If you are an Endurance Rider and you have been following Sally’s blog on her preparation for the 2017 Mongol Derby, then you may well want to know how Sally Toye did in the Mongol Derby… In this page, Sally shares her experiences with you. We hope you will enjoy her unique debrief ‘from the saddle’. For the benefit of Sally’s many fans at home and abroad, here is a video of her Mongol Derby lecture for the Iceni EGB Group (in Newmarket) on 27th January 2018.
What the Mongol Derby entails
The Mongol Derby is the world’s longest toughest horse race. It is 1,000 Kms through the Mongolian steppe. It is a recreation of Genghis Khan’s legendary messenger system from approximately 1200 AD. This system allowed him to maraud and rule over the biggest empire in the world. It covered Budapest to China and from the Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea…. twice the size of the Roman Empire (and we know what the Romans did for us?!).
The route itself changes each year and can be anything from mountains to the Gobi Desert. So it can cover valleys, wooded hills, river crossings, wetlands, floodplains (which can be wet or dry) to open steppe. The weather can be anything from snow and minus temperatures to plus 40 ℃, try dressing for that!
The next challenges (if you are still interested) are the interview for a place then the entrance fee of US$12,500 plus raising £1,000 for charity. Then add on £250 for rabies and other vaccinations (I reckoned I didn’t want tick borne encephalitis or hepatitis), hotel accommodation and all the kit you will need. The entrance fee gets you pre-race advice on kit and fitness plus, in Mongolia, thirty horses, a support team and pre-race training. There are twenty eight horse stations en route where there is a change of horse. After your inbound horse has passed a vet check with a heart rate at 56 and under, you get a new one which you choose. You will have a Tracker and a GPS (that sounds like the Daniel Craig line in one of the Bond films when he meets Q in the art gallery “so a gun and a radio”).
Hopefully by this stage you have worked out that the Mongol Derby will be an interesting balance of survival skills, Horsemanship, fitness and pure tenacity in a world far outside of your comfort zone with also very different catering (local food). The horses are semi-feral and you will have the pleasure of riding them between 7am to 8:30pm for a maximum of 10 days. Outside these hours is a curfew with ever stiffer penalties as time goes past the curfew, for example if you are in the saddle past 10pm, you will get eliminated.
Probably only half the field will finish and some will need to be hospitalised and possibly airlifted (if the helicopter is serviceable). Yes this may be the dangerous end of riding but it was ‘on my bucket list’ and had been since it started 9 years ago. As an endurance rider, I knew this sort of distance would hurt and that I would need to be in the shape of my life and have the best gear I could get hold of and that I would need a team to help me prepare! I was so in awe of anyone who had done it and couldn’t fathom how on Earth one would prepare for such a diverse and nutty challenge.
Mongol Derby prep
I already covered my preparation in a monthly blog which can be found on aloeride.com. The short version is, that I got a team together to help me and I asked lots and lots of questions. I learnt so much stuff about so many things. Han from Aloeride helped me with my nutrition and gut health. Clare from RiderCise got me in the shape of my life with specific training. Maggie Pattinson was there as a riding trainer and general guide, she is the Mongol Derby endurance riding guru. And the team at Elivar nutrition helped with endurance nutrition pre/during/post riding and exercising. One course I did which really helped was with the Combat Riding Company who teach you how to fall off and what to do if your horse rears, money well invested! I have always known that success at high level of sport comes from a team not an individual, you just must have it. That said you must want success and you need to work hard at it.
During this training there were two specific groups of people who would ask me about the Derby. There would often be a look of confusion, sympathy and disbelief when I told people about the adventure. They were group One and would ask why? Then there was group Two, whose eyes would light up and they got it, they were the ones who wanted to do it too! They were as nuts as I am!
Finally after extensive and expensive training and shopping for kit, I boarded an Aeroflot flight to Ulaanbaatar in August. The change of plane wasn’t too painful in Moscow and the best news was that my bags turned up at destination. I had preempted that with the really important kit in my hand luggage just in case. A quick taxi ride took me to the luxury of the Holiday Inn and a quiet day thinking OMG. I was still wondering how to get my head wrapped around the idea of eight or so days in the saddle riding for 12 hours a day. I had in June ridden my own mare in a 100 mile endurance race but this was way more and anyway she is domesticated and the ride was in civilised Hampshire! I remembered Tom Daley talking about his first Olympics when he couldn’t sleep and just seemed wired. Another famous athlete had told him that this was normal and not to worry as he would compete fine as, after all, the training he had done he would be a lot tougher and prepared than he thought. The adrenaline would carry him through. I knew that I liked my sleep and that I was a bit of a food lover… I also knew these two things would be in short supply. So I was hoping that I would find the same experience as Tom Daley had!
