Everywhere around me horses were spinning and shooting forward. Along with the other 43 riders, I struggled to keep my stout liver chestnut gelding quiet between the white start flags flapping in the wind while Mongol Derby Chief Katy Willings recited some “inspirational” quotes about the adventure we were about to embark upon. “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” Katy stated pointedly in her usual wry tone, citing Mike Tyson.
Circling my horse, I thought about how we’d already been punched in the mouth once, and the race hadn’t even started. The day before and official start date, all 44 riders had finally mounted and were heading to the start line when the race was suddenly postponed. Waiting at the start line now for the second day in a row, I half expected the race to be called off any second, like some sort of sick Groundhog Day. With so much build up to the race—a year of planning and training, three days at start camp discussing protocols, sitting through briefings and learning about the Mongol horse, finally it was here, all to be swiftly pulled out of reach just when it seemed to be within grasp.
Later we would learn the last-minute call-off was for good reason—the satellites that communicate with the SPOT trackers that the Mongol Derby crew uses to keep tabs on riders had suddenly, and for the first time ever, cut out.
With a state of mind of “let’s get this show on the road once and for all,” an extra day in start camp seemed unfathomable to many. But as storms with (no joke) black skies and golf ball-sized hail came crashing through camp, I felt quite content to spend another day eating a bizarre breakfast of carrots, cucumbers and mayonnaise, and curling up on a comfy air mattress I could call my own.
Now, as my horse began shaking his head impatiently, the starting gun was fired, the possibility of Groundhog Day was gone and soon my horse was making headway from the back of the pack, weaving in and out of the others and galloping along with a mannerly professionalism that I did not yet fully appreciate. 2016 Derby veteran Maddie Smith of San Francisco and I had planned to ride together throughout the race if possible and had strategized to aim for horse station 4 (HS4) by nightfall to get ahead of the congested pack of riders. This meant blowing through the horse stations as quickly as possible. As soon as our horses passed the mandatory vet checks, we would refill our water packs, take a few sweet rolls to go and select our next horses.
These rolls, I would learn, are at pretty much every horse station and would become a staple in my diet for the week. Picture a plain cake Dunkin’ Donut munchkin, sans glaze. Now imagine that donut has been sitting on the counter for 2 weeks. When you bite into it you worry that maybe you’ll leave your tooth behind. It’s dry, it’s flavorless, you definitely need some water to choke it down, but it is in fact edible and as a bonus, it’s pocket sized. Nuke that baby in the microwave for 10 seconds, add a little Nutella and it wouldn’t be so bad.
Throughout the day we stuck to our plan and before we knew it, we had torn though the third leg and about 65 miles. As we approached HS3, thunderstorms crackled all around us and the skies opened up. If there was one thing I learned during my brief stint at start camp, it was that the weather in Mongolia can change in an instant, in a way that’s unlike any other place I have been. One minute you are soaking up the sun, feeling like you’re on a holiday at the beach, and in the next, you’re looking on the horizon for Noah’s Ark to come to your aid.
Pulling up my hood, Maddie and I were soon on new horses and on our way to our goal of getting to HS4 with Irishman JD Moore in tow. We soon caught up to Michael Turner, an African safari guide in Botswana, who we had rode with for a bit on the previous leg, and Saif Noon, the youngest competitor in the Derby, of Pakistan. With about 15 minutes left on the clock to ride (riding hours are between 6:30 a.m. and 8 p.m.), we realized we weren’t going to make it, even though we could see the horse station on the horizon, taunting us. Not wanting to add time penalties for riding outside the prescribed hours to our rap sheet so early in the race, we headed to a ger (a traditional, portable dwelling) about 2 miles short of HS4. The five of us dismounted and feeling the pain of riding 85 miles, hobbled over to the ger like a group of 90-year-olds shuffling down the hall of the nursing home to get to bingo on time.
The family that lived in the ger graciously helped us hobble our horses—Mongolian horses are accustomed to being hobbled, which limits them from going too far away while they are grazing … for the most part—and then they ushered us inside. We sat around the fire while our hostess prepared dinner and the 6 kids crowded around JD as he showed them how to play a card game. After eating Mongolian “donuts” all day, I was happy for some hot soup. Already my vegetarian diet was going out the window as I eagerly slurped down chunks of goat meat. We must’ve looked like quite a wretched bunch to our hosts, water-logged and moaning while we mustered up the energy to do some pathetic stretches in the tight quarters. When finally I had given myself a little wet wipe bath in my sleeping bag and happily exhaled, ready for sleep, there was a knock at the door. Pierre, one the Mongol Derby vets, had swung by to check our horses. We begrudgingly got back into wet clothes, wet boots and tramped outside to present our horses, who all got the thumbs up.
The next morning, feeling refreshed from a night of sleep and 10 hours not on a horse, we pulled on still-wet clothes and set off to HS4, where we quickly chose our next horses. The five of us rode out together, and Valeria Ariza of Uruguay quickly caught up to us. We were more than halfway through the leg, trotting slowly down a slope, when Maddie’s seemingly docile horse swerved to the side and gave a couple bronc bucks, throwing Maddie and bolting for the hills.
A pre-teen herder riding bareback saw Maddie’s once seemingly good citizen of a horse peace out and immediately sprang into action, joining Mike and Saif in pursuit of him. Initially Maddie thought she was fine, nothing but a little bump and a brush with Derby disaster. But as the adrenaline wore off, she realized she wasn’t and pressed her help button to get checked out by the Mongol Derby medical crew. JD and Valeria rode on, while I waited with Maddie for Mike and Saif to return.
About 15 minutes later, smiling triumphantly, like a white knight returning from battle was Mike, holding the reins of Maddie’s horse. But when he heard that Maddie wouldn’t be riding on after all, his face fell and I could tell he was just as crushed for Maddie as I was. Maddie urged us to keep going and after a few minutes we reluctantly said our goodbyes, hopeful that she was actually fine and that maybe she would be able to meet up with us later. I was so heartbroken for Maddie, who was taking her second stab at the Derby and was the absolute epitome of good sportsmanship. Days later we learned that Maddie had suffered a dislocated shoulder and fractured ribs, ending her goal to complete the Derby. Our plan to ride together had been thwarted, and it was only the beginning of the second day. Anything in the Derby can and will change in an instant, and nothing can be taken for granted. This was a reminder that I kept with me throughout the race, especially when I felt like things were going smoothly. Like the very wise Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”