In August 2017 writer/rider Leslie Wylie will be attempting her most fearsome feat of #YOLO yet: a 620-mile race across Mongolia. Riding 25 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.
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 weekly updates from Leslie as she prepares to embark upon the ride of a lifetime! Click here to read previous stories in the series.
Lieutenant Dan: Two standing orders in this platoon. One, take good care of your feet. Two, try not to do anything stupid, like gettin’ yourself killed.
Forrest Gump: I sure hope I don’t let him down.
To recap, in Part I I did a bang-up job of violating standing order no. 2 of Lieutenant Dan’s mandate. Just 40 miles into an attempted 100-mile training ride with Derby veteran Devan Horn and fellow 2017 contender Liv Wood in Humble, Texas, I nearly drowned myself and my horse in a flash flood. Lesson learned! Don’t go chasing waterfalls! Got it, loud and clear!
The great irony of Lieutenant Dan, of course, is that he told his men to take care of their feet then got his legs blown off. Which is a fairly apt description of the rest of our ride.
So at this point the three of us are safe, if soaking wet and a little shaken. We’re back at Cypress Trails Ranch, where the plan is to switch horses and continue on with the 100-mile ride. Devan was braced for Liv and I to throw in the towel. “After that whole wreck with the creek, I figured they would decline to go back out with me,” Devan recalled. “I was ready for the speech. But then both of them were like, ‘OK, next horse.'”
I climbed aboard my second mount of the day, a dainty-faced rocket ship of an Arabian named Gypsy, and we set back out on the trail. The mood was weirdly chipper despite our earlier misadventure. The rain had since stopped, and the woods were lovely and quiet. Gypsy bounced along, ears pricked and happy. I was glad for a shot at redemption, although there were more lessons still to come.
One thing I neglected to mention in part I, because relative to drowning it seemed a bit trivial, was the fact that I made some serious missteps with regard to gear.
Devan had a near replica of the race-issued saddle we’re required to ride in for the Derby, a bizarro-looking thing manufactured by South African saddle company Franco-C, and she kindly loaned it to me for our ride.
We’re supposed to bring our own stirrup/stirrup leather setup, and I didn’t know what to use, so I just pulled the leathers off my jump saddle and paired them with my new Freejump Soft’Up Pro Stirrups. I’ll do a full review of them on down the road, but suffice it to say they performed like a dream, providing a safe, secure, shock absorbing platform for hours upon hours in the saddle. Take care of your feet, check!
Apparently my thought process was only ankle deep. The stirrup leathers I brought were no bueno.
What started as a nagging rub at the beginning of the ride had escalated into a full-blown cheese grater effect by the end of the first leg. The inside of my calves were annihilated, while my thighs bore the abuse of stirrup buckles I couldn’t quite figure out how to get out of the way. I resorted to homemade sports psychology tactics, channeling my inner Lieutenant Dan. Your lower legs can’t be hurting — you lost them back in Nam, remember?
When endurance people talk about gear being important, they aren’t kidding. You can get away with pretty much anything for a few miles, but even the smallest discomfort is destined to become a big deal during a long ride. I’ve since gotten some amazingly generous sponsors on board to help me out on the gear and clothing front, but in Texas I was woefully underprepared.
And it’s not enough just to show up with the right gear — you’ve got to practice with it. In part I, for instance, I mentioned in passing that my brand new hydration pack bladder was leaking. Of course I only noticed this the night before the ride, when I tried to fill it for the first time ever. So I ended up strapping a one-liter bottle of water to my back, which proceeded to pound my spine repeatedly for the next 13 hours.
Our little Derby squadron soldiered along like champs, though, laughing and swapping stories about horses, boys, life. At its best, I think, endurance riding makes you feel like a kid again — just you and your barn buds exploring nature and all its wonders, feeling worlds removed from stress, drama, fear. My body might have been aching, but my heart felt free, unleashed from adult responsibilities. No email, no texts, no spreadsheets, no to-do lists. All I had to do was focus on what was directly in front of me.
At least one of us, though, was still plugged in. It wasn’t until halfway through the ride that I realized Devan was posting live updates from our journey on Facebook, and in between notes of encouragement followers were placing bets on how far we’d make it. I wondered about that a little bit myself.
It was late in the afternoon when we mounted up on our final set of horses. My first two rides had been speed demons, but for the third leg I drew a sweet, cruise control gelding named Turban.
Devan motored along with Liv and I tailing after her, a little quieter now. Our next destination was some taco truck Devan had been talking about all day, where we could jump off and grab a bite to eat. The sum total of my food intake for the day was a banana at 5:30 a.m. and half a protein bar for lunch. It felt like we were riding in a sauna, the morning storms a distant memory now replaced by sunshine and 90+ degree temps, and I hadn’t felt like eating. I also hadn’t done a super job of hydrating. The electrolyte tabs I’d packed? Still in my suitcase.
Meanwhile, the wardrobe malfunctions continued. The lesson I’d learned the hard way earlier in the day — check your tack! — was now coming full circle once again. This time, Liv found herself in the crosshairs: We were galloping along when her girth came undone completely, sending her horse into full-on bronc mode. A small shift of weight in either direction would have sent her overboard, but Liv sat in the middle of him like a gymnast on a bucking balance beam, eventually pulling the horse up to a standstill.
When I had Devan and Liv on the Horses in the Morning podcast a couple days later, co-host Glenn mused, “So let me get this straight: If I’m doing an inventory here, Liv, first they tried to drown you, then they tried to buck you off and trample you to death?”
