Much to my surprise, Chipmunk made no attempts at my life when crossing the starting line. Better yet, he settled into a nice mid-pack gallop. He was focused, calm, communicative, and not the trouble maker I first suspected him to be.
We continued on in this fashion for a little while as the group broke up a bit. Eventually we came across a puddle, and I stopped Chipmunk for a drink – and he was a fantastic drinker. He did a great job of taking care of himself. Several riders joined us in the puddle, some just went by.
A little while after the puddle, Chipmunk seemed happier to trot which was just fine with me. We trotted along and met up with Loden (USA) whose horse seemed to pace well with C., and as I trotted alongside him, I could hear him singing Violent Femmes under his breath. That’s all I need, I will certainly ride with Loden! (PS, Anna was left in my dust early in the race, but her horse seemed to have more staying power and wanted to gallop longer than C, passing us 20-30 mins into the race… so much for plans!)
Chipmunk seemed to be losing steam, I suspected he may not be as fit as he initially let on with the shenanigans at the start line. So we slowed down, Loden enjoyed a smoke and we took some time to chat and look around. Wow, what a feeling, we were there and doing the Mongol Derby!
All of a sudden, a burst of thundering hooves, and a black horse flew by us – in a full derby kit but with no rider. I quickly calmed Chipmunk, not wanting to be dumped by a spook… but then something changed in me.
I really can’t explain what I was thinking, or where I found the guts to do this, but I got up and yelled “Chu Chu!” throwing the lead strap around (encouragement, not whipping) and galloped Chipmunk as fast as he could carry me after the loose horse. The horse was headed into a herd of horses and cattle, drinking at a wet area (not quite a lake, not quite a puddle) and was frantically galloping through them, stirring up the herd quite a lot. I do know I was remembering how he acted to the other horses in the herd at the warmup, and somehow I had the idea that he knew how to work a herd.. and a crazy part of me trusted him to do just that.
As we galloped up to the herd, I calculated my approach… but the plan was to mostly see what Chipmunk had to say. He neck reined nicely and seemed to work with my balance, we tried heading the loose horse off at first as he came back out of the herd. He was changing directions frantically, threading the needle through groups of other (now disturbed) horses. The herd started to move slowly as a group, and Chipmunk and I decided to go straight in the middle to pull him out. A few more fancy turns and maneuvers and we had successfully cut him from the herd.
Once he was separated (and chipmunk was totally showing him who was boss!), it appeared that the loose horse was taking some direction from us. I was just a few feet from the other horse, galloping alongside him at an incredible clip. I set myself deep in my seat and heels, and leaned over to Chipmunks right (loose horses left) ready to catch his lead rope once close enough. Just before I could reach the rope however, there was a large bank down into the water (like a water jump on a cross country course). Knowing I couldn’t make it hanging off the saddle, I got up, collected C just in time, and jumped down the bank: about 3′ – pretty big for a little chipmunk!
Unfortunately, because of the bank, the loose horse got a big lead on me. The whole herd was now galloping off toward a ger in the distance. Chipmunk gave me his best speed, but the loose horse, unencumbered by 160 lbs of human and gear, kept gaining distance on us.
(I tried to turn my helmet cam on a bit while chasing loose horse, but it wasn’t working correctly, i think i accidentally changed modes. So I only got a second of video, and it only captures the outskirts of the herd [maybe 1/20th of the herd at most] but its SOMETHING.)
I slowed him to a trot, and seeing one of the Derby crew vehicles, I approached and asked them if I should try and pony the horse back (assuming it stops at the ger… assuming the ger is the herd’s home). They told me to go on and they would deal with the loose horse. The rider is walking, so that was a relief for me to hear. I turned C around and trotted him back in the direction of Horse Station 1 as we were officially going backwards at that point!
It didn’t take too long and I caught up with a group of British riders. Chipmunk spotted Loden and his palomino ahead, and seemed eager to get back to the horse he liked so I bid them a quick farewell.
I trotted back up to Loden, who remarked about how “that was some riding” and estimated the herd to be about 150 head. I have to admit, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. Some of the riders in the Derby this year can be considered the best riders in the world… there had been many times during training at home, race training, and even that first leg where I had wondered whether I deserved to be considered in the field with these elite riders. Working with Chipmunk – the horse that reared me off at the start line – through that herd of horses, jumping the bank, all of that; confirmed that I deserved to be there, and that I COULD ride these horses. I can’t even put words to how it felt and how it changed me.
I sobered up quickly from my glowing daydream upon asking Loden why he didn’t help – he just came back to riding 6 months ago. Why? Because he wanted to do the Derby! Wow, that takes a whole different type of guts, and man do I ever respect that!
We looked at the horizon in the direction of our GPS and saw what we thought was HS1. We decided to slow it down, and give C a break from his mad gallop after the loose horse so we wouldn’t come in high (heartrate). Loden was also happy to slow it down, smoke, and enjoy the ride. Thinking we had 20 mins to half hour to the horse station, I drank the rest of the water in my pack. It was so hot (it was now almost 2pm) and I was drenched in sweat – starting to feel a little queasy from the heat and my lack of sleep. The water was warm, but I was happy to know I was taking care of myself and drinking well.
We trotted along with frequent walk breaks, chatting away. I explained the meaning behind Chipmunk’s name and asked Loden what he calls his horse. In his thick Tennessee drawl, he replies “I think it looks like a… a Jessica Simpson!” I almost fell off C with laughter, asking if he noticed the horse was a gelding. I guess someone told him he was riding a mare… shame on them! We came up with a manlier name for the horse, but I will always remember it was Jessica Simpson. We were having so much fun despite the scorching heat.
So close to an hour passes… remember now I had finished my water long time ago, already suffering from the heat. At this point, I was seriously feeling unwell with onset heat exhaustion. That ger we saw was not the horse station, and now seeing the actual horse station in the distance, it seemed to be getting no closer. I was already falling apart and it was only the first leg of the race. I was completely drenched, thirsty, and starting to shake. I hadn’t even done 25 miles (a walk in the park for me at home). It felt like an eternity before we reached the horse station, maintaining our trotting pace.
We reached the horse station, a few minutes ahead of a large group of riders (I think it was the Brits I passed after our fun). Cosy, the Australian vet, asked if I wanted to vet right away or wait. I asked if a courtesy pulse was allowed and I was told no – I later learned that the rules around this were very different than endurance at home – as essentially every pulse was what I considered a courtesy pulse. Just before the group came in, I decided maybe I didn’t want to wait and just vetted through anyway. No issues, C was at 60. I on the other hand looked like a stewed tomato, and begged a herder to take C, ditched my stuff somewhere on the ground and stumbled off to find which ger had water and food.
To be continued…