It’s that time of year again, when 40-odd riders from all disciplines and backgrounds will swing a leg over the back of a Mongol horse, line up at the start and embark on a one-of-a-kind adventure. Riders will finally get a chance to take a crack at the race that they have trained for upwards of a year and been dreaming about for much longer—unless you’re last year’s joint winner, Adrian Corboy, who had first heard about the race when he was asked to sub in for another competitor who was injured. He had three weeks before start camp to prepare. Just imagine.
Fear set in almost immediately after I sent in my deposit for the 2018 Mongol Derby, 11 full months before the race. An ominous sense of dread commingled with excitement stuck with me through the year and I frequently thought, what have you gotten yourself into now? During the race the knot in my stomach remained, but at that point I wasn’t sure if it was nerves, hunger, I didn’t give my iodine tablets enough time to work on the water or maybe that goat meat Hot Pocket from the last horse station didn’t agree with me. Most likely it was some combination.
For all those riders taking a stab at this year’s Derby, and for those thinking about sending in their deposits for 2020, here are a few things I learned from the world’s toughest horse race.
Be confident in your abilities, but have humility. It’s easy to compare yourself to other riders, to think you’re not good enough, that you’ve made a horrible mistake. You have earned a spot in the race, you’ve trained and prepared. Even the best riders can have a bad leg—or a bad day.
On the flip side, don’t be so overconfident that you get yourself in trouble. Maybe think twice about that “shortcut” through the bog. Stifle that smug feeling you get when by Day 4 you haven’t been bucked off. As the very wise Mike Tyson once said (and later Mongol Derby Chief Katy Willings), “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The Mongol Derby has a way of putting cocky riders in their place pretty quickly. Which brings me to …
Have a sense humor. Trust me, this is actually the only survival gear you need. Humor can help you rise above the most precarious situations—the near misses, the actual misses or when your day has just really gone to hell. There’s not much you can do when things go awry, so you might as well lighten up, laugh and say, “Could’ve been worse!” a statement which quickly becomes the mantra of every single Mongol Derby competitor.
Part of the fun of racing alongside my riding companions “The Archibells” (Rob, Ed and Jack Archibald, and their cousin Henry Bell) and “MT” (Michael Turner) was that they had the sense of humor thing down pat. My first interaction with them was at Horse Station 8, on the second day as we were selecting our horses for the next leg. When you select a horse, you bring over your bridle and saddle to the herder and they’ll usually help tack up the horse you just picked. Then they’ll hop on and trot around a little to show you the horse. Ed was watching his horse go, when he suddenly bolted and began bucking like a rodeo bronc. The herder and the saddle went straight over the horse’s head, snapping the girth. The horse, squealing and farting, raced out of the horse station and over the hill at a full gallop, his figure quickly becoming a small speck on the horizon. Without missing a beat, Ed turned to the line of herders and yelled, “Has anyone got a bridle I can buy?” We all laughed as he began rigging up his girth with some zip ties and before long we were on the road again.
Trust your horse … but also, don’t trust your horse. Believe me, when you are being chased by rabid dogs with gnashing teeth, you’re going to want to put your full faith in your horse to get you out of there STAT. You need to have a certain level of trust in him and let him take the lead here and there. If he wants to gallop on the grass instead of the dirt, let him. If he prefers to do a jackhammer trot for 40k instead of a smooth canter, let him. If he is running away with you, let him.
At the same time, don’t get so comfortable with your horse and sing his praises until you have arrived in one piece at the next station, have dismounted, passed your vet check and are waving good-bye. As I mentioned before, the Mongol Derby has a way of putting cocky riders in their place pretty quickly and will give you a front row seat to testing out that sense of humor of yours (see above).
One of my worst legs of the race was courtesy of a barely 13-hand pinto stallion with a luxurious mane. Initially, I had chosen a strong looking chestnut gelding. I stood by, swatting at the hordes of flies as the herders attempted to tack up my spirited horse. Normally it’s a good sign when the horse you’ve just picked is spinning in circles, or seems a bit restless. That’s an indication that he’s lively and probably willing to go forward. It’s much better to see that reaction from a horse than to see him sleepily blink, stand stock still and rest a hind foot. However, red flags starting coming in hot and heavy when instead of just one or two herders trying to tack him up, there were now four wrestling with him. He reared a couple of times and then flipped over, almost taking down the entire horse line with him. He got to his feet and continued to breathe fire, as if to say, “Is that all you got?” Doubts about this horse began to creep in. My riding companions were all already mounted and heading out, and in a rush of panic I asked if I could have another horse—I didn’t care which one, any one the herders wanted to give me. That was the first and last time I uttered those words.
Courtesy, Mongol Derby. A spicy horse can sometimes be a good thing!
They pulled the aforementioned pinto stud off the line and began to saddle him. I hastily climbed aboard and set off in a gallop to catch the Archibells and MT, who were on the horizon so I could see them, but quite far away in the distance. It didn’t take long for me to realize this was going to be one rough ride. It was brutally hard to keep him moving forward and he was spooking and balking at every bush, rock and hole in the ground. He zigged and zagged along the route, repeatedly trying to spin and dump me. He caught sight of a band of wild mares and grabbed the bit, careening toward them. He kept me on my toes the entire leg and I had to use every ounce of strength to keep him going and stay on him.