Training in Mongolia
And so it started with training. We had a day in the Holiday Inn with the ride management and team. Lots of briefings from the Vets, Medics, Route Setters and the overall ride managers. Our GPS’s were taken away and loaded with the route and we learnt about our trackers (help and SOS buttons included) and the penalty system. The penalty system is in place for the welfare of the horse and to stop riders being stupid. Penalties would be taken at two stations or gers which were numbers 11 and 22. After station 22, any penalties are sat out in race time en route. The biggest stress of the day was the pre-lunch weigh in as some of the guys were near the 85 kg limit and seeing them at breakfast picking at food and hearing the conversations reminded me of any diet I had ever been on! They all passed and the rest of us loaded ourselves with clothes which then would not add to the minuscule 5kg of stuff we could take with us for the ride.
The next day was a relief to get on a coach and start our several hour journey out to base camp. In a field of borage was our new home, a group of gers, a mess tent and a van which had showers and toilets! The toilets had their own man who sat in a deck chair and watched us…
We got out the bus and headed for a ger (the Mongolian word for what is a yurt in Turkic languages). I was in ger 1 with four of the guys. We had Will Commiskey who won the ride last year, he probably just wanted some peace and quiet to get himself together but that didn’t happen as many riders came in asking questions. Will helped us all and was so generous with his time and experience. Paul Richards, a Cornish dairy farmer who wanted to be the first Cornish man to finish. He told me he wasn’t worried about long days in the saddle as he hunted. There was Cy who had a broken hand, he was a tank commander and a real gentleman, and finally Ed Fernon the Olympic Pentathlete, we shared our stretching balls much to everyone’s amusement. Ed’s ball had spikes on and was much more effective than mine at curing muscle aches. We were a very select crowd and we soon got a good banter going. Each ger had 5 riders a piece and even a light and one plug, very luxurious. The gers themselves have a wooden frame with a hole in the roof for light and a chimney; next comes layers of felt which was warm at night and cool during the day. On top of all of this was plastic for waterproofing and when it rained the hole got covered up and made the ger very snug.
Most important was the pony line and the herders who would train us in horse etiquette for the next two days. The pony line was literally a washing line type affair to which 40 ponies were tied. Some lay down or bickered or just stood next to their friends. Some horses were loose but hobbled and tied in pairs so they didn’t go too far. This was base camp.This training included passing out with GPS use, horse tacking and mounting. This culminated in a test ride with all our gear. We went to a waypoint where we found Harry the Vet who lead us through a mock vetting and then using our GPS to navigate back to base camp. Add in some hobble training, a nadaam (horse race), a Mongolian concert with dance and an amazing gymnast and you are almost ready to go! The horse race was especially humbling as six year old girls and boys rode high speed with little tack. I was privileged to touch the winner and take a palmful of sweat to my forehead for luck. Luck was something I was hoping for.
Mongol Derby Race Day!
Finally it was race day which was a relief to everyone. Even more of a relief when my bag of my allowed 5kgs of kit weighed in OK. This had been a major stress for all the riders as you have no idea what you will really need when you have never done this before! Will you need those sweeties (yes), do I need mosquito lotion (maybe), what layers shall I wear and what will I carry on me to ride? This 5kg thing became a major obsession in our ger and we all reckoned we had repacked and re-weighed at least 20 times! We tied our saddle bags to the rear of the saddles very securely so as not to bounce and upset our mounts. This on YouTube has led to some spectacular dismounts and broken bones.
After we had the blessing and lots of incense from the Llama (who was running late) we were finally allotted our random horses and we tacked up, got on and warmed our mounts. Around 11:30 through a lot of flags and excitement we were off… forty-two adventurers riding the horses like we stole them.
My pony managed an adequate trot and I held back, I was quite content. It was stony and he was a bit foot sore, so I just took it steady into the first station/vet check. Riding in I could see the chaos of 25 or so riders all waiting to vet. I got off to lead my pony in to arrive with a low heart rate. After I signed in, the pulse came down nicely to the required 56 and I left my mount to go and choose a new horse for the next 40k. A little girl ran up to me and took my hand and led me to her father who showed me a nice looking pony who looked promising. After tacking up I got in the saddle quickly and, on arriving in the saddle, I realised that it was going to be a challenge to stay there. He was a bucker and he was not impressed! He would not leave the pony line and bucked continuously; in my peripheral vision I could see people moving out of our erratic path as I tried to manoeuvre ‘Feisty’ out of the station! Eventually I saw another rider leaving at speed so I pointed my horse at his and squeezed gently and we were off! We kept the speed up for about 5 miles and then thankfully settled in a manner of speaking. The next station had quite an altitude gain and I had a major learning in that I couldn’t get my horse’s pulse down and try what may I received a heart rate penalty. I would get a 2 hour hold at Ger 11. Ironically I was with another rider whose horse came up lame en route. I told him this and he walked the horse in which meant he avoided penalties! I knew the Derby would be about luck and I hoped my store of luck was intact!
