extreme events had intensified.
As soon as this Immodium wears off, I'll be looking for that next big adventure.
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