Welcome to Part Two of Julia Fisher’s 2017 ride in the Mongol Derby. If you missed Part One, you’ll want to read that first – CLICK HERE.
Julia has registered for the ride – 10 days to ride 1000 km across the Mongolian steppe. How in the world do you prepare for “the world’s most difficult endurance ride”? Julia went all in, that’s how.
Written by Julia Fisher
…Many of the Derby horses are green. There is no guarantee of anything more than 30 days under saddle. We’re traversing 1000 km of rugged terrain with a GPS and a sleeping bag. The ride calls on everything you know about horses and riding and yourself to make it through. I’ve done more than 20 50-mile rides, but since I was accepted to do the Derby every time I was there competing, I found myself equally consumed with thoughts of “Oh my! What have I gotten myself into” and “Man! I can’t wait!”
I appealed to a couple of people I knew with endurance horses to let me ride them in LDs leading up to the August start, with mixed results. By the time my daughter graduated, she had been hooked on the horses and endurance riding. Her top-10 competitor dumped me in a ditch within 5 minutes of our LD start (he’s a freight train who often wins Best Condition or High Vet score even though he doesn’t understand the concept of ‘brakes’). It took me an hour to catch him in the woods; but once I found the missing stirrup and leather, we ‘restarted’, and with his solid endurance trot, he still managed to finish in the top 10. Some great training for the Derby. I hitched a ride on a gelding in Florida for an LD who was twice the size of my little mare. Although he was a good boy, the body dynamics were radically different from my work with Arabs.
In June, I smashed my foot under the door at the ‘Y’, cut it badly and broke a toe, so I couldn’t swim for a couple of weeks (yes – working out can be dangerous). So I concentrated on my kayaking, managing 2-3 hour workouts two or three times a week, and working around the barn. I hauled my horse up to Tryon, NC twice to meet with and ride with a couple of other 2017 competitors. There was an interesting tension for us rookies to learn from each other without giving away critical, hard-earned advantages – it is a race!
I had spent several years perfecting my wardrobe for endurance rides. Spending hours in the saddle, at variable gaits, I can’t tolerate wardrobe malfunctions, and I don’t want to have to think about what I’m putting on. I have found merino wool socks that are just the right weight. They are thick enough to offer cushioning (I stand in my stirrups 90% of the time), without being so bulky that they rub, and are a breathable weave. They had to fit into my endurance riding boots – relatively high uppers that protect my ankles without pinching or rubbing, and awesome cushioning in the sole and heel to allow for those unfortunate times when you might have to be hiking (next to or without your horse). I wear leather or suede half chaps; but my legs suffer from a heat reaction when wearing half chaps that don’t breathe. I tried some that were mesh, but couldn’t get them to fit right. A last minute decision ended with some very expensive leather half chaps with synthetic/elastic breathable panels.
Maybe ‘too much information’(?) but I don’t wear underwear. I always wear pantyhose or tights under my riding breeches. No opportunities for chafing or rubbing on edges. It’s the same reason that my breeches never have inseams. I experimented with a couple of brands to get the weight right. They had to be light enough to wear on really hot days and yet afford some protection on colder or wetter days. The warmth question was managed by the weight of the tights underneath. My endurance saddle has a smooth leather seat, and I never use a cover. I had a leather panel made to cover the synthetic fabric seat of the saddle they provided. Fabric results in way too much friction for 7-10 days of riding.
I threw out questions to my cadre of previous riders: How many changes of clothes did you bring? We’re allowed 10 days to complete the 1000 km, but the top finishers manage it in 7. Every person had a different answer to that question based on personal preferences. One said she had brought 2 pairs of breeches, 2 shirts, and 7 pairs of underwear. One said she was sorry she only brought 2 pairs of socks. She cautioned that once your feet get wet, they will stay wet. ‘Bring 7 pairs of socks’. I invested in the waterproof version of my riding boots (good for early morning wet grass, but not useful if you have to go swimming) and planned on 3 pairs of socks, 3 pairs of tights of different weights, and 2 pairs of breeches. One rider said she had been so concerned about the other items in her kit, she forgot about clothes and ended up running the entire race (7 days for her) in the same clothes.
All of the videos show riders in long sleeves, though there’s a lot of conversation about the heat. When I asked about cultural prohibition of tank tops or scanty clothing as the reason, I was told that you could ride naked, if you chose, and no one would care. But the humidity is so low, and the sun potentially debilitating enough that long sleeves are useful just to prevent dehydration. Exposed skin dries out really fast. I bought 3 different long sleeve shirts; a merino wool that breathed nicely as well as offering warmth under my jacket, a Duluth Trading Company shirt advertised to keep you cool, and a simple cotton.
