The first riders of the 2019 Mongol Derby have crossed the finish line, and in true Derby fashion, this year’s race has been a kerfuffle of madness and mishaps, with its fair share of feisty horses, rider misfortunes and heroic recoveries.
This year a 70-year-old American cowboy won the hearts of dot-watchers, crew members and Mongolian herders alike. Robert Long was not only the oldest rider to compete in the Mongol Derby, but on August 13th at 11:03 local time, he became the oldest rider to win the unforgiving 1000 km race. It seems this has been an especially taxing year on the riders. On Day 7 a record number of 9 riders retired from the race, bringing the total number of rider withdrawals to 13. Meanwhile, Bob continued to chug along across the steppe solo, taking the severe swings in weather in stride and inching away from the pack hot on his tail with his navigational prowess and exceptional horsemanship. It should be noted that Bob did not receive a single veterinary penalty—a true horseman, indeed.
The entire Mongol Derby is one big learning curve, from preparing, to competing and finally, the aftermath. You study what are the best fabrics for raincoats, how much the lightest sleeping bag weighs, how many water purification tabs to allot. You learn the basics of the Mongol horse—how to approach them, hobble them, how exceptional their endurance can be. You learn how much you can take—physically and mentally—how strong your will is and how bad your body odor can actually smell.
Riders basking in the glory that is finish camp are now anywhere between 5 and 15 lbs. lighter; have gaping wounds on shins, shoulders, legs and bum cheeks; are aching from being bucked off, dragged, kicked or from simply being in the saddle for 100+ hours. They are sleep deprived and spent, trying to put the pieces together of what they’ve just endured. Is this real? Was it all a dream? Did I die back there on the steppe?
They may start to try to process what in the hell just happened while drinking tepid beers (or utilizing Mongol Derby organizer Erik Cooper’s new custom-built bar—Ahem, where was this last year, Erik?) while swapping stories of the steppe with other riders. Soon, they’ll realize that for whatever crazy thing that happened to them, someone else has a more ridiculous—or at least equally ridiculous story. The Mongol Derby has a way of leveling the playing field, and I can guarantee it wasn’t smooth sailing for a single competitor.
When I was accepted as a competitor in the 2018 Mongol Derby, the organizers sent a ‘Rider’s Handbook,’ which laid out the rules of the race, advice on how to train, suggestions on what to bring, insight into compulsory medevac coverage, etc. But what the handbook left out was how to navigate life after the race.
When I crossed the finish line around 8am on the morning of the 8th day, I thought the worst physical pain of the race was surely over, but it would linger for months to come. Up first on my finish-camp agenda was a shower (cold) where I labored over pulling off the stubborn tape that covered my open sores, which were the least of my concerns and healed within several days. I headed back to my ger for a blissful nap where an actual air mattress awaited me and as if my body suddenly realized we were finished with this Mongol Derby business, my back began to spasm. I couldn’t even roll over without my back fiercely contracting. One of my riding companions helped me out of bed like I was a frail grandmother, while another went to fetch a medic who gave me a shot in the bum (shout out to Toby from Intrepid Medics!) and the edge was taken off.
Back in the U.S., I continued to have back pain and spasms for weeks, but even more annoying was the pain in both of my feet, which I can only guess was from stress fractures. My feet and ankles blew up after the race and flip flops were the only shoe option available for a couple of days as I couldn’t come close to cramming my laughably chubby feet into shoes of any kind. I’ve never been good at sitting around, so I slowly tried to get back into my routine, but it wasn’t until close to 7 months later that I could do my normal workouts—including riding—pain-free.
Speaking of which, when I arrived back in the U.S. it had been a full week since I dismounted my last horse in Mongolia. I thought that surely my body had enough rest and it was time to get back on my own horse—who by the way, at barely 14.3 hands seemed like a gargantuan, long-necked giraffe compared to the much smaller and shorter-necked Mongol horses. Her gaits felt lofty (an adjective that has surely never been used to describe her way of going) and I began to wonder if my mare had somehow become Valegro while I was away. It’s all relative, eh?
I eagerly climbed aboard my mare for my first ride on her in almost a month and as soon as I sat in the saddle, my body immediately screamed at me to get off.
I took another week or so off before trying to ride again, but it would be a long time before I could last for longer than 20 minutes in the saddle. Now, I’m not trying to frighten any of the newly victorious competitors—not everyone has this experience, but I did, and so have others.
The lingering physical pain was one thing, but after the race I was also left feeling a little lost. During the Mongol Derby my new reality had set in, and once I finished it was hard to turn that off. I had spent 14 hours a day for seven full days totally focused on my surroundings—watching for marmot holes, feeling my horse, checking my balance, looking for potential threats. I don’t think I’ve ever lived in the moment that completely before. For weeks after, I continued to dream that I was galloping across the open steppe, headlong into the wind, sun on my face, only to wake in a cold sweat with a start and panic-stricken that I’d overslept and needed to get to the next horse station before the riders on my tail overtook me.
Back stateside, life suddenly felt excruciatingly ordinary and like a void that needed to be filled was hanging over me. There was so much buildup to the race—all the training and gear testing and worrying. It consumed my life for an entire year and suddenly it was over. I wasn’t sure what I could do to fill that void, or what would come next.
The riders at finish camp might also be thinking, what comes next? To be completely honest, it’s been a year and I still haven’t figured that out. If it’s any consolation, I know there’s a whole group of Mongol Derby veterans I can call on who are struggling with the same feelings and together, we can recount stories from the race and grapple with how it has changed us. And for the 2019 class who can now say they’ve ridden in the longest and toughest race in the world, we welcome you to the tribe.