By this time it looked like I could ride one more station before nighttime curfew and I picked a stunner. I wore through my gloves as I couldn’t hold him for the first 10 miles but he was a beauty and full of going so I was grinning from ear to ear. Because I did hold him back, he never ran out of steam and gaily trotted into Station 3 at about 8:20pm. We vetted and found a pitch for the night in the rider’s ger. I prepped my camelback with water and electrolytes for the next day. I had some soup, unrolled by bivi bag (which contained my thermarest and sleeping bag) and crawled in to crash out… 80kms ridden.
Mongol Derby Race Day 2
After an excellent night we awoke in our ger to hear the weather saying Good Morning. It was very stormy. We were in mountains, so the ride management held us here as the storm continued outside and I was regretting not having waterproof trousers! I left with a rider who took us the wrong way and then fell off as a result of a loose girth. I wasn’t impressed. Fortunately we could catch the horse, re-saddle it and he re-mounted. Hence followed a very wet cold day and I realised it was wrong of me to carry another rider and I needed to ride my own ride. Obviously with an event of this nature, if someone needs help you help them. This is wilderness and safety is paramount. Equally though you must ride your own ride.
The rain continued with quite a wind and I plodded on. I met and rode with Ceri Putman from Zambia. We had an in-depth conversation about coffee beans we liked and I liked her. In the chill I elected to trot on to keep warm and later had a rare hour for lunch as I was cold, wet and needed to warm up. This ride was about managing myself and how I was in terms of hydration, calories and temperature! I knew I had a certain toughness but you never knew what next would be thrown at you.
One leg I managed to pick a complete duffer. He would just trot and canter was a no-no. Any asking on my part resulted in halfhearted bucks or complete stops, someone else who had a horse on this section had a horse that lay down! Our 40km took six painful hours. When I reached the next station, other riders had had the same experience as I had had with my plodder, as in the remarks section were comments like “will make nice soup” or “future career as a casserole”. The advantage of riding this slowly was that I finally saw a marmot and birds of prey, you don’t see much when you are holding on and/or going flat out! I was occasionally chased by dogs which was turning into a normal daily occurrence and on my dud I was grateful as this would lead to some trot and I called it the dog boost! The absolute highlight of the day was the shepherdess. It was a brief section of trot and suddenly I had company of this 13 or 14 year old girl who looked so beautiful, she left her flock to come ride a mile or so with me and we connected. There I was with damp waterproof clothing, riding hat and a rucksack and she had a colourful Mongolian deel and looked completely at ease. Her face looked serene. We had so much in common with our love of the horse and the outdoors yet our lives couldn’t have been more different. Sadly we parted and she returned to her goat herd and I returned to wet, misty and my duffer.
Eventually I reached station 6 at 7:30pm which gave me time to pick a new horse and head out. Unsurprisingly the dud reached pulse criteria immediately and I went shopping! I liked the look of a spotty feisty horse and we tacked him up and I mounted expeditiously. The next few seconds were a blur. He charged a herder, reared up and knocked him unconscious to the ground, he then was going for a big stamp on the immobile body. Somehow having survived the rear from my Combat school training and I managed to shift my weight in the saddle and with the reins pulled him away to the side so the herder was spared. I thought the drama was over until he then he bolted out of the station (getting to be a habit!),I went with him and as I did, I realised I only had 15 minutes before curfew and this may not be enough time to be able to calm him down. Staying overnight would mean that I would need to tether and likely hobble him. I didn’t fancy going near those legs. I returned to the station and claimed a rare moment of common sense. Everyone including me looked very relieved! The second bonus was a night in a warm ger where they had lit the wood burner and already the ger looked like a laundry as so much was hung out in the hope of drying!! Too tired to eat I just slept… 100kms ridden.
Mongol Derby Race Day 3
Weather wise day 3 was looking to be a fine day which would mean my kit could dry out as I rode. I headed out on a slightly calmer Feisty after checking with the TV crew that they’d got my antics! They replied they had and my bucking spree earlier, I was turning into something camera worthy!! Pretty soon I met Ceri who was riding back to change horse, she had left with another rider who was just riding hard and didn’t consider her. Her horse needed something calmer in the way of going and a sympathetic rider next to her. She reconsidered and we teamed up for the next 40k and indeed to the finish, but we didn’t know that then!
We talked about so much and food was a regular feature. With the 5kgs of kit we needed to camp, food was limited and, to make progress on the ride, there wasn’t always time to eat. I was finding by the curfew I just wanted to sleep!! We discussed what we would eat on return to the real world which for a British person living in Zambia revolved around meat and for me, a lot of it was to do with a bacon baguette with many trimmings!! Food eventually became a banned topic as my stomach was churning with hunger. We shared lots of WhatsApp photos of meals on return to our countries.
