Wylie vs. Mongol Derby, Powered by SmartPak: Icy Monsoons Plague Day 2

In August 2017 writer/rider Leslie Wylie is attempting her most fearsome feat of #YOLO yet: a 620-mile race across Mongolia. Riding 27 semi-wild native horses. Carrying only 11 pounds of gear. Relying on nomads for food, water and shelter. On a mission to help stop deforestation.

Held Aug. 9-19, the Mongol Derby is widely regarded as the toughest horse race in the world. Inspired by the Genghis Khan’s original “pony express,” there’s no trail or set route, just 25 GPS checkpoints/horse exchange stations to hit over the course of 7-10 days. Keep it here for updates on Leslie’s ride of a lifetime! Click here to read previous stories in the series.

Leslie Wylie (LW), on the left, and Rebecca Pumphrey (RP) were both praised by veteran Mongol Derby vet Cozy for their considerate riding and handling of the ponies on day two. Photo by Julian Herbert/Mongol Derby.

If you missed it, see our update on day one here.

Wildly unpredictable weather is one of the well-established hazards of the Mongol Derby, and this gremlin came out to show its ugly face to riders on day two. “Icy cold, hurricane-like conditions” so thick you couldn’t stand or see, and rising water levels all played a role in slowing some of the riders down to a near-crawl, but our own Leslie Wylie stayed on track to complete the next four checkpoints, ultimately stopping at Urtuu 7 for a night of dry rest.

Two riders, New Zealand’s Marie Palzer and Australia’s Ed Fernon, made it to Urtuu 8 before nightfall and currently share the lead. Leslie is now tied for second place with the four other riders who reached Urtuu 7.

At the conclusion of day two, Leslie is at Urtuu 7 with four other riders, one checkpoint behind the two riders currently sharing the lead.

Day Two Recap

With riders spread out across about 60 kilometers at various points on the course, weather varied significantly at the start of the day, allowing some of the riders at the back of the pack to get going at 7 a.m., while others — including Leslie — were held where they were because of torrential downpours that reduced visibility to only two feet. This compacted the field a bit, but ultimately riders at Urtuu 3 and beyond were finally given the green light around 7:30 a.m.

We’ve since learned from race organizers that Leslie stayed in a ger (Mongolian yurt) near the Golden Meadows Shopping Mall of Mongolia, so she was warm and dry overnight, though sadly missed her shot at a morning pastry chain run.

People obsessively watching the red dot known as LW were anxiously awaiting movement that didn’t come for hours before finally her GPS pinged again, showing her still at the top of the pack. When she finally reached the next checkpoint, her signaler was replaced, and this has since resolved her tracking issues moving forward.

Over the next several hours, a few riders made their move. Rebecca Pumphrey, a British talent agent better known as “Pixie,” led the pack for a brief period in the afternoon and is now one of Leslie’s overnight bunkmates at Urtuu 7.

Ed Fernon — a 29-year-old Australian Olympic Pentathlete, long distance rider and avid mountain summiteer — came out of seemingly nowhere to jump into the lead alongside Marie Palzer, a 22-year-old New Zealander who works as a horse trekking company guide. The two rode the last couple of checkpoints together and checked into Urtuu 8 with just minutes to spare.

The joint day two leaders: Marie Palzer (MP) on the left and Ed Fernon (EF) on the right. Photo by Julian Herbert/Mongol Derby.

Twenty-one riders have now been given time penalties, and all but one of those riders are ar least two checkpoints back from the leaders. One rider, Warren Sutton of Australia, has a 2-hour penalty in Urtuu 7 (the same checkpoint as Leslie) and he will be held for two hours at Urtuu 11 when he arrives there. All the others have a bit of catching up to do in addition to their time penalties, but it’s still a long race to go and anything can happen.

Noticeably, the riders at the front of the pack are succeeding not only at handling the weather, the horses and the mapping, but also their timing — knowing when to attempt a leap to the next safe stop and when to hunker down out of the harsh weather conditions. It will take all these skills and more to come out on top.

We were also especially pleased to see that the vet stationed at Urtuu 7 specifically mentioned Leslie and Rebecca for their top notch horsemanship on day two.

Injury and Accident Assessment

There have been a handful of hardships out there. The most serious to report is Julia Fisher, a 65-year-old psycholinguist who fell from her horse near the first checkpoint suffered a suspected cracked a rib. She retired from the race and was transported to Ulaanbataar for a full medical evaluation and chest X-ray. We send our best thoughts to her for a full and speedy recovery.

Other trouble on course from day two included some shivering horses and riders who overnighted on the steppe and risked hypothermia; a lost sleeping bag (downright treacherous in these conditions); runaway mounts; and the first marmot hole victim, who went buns over teakettle but got right back on, no worse for the wear.

Almost all the riders made it to a checkpoint to have a safe, dry sleep tonight, though some will accrue time penalties for riding past the cut-off point in order to make it there. There are three riders who stopped between Urtuus to hunker down overnight, and we hope very much they found some shelter. We’re sending you guys warm thoughts!

Forecasts for tomorrow are looking MUCH better, with some of the checkpoints already appearing clear, and the western checkpoints clearing up at around 2 a.m. Mongolian time. That doesn’t mean the weather can’t change in an instant out on the steppe, but hopefully it gives all the riders a chance to dry out and cover some ground.

As the day carries on for us and night envelopes the riders on the other side of the globe, we find Wylie’s husband Tommy’s words very poignant: “Each dot on the map, from the front of the pack to the back, is somebody’s pride and joy — inspiring their loved ones back home and risking practically everything to chase a dream.”

It’s an incredible and diverse array of riders, and we’re crossing our fingers for safe rides for all. We send our appreciation to the event organizers and the local families and horsemen who are watching out for the riders and horses.

Go Wylie!

Jenni Autry contributed to this report.

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