Halina Milne is a Polish-born, London-based interior designer and painter. In 2012, she visited Jordan with a group of painters from the Royal College of Art. They traveled the country for three weeks, practicing landscape painting. They were invited to people’s homes for dishes like mansaf and maklouba. She fell in love with Jordan. “I just felt there was something here,” she says. “I can’t tell you what is was… There was something magical.” She and a friend returned in 2013, and it was on that trip that she first heard of the Wadi Rum Marathon, an endurance horse race held annually on November 14. By her third visit, in the spring of 2014, she made up her mind to participate in the 80km marathon the following November. I talked with her recently in Petra to hear what it was like for someone with zero horse riding experience to train for and compete in a grueling international horse marathon in the deserts of Jordan.
What made you decide to do the race?
I thought it was absolutely amazing, especially with the connection of Wadi Rum and Lawrence of Arabia. Maybe my imagination took off and I could see myself as one of the Bedouins wearing the cloth on my head and yalla, yalla [“Let’s go!”], off we go [laughing].
In Autumn 2013, I decided wanted to be in it. Not knowing anything about it. Never having seen one. I came again in spring 2014. I was talking to other people involved in the race and they all told me how great it is and, ‘If you want to do it, do it.’ No one asked me if I could ride a horse. The first time I was on a horse was in Petra as a tourist. They lead you to the High Place of Sacrifice. It was an hour trek, and I was scared [laughs].
I came back to England and thought, ‘This it it. The race is in November. I’ve got seven months.’ They said I could do it, so I could do it. My life is like this. I just jump, then I think. And then I learn to swim. ‘Oh my God, I can’t swim! What do I do now?’ Fight for your life. But then you learn many things about yourself. You’re pushed to the limit and suddenly you discover you can do just about anything. Your instinct takes over. In that sense, I said yes, and then, ok, now I learn how to ride. How difficult could that be? I’ve got six months. That sounds like a long time. I told people in England. Half of them thought I was completely bonkers, as you can imagine. It’s 50 miles.
How did you learn to ride?
I went to a place called Richmond Riding School [in England]. First, I came and said there was a race in Jordan in November. I wanted to be part of it and wanted to learn how to ride. ‘What do you mean a race? A short race?’ I didn’t know the word ‘endurance’ at that time. Polish is my first language. I said, ‘No, no, it’s 80km.’ They look at me like I’m cuckoo and they said, ‘endurance?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ and they said, ‘Long race.’ And I said, ‘Yes, that’s it.’ They asked me about my background, have I been riding long. I said no. The English are very polite but you can just see the face [her eyes are bulging, mouth is hanging open].
In England it’s unheard of. You have to be a rider for several years and to have a background of riding. In terms of paperwork and conditions, it’s undoable. You have to go through the steps. You have to pass exams as a rider. It’s like getting a driving license. The shortest race is 20km and you have to do it two or three times, and then you keep building up. To do this from scratch would take about 2 years.
Tell me about your training.
I started riding. I could already canter because when I was in Jordan they put me on a marathon horse and the horse took off and that was cantering. I was so scared, I didn’t even know that I was screaming. It was my first lesson. It’s the Jordanian way–throw the child in the swimming pool.
In Richmond Park, you can’t gallop because of health and safety regulations, so I never galloped until I came to Jordan for the race. The canter is as fast as you can go. Even going into canter they were saying it’s amazing how quickly you go from one level to another [walk, trot, canter, gallop]. After five hours in the ring they said you are ready for the park. On my first day in the park, the horse was on the rope. I said ‘What do you mean?’ They said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I said, ‘No, I can’t let you.’ So she [the instructor] said, ‘Ok, book me for a lesson next time.’ So I came a second time, booked with her. The horse was off the rope.
If I want something I’m focused and pushing and trying to see the bigger picture. It’s not about pushing people out of the way. There is a solution; you just have to find it.
In the meantime, I was playing tennis and was talking to a tennis coach. He was saying, ‘It’s not just riding; you need stamina.’ I’m not a gym person, but after that I said I’m going to the gym. He introduced me to a trainer. She knew I hated the gym. She said, ‘I’ve got someone named Kunjan. He’s from Nepal.’ So I met with him three times a week in the gym and then another trainer from Vietnam named Tim. They took it personally and thought it was crazy and amazing. They put me on a full body strength program–yoga and pilates and with weights. I was crying a lot. Sweating a lot. Cursing a lot. I called Kunjan the ‘Nepalese nazi.’ And I went on a diet. It was very focused. They treated me like an athlete. Protein powders three times a day. B vitamins. A whole pharmacy to remember to take before or after food.
Tell me about your first race.
I got here 5 weeks before. I started riding Monica. And it’s just in Petra–mountain roads. You can’t just take off on open space.