Talking about food and feeding… a Mongolian steppe really brings it home that these horses (even those tethered by nomadic herders) are free to graze a variety of grasses and herbs. Via smell and especially taste, horses know what nutrients to replenish and what nutrients to leave for another day. This pick and mix grazing is lost in domesticated horses on dried feeds, notably when their grazing area is small (no mix) and/or their grazing time is limited (no pick). As Aloeride often points out, every blade of fresh grass or herb hosts a microbiome. Well, in that case, the Mongolian steppe hosts a wall to wall microbiome… it shows in the resilience of their ponies.
Sally Toye, National and International Endurance Rider
Ceri was a star at naming her horses. Mine was obviously Fiesty and hers was Lightening. Ceri had a love of coloured horses and picked well. We had a wide ranging skill set between us which meant we were growing into a great team. At our next station the herders brought out a hobbled rather wild animal. The herders had heard about my antics from the previous night and were asking me for help with Fiesty no 2. I had a go but was running out of time. I asked the interpreter to thank them for this huge compliment to my Horsemanship but that I need more time and a round pen. There were many smiles and laughter and Ceri persuaded me to pick something more manageable! She was right and I listened…
We rode on in amiable companionship and came to a rather dull coloured section with hills on one side. Suddenly a swallow intercepted us downwind and flew in circles towards us then darting away downwind. His colours were iridescent blues and silvers and his flying skill just was captivating to watch. Neither of us had any idea why he was next to us except perhaps curiosity!! After some miles he moved on and we missed his energy and beauty
The day went on and we decided to take a shortcut (is there ever one!) over a mountain which meant zig zagging and dismounting for the descent over the boulders and rocks. Another rider decided he couldn’t do this with us and departed to another route. We dismounted and gently descended into a huge valley. From our GPSs we could see the mountain pass we would next climb over, it was a stunning view with no signs of habitation except the odd empty coral. Over the pass we picked up a road which took us into the next station where the TV crew were there to meet us, I was beginning to feel stalked! It was 7:30pm by the time we were ready to leave and there was a town up ahead which we needed to get past. Cosi the Vet didn’t want us to leave and started telling us about wolves and wild dogs. We stuck to our guns and the herders suggested a couple of horses. They were next to each other in the pony line so we knew they would stick together overnight, probably from the same herder. Tacked up and mounted, we left like we stole them (again). Tank and Diesel needed little encouragement for speed they were just having fun. We covered 13kms very quickly and got past the town, next was the night stop dilemma. Distances I found hard to judge on the steppe as there is little scale. In the distance we saw a group of gers and a pen. A group of gers suggested a family. We rode in and, in magic sign language, asked for a room! We asked if we could stay in their goat pen! There was much curiousity about us and we were dead beat tired! We took over the pen and next we made camp in a side pen with wood and bits of plastic. We took it in turns to walk and water the horses before hobbling them in the coral. To me it looked like heaven. The goats were somewhat perplexed that they had been usurped by these strange looking items. We shared energy bars and some Zambian biltong appeared which tasted heavenly. Sleep was bliss under the stars and came quickly… 120kms ridden.
Mongol Derby Race Day 4
Sleep didn’t last long with a wake up call from the TV crew at 10:30pm. I reached for my knife when I heard something and my first words were to check they hadn’t got the camera on or with them! They had come to check we were OK after our trackers were turned off as they were concerned about the proximity of the town. It was nice to see them and we were soon back to sleep…Morning came and day 4 started with us taking turns again to walk the horses to water and in general stretch their legs and let them graze as the other one would pack up their stuff. Packing was hampered by a fascinated audience of all age groups of family who wanted to see our sleeping stuff, our kit and saddles! They brought us tea and biscuits which we scoffed, and we had more tea much to their delight. At the allotted time we turned on our trackers and said a mental hello to the followers in the Adventurists Office in Ulaanbaatar, or as it deteriorated into “hello Mummy!” Next was a steadier climb into the next station where we saw Cosi again and the horses soon reached criteria. Cosi even said what a nice job we had done as some of the riders had been caught out and received penalties. We pressed on out as the next ger would be ger 11 where we would sit out the penalties we had both accrued. I elected to wait for Ceri as on a technicality she had an hour longer than me, I was just looking forward to 3 hours of physically resting during the day and maybe even eating and having the chance to digest before getting on another Fiesty!!
