If the Tevis Cup (starting in just a few days) isn’t an intense enough competition for you, consider the Mongol Derby — a race that replicates Genghis Khan’s horse messenger system over 1000km of Mongolian steppe. If that doesn’t sound challenging enough, your mounts are semi-wild horses, which you swap out every 40 km and which are not always that cooperative.
This year’s winner? Robert Long, a 70-year old cowboy from Boise, Idaho became not only the oldest rider to compete in the Mongol Derby, but also the oldest winner.
Competition is not limited to the actual race. Only 40 spots are available, and they fill up quickly, despite the entry fee of $12K+. To become a competitor, each rider must demonstrate their riding skills and hardiness. They will spend 13-14 hours per day in the saddle (time in the saddle is restricted to the hours between 6:30 a.m. and 8 p.m.) and need to camp at night. Because the Mongolian horses are small, riders can weigh no more than 188 pounds dressed to ride and can carry no more than 11 lbs of gear. On average, only half the riders complete the race on a given year.
The course changes every year and is announced only days before the ride. There are no directions. Riders are all given a GPS tracker to navigate between the 24 horse stations. The GPS units allow fans to follow along on a map, but also let race officials track the location of each rider. This is probably the only race in the world where riders are given an SOS button in case they get into real trouble.
Tiny yet Tough
The horses used in the race have changed very little since the time of Genghis Khan. Most Mongolian horses live in semi-feral herd and must survive temperatures that range from -40°C in winter to +30°C in summer.-40 fearless, wild and unbelievably tough they have changed very little over the centuries. They range in size from 12-15 hands but are genetically considered horses, rather than ponies, because of th
While the riders travel 75-100 miles per day, they change horses every 45 km (25 miles). The horses are checked frequently by vets to make sure they are sound and that their heart rates return to 56 bpm. Riders are assessed a penalty if their horses don’t recover promptly. While the humans ride for seven days, each horse is used for only one leg in the Derby.
Part of the challenge of the competition is that the horses are completely unknown, and may be only lightly trained. Since the choice of horses is first come, first serve at the stations, it’s a real advantage to be in the lead as the first riders get their pick of available horses. As you can see from the video below, they are a feisty lot. Most riders will fall off multiple times during the course of the race; broken bones and torn ligaments are common (the second place finisher today rode in without stirrups because of a ligament issue in one ankle).
While riders will be trying to travel 75-100 miles a day, each horse will travel about 25 miles or so, and each horse is used only for one leg during the Derby. It’s first come first serve at the horse stations, so riders that get in first get their pick of the horses. From what I’ve read, making friends with the herders is key to being steered toward the better horses at the stations. While non-verbal communications will work, if you want to compete in 2020, now would be a good time to brush up on your Mongolian.
This is truly a race where to complete it is to win. But for those who finish last, don’t despair. During the Naadam festival, they sing a special song for the horses that finish last in the race so that they don’t feel bad.
Would you ever consider entering an endurance event like this? After all, Bob Long has just showed us that age is just a number.