Welcome to a horse race like no other, a 1000km endurance event – the longest in the world – across Mongolia’s limitless horizons.For a rider, it is the supreme test, a series of 35 kilometers stages, each on a strange semi-wild horse. The 28 staging posts are urtuu (horse stations), introduced by Mongolia’s 13th century national hero, Chinggis Khaan as part of a sophisticated relay system that controlled the Mongol empire stretching from the Sea of Japan to the Danube.
In his day, it’s a fair bet the horses didn’t come first. Not so now. A team of six international vets are strategically transferred around the course to monitor each horse’s heart rate on arrival at each urtuu. To avoid penalties, riders must complete the final kilometres of every leg at a pace that brings heart rates below the prescribed 56bpm within 30 minutes.
The Derby is the brainchild of the Bristol-based Adventurists, a company on a mission to set up tough global challenges. I stepped into this cauldron in 2009 when they asked me to start their first Derby outside the former Mongol capital of Karakoram. The typically international field from North America, Europe, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand prepared with an impromptu game of polo against the town team and a final night of riotous celebration before queuing for the scales – 85 kg riding weight, plus a 5 kg pack. For the first stage, the horses are allocated by lottery: dodging lashing hooves and tossing heads, the field eventually formed a ragged line.
When I waved the flag, they were off, finding their way with GPS that some had learned to use in the classroom only a couple of days before. Among the riders was Britain’s Katy Willings who completed and went on to become director of the Adventurists’ challenge programme. As soon as the current race finishes, she recces the next route, then searches for suitable horses with Unenburen, the Mongolian event director, and the head vet the following June. She needs around 1,400 horses to cover for no shows and lameness down the line. The chosen ones go to their designated urtuus in early August, with some heading to the start for the two-day pre race rider training camp.
During the race, it’s first come first served at each urtuu. Picking a good ’un is an essential skill – 35 kilometers on a dud is slow torture. The fastest complete up to four stages during the daylight hours, starting at 07.00 and finishing by the mandatory 20.30. They overnight in the most convenient urtuu,or, more enterprisingly, in a herder’s ger mid stage. Alternatively, they sleep out, sometimes tethered to their mounts: the organisers receive regular SOS calls from those whose equine Houdinis have escaped into the night.
The race lasts for 10 days, with stragglers rounded up at cut off points: the finish rate can be as low as 50%. The current record is six days, 20 hours, but the course varies annually. In 2016, it was the longest yet, 1,008 kilometers of dunes, mountains, forests, rocky scrub and steppe ending at Lake Khovsgol, perfect for recuperative partying in a ger camp. The result was a three-way dead heat, with William Comiskey from Australia, Heidi Telstad from Canada and Marcia Hefker-Miles from the USA crossing the line hand in hand.
In 2017, the ninth Derby moves to the east of Ulaanbataar for the first time, with Willings setting up a new network of urtuus in unexplored wilderness to create different challenges for repeaters and newbies alike. All wannabes are interviewed by the organisers before their entries are accepted to make sure they have the necessary riding skills and an understanding of what’s involved. Some are professional jockeys, some compete successfully in endurance, dressage, showjumping or eventing, while others learn to ride specifically for the event. Contestants should be aware that the race is dangerous. Some riders take so many falls that they pretty much know what it’s like to be a steeplechase jockey long before they reach the line. And an experienced team of medics who patrol the route are invariably kept busy.
Who would enjoy the race?
Not me. After completing a leg on one of those duds in 2009 my Mongol Derby riding boots were firmly hung on the nearest hook. But from a snapper’s perspective, I’ve had magical times recording the incredible scenery and the friendliness and support of the herders as they help the riders on their way.
The X factor for success is hard to pin down. Looking cocky, confident or scared is not a reliable clue: some perform unexpectedly well, others give up in despair. Good preparation is key. In the first Derby, a Spanish entry competed in the Mongol Car Rally, arriving so late in Ulaanbataar that he missed the Derby start. Heading out two hours after the pack, he was back within 30 minutes having dropped his GPS. Regrouping, he fell off before the first urtuu, called for help and took the plane home. That’s the worst case scenario, but the Mongol Derby is not for everyone. Then again, those who can handle the mental and physical challenges are guaranteed a life changing experience.