Leave it to someone like Michelle Tanaka to return from a journey like the Mongol Derby only to be disappointed she had no broken bones.
In late July, we previewed Tanaka’s incredible journey to the epic, long-distance horse race over the Mongolian steppe, and it was just as Tanaka expected it to be: painful, exhilarating, exhausting and, well, epic. We caught up with her this week after she finished tied for third in the 1,000-mile journey.
So, you’re back in one piece?
A: “I am back in one piece. Never once came off a horse, no injuries. Nothing bad happened. It was intense, it was painful, but mostly it was so fun.”
Describe the pain.
A: “The last leg, the fourth leg of the second day, I was just in so much pain. I just could not have imagined it. You know it’s going to be the worst pain you ever felt, but it was just so painful and you have to keep going.”
Were you ever in disbelief, like, “I’m really here?”
A: “There were so many moments of disbelief. How beautiful the land is, how great the people are. I really expected some (bad stuff) to happen to me. ... I’m gonna get bucked off and hike 10 miles in the rain, and nothing happened. I don’t want to say I was disappointed, but … I’m very glad I didn’t get injured, but in a way I’m disappointed I don’t have any crazy stories. I can tell people how it was, and that in itself was kinda wacky, but no calamities.”
Is this something you want to do again?
A: “I’d definitely do it again, and I’d do it not playing it safe. My strategy was just to ask the herders for their best racehorses, and I’d like to go back and pick all my own horses.” Did you realize many people back home were charting your progress? “The first couple days I was aware there were people watching, but after the third day, I forgot there was another world. (My friend Kat Whitney) and I split up at the end of the third day because her horse went lame. I started riding with the two New Zealand guys, Ben Wilks and Maxime Van Lierde, and only when I got back did I say, ‘Oh yeah, I guess I should check my email.’ It’s funny, I heard people were like, ‘Michelle’s leading the Mongol Derby,’ but on my end, I was just on a runaway horse and I couldn’t stop it!”
What were the horses like, the riding?
A: “I’ve never ridden a racehorse, and these are not like the ones here — big and powerful, they sprint and then they’re done. These horses are racing over all kinds of terrain, and they do it for 25 miles. There’s just nothing you can do. You try to point it in right direction. I was with two guys over 6 feet tall, and they were getting run away with. Everything hurts. My feet would go numb — everyone’s did — and that’s nothing you can expect. If I were to prepare for this again, I’d do calves every day all day.”
What was your schedule like?
A: “We woke up 5:30 a.m., done with riding around 8:30 p.m., lick your wounds, in bed 10 or 11 and up again. We stayed with the people in the yurts and always made it to horse stations at night. Four stations a day. Four riders would stay with families in between stations. Liz even had a bath!”
Were you jealous?
A: “You get so sucked in, and with this you realize everyone else is just dirty, too. After a couple days, we were just in it. What do we do all day: ride, eat, ride, eat, ride, eat, ride, eat, pass out. By the end, you’re so dirty and so used to being dirty that no one was racing for showers.”
You ended up finishing in third after leading for a lot of the event. What happened at the end?
A: “The two leading ladies — (eventual champion) Byeronie Epstein and (second-place finisher) Elise Poitrinal — they were trying to break away from us the whole race, they didn’t get a clean break until halfway through the last day and we were like, ‘See you later, good for them.’ They were very competitive, and I didn’t feel like we were. We crossed the line holding hands.”