I will be riding in the second edition of Race the Wild Coast (pictured top), a 350km multi-horse race in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, 16-20 October. I am excited to share some of my experience of preparing for and competing in this unique race with the readers of Horse & Hound, and during the event you will be able to track me live.
Adventure has a way of finding me. This summer I organised and delivered my eighth Mongol Derby, and what will in all likelihood be my last. It has been a huge part of my identity, and the first thing in my “professional” life that I have felt pride or ownership or investment in. But, in the course of sending over 300 horsemen and women on their adventure of a lifetime, and indeed turning them into serial adventurers, I have not had much opportunity to follow suit. I have had the dubious privilege of being held up as an “adventurer”, while basically sitting in an office and manning the airwaves.
My right hand woman in the operations room for three successive Derbies was Kate Friedley; a fine rider, rancher and adventurer in her own right, and we keep up a sporadic but rewarding correspondence when time allows. In the spring she wrote to me, fresh off the back of an amazing trip she had done in South Africa, riding horses trained by Wiesman Nels.
“If you ever get the chance to ride his horses, take it; they were some of the fittest, toughest and most quality horses I have ridden, we swam big rivers and tackled big climbs, and the horses just kept finding more.”
I acknowledged the message and thought nothing more of it. I never would get the chance — Wiesman provides most of the horses for this race, I knew that already, but I was not a candidate for the race — always too cash poor and time poor, and probably beyond that selfish adventuring phase of my life in any case.
Barry Armitage is the organiser of Race the Wild Coast, and as a three-time Mongol Derby veteran (and winner of the 2017 edition), and co-producer of the TV series The Ride, which featured the Derby in 2011 and cost me several night shifts to do the groundwork for shoot, you might say we go back a long way. He is a great adventurer in his own right, and years back, rode his own horses “home” from Natal all the way to Cape Town — some 2000km round the coast of South Africa. I joined him for 200km or so of incredible beach riding, wild camping, and oyster consumption. He knows a good adventure when he sees one, and sections of that ride became the “course” for Race the Wild Coast. So, having been there at the event’s inception, there would be something fitting about being there to see it come to life.
Cue an email from Barry on the eve of this summer’s Mongol Derby.
“If I gave you a place, would you ride it?”
Here, in no particular order, are the reasons to say no:
How to prepare — I haven’t been on a horse much since the summer of 2016. The Derby is a sink for time and I tend to come home in terrible shape, both mentally drained and the kind of tubby you only get from a diet of coffee and takeaway and 18 hours a day at a screen.
Other plans — I should really be planning the rest of my life, post-adventurists, at the moment. The window from September to the end of the year I had marked out with two or three things — a motorcycle tour with my boyfriend to cement our newly minted licenses and win back some of the quality time we lost to a summer working in Mongolia; some business development for my own adventure consultancy; a little light product design; catching up with all the friends I never get to see enough of…
Isn’t it a bit dangerous? — I’m 10 years older now than when I rode in the first Mongol Derby in 2009, probably don’t bounce as well as I did, and find myself increasingly to be a bit of a coward when I look in the mirror.
But… the knot that I got in my stomach upon reading Barry’s message, accompanied by the grin that stretched across my face, did seem significant.
Here’s an opportunity. Why don’t you take it? By the time I was ready to tackle such a challenge, the opportunity would be lost. This was a now or never kind of offer. Could I live with myself if I didn’t make it to the finish line through poor preparation, or just not being tough enough, when I came to it? Yes, I think I could. More easily than knowing I was too cowardly to put my hat in the ring at all. Fundamentally, I am a skillful rider and an experienced “coper”, unlikely to be felled by sheer discomfort or fatigue. Plus, those fabulous horses Kate had told me about. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ride and partner with them. If I felt I was letting the side down or putting the horses at risk by being a loose cannon, not fit enough, not navigating well enough, I’d take it on the chin and pull out. I’d bring the horses home safe and sound, or withdraw gracefully.
After a lot of mutual “let’s see what we can do”, Barry and I finally both said “if you’re in, we’re in, your entry is confirmed”, three weeks ago. We’re doing this!
So, yes, I’ll be the underdog, well and truly. I am actually penning this from the road in Marseille, because there was no way I was going to cancel the motorcycle tour… it’s technically possible to ride to Lisbon and back in 13 days, then jettison one set of technical gear for another and race to the airport and fly to Durban for pre-race training… so… why would I do it any other way? My feeling is that the touring is good training for several important aspects of RTWC; being low-grade terrified, most of the time, wanting to say “I can’t ride this, over there!” But realising there is no-one in earshot so you’ll have to do it anyway; living out of a tiny saddle bag for an extended period and constantly cursing the items you have packed away neatly but now need access to; dealing with hazards, injuries, technical failures, making plans and adapting them as the situation dictates.
Before I left for the ferry on the Ducati, I did make good headway on various more physical preparations. First and foremost, back in the saddle! I have been riding out most mornings for Jeremy Naylor in Shrewton, in Wiltshire. Riding in the early morning sunshine around Salisbury Plain on a series of fantastic thoroughbreds has been an unexpected treat, and Jeremy, one of only a handful of equine vets who also holds a training license, is great company. We discuss the science of preparing athletes, human and equine; boats, bikes, other machines; military history, Greek mythology… these are mind-expanding mornings, which all the while are conditioning my legs and core for the upcoming onslaught. I have schooled, hacked and cantered, even hopped a couple of hurdles, and stared enthusiastically down the barrel of a 6am alarm call every day. That’s not like me…
I have sourced some, but not all, of my essential kit. Naturally the competition have had nine months to get this part just right, and I know I am just going to have to cope with what I have. Personally I think that to ride in kit you have not tested at all is worse than to ride in less than ideal race kit. So, my key investment so far is a pair of pants from Canada called JellyPants (look them up). They should stave off the saddle soreness to a large extent. I’m torn between fast-drying (we have to swim several big rivers and will be wet almost from the get go, as pre-race training will be largely about crossing the water safely and practising the same), and heavyweight kit for bushwhacking in (quite a bit of hiking through fynbos and creeper-strewn forest and up and down rocky staircases and ravines. Lord). Most of me is just grateful to have not been involved in these kinds of kit-queries. I’ll wear clothes, they’ll get wet, and I’ll crack on anyway. I’m planning to put my riding gloves on strings through my shirt, like I had as a kid, so I can’t lose them. And have a waterproof bag for them to swim in. Perhaps that tapes onto my helmet…
Here’s me testing my riding boots wet. I got in the water trough and then went for an hour’s hike. Not great, but not terrible either. I have cankles, so I think I want them strapped tightly. Others will be in trainers no doubt, but I don’t run fast anyway, and I sure as hell ride better in boots, so… the Ariats make the cut.
I have invested in a new roll mat and sleeping bag so that I have good sleep to look forward to every night. We are camping most nights on this trip so my skills in locating head torch, dressing and undressing in a horizontal space roughly coffin-sized, decamping and packing your vehicle without undue foul language (minimal progress there) are improving.
I’m currently eating my way around France, going pretty heavy on the cheese. I reckon a couple of kilos of fat will be a good investment in case of sickness, without costing me too much in terms of fitness. I have been training two or three times a week in the gym at the wonderful StrengthLab in Bristol for over a year now, and could probably run for my life, swim for the shore, get up a tree, and haul my own ass up the hills and down again to save my horse’s legs a little. We will hit the Mediterranean coast tonight and I plan to swim. Probably in a bikini, to be honest, but perhaps I’ll kit up and have a practice swimming fully clothed…
So, it’s going to be quite the challenge. But actually, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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