Race the Wild Coast: ‘he flew off the cliff onto a landing pad the size of a bar stool’

  • Katy remembers key moments from this gruelling race and tells us how she is recovering now...

    Last week, Katy Willings took part in a gruelling race over several days on horseback. Here is the second part of her mid-race blog. You can read the first part here…

    Did the race go your way and how was the final day?

    No, not exactly. Of the 14 starters, there were 11 finishers, and I was 10th of that 11. I finished three hours behind the winner. Here I make some attempt to account for that three hours.

    15 minutes around 3km off the start

    My cantle bag had already worked itself loose and was bouncing around on the stallion Zerango’s bottom and making him extremely difficult to control in a labyrinthe of dense thicket and cow paths. The temptation to throw the bag on the ground and say “I will just go without it” is overwhelming in the initial salmon run of the race, but I knew I’d regret that later — it contained my sleeping bag, the only dry garment I could bank on for the duration of the race. I had to get off to re-adjust it. Twice. That also meant having to get back on, in the melee of racing horses and being left behind, and being the stallion and thinking I was letting the side down and roaring his disapproval. It was… emotional.

    Julie, Courtney, Cat and I

    15 minutes more around 2km further down the trail

    A fellow rider, Melissa, had hit the deck in the same salmon run and her horse had taken off. She had also injured her face, perhaps broken her nose, and was bleeding profusely. Her wrist was also sore, and this, of course, turned out to be the more serious injury, a probable fracture. At this point I was in a pod with two other riders, Chetta and Courtney, who had had the grace to stop and wait with me as I struggled to anchor Zerango to get back on and get back in the race. He had immediately repaid their generosity, being a fantastic leader of a horse, and setting the pace for our little group.

    We couldn’t believe that the pack had left Melissa standing (lying!) and her horse off wandering, and made a plan between us to catch her mount, a glorious but quite green Arab, and reunite her with it. Mounting with her wrist was a real challenge for her, and as the adrenaline wore off she was clearly in a great deal of pain. As the resident pharmacist, I was happy to dispense some of my stronger painkillers, and as the idiot “Queen Herself” who had decided to ride with a fine silk scarf, I offered to sling her arm and strap it so she could tuck it in at any opportunity to ride one-handed.

    Of course, being in a small group with two navigators, me and Courtney, made it much easier for her to ride one handed in the first place. We did get back within sight of the leading pack thanks to Zerango’s huge striding trot and general charisma, and decided, as a unit of four, to stay back and take care of each other — just stay in the race — rather than re-join the salmon run and risk injury, accident, horses racing each other instead of taking care of themselves, and us. It kept us off the leaderboard, but it kept us all in the race.

    A Formula 1 style pit stop at Kob Inn, day four, 50km from the finish. While Pelo the farrier replaces Makin’s shoe a second time, with corner toe clips this time to give us a bit more hoof to work with, I get busy doctoring my thigh. Propriety might have required that I find some privacy, but the horse required feed, water, shoeing, and there wasn’t time to do these in sequence, so…pants round ankles and off we went. Julie supplied the topical ointment, Cat stole me a vet wrap from one of the vet team’s kit-boxes, and Katja and Ian, the crew members presiding at this vet check, brought me food and water so I didn’t need to waddle anywhere. I vividly remember Ian offering me a choice of energy bars and me just taking all three from his hand, not even blinking. Eating became an extremely animal affair. Thanks to Katja for this priceless photo

    30 minutes at the top of the first serious rock staircase

    Here I just couldn’t persuade Zerango to take the ‘easy’ route down the cliff. To future rocketeers I say this — just give the horse the entire length of rope and start descending. Don’t even look back to comment on your horse’s chosen route.

    Having tried for 20 minutes to get him down the cliff the obvious way, and to stop him from walking along the true cliff edge and attempting a bounce of two six foot drops on wet rock, I gave up, and let him square up to an impossible course down. He hovered and levitated and dipped both front legs down a couple of feet, pulling them back up again and making me wince at the prospect of two skinned and bleeding forelegs. And then he just flew off the cliff. And somehow contained all of that momentum to balance, elf-like, on a landing pad the size of a bar stool. It became so normal to hear scraping hooves and a belly groan behind me and then see a hoof land right next to my gloved hand that I stopped reacting to it. He knew which way I was trying to go down, and made his own plans, trying not to trample on me. He knew instinctively that there would be occasions where there wasn’t space for the two of us on one foothold, and if I couldn’t get out of his way, he’d do his best to skid into me rather than jump, so that where we fell it tended to be one at a time, and at a controllable speed. Small victories, then.

    10 minutes on the third morning

    Unforgivable incompetence on my side, and my gang, quite rightly, didn’t wait. Overnight rest holds were 12 hours during the race. If you arrived at the night stop at 5pm, you could ride out at 5am. This was how riders could bank advantage over each other and maintain their interval. It mattered. We had a start time of 4.45am, and our best opportunity of the entire race to catch the leaders, who had ridden out of our night stop at 6pm, the cut-off time, the previous evening. Psychologically, this was painful, to see people overnight a full stage ahead of us. However, when we did the maths we realised what we had an amazing opportunity to do in the dawn light, potentially in the dry (it was biblical rain almost continuously for the first two days, and dark by 6.15pm), what the leaders would be doing in the wet, in the dark, 12 hours earlier. They had a 45 minute lead on us. Could we cover 20km 45 minutes faster in daylight?

