While training for the Mongol Derby I’ve continuously tried to find the balance between pushing myself and keeping my body intact so I arrive at the start line as healthy and fit as can be. All that went to hell last week as I had a minor accident that left me with an injury that’s going to hinder me in Mongolia and is making my training in Utah significantly more painful and difficult.
On Wednesday, Christoph, Meryl (the French intern) and I trailered three horses to the mountains to do some altitude and incline training to get these horses ready for Tevis (a famous 100-mile endurance ride in the southwest U.S.). It was meant to be a fast 40 kilometre ride, snaking up a mountain and back down again.
I was riding Dunny, a Quarter Horse Arab mare with lots of go who likes to pull. We had just started, only three kilometers in, and were trotting along a rocky incline. Dunny was focused on the horses ahead of her and was pulling a little. I was just about to half halt her back when she tripped over a rock and almost did a face plant on the trail. As she lurched forward, I instinctively put out my left hand to prevent myself from flying over her head, but at the moment I stuck my hand out, she regained her footing and shot back up, her neck flying back into my outstretched hand. I heard a pop and then felt the pain. She’d jammed my baby finger back.
I hollered to Christoph and Meryl to stop and held up my hand so they could see. The top part of my pinky was contorted at a 30 degree angle from the knuckle. “Ah, fuck,” Meryl said when she saw it.
“Oh, it’s just dislocated,” Christoph said. “I can help you put it back in.”
There was a creek another five minutes up the trail, so I agreed I could ride to there, where Christoph would then perform his ‘procedure.’ In the five minutes it took to get to the creek it had already started to swell and bruise and was causing me significantly more pain.
I hopped off Dunny so Christoph could take a look. He said he was just going to yank on it and this would set it back into place. He grabbed the tip of my finger and I took a deep breath, but then yelled “NO!” I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t let him yank my swollen, throbbing finger back into place.
Instead, I immersed it in the frigid mountain creek and then let Christoph tape it to my ring finger with athletic tape. We continued on up the mountain and back down again, trotting and cantering, for the next 35 kilometres. Each time the horses stopped to drink, I numbed the pain in my hand by dipping it in the cool mountain snow melt. I also figured out how to make a bridge with my reins that gave my left hand a break and allowed me maximum leverage with my right.
By the time we returned to the trailer my pinky looked like a yellow and purple sausage. Christoph asked again if I wanted him to try to pop it back into place, but I declined. I had health insurance so I told him I would drive myself to the hospital when we got back to the farm.
A few hours later I was meeting with an emergency room doctor telling me the bad news: My finger was broken. And it wasn’t just a simple fracture – it was an “unstable fracture” with half my knuckle broken off and floating in my finger. There was nothing he could do for me except refer me to an orthopedic surgeon.
I went home filled with frustration, my finger in a splint and a bottle of Vicodin. How could this stupid accident happen to me only four weeks before the start of the Mongol Derby?
The next morning I was in the orthopedic surgeon’s office listening to him describe the procedure. He needed to put me under general anesthesia, or a Bier block (remove all the blood from my forearm and replace it with anesthesia) and pin my knuckle back together. Oh, and my travel insurance wouldn’t cover this non-essential $15,000 surgery.
Back at the farm, I sat alone and had a good cry. I now had to decide if I would stay in Moab and continue training with an untreated broken finger – that left untreated wouldn’t heal properly and cause me painful arthritis. My other option was to return home to Toronto, get the surgery, but cut short my training in Moab.
“Either way, you’re going to have significant pain in Mongolia,” the surgeon told me. “Your hand will be weak, it will be painful and your reflexes will be poor.”
Just what I needed to hear, when just one week before I had been feeling the strongest and most prepared I had ever felt for this race.
As I type this (slowly, with one hand), I’ve made the decision to stay here and continue training until July 18. I’m going to try to have the surgery in Canada before I fly to Mongolia on July 27. I have continued riding with a broken finger and even did another tough 40 kilometre mountain ride on Friday.
As one pragmatic friend pointed out “you knew these sorts of things could happen before and during the race. It’s all part of the test and adventure.”
I hope I’m strong enough to make it through this latest test.