Joe Hedrick wasn’t kidding. Camel racing isn’t for wussies.
That’s what he told us in our introduction at Virginia City’s 57th International Camel and Ostrich Races. Along with my fellow media-types, I listened intently to Joe’s warnings and admonitions to recuse ourselves at any second until the gate opened if we had any doubts.
We laughed nervously at possibilities of death and dismemberment that Joe assured us were rare but very real. He made certain we were very clear about what we were getting ourselves into before we signed our lengthy waivers.
No, camel racing is clearly not for wussies.
What Joe didn’t tell us…
Joe then sent us on our way to ride camels at a walk to get a feel for it. My handler asked me if I was nervous. I answered with a confident “No.” Then after a couple of seconds, “Well, not yet.”
Even at a walk, the camel’s lumbering gait throws you forward and backward as well as side to side at the same time. It’s very unlike the rhythm of a horse’s gait that’s familiar to me from my past life of English showing and jumping. No, a camel is a different beast entirely.
Joe told us balance is the key to successful camel riding. It would seem my many hours of motorcycling and yoga would be more useful than my long-past equestrian experience. We were advised to keep both hands on the “saddle” (I use the term loosely) and simply hold on. The other task was to keep our legs forward so we weren’t thrown onto the hump and left to teeter off the side.
Beyond that, it was a matter of letting the camels do their thing. They know the drill; there’s not much for the rider to do but stay on. The caveat is that the animals sometimes decide to explore the far reaches of the track rather than cross the finish line.
I was scheduled to ride in the last heat of the first day of the races. All day I watched other riders struggle, or fall off, or back out. By the start of my race I was simply hoping to stay on. Winning just wasn’t a priority as I wobbled on top of the starting gate in the blazing afternoon sun.
When a former bull rider in an earlier heat commented on the difficulty of staying on the camel, I thought, “Wow, I’m up a creek.” Doubts about my injured leg’s ability began to rise to the surface. I’ve come a long way since last year’s life-threatening injury but my leg isn’t what it used to be by any stretch of the imagination.
Before setting us off on our racing adventure Joe introduced the riders in the center of the arena to the crowd. The three of us gave Joe the nutshell version of how we ended up there that day and set off towards the starting gate.
I was the last to mount up so I had the least time to get mentally prepared. For all the instruction we had on how to ride the camels, how to get on them was not a well-discussed subject other than “Be on or be off, don’t be in between.” Um… ok.
Focused mainly on the actual racing of the camels, I didn’t realize that to get on them, we had to climb up the thin, wobbly starting gate walls with only one foothold along the way. Then balance on the one-inch wide metal wall, swaying in the wind until you get the gumption to launch yourself onto the camel’s back.
Once on my camel—named Georgia, coincidentally—Monty the camel handler put the lead in my hand and told me to duck so I didn’t whack my head on the starting gate. Then he asked me if I was ready. After my less-than-confident “yes,” the gates burst open.
The camels jolted through the gates with a burst of energy. After 20 yards or so, all of the camels decided they were more in the mood for a jog or stroll than an all-out race. The rider to my right disappeared from my view as his camel decided to take the scenic route around the track. The rider to my left somehow ended up stalled in front of me at the turn. That’s when I decided to be more than just a passenger. I pulled Georgia’s lead to the left so she wouldn’t take the long way around my stalled competitor. She complied and picked up her pace a little as well.
I was in the lead. And with winning on my mind.
I couldn’t see the other riders to know if they were on my tail or wandering in the far reaches of the arena. As we approached the finish line at a semi-trot, Georgia began drifting off to the side of the track. I gave her a little verbal encouragement and pulled her lead back to the left to straighten her out. She complied yet again and strode me triumphantly across the finish line.
I was exhilarated. Until I discovered another unknown detail on camel racing: to dismount I was supposed to just jump off. There was no platform or even a flimsy gate to work with. It’s a long way down from a camel’s back.
My heart sank. I looked at the ground far below and thought of Frankenleg. “Shit, what do I do?” I thought.
With no other options, I took a deep breath and plummeted off of Georgia’s back, intent on having my good leg take the full force of the jump. It was my Keri Strug moment as I landed with a thud in the soft, thick dirt and stuck the landing on my good leg.
And, just like that, all of the drama and exhilaration of my camel racing experience was over. In less than two minutes.