Race the Wild Coast blog: it was utterly brutal, an onslaught, heroic and redeeming

  • My ability to sit and write this final post has been hampered far more by an inability to sit vs. an inability to write. The saddle sores are finally healing over acceptably and so in this post I’ll take you through my race and the experience, and cover off the most frequently asked questions by my friends, family and fellow seekers of equine adventure.

    So, how was it?

    Utterly brutal, an onslaught, heroic, redeeming. An adventure so full of hazard and hardship that you must focus your entire self on the immediate, the now, the horse under you and the terrain in front of you, and cope with the utter basics of your existence.

    You can breathe, you can run, you can ride, you can see (for most of it… more on that later), so you are not dead yet and you are still in this race.

    1. The ascent to the start line – a lot of the terrain was like this, but navigated in the dark, or in the wet. We came to dismount without breaking stride on getting to the next unrideable section, it just became standard

    I said at the outset my mantra for the event would be “feel free to cope”, and it was indeed an exercise in coping. I do not mean that pejoratively. It was not unpleasant in some orchestrated equine Hunger Games — it was simply a journey through a landscape so dramatic and remote, in a time frame that meant we were up at 3am preparing to ride and in the saddle at 4.30am, just to have a hope of finishing, in weather that varied from biblical rain to sand storms that would take your lips clean off. To give each type of danger, fear, discomfort and hard luck story its proper place in one’s mental library would be to crowd out the far more important volumes we needed constant access to.

    As something of a chicken, I think this was an extremely healthy exercise for me, forcing me to let go of fears until they barely registered, in order to save energy and focus on the painstaking progress we were making instead.

    2. The magnificent Zerango. We drew for our first horses, and picked our own for the second and third at designated horse changes. I could not have hoped for a stronger first partner, but he was not the easiest on the ground and I started with a few injuries thanks to his shenanigans during swim training.

    Well that doesn’t sound like much fun

    True. Barry, the race organiser, was at a number of the vet checks and overnight stops and asked me a few times “are you having fun yet, Willings?” to which my response was, in most cases, a thousand yard stare. That said, there were moments which were the purest joy, something much more powerful than fun, and feelings of intense camaraderie with riders who I helped and who helped me, and crew members who made personal or practical struggles a little bit easier, or just had a smile and a kind word to get you out of your own suffering and back in the world of humans and polite conversation for a moment.

    It actually was a perverse kind of fun; the more you are coping with, simultaneously, the greater the sense of elation you feel; there is almost a “I dare you to make it harder” feeling.

    Having our race number, six, spray painted on and preparing to trot up and present to the vets and the SPCA who observed the entire event to monitor horse welfare

    Most of the 360km were arduous going; savage climbs and slippery descents, treacherous rocky staircases, dizzyingly narrow single track paths cut into blustery hillsides with sheer drops to the ocean on your left and more towering ascent to your right, dense forest strewn with creepers and thorns at eye and chest level and tangles of wood and boulders from waist down. Even the beaches were inconsistent, with the odd stretch of beautiful fast packed going interspersed with deep and sucking sand that pulled shoes and tripped horses. The swims, which struck terror pre-race, as the one thing we surely couldn’t train for, came to be a relatively soothing element to the event, preceded as they inevitably were by decent hard sand, and involving (basically) an abdication of all responsibility to the horse. In summary, there was very limited scope to get up speed, have the wind in your hair and be carefree. All progress was hard won. If you can keep your sense of humour in that equation, then this is the race for you.

    Shoulder-gate. Yup, it looks painful, because it was. I spent the night pre-launch agonising about whether I was even fit to start. One of the fantastic crew, Nicola, talked me through an alternative swim technique, whereby I stayed directly over the saddle and swam above the horse, rather than at his side, meaning when he came out of the water, I would naturally wriggle back onto the saddle, rather than be dragged ashore again because of the height differential. It was too late to practice this technique but her advice paid off and I never had another dramatic swim, and even came to look forward to them. She also gave me a massive hash cake to help with the pain. Thanks Nicky!