I found a super lightweight down jacket with zipper pockets, and at the urging of a veteran rider, bought a pair of gloves with Kevlar palms. We were required to carry on our person 3 things: our water supply, our Emergency Locator Beacon (which they supplied), and our GPS – a rather large, clunky, piece of equipment into which they downloaded the trail we were supposed to follow. I bought a 2-liter Camelbak water pack and fleece covers for the straps. With my weight loss, I wasn’t worried about my ‘riding weight’, which would include helmet, boots, half chaps, gloves, jacket, water pack, etc. We were all trying to make decisions about extras to carry in our saddle pack. Limited to 5 kg (11 lbs.) of gear, it became critical to be sure that everything was super lightweight. I borrowed a suitable sleeping bag from a friend, and ordered special biothane straps with buckles to lash the whole pack to the saddle, so I didn’t have to rely on the ‘shoelaces’ that the organizers supplied. I also bought some high strength parachute cord to take for emergencies, some duct tape (you never know), and a good pocket knife.
I ordered a bunch of cute temporary animal tattoos to offer as goodwill to the herders’ kids on the route. I bought a couple of packs of American cigarettes and found crush-resistant containers to bribe the herders for their best advice on which horse to pick off their line during the race. I bought water purification tablets (necessary every time you fill you water pack, as the water is always questionable) and a large bottle of my favorite electrolyte tablets, and a large tube of effective lip balm. I went to my doctor to renew my tetanus shot and get prescriptions for my thyroid meds, anti-nausea meds, antibiotics to carry (just in case), and the strongest painkillers he would give me (just in case). I bought a lightweight mesh ‘fishermen’s vest’ with pockets to put over my other clothes to be sure I had meds, some cigarettes for the herders, and maybe a protein bar on my person.
Feeling like I had the necessities covered, I started riding in all the gear whenever I could, to be sure I could move comfortably in it. I weighed everything meticulously to be sure I was solidly under 11 lbs. and then started looking for appropriate ‘extras’. I found some great 1 oz. nut-butters (protein snacks) and some jellybean electrolytes (adding a bit of sugar to the necessary minerals) online and bought enough to stuff my pack with as many as the scale would allow on race day. I put together a first aid kit that included antibiotic ointment, some super heavy-duty bandages of different sizes, a small roll of vet wrap, and some medical tape. Just for good measure, I threw in a small ACE ankle wrap – prophylactic against a sore ankle somewhere during the ride. When I finally got up the nerve to ask about restroom facilities, my French connection sent me the photo provided here. All veterans urged bringing a supply some kind of wipes – either already moist, or wet-able.
Three weeks before departure, I was training on my mare, galloping up a serious hill in some familiar woods. The trail ran out into a big empty field where my little girl was going to react in some way to the change in terrain. She’s an Arab after all; even if there was nothing scary, she would be hyper-vigilant when the trees broke. So, for stability, I grabbed a fistful of her mane with my left hand for the last few strides in the woods. But I wasn’t adequately prepared for the fallen hunter’s tree stand that sat just to the right of the trail as we charged out into the open. Instead of spinning or dodging (her usual response to ‘DANGER’!), she slammed on the brakes. I ended up jamming my open left thumb against her neck – violently enough to tear the ligaments in the joint. A trip to the orthopedist the next day confirmed that it wasn’t broken, but it wasn’t clear whether the tear was partial or total. Three weeks before departure, it didn’t matter. I couldn’t consider more tests or surgery until I got back. So I was sent off to get a brace that would stabilize the joint well enough to ride. By that time, I was forced to acknowledge a nagging problem with my left hip. It has bothered me off and on my whole life, but was never painful when I rode. So I simply ignored it – but it was clearly compromising my mounting in the left stirrup, and long walks were no longer pleasant. I arranged for a cortisone shot in the joint, as there wasn’t time to do anything more. But the shot was useless.
I flew out to Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital a week before the race. I was feeling ready. I can sleep anywhere and I have a cast iron stomach. Nothing was going to stop me. That part of Mongolia is high plains – similar to the area around Denver. I knew that acclimating to the reduced oxygen at that altitude can take some time. I had arranged to share a room at the home base Holiday Inn with a young woman from Maine. We spent our week hiking around the capital, checking out the restaurants and markets, and connecting with the other 40 riders as they arrived over the course of the week. By the time the organizers convened our first training session on the hotel conference room, we were all pretty keyed up.
Photography Courtesy Julia Fisher