I am bent over at the waist, hands on knees, gulping air as the vet checks my pony. His heart rate is seventy-two and will come down to the required sixty-four in about five minutes. Mine is about two hundred beats per minute and no one cares. I used to watch my basketball player son stand like this during timeouts, trying to recover, and now I completely understand. I am exhausted and have only twenty minutes to recover before leaving on the next jet-fueled pony! This is Day-Six of the Mongol Derby and the urtuus (horse stations) are starting to blend into one.
I imagined myself romantically naming each pony and remembering everything about the rides between stations. As it happened, I not only forgot to name them—as half the time I was hanging on for dear life as they rocketed out of the stations and bolted for the next ten to fifteen kilometers—but I do not remember individual urtuus. I remember moments of complete panic as I thought I was going to die, or moments when I feared my comrades-in-saddle were going to die. Interspersed are memories of lovely meadows and fragrant pine forests, incredible views across mountains, and long, long rides when we wondered if we would ever get there.
The Mongol Derby is a 1000-kilometer (or about 620 miles) adventure, billed as the world’s longest, toughest horse race. It is everything they say and more. Absolutely the hardest thing I have ever done, and yet one of the highlights of my life so far. Childbirth hurt more but did not last as long. I finished the race in eight days, riding about eighty miles a day. I finished ninth out of thirty-eight riders who came from eleven different countries. Eleven had to retire. Upon returning to the States, one of my sons said it was as if I had galloped from Baltimore to Chicago in eight days. I realized I had no concept of such a distance, as all we were concentrating on each day and riding the twenty-five-mile legs between urtuus. I was trying to ride four legs every day.
Genghis Kahn’s Early "Pony Express"
This race was conceived seven years ago by Tom Morgan, founder of The Adventurists, a British expedition company that looks for truly extreme ways to challenge oneself. The adventure recreates Genghis Khan’s empire building postal system, or "pony express" route. Genghis Khan had devised a system to pass information to his generals by sending riders with messages. They changed mounts every forty kilometers and could carry messages literally hundreds of miles in a day. Supposedly some galloped 250 miles, changing ponies, before stopping themselves. Genghis Khan reportedly had ten devoted generals, who were with him for thirty years or more, and this communication system helped them conquer the second largest empire ever known.
These riders rode the same marmot-hole strewn, dusty plains; crossed the same swollen rivers; and looked for the same mountain passes that we did. And they did it without the assistance of GPS. I read somewhere that the messages were written in verse, and the riders sang the song to the next messenger so the instructions would remain the same. Even today the Mongolian herders sing to their horses while riding. I tried it and it did pass the time on a slow pony. On the fast ones you had no breath to spare, and you just hoped they did not step in a hole. More on that later.
We all arrived from our respective countries into Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, around August 3. The Ramada hotel had a rooftop bar, and it was there that the friendships started. The riders slowly introduced themselves, and different pairings began. The end of the race sorted the riders by ability more than anything else, but in the beginning, I would have to say the ability to drink copious amounts of beer or vodka was the deciding factor of companionship. After three days of pre-race training, where we learned how to use our GPS navigators and how to call for help on our trackers, we were deemed ready.
I don’t think anything really prepares you for being turned loose on a bolting pony in a strange country. My first pony was great, biddable, relatively fast, and I started the race in front, heading down a valley in a straight line. I had met two lovely New Zealand ladies who were closest to me in age—every one was younger by decades—and I looked to ride the next leg with them. While waiting for them, I picked my second pony simply by asking for a strong, fast horse. (I soon learned to add a few more qualifiers to those criteria.)
The herder threw me up on this second pony, and he bolted at a dead run for the next fifteen miles. I never saw my New Zealand friends again until the last day! This pony ran and jumped and careened across a plain that was full of marmot holes, sagebrush like bushes, and gravelly, dry stream beds. It all went by in a blur. I could only aim for the one rider in front that I could see, and once we passed him I was just hoping that the distant peak I had lined up in my sights was the right one. I could not pull out my GPS until this pony had slowed after about one-and-a-half hours of galloping. Luckily I remembered to keep sipping water from my hydration pack, as that was all I could do. I just kept the sipping end in my mouth. Riders who did not do this quickly succumbed to dehydration and dropped out the second and third days, completely exhausted and sick.
So, I was all alone, about second in the race, wondering where I was and if this pony would ever stop, when another rider galloped up beside me. I remember saying, “Thank God, someone else!” It was Mary Lee, a fashion designer from Miami, who had seemed a little distant in pre-race training. But looks are deceiving, and she and I became great friends and rode most of the race together. With a long, black braid affixed to her helmet and her own exotic dark looks, the Mongol herders loved her. She and I shared a similar riding style and outlook on life: no patience for the whiners, it was “balls to the wall,” and we rode like bats out of hell for the next eight days.