On arrival my horse’s pulse rate stuck at 58 and would not come down so I received another heart rate penalty and the vet said it was hard luck but that it just did happen sometimes. I was gutted but then realised I had an extra hour to rest eat and catch up with the gossip as the place was beginning to fill up with some of the gang of riders!! Ceri decide to wait for me which was brilliant. After 3 bowls of noodles I was stuffed and even had a sleep while my bedding dried out ready for the next camping adventure. One of the riders who had broken ribs shared out her goodies with us and we gracefully scored some Kendal mint cake. Now this doesn’t sound like much but in the starving wilderness not only is this generous but probably the nicest thing that happened that day. I went through my stuff and shared out my aspirin and painkillers. Some riders were beginning to suffer with muscle ache and at that moment -still free of aches or pains- I was just grateful to my personal trainer Clare although I did call her a witch on a number of occasions…
Finally around 6pm I was allowed to choose a new pony as my penalty was up. We tacked up and got going leaving quite the party town getting ready to swing!! Some vodka bottles were in evidence already…We cantered off into a beautiful evening and it took me a bit of time to get my head into navigation again and I took us the wrong way for a bit. Ceri helped me get my foggy brain back into mode and we were off. There is a Mongolian custom which means you can pitch up at any family ger and they will take you in and feed you. However these families were very poor and it didn’t seem right to impose ourselves in this way. We discussed it at length and we were more comfortable with wild camping. We had some food with us and we had got good at taking donuts or bread and sweets from the station gers. The station gers were paid to feed and look after us so it was part of the programme! As we rode out that night, there was very little in terms of habitation and eventually we camped next to a spring which had some sturdy fencing we could tie the horses to. We had seen the hobbled horses were capable of about 6 kph so it seemed necessary to tie them up or be sans horse in the morning. These horses would do what they could to just go and join any wild herd, unlike my horses at home, I was not part of their herd. The summer time would mean the horses would only be ridden for about 4 months a year and winter here was long, cold and snow bound.
After camp was set up, some children on a motorbike came to look us over and probably extend hospitality which I hope we gracefully declined as we wanted Kendal mint cake and sleep. As it darkened there was an amazing shower of shooting stars and a herd of wild horses came to drink at the spring. We were next to the herd snuffling, whinnying and in general being part of their herd. It was magic to be so close to them from a snuggly bivi bag. We knew of each other’s presence and they seemed to get that we were no danger to them. Eventually they left and we slept. At this stage washing had become something I used to do and I slept in my clothes again to keep warm. Somehow it didn’t seem to matter. I reckoned I would sort my hair out later as well, I was grateful for my buff headgear as it was hiding quite a thicket of matted mane! Another 80kms ridden with 4 hours of penalties (or rest depending on your viewpoint).
Mongol Derby Race Day 5
Off we trotted and into Caroline’s vet station where we tried to extract gossip about the lead riders from her. We didn’t do so well as we were meant to be out of the loop and vets weren’t meant to tell us. We knew that the lead riders were going very fast and we were about 16/17th places and that seemed OK. I had hoped for a top ten place but I was beginning to understand that I needed to ride within my capabilities and that after 7 months of training I also wanted to have fun and enjoy this awesome experience more than I wanted to ride even harder! While here, I wandered over to the paramedic and asked him to check a rub I had on my back where my rucksack sat. It turned out I had the makings of an infected something and Andree dressed it and then we sat and had real coffee for a moment. He was ex French Legion and looked as fit as they come, there was more fat on a chip and he had that chiseled face that comes from life experience. I enjoyed my break and Caroline’s company. Back to the trail.
En route at times we would come across wells where you could pump out water. At one of these was a herd of wild horses and we nudged gently into the herd to drink. Again a beautiful experience of being near families of horses as they were meant to be, I could have stayed all day just being part of a herd but sadly we needed to move on and we shuffled off.
On this leg we had a lot of unintentional walking. On a moment when we checked each other’s horses we realised mine had a gentle case of the thumps and then Ceri’s pony went slightly lame. We were mid-way from stations so it was going to be a long walk in the heat of the day leading our mounts. Mongolian horses aren’t used to being lead, so that didn’t help either. On arrival at the station my horse had treatment for thumps and I had to wait while he was treated. Due to global warming, this year’s rains were late which meant the grass was late and less and was not full of the normal nutrients. They had more horses with thumps from this area of the ride. It also meant I could scoff another bowl of rice while the herders brought me water, as I was a tad thirsty, which was most welcome. The herdsmen liked the way I looked after the horse and I was nudged in the way of a beautiful horse who on the line was actually lying down in the sand. They were as ever spot on, he was a great mover and just a nice animal. We were soon back on the trail.
It was on this leg that we had two railway crossings and we had to go low under another bridge, neither of us was sure what would happen but we made it through unscathed and with our horses. We were lucky as the trains were infrequent that day.
