Last November, Heidi Telstad, a 43-year-old lawyer from Vancouver, British Columbia, posted the first entry in her Chase Endurance blog on Horse-Canada.com. She planned to chronicle her experience preparing for and competing in the 2016 Mongol Derby – the world’s longest and toughest horse race. Along the way, she hoped to raise funds for the BC Epilepsy Society, through Canada Helps, in honour of her nephew, four-year-old Chase.
Not only was Heidi successful in raising money and awareness for the charity, but she rocketed to equestrian fame when she actually won the race, in a three-way tie. It is the first time in the competition’s eight-year history that riders chose to cross the finish line together – a true testament to the camaraderie between Heidi and her co-winners, 28-year-old Will Comiskey from Australia and 45-year-old Marcia Hefker-Miles from New Mexico.
Held in August each year, the 1,000km race recreates Chinggis Khan’s legendary messenger and supply route on the Mongolian steppe, with riders changing horses every 40km, and living with local herders or camping out each night.
Heidi, Will and Marcia met before the start of race, and spent time together during training. Heidi and Will decided to pair up and rode together for the duration of the ride.
“Will and I raced hard against Marcia,” said Heidi. “She had a lot of tricks up her sleeve and I respect her competitiveness. I learned a lot from her before, during and after the race. Marcia was really fast at the Urtuus [horse stations] and would get on the steppe much faster than we did.
“Will and I split duties whenever we could, but we took much too long deciding on horses. However, once we were on the steppe racing, we could easily catch Marcia, as two horses running together were much faster than one.
“On the last evening, at Urtuu 27, we talked about how we were doing and what we liked about the race. Even though we were competitors, we really enjoyed one another’s company and respected each other’s horsemanship. We decided to sleep on it and on the morning of the last leg we had so much fun just riding and savouring every last moment. I hadn’t realized until that point that I had put pressure on myself and how much more fun we were having when we decided to cross together. At moments I would find myself welling up in tears because I was so proud of all of us and what we had accomplished.”
In total, the threesome spent 91 hours in the saddle. “We started the race at 11:00 a.m. on August 4th and rode until 8:30 p.m. We would get up at 5:30 a.m. every morning and be saddled and ready to go at 7:00 a.m. start time for 13.5 hours a day in the saddle. We finished the race on August 11th at approximately 10:30 a.m.”
Heidi said the ride was full of exciting and terrifying moments – like the time they were chased by a pack of dogs in a torrential downpour and her horse nearly fell, or when another one of her mounts refused to slow down, even going downhill, earning himself the nickname Secretariat.
She said the key to their success was looking out for their mounts. “After I received a penalty on day two, on this out-of-shape grey horse that I named Porridge, Will and I decided no more penalties. We did not take any chances on the health of our horses. We would ensure the horses ate at every opportunity, gave them lots of chances to drink and we continually took their pulses or watched their respiration to see how long it took them to cool down. On so many of the legs we got off our horses at the slightest misstep or limp to make sure we brought in sound horses. We probably rode more cautiously than some of the other riders that passed us but it worked in the end.”
Several months later, Heidi says she is still recovering from the race. “The tips of my toes on my right foot are still numb and I finally just got over the trench foot. The skin just kept peeling off in clumps for weeks, it was disgusting. Right after the race I came down with a bad head cold and basically flu-like symptoms that lasted a good two weeks.”
She added, “I am finding it really difficult to get back into everyday life. I was so happy during the race and the adrenaline that you feel is so addicting – I need more!
“I’m really interested in learning about the Sandymount Express 1,000 race in South Africa [1,000km in eight days], although I might have to save up for that one for a couple of years. Also, I’m planning on doing a month-long horse pack trip along the Continental Divide Trail starting in Montana and seeing how far I get next year.”