My fox hunting background definitely gave me an edge on many riders. The frontrunners all had either foxhunting experience or were race riders or racehorse trainers in their respective countries. Mary had been galloping polo ponies for a year to prepare, and Catherine Stott was just as fit as could be. We were used to galloping long distances over rough ground, and we had clearly separated into the hardest riding group by the third day.
‘Ware Holes and Hazards
I did fall and face-plant into the dirt on Day-Three when my pony stepped in a hole at a full gallop. It happened so fast that all I really remember is popping back up and saying some choice curse words. My companions had waited to make I wasn’t dead, then said, “Try to catch up!” and they were gone. Luckily it was close to a herd of ponies, and a nearby herder returned my escaping horse. I did manage to rejoin them, to their surprise (they told me later), and I earned a little respect. The “tough old bird” legend was beginning!
Actually, every one of us had falls. Some very dramatic, some comical, but all of them made us hold our breath until the rider was deemed OK. There were some serious accidents, and some riders had to drop out due to injuries. The guys in our group were definitely better than the girls at hanging on to the ponies as they somersaulted. Brent Albuino, my wonderful Australian friend, fell four times in one day I think and, amazingly, never let that pony get away.
My second fall occurred on Day-Six as I tried to read my helpful notes. Pulling that piece of white paper out of my pocket scared the ‘bejeesus’ out of my pony, and he disappeared at a dead-run before I even hit the ground. Charles, the riders’ South African guardian angel, did rescue me after I called for assistance. A welcome sight indeed, he brought another herder who returned my spooky pony, and I continued. That was the leg I did alone, which my son reminded me (as he watched my spot tracker) that I seemed to meander erratically. That was because I could not pull my GPS out without the pony starting to buck so I meandered. I finally hooked up with Bonnie Hutton, a fellow American, but our ‘no-good, very bad day’ continued. Bonnie got bucked off again, breaking a finger. Eventually, we arrived at Station 22 with time penalties.
The next day was a long one, fraught with attacking guard dogs, marmot holes, and never-ending dusty plains. We had left the beautiful Orkhorn River after two legs and seemed to ride forever. Coming into Station 25, Cozy Campbell, the young Australian vet, was a welcome sight. He had a jar of olives and peanuts out and I think I ate the whole thing, thinking it was the best food I ever had. This brings me to the food, which was pretty awful. We all lost weight and lived on rice pudding for breakfast (not bad) and noodle stew with bits of mutton, carrots and potatoes the rest of the time. It fueled us, but that’s about it. The herders were very good about having boiled water at every station. Sometimes all we really wanted was a cup of cold water but, in general, we just really appreciated the kindness and thoughtfulness of the host families. Their generosity to strangers is legendary and part of the culture. I can only imagine what they really thought of us crazy foreigners.
There were wolves, lightening storms, rain, hail, never-ending bogs, long mountain passes and yet what I really remember are the wonderful days in the saddle with great people. The friendships I made were, for me, the best part of the adventure. I could ride for ten days anywhere, but to do this challenge in the wilds of Mongolia, one had to make friends and help and support each other. We laughed and cried and encouraged each other through some tough days. I proved to myself that I could do an extremely hard, physical challenge and that alone was a personal best. The biggest reward was hearing my kids and family tell me how proud of me they were.
Posted October 2, 2014
Barbara Smith hunts with the Marlborough Hunt in Maryland. She reported on Belle Meade’s “Gone Away with The Wind” Hunt Week earlier this year in Foxhunting Life.
Click for more information about the Mongol Derby. To participate, each competitor must raise a minimum of 1,000 pounds sterling for charity, at least 500 pounds of which goes to The Adventurists' official charity: Cool Earth.
Foxhunters finished strongly. Three tied for second: Chris Maude (UK) who is also a two-time winner of the Becher Chase, a Grade 3 race run over the same course as the Aintree Grand National; Rob Skinner (UK) who hunts with the Devon and Somerset Staghounds; and Jamie Peel (UK) who is also a champion polo player and the son of Nigel Peel, MFH and huntsman of the North Cotswold Foxhounds. Right behind the second place finishers in fifth place was Bonnie Hutton (US) who hunted with the Amwell valley Hounds (NJ). Two riders later, in ninth place, was Barbara Smith from the Marlborough Hunt (MD), who survived to write our story! Rose Sandler from the Bull Run Hunt (VA) finished fifteenth, and Sandra Murray who has hunted with the Chagrin Valley Hunt (OH) finished thirty-first.
On The Adventurists website appears the following warning:
You may have guessed, but these are genuinely dangerous things to do.
The website is written in a light-hearted fashion but you cannot overestimate the risks involved in taking part in these adventures.
Your chances of being seriously injured or dying as a result of taking part are high. Individuals who have taken part in the past have been permanently disfigured, seriously disabled or lost their life.
These are not holidays. These are adventures and so by their very nature extremely risky.
You really are putting both your health and life at risk.
That's the whole point.
They're taking applications for the 2015 Derby now!