This time I had a lead horse so I went in front. Ceri and I learnt to work as a team, just like the horses, the no 2 rider could take a break occasionally checking that lead rider was still with the programme! Ceri and I missed coffee and she introduced me to pro plus and sweeties!! One morning when we had had half a powerbar and a sweet for breakfast (so not enough calories at all), she asked me what flavour gu I fancied! Would it be espresso shot with caffeine or something else with caffeine. I took a moment and salivated at the thought of it before she pulled them out. I was overjoyed!! In the wilderness that was as good as an Americano with an extra shot and a little gooey pastry. We looked after each other and gave each other that fine balance of support and space, unspoken understanding and empathy and we were both allowed to tell the other she was cocking up!! Approaching each station we would plan what we needed (food, pee, maps, water, baggage tweak or item needed out of baggage) and we shared the jobs out so we became really efficient at stations and moved ever faster and faster as we got more knowledge about the horses, what we needed, and our strengths with each other. It was good. In all our kms together I never heard a whinge and there was much light banter. One of my favourite conversations would be in the morning pretending we we going for a hack to the pub and we would run through a list of fantasy pubs and foods, perhaps we might go for a light hack in the afternoon after the pub… and so on! I had been so lucky to find a like-minded soul who had a resource of emotional intelligence to consider someone else through the discomfort of 1000kms plus. A friend for life…
The stations were amazing and had all we needed. Seeing a station was exciting and frequently they would be hidden behind a small hill. We would walk in to lower the pulse rate, I would get off as Ceri weighted 10kgs less than me, so my pony would have to work harder. Many times we would get the same pulse rate. Then the station family would have food on the go and boiled water for our camelbacks, I had found I didn’t need to purify it at all and it tasted good. There would be a loo and wash stand. The water came in an upended plastic bottle which would have the base cut off as a soap holder then you twisted the cap to get flow of water to rinse etc. The medics had told us that all we needed to do was to wash our hands for hygiene and that this would be better than any alcohol based wash, so far I hadn’t heard of anyone be sick…I was slightly horrified at how quickly I didn’t mind washing although I kept a beady eye on my feet for foot rot and such. Any rain seemed to give my jodhpurs a quick welcome rinse. Camping out though was my favourite and proper adventure and meant that we were not taking from people who had so little. And it also gave me a measure of quiet time and privacy which when doing something physical from 5:30am to 9pm I found I needed. Food was an issue but you did get used to the hunger, although I can’t say I enjoyed it. I never saw anyone overweight on the steppe and we were definitely included in this!
Meanwhile our day continued with a transit of a mine (Mongolia has huge mineral wealth which one hopes won’t ruin the country as it has in many parts of Africa) and here I managed to part company from my steed. We were in canter and either a trip or a marmot hole got me, and my horse lost both front legs with his head getting a smack next. I had that suspended moment of ‘oh bugger’ and managed to make it into a rolling fall but lost my horse. Very, very gently Ceri re-caught him and onwards we went. I had been lucky. Next in puddles Ceri’s horse hesitated before sitting down in it as he went for a roll. Nimbly Ceri dismounted and that afternoon ‘Hippo’ was not given any extra time in water. It was one of those delicious moments when I just lost it in giggles of laughter once I realised Ceri was OK. Ceri never had a fall in the whole ride and I watched and learnt from her mounting technique and nice handling skills. She wasn’t an endurance rider (she was a SJ/D rider!) before the ride and she was turning into a nice one daily!
Soon it approached curfew time. A massive square rock-walled corral appeared and this was just what we needed. The horses had drunk well earlier (even Hippo) and in the corral we could let them graze hobbled all night. They weren’t exactly mates but they got on OK. I set about building us a gate as Ceri hobbled them and we snuggled down with another stunning sky and the big wall kept the wind at bay. Life was good and only another few kms to station 15, it looked like we were catching up a bit with about 130kms completed…
Mongol Derby Race Day 6
As the horses had grazed all night we had a rare lie in on day 6. We were running about 14th and seemingly getting it together… or so I thought! I took the hobbles off the horses and brought them over to be tacked up. They had their bridles on and I tied one to a post and the other to the other end of my gate. Things when they go wrong with horses happen so fast and this was no exception! They had a bit of a bargy and, now without hobbles, they could sort out their differences and tried to kick each other. One pulled back, the post broke and, as it took off, so did the post. Then the other chased off in pursuit of pony 1. We were lucky in that the post broke free and they cantered to a corner of the corral. We thought they would stop there, but oh no, not our ponies. They jumped a 5’5″ solid wall and cleared off. We looked at each other and in unison said “jumpers?” We went after them but we soon lost sight of them and wondered what to do. Eventually we went to a ger which had 2 men in it and asked for help. I did my best mime of horse rearing and gunshot (he’s gone), they looked at us as if we were barking. We gave up and started the long walk back the way we had come in search of them. Fairly soon a car came after us and the men picked us up and we went to look over the local herds. On return a wise friend of mine who has ridden in Mongolia before said that that is the reason the nomads ride mostly geldings. A gelding will return to his herd whilst a mare will return to a herd where a stallion will look after her which could be any herd. I never saw a mare ridden, as they were too prized for their milk and their young and stallions weren’t keen to work as they had other things on their minds!! You could tell a stallion as he would have a full mane and the geldings would be hogged. And the reason they were hogged was that it would get tick nests in the manes. I have removed a tick my own leg it’s not funny… We never found our errant ponies, so we managed to get our new friends to drive to our camp site to collect our gear, a few eyebrows were raised! And from here we cadged a lift to the next station. We had been rather lucky as the ponies had not been totally tacked up or all our stuff would have gone too plus saddles…
We walked into the station and fessed up to losing our horses (they did turn up and were re-united with their herder) a while passed as the senior person used the sat phone to get decisions as to what happened next so we busied ourselves with important things, eating!! Far too quickly we were allowed to continue.