    It doesn’t sound very horsey to me

    On the contrary. It required a wholesale re-evaluation of what a horse can do, and what it is supposed to be doing, by me and I think all the other competitors. The horses were staggeringly capable and talented, and the highlight of the adventure for me. A bit like the Vicarage Vee at Badminton, the things that terrified me on the course did not seem to traumatise the horses, and they were of a fitness and quality which meant they always found more to give, even after 100km of highly technical terrain. We crossed country that I would never, (EVER) ask one of my own horses to cross, but for these amazing rockethorses it didn’t ever feel like an unfair challenge. I cannot over-state how impressive each and every horse taking part on the event was, and must congratulate the organisers on sourcing and preparing such a herd.

    Still, sharp and slippery rocks punctured my first horse on two occasions and I dealt with a pretty spicy haemhorrage at one point. I also led in a footsore horse that had thrown a shoe and missed it immediately, though he was sound as a pound again as soon as the ground was forgiving. Horsemanship during the event encompassed a great deal more than riding well — we were true team mates to the horses; panting and puffing alongside them (or under them, applying a vet wrap), as much as we were in the saddles; taking care of them as animals and as athletes; feeling them tire, stiffen and dehydrate and knowing how to manage them; knowing when to lead and assert ourselves and when to follow and let the horses’ instincts dictate the terms.

    Sometimes I got this spectacularly right (letting Kwacha, my second horse, tow me up a mountain side from his breastplate, my feet barely touching the floor as I danced to keep up with him), and sometimes I got it spectacularly wrong (around 30 minutes later trying to remount and ask him to stand downhill of me, facing away from the pack of fellow racers who were already rolling… his herd brains spattered down the flinty, muddy, slippery trail, and basically on skis thanks to the mud caked in my boots after all the hiking, I fell over, reins in hand, and he stepped through them and turned. I was now stuck directly behind an overexcited horse, bound together with him by reins just long enough to go round his arse and my prone body. He could have kicked me to smithereens there, and did strike me pretty hard as he jumped away and cannoned into the herd of other racers who were already cantering up the next hillside. It took me 15 punishing minutes to jog and hike back to him and remount. I reckon I would have failed my Pony Club C Test on about 37 occasions during this event.

    Kwacha, who sling shotted me back up the order. No thanks to my appalling time keeping on day 3. Notice the socks (supposedly tick proof, and in fact all my tick bites are at thigh level or higher. We should investigate if they do an all in one body suit…Kwacha was Boerperd rather than Arab, and his intelligence and stamina, and beautiful elastic movement, were a total joy. He was much loopier than Zerango however, and spooky and distracted when up front. Still, a privilege to ride and a great pick. His swift recovery at Mdumbi, one of the vet checks on day three, meant we could have rejoined the leading pack, but by then it was my tiring condition, sore bits, and lack of appetite to fight for control in a big jostling pack of riders, that held me back. I waited for Courtney, Cat and Chetta and we rode on in style together instead

    Cantering up the next hillside?! No chivalry like on the hunting field then?

    This was a race. People approached the race according to their ambitions and the constantly changing dynamics of the race. We were all shooting up and down the order, all the time, and so to finally snap the elastic binds of sharing navigation, rescuing and being rescued, just having company and leadership and a second opinion on where the hell we were and if we really were supposed to be going that way, it took a little bit of ruthlessness. I believe that’s a healthy part of a competition, and also of an adventure. You learn a lot about yourself when faced with those kinds of dilemma — relief, perhaps elation and a sense of opportunism, that that’s not you down there, and sympathy, tinged with frustration, that that’s someone, just like you, could be you, down there.

    Continued below…

    For some, the blinkers never came off, and I don’t imagine they stopped for a single mishap, kit adjustment or watering opportunity for someone else’s horse. Others, myself included, were far more pastoral. I was always going to race, but during the briefings we were given an excellent piece of advice by the chief, Barry, that the race would only really begin once we were within range of the finish. The first 250km could only lose us the race, not win it. So, stay in it, and if things are going your way, be ready to capitalise on it on the last day.

    And so, once that day came, I will explain in my next blog what exactly happened…


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