- Associated Press - Friday, September 23, 2016

CHAPMAN, Kan. (AP) - The pain was excruciating.

Air Force Capt. Tim Finley was sure he’d broken a bone. Somehow, he got up off the Mongolian steppe and dusted himself off, trying not to look injured.

He wasn’t about to quit the Mongol Derby, despite pain in his back from being thrown from the Mongolian racehorse Aug. 4, the first day of the race, The Salina Journal (https://j.mp/2cVrwyA ) .

His mission was too important.

Every time he changed horses, he planned to write on his shirt the name of one of the 27 servicemen, some of whom he knew personally and others he had been told about, who had committed suicide.

His quest was to raise awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and other mental health issues suffered by people in the military and to deal with his own depression and suicidal thoughts.

The 621-mile, 10-day race, often referred to as the most grueling horse race in the world, did indeed help Finley come to terms with his depression.

At the finish line, he buried not only his wedding ring but the demons that had taunted him.

“When I got to the finish line, there were four or five narratives that ended at the line,” he said recently. “One was the race itself; one was the message I was trying to send, but some of the most impactful personal narratives came to closure at the finish line.”

The Mongol Derby, according to the website, is a 621-mile endurance equestrian race that recreates the postal route created in 1224 by Ghengis Khan. Entrants pay $13,000 each and are provided with enough Mongolian horses that they can switch rides every 40 km along the route, along with a support team and support stations along the route.

Finley said that while he was riding that 621 miles, he thought constantly about the last year and a half - what he called the worst time of his life.

He has been in the Air Force for 16 years, was a member of the Honor Guard in Washington, D.C., and served as a pilot and an air battle manager.

“Pick a country in the Middle East and I’ve been there,” he said.

He battled suicidal thoughts for more than a month in the spring of 2015. He said his depression was related to personal issues, not his time in combat.

He said that of the 27 people whose names are on the shirt he now stores in a waterproof bag, six committed suicide for reasons that were not related to combat.

“The combat portion never bothered me. In fact that helps me sleep at night because I was in a place to do something about the bad things that were happening,” he said. “A lot of the suicides that are occurring are not combat-related. They are military-related.”

Being stationed overseas, servicemen face unique personal challenges that are compounded over multiple deployments.

Finley was in charge of the Northern Iraq air campaign at the time of his depression.

“I’m trying to balance both of these things at the same time, both incredibly stressful,” he said.

He finally told his boss of his depression and was sent back to Kansas for mental health treatment.

“That process has a lot of benefit but there is a lot lacking in that process,” Finley said. “There are a lot of tools provided to the individual but there is no talk about a solution. It says we will continue this process until you get better. There’s no solution.”

He said leadership lacked an understanding of the treatment process and failed to lead by example.

“The solution is unique to each individual and it has to come from that individual,” he said. “No one is telling the individual that is getting help that ultimately the solution comes from your choice to move forward. What that choice looks like is unique to that person.

“I wanted to show what a solution looks like. Endurance riding is a beautiful metaphor for that because you are suffering through the heat, wind and the rain, the terrible food and the pain just to get to a finish line that’s not always visible and seems unattainable.”

At the time Finley was thrown from his horse, he had printed only three of the names on his shirt.

A competitive horseman, Finley could tell just by looking that the Nadaam racehorse he had selected was going to be fast.

“As soon as I pointed him out the herders went, ‘Ho, ho, ho. Are you sure?’ Yes that’s the one I want,” he said.

As soon as he mounted, the horse bolted toward a parked motorcycle.

“They don’t brake; they just go straight very fast,” Finley said. “They are fearless in nature but spook very easily to people.”

Mongolian horses are about the size of a pony and are semi-feral. Finley expected the horse to veer left but it went right, and he ended up on his back.

Finley said he was sure that if he didn’t get up fast enough event organizers would call in the medics, ending his race on Day One.

“I kind of put on a smile and said ‘I’m good,’ ” he said.

He was asked if he wanted a different horse.

“Then it hit me. I was not here to just race. I am here to send a message. In my mind I am thinking that the horse is terrifying, but that’s the message of getting back on the horse. So I said, ‘Nope, bring his ass back over here,’ ” he said.

Like a bolt of lightning, the horse took off, and Finley led the race into Day Two.

However, for the next five miles, between the pain and trying to hold the horse back, he became nauseated and thought he would faint.

“I almost passed out getting off the horse,” he said.

He made it through Day One and went on to place 13th overall.

Owners of the rest stations, called urtuus, provide horses, food and water at night in tents called gers. Contestants could eat, rest or even sleep.

“But if you were competing, you were racing, the best thing was to just grab whatever they had and eat it on the way,” Finley said.

Contestants could stay with the families at the urtuu, and there were plenty of dairy products to consume on the trail.

“Eat big meals before you start the day and after you finish,” he said. “You are at the mercy of Mongolian food. And I do mean mercy.”

Finley said the water sometimes wasn’t boiled long enough. He drank some bad water on Day Seven.

“It didn’t affect me until Day Eight, but boy did it affect me. It was bad,” he said.

Another option for contestants was to camp outdoors.

“Camping out is not only adventurous but to some degree dangerous,” he said. “There is no shelter in Mongolia. There are very few trees,” he said.

There were some very old shelters that were falling down.

“Or you can camp out under the stars but you are at the mercy of the Mongolian weather. The weather in Mongolia, from the first day you get there, tries to kill you. It will flip a switch, getting you used to scorching hot, and you’re sweating profusely, and in a matter of hours you are stuck in a torrential rain and you will worry about being hypothermic. Sort of like Kansas, only worse,” he said.

Finley camped outside at times and took advantage of the hospitality of an urtuu at times. He said getting to an urtuu at the end of the day was an advantage because the contestant didn’t waste riding time choosing a new horse and eating.

The unique horses belonged to the Nomads.

“This race is a mark of great pride for them. They love showcasing their best and fastest.”

Riders paid $13,000 to enter the race, and the entire experience cost about $20,000, which Finley funded. He received about $1,500 in donations through a GoFundMe campaign, which he gave to Heroes and Horses, an equine assisted therapy program for reforging combat veterans.

Finley prepared for the race by riding other people’s horses across the country.

“I felt the best thing I could do was to get time in the saddle on as many different horses as possible,” he said. “I drove all over the country - Kentucky, Tennessee, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, Wyoming, California - all over just to ride these different horses. … There were a lot of good equestrian riders in this race but I don’t think there was anyone that had ridden as many different types and brains of horses.”

Finley crossed the finish line on Day Nine with the names of 27 veterans who had committed suicide written on his shirt. Each horse he rode, he named in their honor, and he carried them with him across the line.

But in all he finished with 28 names, and he rode 28 horses. The last horse, Finley named “Tim.”

“I named him after me - the one horse who crossed the finish,” he said.

___

Information from: The Salina (Kan.) Journal, https://www.salina.com

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