Today involved some amazing horses, weather and terrain. We travelled over a ridge into a bowl of mountains where the thunderstorms were building fast. We had picked fine horses. Ceri had a small black Shetland looking like horse who had this incredible chiseled face and massive mane whilst I had his grey twin. They had no speed control and not much in the way of steering or brakes either and they were great together. They got us over the mountains and away from quickly building weather that chased us. Thunder and lightning was very loud and scary, yet they cantered unperturbed for the entire 40kms. We walked (a bit) into the next checkpoint where we found Harry the vet in a good mood and two other riders. Cy was one of them and looked at how well we seemed and asked if we would like to vet ahead of them as they were going to stay and rest, I watched them both move stiffly and I could imagine why! I was touched by his gentleman’s manners and how gracious he was under pressure, a true sign of a good person. We gratefully did so and left the station watching them both hobble to dinner!! Meanwhile for us it was about 7pm and we had riding to do. Yet again Harry warned us each about wolves and wild dogs and suggested we find a small shed. In Mongolia there are sheds with an overhang and a small corral and all of this is encased in solid fencing, this would be a good idea.
After cantering about 40 miles that day, we continued in this vein trying to cover as much ground as we could before cutoff. We found our horses would often leave a station fast then get tired, so we had learnt to get a slow canter out of them and this we achieved that night. Around 8:20pm Ceri spotted a perfect shed and we made camp. Ceri was a fabulous shed spotter and it became a bit of a running joke to the extent that even now I WhatsApp her photos of suitable sheds I find around Hampshire!! Fortunately there was a lot of spare wood and I made a rustic bed just to get our sleeping perch away from the ground and goat/sheep droppings and it was a comfortable night. Our horses settled in the corral with us but we had hobbled and tied them up just in case! We were somewhere between stations 18 and 19 and had covered somewhere around the 160km mark. Bed called soon and sleep a moment after.
Mongol Derby Race Day 7
Today we definitely went further again! Our first station was with Caroline, much lighthearted gossip and another dressing from Mr French Legion. We had walked in with slow horses and pulses were in the 40’s argh! Here we found a group of three riders and we played tag with them for most of the day. We were really efficient in vetting and get ahead of them here then they would ride hard and catch us up before we did the whole thing again at the next station. By the last station of the day we left well before them and never saw them again. Yet again we camped out and Ceri found us a great shed where we made ourselves at home with our steeds. Sleep was bliss until I came to somewhat sluggishly hearing odd noises of something running around the outside of our pen. All I could think of was dogs and I soon came to. Then I realised there was flapping involving in it, but whatever it was, it was big! I looked across to where Ceri was and a few gentle snores came my way, oh well. I worked out it was something big trying to roost, er no, this shed was ours! I had a few rocks and a knife but didn’t want to get that close. I put my head torch on and shone it at whatever it was, luckily this did the trick and it flew off to find an easier shed with no incumbents. I put my insecure vulnerability put to one side and went back to sleep. Another 160km day…
Mongol Derby Race Day 8
Today we nearly made the finish but we decided not to push for it and to take it a bit at a time. At our first stop of the day the family had cucumber in yoghurt and it tasted the best. The growing season is only three months long so that will give you cucumber, melon and tomatoes! Ceri made my day producing a sachet of Starbucks instant coffee which I added to the milky tea, I was in heaven! Next we crossed over a big mountain pass into lush mountain pastures with butterflies and flowers and bees. The lushness we rode into was so colourful and suddenly there was woodland and cabins rather than gers. You could see the animals and people had better nutrition than we had seen before and they were all happier! We rode into Poppy the vet’s station where she looked very content and she said we had to try the noodles!! We did briefly! Next I was feeling a horse around the girth to see if he had rubs and also to find out if he had been ridden before and he tried to kick me, I was lucky to get out the way and dearly wanted the horse but Ceri looked at me sternly and said ‘please would I be sensible and pick a less Fiesty model’!! She was right as usual… as we left Poppy, she said not to let our guard down. She was right, these were still semi feral horses and this side of the valley they were better fed and sharper too. We were sad to go but ever onwards!