When I finally saw the next horse station in the distance, I breathed a sigh of relief as the hallelujah chorus set in. I normally liked to walk the last kilometer or two into the horse station to stretch my legs and give my horse time to cool down. I quietly and carefully dismounted as I always did, and as soon as my feet touched the ground the stallion bolted. I tried to get close to his head quickly and rein him in, but I had let down my guard. I fell to the ground and he dragged me for a hot second before I thought better of it and let go. Luckily, a herder at the horse station somehow saw this unfold and came to help on his motorbike. It took 10 minutes or so to catch him, but it could’ve been so much worse. Once I had ahold of him, with still quite a long walk to the horse station, he tried to book it again, but this time I was ready. I got as close to him as possible and let him spin around me as I hobbled expectantly to the horse station with the promise of a new horse coming my way.
Don't forget to take in Mongolia. Mongolians are the most incredible horsemen I’ve ever seen. This is coming from someone who has been up-close and personal to the most elite riders in the world battling for gold medals. Quite frankly, the skills of those Olympic champions do not hold a candle to a 6-year-old Mongolian child. Watch the Mongolians and learn from them. Their relationship with the horse is truly moving. In addition to being the best horsemen in the world, they are also the most hospitable people I have ever encountered. Spend time with the herders and their families. Take a swig of Mongolian moonshine if they offer. Play cards with the kids. Ask for their help if you need it (though you probably won’t need to ask, they’ll offer). Even though we speak different languages, you’ll get quite proficient at gesturing and miming, which is all part of the experience.
Part of my racing strategy was to ride as long as I could every day, and camp out or stay with families along the race route, as opposed to hunkering down at a horse station. I was lucky that I found a family to stay with between horse stations for more than half of the nights and these experiences are some of my fondest memories. At the end of Day 7 we were aiming for a well that was marked on the map, thinking we could water our horses there and hopefully there would be a family nearby to take us in. There was a collection of gers on top of a hill close to the well, and MT headed up with his note to see if our large group could stay. The young woman began jumping up and down with excitement about the prospect of guests and sent her husband into town to get supplies for dinner. We grazed and watered our horses and then put them in the small, convenient corral behind the ger.
“Spaghetti?” our charming hostess asked. And with an enthusiastic and simultaneous response from our group, she smiled, nodded and went to work. She prepared a spread like no other. We had a smattering of appetizers to hold us over—fresh jam, something similar to clotted cream, bread and what looked to be yesterday’s dinner of rice and meat accompanied with nori sheets that she motioned to roll up like sushi—while she worked on dinner, chopping vegetables on her cutting board on the floor. She was slicing and dicing everything with such precision and expertise that we might as well have been watching an episode of Top Chef. “She’s really going to town, isn’t she?” asked Rob. We sat around in the ger for close to two hours, as her friends and family stopped by to meet us and have a cup of milk tea. It wasn’t until well after 10:30 pm when she finally presented us with her masterpiece—Spaghetti Bolognese à la Goat, beautifully garnished with a cherry tomato cut in quarters on each plate.
When it was time to go to bed, she motioned to us that she, her husband and their 1-year-old daughter would sleep in their van and we could sleep in the ger, which we adamantly refused. We happily rolled out our sleeping bags outside, doing our best to avoid piles of goat poop. It was easily my favorite night of the whole Derby. I had a new Facebook friend, a full belly and there were more shooting stars in the night sky than I could wish upon.
Don’t hope for a perfect race. If you secretly hope that all will go according to plan, number one, you will be laughably mistaken and number two, that would be a hell of a lot less fun. The memories that will stand out later on will be the times things went seriously wrong—times when you were tested, when you had to dig deep, when you wondered, what now? Isn’t this why you’re riding in this race, anyway?
Be thankful. Hundreds of people apply for a shot at competing in the race. You were accepted and you were financially and physically able to compete. Countless others cannot say the same. I know I couldn’t have made it to the start line without the support of my friends, family and sponsors (Practical Horseman, Mane n’ Tail and SmartPak), as well as help from local riders Skip and Angela Kemerer and Melissa Lizmi, who generously let me ride their horses, and international endurance rider Christoph Schork who gave me a solid butt-kicking in the lead up.
Courtesy, Henry Bell. It's hard not to be thankful when your first leg of the day looks like this.
It truly takes a village to run the Mongol Derby, so be sure to thank all those who make the race possible—the herders, race organizers, medics, veterinarians, drivers, translators. They are there for you, and without them, there would be no Mongol Derby.
Take comfort in knowing you’re not the only one. If it’s happening to you out there on the course, it’s most likely happened to another competitor at some time. If your horse gallops into the sunset with all your stuff on his back never to be seen again, if you get bucked off and your water bladder explodes, if you’re on a runaway, if you’re on a plodder, if you’re lost, if you're being chased by dogs, if your feet have been soaking wet for five straight days, if you have an uncontrollable bout of dysentery, if you’re absolutely terrified—you are not the first and you certainly will not be the last.