It’s been over two weeks since I crossed the Mongol Derby finish line and I’m just beginning to understand what happened to me.
Twenty-eight Mongolian horses and 1,000 kilometres later I’m a much different person from the timid amateur rider who crossed the start line on August 5th. The extreme experiences I’ve had over this last month make my six weeks training in Utah feel like a dream – like overheard anecdotes from a stranger’s life.
The real Mongol Derby journey began after a bumpy four-hour bus ride out of Ulaanbaatar and two days of training out on the steppe, when we finally reached start camp. Day 1 of the Derby was a brilliantly sunny day, with few clouds in the sky. The sweet grassy smell of the open plains was almost overwhelming, choking out even the musky odour of our Mongolian bridles made of goat hide.
I think I was fifth or sixth in line to get my mount and the herders threw me up on a frisky little chestnut and we milled about for almost an hour before all 36 riders were up and organized. We clustered about the flags at the start and Mongol Derby chief Katy Willings began counting down from 10. It was only in the 10 seconds before the race began I truly began to feel calm, knowing I’d prepared as best I could. In those final 10 seconds another emotion began to build – real excitement about the adventure I was about to embark on.
The pack whooped and thundered across the start line as the flag dropped. Being the risk-averse rider I am, I opted for a middle-of-the-pack position. The first 10 kilometres were a little hairy as riders got used to their horses – semi-wild horses feeding off our own jitters. I learned in this first few kilometers my horse was an excited bucker. He wasn’t dirty and didn’t try to dump me, but he was feeling good and enjoyed surging forward, locking his head between his legs and throwing a few enthusiastic kicks. It was the perfect intro horse to the Derby – one with just enough attitude to keep me on point and carry me at a good clip to the first changeover 40 kilometres down the line. After the first half hour or so, we settled into a nice relaxed canter and I let the experience hit me – I was on a Mongolian horse, flying through the countryside.
I caught up to Devan Horn, a repeat Derby rider who had crossed the finish line first in 2013, but lost the win because of a vet penalty. We rode beside each other for several kilometers in silence, her eyes locked on the horizon, until I broke it and asked her if she was looking for the win again this year.
“We’ll see what happens,” she shrugged. A second later she cantered ahead and began yelling at some cattle that were blocking our path.
As our horses seemed equally matched in speed and fitness, I committed to keeping up with Horn on this leg, as she was an experienced endurance rider and I was confident she’d bring her horse in at the vet check in good condition.
Minutes later, an Australian rider Will Graham caught up to us and all three of us rode together in a focused silence. As it was still early in the race, many people seemed competitive, looking for an advantage to surge ahead of the pack and hesitant to make alliances with other riders. But that’s not to say there were people riding in pairs or groups, who had committed to doing the Derby together.
I’d wanted to ride with U.S. riders Kat Whitney and Michelle Tanaka, but from the outset they had indicated they were in it to win it, while my goal was to finish with the least amount of injuries and falls. I wanted fast horses, but nothing too crazy, while Tanaka was intent on getting the fastest horse possible, no matter its other quirks. At the race launch party the night before, she’d chummed up with the herders over an ample amount of vodka and they’d promised her a speedy little pinto. And she’d already picked up a Mongolian phrase, which roughly translated meant “give me your fastest racehorse.”
For my part, I’d asked the translator to ask the herders for a “fast, but kind, horse,” and after the first hill I’d watched Tanaka and Whitney disappear over the horizon on their edgier mounts.
This first leg was fairly quick and thankfully uneventful – no falls or lost horse so far! I rode into the first horse station at the same time that Devan did, somewhere still in the middle. At this point I caught up to Tanaka and Whitney again, who were waiting for Tanaka’s horse’s heart rate to come down. My horse came in with a 72 heart rate, but within 15 minutes he was down to 56, the rate required for a clear vetting.
At the horse station, a nice Mongolian family had set up a spread of fried dough, cooked goat and rice and water and milk tea. Even though I’d only ridden 40 kilometres, I was surprisingly hungry and stuffed several pieces of fried dough in my mouth. After a few minutes, now full again and hydrated, I headed back out and picked a little red roan horse that would prove to be a fun, speedy ride for the next horse station.
I set off in good spirits, oblivious to the challenges that awaited me over the next eight days, including a run-in with a wild dog, a ride on a Soviet motorcycle, a horse falling on top of me and riding alone across the steppe in a lightning storm.
I want to write more, but I’ll spoil the suspense and ruin the magazine story I’ve written for the November/December print edition of Horse Canada.
At the risk of sounding trite, this experience has changed me. It’s made me more physically and mentally tough. But it hasn’t satisfied the boredom I’d hoped to cure. Instead, over the last two weeks I’ve been (unsuccessfully) trying to come up with adventures that will top this one.
It’s a funny turn from my mental state on Day 6 of the Derby during a tough leg, when I was alone in the middle of a thunderstorm, when I began bargaining with the powers that be, promising I’d never try anything so stupid again, if I could just get out of this race unscathed.
Now, safe in my apartment, with the sounds of the city purring outside my window, I would give anything to return to the steppe, to just have one more death-defying moment on a galloping Mongolian horse.