And also there was that giant rattlesnake … but yeah, pretty much. Sorry not-sorry, Liv!
Yet it wasn’t until we were stopped to fix Liv’s girth that the wheels really started to fall off. While we’d been moving, with the wind on my face, I felt relatively fine. I mean, my calves were swollen up like stovepipes from my poor choice of stirrup leathers during the first leg, my inner thighs probably resembled a war zone, and I was definitely underfed and dehydrated, but this was Mongol Derby training! I was trying hard to embrace the suck.
And I knew it could be worse. I mean, at least I wasn’t being run away with on some homicidal Mongolian horse, or chased by wild dogs, or attacked by motorcycle bandits, or battling giardia, or dealing with any of the other myriad threats I might encounter in Mongolia. I was on a kind horse heading toward a taco stand in the Texas suburbs. Life was good! I was OK!
Until … I wasn’t.
Once stopped, it suddenly all came crashing down on me: the heat, the pain, the nausea. My vision went all kaleidoscope-y. Devan’s voice slowed down. Things started getting a bit dark, like the sun was on a dimmer switch. I quickly dismounted and put my knees up while doing so was still a voluntary option.
While I gathered my bearings, Devan evaluated her two trainees, now both sprawled out on the grass. She commended us for not crying, which apparently has been the case with other pupils, noted that we’d already completed the minimum daily Derby distance of 75 miles within the allotted time, and gave us two options:
- We could grab a quick taco and keep riding until dark, trying to get as close to 100 miles as possible.
- We could ride the horses to a nearby Mexican restaurant with a hitching post (how very Texan!), have a nice sit-down dinner, and enjoy a chill walk hack home. I’m 99% sure she mentioned something about margaritas, but then again, I was a little delusional by that point so who knows.
Liv and I were in roundabout the same place physically and mentally: pretty cooked. But if either of us had felt strongly about continuing on, we would have, no questions asked, and we would have gotten it done. By this point, though, the important lessons had already been learned — about gear, checking tack, decision-making, and the importance of taking care of oneself — and another 17 miles of trundling along would just be preaching to the choir.
Me, I can’t imagine heading off to Mongolia not having trained with Devan. It was a steep learning curve, but I came away with a whole new respect for the challenge in front of me and appreciation for the sport of endurance.
Liv agreed. “I feel so much better now. Everything that could have gone wrong that day did, and we made it, we came out OK. That might not always be the case, but I am definitely more excited to go now because at every point I’ll be thinking, ‘We made it through that day — this is nothing.’ We’ll continue.'”
Most importantly, we earned the Official Devan Horn Stamp of Approval: “Liv and Leslie had their come-to-Jesus moments, but I will say that these two girls are some of the savviest, most balanced riders I’ve ever taken out on those trails. They aren’t going to have a problem with the horses, and they’ve gotten the mileage under them. They know now what they need to do to take care of themselves and survive and do what we did for eight or nine days in a row.”
She continued, “I think both are strong competitors, so if you’re looking into the betting pool at all this year I know where I’d put my money. There is zero chance of either of them not finishing.”
You know I’ll be replaying that endorsement in my mind when the going gets rough!
Eighty-three miles in Texas may not quite equal 620 miles in Mongolia, but I did see the bottom of myself a little bit out there, and I’m going to see the bottom of myself again in Mongolia. Just like any other skill, if you want to get good at something, you’ve got to practice it. Practicing discomfort is less fun than, say, practicing dipping chips in queso, but it’s important to understand how you cope in difficult/uncomfortable situations. And the more difficult/uncomfortable situations you conquer, the more precedent you have going forward. Like Liv said, “We made it through that day — this is nothing.’ We’ll continue.”
The most successful Derby contenders, and perhaps the most successful people in life generally, have gotten good at being uncomfortable. Because whether you’re in a 1,000km horse race or just trying to make it through the day, life is going to be tough. It’s going to be exhausting. It’s going to test your limits. It’s going to hurt, sometimes physically and sometimes emotionally. You have to learn to be OK with not being OK sometimes, and develop a game plan for those “dark night of the soul” moments.
Spend time getting to know yourself. Especially your deep-down, bottom-of-the-barrel self. Exterior landscapes may change, but our interior landscapes remain constant — they’re like suitcases we cart around with us wherever we go. What are we packing? What’s available to us when we need it? What are we capable of?
There’s only one way to find out.
Keep up with my adventures in the lead-up to the 2017 Mongol Derby each week on Horse Nation, Eventing Nation and Jumper Nation, and tune into Horses in the Morning each Monday at 10 a.m. EST as I interview Derby crew and previous competitors.
Each Derby competitor’s $12,995 entry helps benefit the Mongolian families whose generosity with their horses and their homes makes the race possible, as well as Cool Earth, a charity that works alongside indigenous villages to halt rainforest destruction.
Can you help? Please visit the Wylie vs. Mongol Derby GoFundMe page — all donations are deeply and eternally appreciated! Corporate sponsorships are also available and include ad space on EN, HN and JN, product reviews and usage during the Derby and much more. Email [email protected] for details.
Join me in welcoming the newest sponsor in my Mongol Derby adventure!
Horseware Ireland is the embodiment of “tough.” From horse blankets to rider gear, Horseware is designed to go the distance and hold up to the elements. So who better to join me on an epic journey across some of the most rugged terrain on earth? I’m SUPER excited about Horseware’s HWH2O line of waterproof, breathable rain gear, as well as their tech tops and breeches. I can’t wait to put them to the test out on the steppe and tell you all about it!