    Having ridden in the dark for what felt like four hours (it was two) on day one, I felt sure we could. Riding in the pitch dark was the worst experience of the entire race for me. All I could illuminate with my pathetic headtorch and more ocean going hand held torch was the rain slashing in at us, and progress was agonisingly slow as a result. Looking at the GPS to discern if we were on course just blinded me. We were happy to swap night riding for an early start. So, the alarms were set for 3.15am… and promptly slept through, until 3.30am. Doesn’t sound like much but it really is an involved job to get back into cold wet kit, doctor all the open cuts on hands and ankles from wet boots and gloves, try and eat, pack everything back into saddle bag and race vest, locate and saddle horse in the dark. I was still saddling up and kitting up at 4.42am…

    All had warned me against wearing my leather Ariat boots and half chaps, but until then I had been happy with how all my kit was performing. However, last thing at night I had been too lazy or exhausted to clean the chaps, and the zips were full of sand and mud. I couldn’t do them up. I was crouched, next to a saddled and agitated horse, first streaks of dawn light on the horizon and my comrades already puffing away up the first of the day’s ascents, my hands shaking in the cold and wet, trying to get my boots sorted. Agony.

    Ian, another rider who had joined our clan over the preceding day, then repaid then favour I had paid him in helping him mount the stallion who had buried him on several occasions during his stage. He waited. He may have waited another few minutes more but we were both interrupted by Barry, the race director, who just bellowed at me “Willings! Just drop them! Just leave them behind, get on, and bloody go! What are you doing!” Well, quite. There went 10 minutes I should not have lost. I did the rest of the race in socks.

    45 minutes on the third afternoon

    Makin, my final steed, threw a shoe. He was sore on the naked hoof almost immediately, and the terrain underfoot showed no sign of easing up. By this stage, we were a great band of three riders, Courtney, Cat and I, all Mongol Derby veterans and with a similar attitude to the horses and the event. We had a good dynamic, had lost a couple of minutes here and there to each other, but on balance gained far more than we had lost, by keeping the horses working together, drinking, peeing and recovering together, and keeping our morale up. But, at this stage, I considered my race to be over.

    We were half way to the next vet check and opportunity to see a farrier. I sent them on without me and finished the leg on foot, walking in two hours what we probably would have ridden in one. That I crossed the line with Courtney and Cat is a function of their amazing generosity in waiting 20 minutes (I partially caught up once the shoe was back on, riding the last leg on day three with American pistol Julie Eldridge, who had been vetted out and was now riding for pure fun on a spare horse) to start with me on the morning of day four. There was no way I was going to race for the line and ‘pip’ either of them after that.

    This really is a tiny sub-set of all the pickles that befell me, and I am sure everyone else on the event had similar pickles, which they addressed faster. The winners were great riders who clearly had their act together. Kudos in particular to Melissa, she of the wrist, who was always pushing to crack on faster, and who rejoined the leading pack when we caught them up on our second horses. She finished third. And will be running 100 miles on foot this weekend.

    The glorious finish line, later the same day. Notice the sweat and salt crust, the bungee cord strapping my race vest to my body. The final dash for the line (I am far right, the last of the 4) I deliberately held back. Those three ladies I was riding with were the reason I was able to finish at all and they all deserved to be ahead of me. I was proud to still have a horse fit to continue, though fatigued, after a torrid start to our 130kms together, and the night before had said I’d rather do two 50kms days than the final 90kms all in a day. Julie, Courtney and Cat persuaded me we had it in us, and proved us right. We both got to sleep all day Saturday as a result

    How are you now? Recovered?

    I did some damage to my shoulder on training day two, the first big swim, which was extremely painful as soon as the adrenaline wore off. Zerango was fast on his feet while I was still swimming and I got dragged ashore by one arm. From there, mounting and dismounting would take me a full 10 minutes to recover from the jolt, a burning pain that would run up and down my arm and leave me breathless and grimacing, hoping no-one else could see my face or hear my groaning. It was unfortunate to start carrying quite a significant injury, and this is the only thing that, a week later, is still troublesome.

    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!

    Continued below…

    I got one rub on my thigh, which was so painful by the last day that I could barely touch the saddle, and was busy pulling every muscle and tendon from the neck down contorting myself to avoid it. Aware that this would be very uncomfortable for the horse as well, with 50km to go I got patched up while Makin was re-shod (again — he threw the same shoe). I’ll let the picture tell the story here. Trotting out of Cob Inn, high as a kite on codeine and leg numbed with Julie’s secret cream (I promised not to tell what it was… you’ll have to ask), I turned to my three riding partners and gushed “I can trot! Thank Christ. Guys. I am so sorry I was testy earlier. You’re all amazing. This is amazing”. Codeine is amazing. So is Anusol. Whoops, sorry Julie.

    I slept almost continuously for the first few days post-race. Part of me thought I was suffering some awful tick borne virus (we all finished covered in tick bites and were advised to watch out for the potentially fatal tick bite fever), but in retrospect, I reckon it was just because I was tired. Off the charts tired. I wasn’t really fit enough to do the race. I did it on credit, so to speak, and had to lie down for a while afterwards. I am fine with that though. I’ll train much harder for the next adventure…


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