A further station we came across a Mongolian Vet who treated me like an old friend and I had a huge hug and he said “we shall see you at the finish”. Was it really that time already? The day went on and we worked out we could make the penultimate station by cutoff and although it was dark by 820pm ish we would probably be OK as we had headtorches and the GPSs were very accurate provided the family weren’t too far from where they were meant to be! It got dark and we struggled to find station 27 and Harry. We came in at 8:28pm to head torch vetting and Harry saying “what time do you call this?” Followed quickly by “you can relax girls you have 30 minutes to vet!”
We vetted successfully and then found our rider’s ger, a fire and lots of mod cons we had not had for a few days. I tried to stay awake for dinner but couldn’t and crashed! The last two days of the ride I hadn’t had stiffness but I was aware my body was running out of reserves and needed rest, which wasn’t happening! 160k ridden…
Mongol Derby Race Day 9
Our last night on the trail and a mixture of relief sadness and elation and it was lovely to see Harry again. In the morning as we packed our bags I asked Ceri if she wanted me to call the concierge for our bags, Harry fell about laughing. We had smiley faces drawn on our maps for us and Harry admired our choice of horses. I went for a very traditional Mongolian horse with lots of hair, a flat back, a small rump and huge shoulders. He went like the wind. Ceri decided she should have yet another coloured horse as she just loved them. They were fine beasts. Our last leg we took slowly not wanting to finish but also wanting to finish. There was a treat when a wild herd of horses came across our path and I joined them being swept along with them and yet again accepted into a herd. Soon they turned away and it was back to our gentle hack into the finish.
A few miles from the end we came across the TV crew and Julian Herbert the photographer, and we played for them side by side and some super photos were taken. And then we cantered across the finish very happy indeed. Ceri vetted first and easily, my pony took a bit longer but soon we were officially done. Our ponies were taken away and we were sorted out and we returned our saddles, bags etc and were allotted a ger where we just sat in stunned silence. Ceri went for a shower and I spent a happy hour sorting out my mat of hair… The shower was a treat, but the best treat was a snickers bar, that was really good and so bad at the same time. I regretted wolfing it down as I felt slightly sick! Last day 32k ridden.
It was a culture shock to come off the steppe. Here was noise, music, lots of people, cars and food. We saw other riders come in and finish and there was the chance to catch up with the adventures we had all had. I slept a lot and we had some ceremonies before returning to Ulaanbaatar. We all received a deel which is a silk and very beautiful coat (see photo to the left). We were called up by placing and dressed in it by the Mongolians. Mine was very bright, iridescent and very warm.
The next day I returned to the Holiday Inn in Ulaanbaatar. Like everyone else the first thing I did was weigh myself. Previously I was 70kgs as I had put on weight on purpose, now I was 64kgs! I did wonder why everything was so loose… I ran a bath to find the water was brown, I decided to leave that treat for the next day and slept. The shell shock of it all gradually sank in or went away, none of us were quite sure and we ate the hotel coffee shop out of pretty much everything!!
We had a big party to celebrate and Ceri and I shared joint 11th. So pleased and slightly overcome by media and internet coverage. We had been on world information blackout while we rode but the world had been watching us with our trackers knowing our every movement! Ceri’s parents knew all about our adventure and suddenly were my new friends!!
There are lots of moments that surprise you after the Derby. How good clean untangled hair is. How good food is. How nice a hot bath can be and the lusciousness of clean sheets and a big Holiday Inn bed to sprawl across. Then there are the less immediate things you notice, how little things matter and how obsessed we are with social media and the worldwide web. How in the western world we worry about things that don’t really matter at all and there are times when life is very superficial. There isn’t much that matters and what does matter doesn’t matter much. I had the chance to have no home, no safe place and I think as a result I love my home even more. I have a small understanding of what it must be like to be homeless and to not be able to wash or care for myself (I’ll buy more Big Issue magazines now). I miss being around a people who really look you in the eyes and see your heart and being. I have learnt so much.
This was a life reset for me and one I loved. It gave me a chance to get away from the white nose of life, the phone, email, iPad and all there was, was now this moment. It was pointless worrying about the past (that vet penalty) or the future (will I complete this?) and for a delicious 8 days I was suspended in ‘Now’ and taking each step one step at a time, it’s called endurance riding. I learnt you don’t need steering or brakes or speed control although they are nice. Early on riding with Ceri she told me an African proverb which was “if you want to ride fast you ride alone, if you want to ride far, you ride together“. I think we proved that!!
The Short version
- 1,020 kms ridden from 11:30am on day 1 until 9:50am on day 9
- in less than 8 days riding on 28 horses
- 1 fall, 1 Fiesty rearing horse who knocked out a herder and 1 major bucker
- 2 heart rate vet penalties, 0 other penalties
- joint 11th with Ceri, first Brits home
- 3 nights in gers, 5 nights wild camping
- I finished minus 6 kgs!
- I used everything I had in my kit and if I could I’d take more protein bars!
All photographs in this webpage by courtesy of the Mongol Derby photographer Julian Herbert.
What a marvellous experience to have done and challenge to have completed.