This is the final installment of Julia Fisher’s 2017 ride in the Mongol Derby. If you missed the previous 3 posts, you’ll want to read those first,  CLICK HERE. A year of preparation and Julia is disqualified on the first day of the 2017 Mongol Derby. Injured, Julia contemplates what happened and wonders ‘why?’. Faced with two options “go home” is not Julia’s choice. She returns to the Steppe to support the other riders.

Written by Julia Fisher

…eventually, delighted to be arriving at the station, I trotted directly up as there was no one else at the vet line. I carefully climbed down from the saddle, wincing a bit at the pain in the shoulder blade. I reached for the girth buckles, as we were supposed to pull our saddles off before presenting the horse to the vet. But the buckles got further and further away, as I realized my balance was again nonexistent, and I was hitting the ground again.

Interior of a traditional ger

A medic had been standing a few yards away and came rushing over to tend to me. I was more than a little embarrassed, and tried to shrug off his solicitations, while I managed to get my saddle off the little gelding. I confirmed that he was in sound shape and clearly had passed his vet check. They noted the appropriate information on my ride card and the medic ushered me into a ger where I could get some tea and something to eat. He was asking questions about my fall and my pains. I still had some plan to choose another horse and continue on to the next station. But as I sat quietly, it became obvious that, independent of the other pains, I was still only taking very shallow breaths. I wasn’t really sure why and neither was the medic. Forcing more air into my lungs caused the whole upper right quadrant of my body to spasm. I kept focusing on the shoulder blade, and he made a tentative diagnosis of a pulled (possibly torn) trapezius muscle.
His advice was for me to accept a ‘carry forward’ penalty of a few hours, to allow them to drive me to the next station. It was already almost 4 pm. There I could rest, spend the night, and get a fresh, clear start in the morning. Begrudgingly, I agreed. By the time we bounced our way across the steppe, keeping to vehicle-worthy terrain, and arrived at the next station it was getting dark. The rider’s ger was already packed with 18 riders and there was barely room for my sleeping bag on the floor in the middle of the room, next to my new friend from Maine. As she helped me arrange my sleeping gear, and lower myself to the floor, I was aware of an exquisite pain in my right side. I virtually fell to the floor, and lay on top of my sleeping bag in the dark, unable to move for what felt like hours. The breathing of the other riders became more and more regular as they all fell asleep and I tried not to breathe or move.

The bathroom

Eventually, I realized that it was getting cold. I needed to get into the sleeping bag. But before I could do that, I was going to need to step outside. Hauling myself to my feet by the center support of the ger, I fought down the urge to cry out, found the door, and stepped outside into the cold night air. Taking care of business was difficult, but somehow I found my way back into the ger, carefully stepped over the riders by the door and even more carefully lowered myself to the floor, struggling to open the sleeping bag to gain some warmth. I found it impossible to sleep. I lay there listening to the even breathing of the other riders and replaying the unplanned dismount in my mind. He was such a little pony. And I have fallen off of horses so many times – it comes with the territory. What could possibly have gone so wrong?
I replayed the fall. I replayed the few minutes after the fall. I replayed the attempts to stand. Finally I replayed the first attempts to remount. That’s when I realized what had happened. I hadn’t considered the GPS as important, but I had landed on my right side – likely right on top of the GPS. At that point, contemplating a focused injury rather than a generalized strain, I began to run my fingers down my rib cage on the right side, breathing as deeply as I could. Expecting a bruise, at some point, I wasn’t prepared for the shift in the bones. I could actually feel the rib give and grind under my fingertips with every breath.

Julia’s broken rib

Around midnight, the medic crept into the ger, to check on me. I directed him to the offending rib, and he expressed his suspicions that it was fractured, and announced that I would head to town the next day for x-rays – an maybe an MRI to rule out a concussion causing the lack of balance. It would be very unlikely that I could continue with that kind of an injury. After he left, I lay there, wide awake for the rest of the night trying to process what was happening. I couldn’t get my head around it. Years of dreaming, months of planning, and I’m done. What? I just got started, and I’m done. What?
I considered arguing with him, in the morning. But somewhere around 3 am when nature called again, and I had to crawl out of the ger again, I realized that was not going to happen. The pain was searing. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t pull myself up or down to sleep on the floor. ‘Resting’ wasn’t helping. The pain was settling in and would likely be there for a while. There was no way