I arrived in Wadi Rum the night before [the race]. I was so tense. They [other riders from Wadi Mousa and people on her team] were partying and drinking until 4 a.m. Dancing, singing. I was absolutely petrified.
I got up at 4 a.m. because I could not sleep. I was shivering and so cold. And so excited and terrified. I didn’t know what to expect. I never saw the race. I didn’t know what was going to happen. They got up at 5:20 a.m. The race was at 6 a.m. I got up at 4 to stretch and do yoga. I got up and was like, ‘Where’s my tea?’ They got up at 5:20 in an absolute panic. Yalla! Yalla! I think they were still drunk from the night before. They’re all saying, ‘Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine.’
The horses are circling, waiting. I’m walking, and I was just speechless with fear. That moment, you realize what the hell is going on. This is it. There is mist, dust, the sun is not up and it’s mystical. I was paralyzed, and then there’s a shot and everything’s, yalla! Let’s go! The only thing I can describe is it’s like the wild, wild west. It’s nothing like the racing I saw in England. It’s like they’re running for gold. I kick my horse, we go and then he stops and goes up on his back legs. There is cursing. There is no politeness. The only thing I can see is the dust, the sand and the fog, no one in front of me. I’m standing with the horse dancing backwards. We realized the bridle wasn’t on properly because we were late.
They [Jordanians] sit on the horse like American cowboys. Very rarely do they get up. You put more weight on the horse. In London, they taught me jockey style. When the horse is cantering, I’m up. That’s why the gym worked. My legs are like steel from the gym work, so I can last in that position several hours. Even though I was three minutes behind, five minutes later I was passing them in the light seat position.
I had nothing to drink or eat in the morning. It’s cold and tension is taking over in my stomach. I got cramps. I finished the first 30 km and then came back to base. You have a 20-minute break, see the veterinarian. If everything is ok, you go out again. If something minor is wrong with the horse, you are out. I can barely walk. An hour of light sitting. It doesn’t matter how much gym work, you’ll be in pain.
I had bad cramps. They took a scarf and put it very tight around my waist. It was even worse.
…In the second loop, I was next to another rider who was supposed to help me have someone to follow. A fancy 4×4 zigzagged past us and someone came out with a zoom lens like paparazzi. I thought it was TV or something but they were kind of in my way, so I just looked at the camera and I shouted, ‘Get out out of the way!’ We passed it and the guy next to me said, ‘Do you know who that was?’ I said, ‘Bloody idiot. People should not come too close.’ And he said, ‘That was the Queen taking your photo because there’s a woman in the race.’
…[At the end, there is] a ceremony where people throw buckets of water on you as a celebration for the person who is doing it for first time, so all of a sudden all these buckets of cold water are on me. I’m screaming at same time saying, ‘Yes! Give me more!’ [Later,] I’m in the car soaking wet and I just want to go home. I had blisters on my bum, I went to the pharmacy and tried to explain it very delicately.
I fell asleep, got up and the pain started kicking in. I couldn’t walk and was crawling to the bathroom in the evening on all fours. When I sat down on the bed I couldn’t lift my leg. I had to use my arms to pull it up or to cross my legs and then hold it in place. It was even worse the next day. Everything was pain. I can’t sit on my ass. I had to sit on one side of the chair. The next day there was a party and the alcohol–just pure vodka–took care of it. After the fourth one I was dancing, but three hours earlier I couldn’t walk upstairs to the coffee shop.
Milne has since completed two other 80km marathons, the most recent being a second place finish in the 2015 Wadi Rum marathon. If she completes one more 80km marathon, she will be allowed to participate in the 120km international marathon next November in Wadi Rum, though for now she says that would be “undoable.” “Eighty in the desert is tough,” she says. “Another forty, you have to be an exceptional rider.”
Given all it takes, why do you keep doing it?
It’s like a movie set. You can forget yourself in the moment. It’s surreal. You are caught up in the moment. What do you feel? Excitement. Pressure. You want to be the best. You want to make them proud. You want to show that you as a woman can do this. But it’s not about proving something. I can’t find the right word but you want to be a part of it. Why? I don’t know. [She gazes out the window at the streets of Wadi Mousa below as tears begin to fill in her eyes.] It’s a feeling of this very special freedom in that moment of time when you’re on the horse and it’s a canter or a gallop and you’re not walking the horse or kicking and you feel the horse wants to go. She wants to go, and in that moment you become one. In that moment you’re somebody else, something else. After finishing, you feel so excited. I don’t know how to describe it and even though your whole body aches, you’re happy. It’s a feeling of happiness and then you say, ‘Oh, fuck, I’m not gonna do this again,’ but then you do. ‘This is madness. This is the last time. No way. Are you stupid or something? Why are you doing this to yourself?’ But then I get a phone call. You say no way, but then it’s like nature calling, something wild inside me, instinct. I need to do it. The horse is waiting for me. I just need to jump on the plane and come [Smiles]. Yalla, yalla.