I’ve been riding every day for almost three weeks in Moab. Surely, I thought, I’m now fit enough to attempt two 50 mile (80 kilometre) endurance races in one weekend.
So we packed up the trailer and drove nearly five hours to the Strawberry Fields Endurance Ride near the Strawberry Reservoir in Utah. Dubbed the “most scenically beautiful ride in the mountain region,” the ride takes you up mountains, through creeks, winds in and out of dense forest and through lush meadows of pretty yellow flowers.
I’ve been told it’s all very lovely and tranquil and I’m sure it is – if you aren’t preoccupied with preventing your horse from bucking you off, worrying about your hydration pack chafing a festering wound in your neck and gritting your teeth because your knees are about to explode from absorbing the shock of hours of trotting.
I rode two horses in two separate rides. The first horse was an 18-year-old seasoned pro, a chestnut Arabian named Moun who could probably do a ride like this with a crash test dummy tied to his back. He was the perfect horse to wet my feet in an event I’d never attempted before. At one point in the afternoon we had a climb to over 10,000 feet. We dismounted and walked (Christoph and the French intern Meryl jogged at points) the incline. The air was thin and I was soon heaving, cursing my sea-level lungs. As my fellow two riders became specks in the distance, I bowed my head in defeat and climbed back aboard Moun, who I reasoned, has better lungs for this sort of thing. I pulled some crackers out of my saddle bag and began snacking as he carried me the rest of the way up the mountain, finally accepting I’m not the extreme athlete I thought I was.
By the time Moun and I had made it to the top and then back down through a few kilometers of woods, we had lost the two others we’d been riding with. We did catch up about half an hour later and a few hours later crossed the finish line a respectable 6th out of 52 riders. It was then I noticed that the left strap on my hydration backpack was starting to dig into my neck. At this point it was a little red and irritated. I shrugged it off and went about the rest of my day, caring for Moun, having a delicious dinner, bathing in bucket (no showers or flush toilets for four days) and crashing in the horse trailer on a blanket that smelled like barn dog.
Sunday was more of a Mongol Derby test. It was my first time aboard Sea Star, an Anglo-Arab alpha mare with a reputation for bucking off riders she didn’t much like. Christoph had asked me a few times if I was sure I wanted to ride her. After hearing instructions like “if you let her get too far from her friends on the trail she gets pissed off, then bucks you off” and “she’s right side dominant so don’t ask her for the left lead for at least 10 miles, because she gets pissed off and bucks you off” I definitely wasn’t sure, but I put on the stiff upper lip and told him I rode racehorses and this was no big deal. He later admitted he lost sleep the night before worrying about me riding her.
My hands were shaking as we crossed the start line and she felt like a coiled spring. I was riding a grenade of horseflesh waiting to explode if I made one wrong move. A few times Meryl called from the back “careful, maybe you should get closer to Christoph” who was riding ahead. But seven miles and another mountain climb later we’d settled into an understanding. I wouldn’t do anything to “piss her off” and she, in turn, seemed to agree not to be a bronc. Over the next 43 miles she’d get a little testy at times, tank off and get her head between her legs, but I stayed on and brought her head back up and shut down the bucks. There were a few creek crossings where she preferred not to wet her legs and, instead, launched herself across them. It was fun to do some “jumping” out in the open again, something I haven’t done in years.
As the miles ticked by, fear became less of an issue as the physical pain crept in. Riding her lofty dressage trot killed my knees and with every stride it felt like someone was driving a hammer into my kneecap. And that little red spot I’d ignored from my backpack had turned into an open, festering wound. The German intern Ines commented it looked “like a hickey” and later in the evening, a woman at the dinner grimaced when she looked at my neck and asked if I needed some polysporin.
We crossed the finish line, again in sixth position, this time out of 27 riders. Despite the pain in my knees and the sore on my neck, I was overjoyed at surviving this ride. I had a strong sense of accomplishment I’d ridden a difficult horse for six hours and survived. One step closer to Mission Mongolia.
Things I learned riding 160 kilometres in two days:
- Equipment that rubs and irritates your skin needs to be corrected so it doesn’t do this. That little irritation quickly turns into a wound resembling a bed sore. And then you cry precious salty tears that contribute to dehydration, which leads to painful leg cramps.
- I think I have the knees of a 70-year-old. I am seriously contemplating cortisone injections before Mongolia, because my knees cannot take much more of this.
- I can survive four days without a shower, sweating, cleaning up horse crap, and wearing the same pants. I am a really smelly warrior.
- When riding the “most scenically beautiful ride,” don’t forget your camera.