The offending GPS

I could ride like that. A manageable, steady gelding like the one I’d started with was not the rule and any horse that was a handful was most certainly going to make my life miserable.
By the time the sun came up and the other riders began gathering their gear to leave, I discovered a new problem. I couldn’t stop crying. I had spent years building myself up psychologically, mentally to do this ride. The letdown and sense of inadequacy was taking over and was literally crippling. The disappointment was closing up my throat and impeding any residual ability to breathe. The solicitations of the other riders, the attention of the riders from the southeast, and the sincere hug from my friend from Maine seemed to make it worse. I wanted them to leave, but I knew as soon as they did, I would be alone with the crew and my ugly failure.
The rest of that day is exquisitely etched in my mind. The phone call to my daughter, my barely intelligible sobs to tell her I was alive – please reassure everyone who was following me – but I was disqualified. The 8-hour ride back to the capital, bouncing across the steppe and the bad roads, in a car while it rained non-stop. I made the driver stop twice where – in spite of having no food all day – I vomited by the side of the road. Not sure if it was the mild concussion and inner ear damage, which they confirmed later at the clinic, a physical manifestation of my disappointment, or just motion sickness. By the time I got to the clinic, I couldn’t cry any more. I asked the patient advocate to call the organizers so I could find a way back out onto the field.
I had planned for too long, invested too much financially and emotionally to crawl back to the hotel and just sit there, feeling sorry for myself. The next day they hauled me back to the steppe. I spent the rest of the ride traveling in the ‘Blood Wagon’. This is the unfortunately named van that travels with the field of riders picking up injured and exhausted riders for ‘carry forwards’ or ‘carry backs’ depending on the situation. I slept in the gers with the riders, ate the local food from our hosts at each station, basically did the ride – but from the back of the van. The first day I was back, I realized there might be some value in how all of it was playing out.
The day before, Leslie from Knoxville – who had been traveling in 1st place – got an uncooperative horse. He dumped her 17 km from the next station and took off with all of her gear. They never found the horse. She had hiked to the station where they found another saddle for her and put her on another horse. But as we had brought our own stirrups and leathers, she had none. She had actually ridden 2 legs (more than 50 miles) without stirrups. When I learned that, I made sure that she had my stirrups and leathers to keep going. The next day when I met up with her before a rain, I made sure she had my raincoat on her.
One of the riders was running low on electrolytes. I gave her mine. One of the riders came in one night with some serious chafing. I gave her a pair of my tights to smooth things over. One of the riders was running low on batteries (crucial to the functioning of our GPS). I gave him several of mine. On day 4, I found out that one of the riders was having a problem with her ankle – who would have imagined that my ankle bandage would keep her in the saddle for another 3 days. It was actually broken, and although she rode on it for 3 days like that, she eventually got pulled. By the end of the ride, my pack was pretty much empty; but my heart was full.
My competition from Tryon came off her horse on day 5 and shattered her collarbone. In most years, about half the field is eliminated for injuries. My year, we did a little better than that. Three people retired due to broken ribs, a couple due to concussions, one due to serious metabolic issues, and some other miscellaneous broken things. I believe 30 riders eventually finished. The Blood Wagon was at the Finish Camp when the first riders came in on Day 7. My joy for them was huge and sincere. I guess I’d never really expected to finish in the top ten in a race like the Mongol Derby. But as Day 8 and 9 and more and more riders arrived, I realized I was getting more and more depressed. It was almost over. I was here at the finish line, but I wasn’t going to be crossing it on horseback. It was overwhelming and suffocating. A year later, as I reflect on this I can’t write about it without tears.
I made some incredible friends. I went to visit a couple of them in Europe last month. We did a mountain trek: 300 km in 6 days in south central France. I’m still struggling with whether I need to go back to try the Derby again. It’s unfinished business. I’ve had my hip rebuilt and my hand is mostly healed. I’ll need to make a decision before I get too old.

Photography Courtesy Julia Fisher

WARHorses is honored to share Julia’s amazing journey through our exclusive four part series. Julia embodies the competitive spirit, determination and supportive generosity that are common among older equestrians. Age is just a number.

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