Wylie vs. the Mongol Derby, Powered by SmartPak: What My Husband Thinks, Part I

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.

This week, Leslie is handing the reins to her dear sweet supportive husband Tommy.  

#1 horse show husband!

Leslie is currently somewhere in Glacier National Park, riding, hiking and camping in preparation for the Mongol Derby 2017, now looming less than a couple weeks away. She’ll no doubt gobble up the miles in this training ride at an exhausting pace on foot and on horseback, gleefully climbing and descending much of the 7,000 feet of altitude variation the park has to offer, munching on energy bars and dried fruit, wading in glacial streams, and evading curious mountain goats, the park’s semi-official mascots.

At the moment, I’m sitting on our lovely porch in Knoxville, Tennessee, surrounded by a people-sized terrarium’s worth of colorful vining plants, succulents in adorable small pots, and bushy, wispy, greenery in hanging baskets. I’m having a beer, listening to The Mountain Goats (one of indie rock’s most acerbic and tuneful folk outfits from the last 20 years or so), and pretending I’m a writer (case in point: the use of the word “acerbic” in my previous parenthetical). I’ve been tasked with contributing to the “Wylie vs. Mongol Derby 2017” column series, so here I am, hunting and pecking at the keyboard, attempting to share some semblance of what it’s been like to be part of Team Wylie so far.

Team Wylie-Bateman = unstoppable, clearly.

Accepting Risk and Riding the Wave

I’ll admit it, I’m kinda scared.

(Not as terrified as Leslie looked when she overheard me tell my brother that my column was going to be an epic underdog story about a soccer-playing Mongolian pony named Lester that leads his country to World Cup glory in Russia next summer … but pretty darn scared.)

It’s only natural, for several reasons.

Whenever a loved one travels, especially abroad, don’t we all try to at least exchange messages wishing them well, if not get in a good hug and kiss as close to the time of their departure time as possible? When it’s close friends leaving town, perhaps we make a point to get together for a meal or a drink the evening before they leave, and it almost always ends with some variation on the following: “Have fun, and let us know when you get there!”

This may be socially ingrained to the point of being a simple habit, but we all know what lurks behind that “bon voyage!” It’s a hint of worry, and that’s OK. We say we want them to have a good trip, because we know there’s at least a slight possibility that it could go badly. It’s just plain riskier to go far away from home than it is to run to the store and back, and different destinations and modes of travel carry varying levels of risk.

And, when it’s a partner doing the travelling, the worry, as it periodically washes over us, is just more intense.

My partner, Leslie, as you know, is a rider, a “horse person.” Those of us who either ride or love someone who does know that risk is a part of riding. Every time. I accept it, as do many of you. I know that in my case, my wife, the love of my life, is knowledgeable and skilled, careful yet courageous, and experienced, as most riders are, at evaluating and mitigating unexpected risks in the blink of an eye.

But, I can’t deny that when some complicating factor pops up in the morning before a cross country ride, whether she didn’t get as thorough of a course walk as she would have liked, the footing’s a bit sketchy out there, or maybe Princess, her mighty mite of an eventing pony, is just a little tired — whatever the reason — it can be music to my ears when Les says, “I think we’re just gonna take it easy today, get around, and enjoy it.” Perfect! Nothing to prove today, baby. Just have fun out there … whew.

Now, it’s not that the risk has then been wholly eliminated. I’m aware that even seasoned riders can get hurt on a trail ride. My sense of relief in these instances is based on the fact that I know that when Leslie is in “Let’s Go For It!” mode, it’s time to stand back, keep my eyes peeled, make sure my phone is fully charged and there’s gas in the car, I’ve already saved screen-shots of directions to the nearest hospital, my bug-out bag is packed, the underground bunker is stocked with water and canned goods, that this is gonna be awesome, and dear God help me.

But when she dials it back just a bit, I officially ratchet down the threat level from DEFCON 1 to DEFCON 2.6 or so. (Do they still have DEFCON ratings? Or do they just use the color system now? Is “Threat Level: White Hot Panic” a thing? If so, can we scooch today’s cross country ride down to “Threat Level: Warm Blueberry Pie,” please? I didn’t get enough sleep last night.)

When it’s not just a six to 10 minute cross country ride I’ll be biting my nails during, but up to 10 straight 12-hour days on horseback … well, calculating exponential increases in probabilities over time is something I’d better leave to the professionals.

So, for my cumulative risk level assignation for her upcoming trip to Mongolia, I will be taking equal parts of the following:

  • international travel in proximity to nations with whom the US’s relationship can be conservatively described as adversarial.
  • 100 total hours or more on horseback.
  • days upon days of close-quarters interaction with strangers, including being completely exhausted and sleeping.

And seasoning this mix liberally with:

  • the fact that the horses she’ll be riding are semi-feral.
  • marmot holes for miles.
  • all her food and water will come from a completely unfamiliar ecosystem and environment.
  • Leslie believes she has a shot to not just finish the race, but to be competitive (and I agree).

When I input it all these factors, in their varying quantities, into my trusty old Threat-O-Meter, the results I get back look a lot like “Threat Level: Black(out Drunk)”. There is no DEFCON number for this level.

While it is objectively reasonable to be scared, it’s honestly not like it’s been a crippling, non-stop terror-fest around the house. There will be widely varying levels and types of risk in play for Leslie over the next few weeks. And similarly for me, the anticipation has been and up-and-down affair. There have been moments over the last few weeks when I’ve felt overwhelmingly proud, excited, and confident, just like there have been nights when sleep has been elusive. I’ve even had a few waves of heart-pounding panic. But waves crest and recede, then they make way for the next one. I plan to make sure to catch my breath between them and to not be surprised when the next one arrives.

I’ve accepted that this is just how it’s gonna be until she gets back.

Waiting patiently. Photo by Katherine McDonough.

Leslie, Specifically

It was months ago, back on this same porch one evening in Knoxville, that Leslie casually brought this whole mess up. And knowing her like I do, it was not lost on me for a moment that her casualness was more than a little forced.

It calls to mind the classic maneuver: a combination of raised eyebrows, hands shoved deep into pants pockets, one leg swinging slowly in front of the other to a whistled, tuneless (yet universally recognizable), improvised melody. As an observer of this hackneyed move, I feel my suspicion invariably leap to the fore — “You’re trying to sneak something past me here, aren’t you?”

And, of course, she was.

Without rehashing in too much depth a conversation Leslie’s already written about (see “Wylie vs. the Mongol Derby: Katniss Everdeen and Her Magical Wine Bra”), I’ll just say her introduction to me of the concept of the Derby felt pretty much like this: “Hey, isn’t this a weird thing? Isn’t that crazy? People are crazy, right? Wow. Sooo, I filled out an application.”

She’s right in her recounting of what happened next. I did, in fact, jump directly into research mode, but not out of some generic intellectual curiosity. I had to know more about this event, and immediately, because if the Mongol Derby were an oncoming passenger bus bearing down on us, it wasn’t my life that flashed before my eyes — it was a snapshot of Leslie’s application: her resume, profile, and subsequent interviews.

And I knew immediately she was going to Mongolia.

You’ll never walk alone. Unless you fall off your horse in the middle of Mongolia and it gallops off into the sunset.

Leslie, the writer, tailgate party host, and eventing culture demi-god has a distinct public persona, partially cultivated intentionally by her and somewhat ascribed to her by others due to the convenience of its application. The easy-laughing, wine-swilling, devil-may-care bundle of energy that those she works with, encounters socially at events, and tells her stories to are familiar with is not a complete fabrication.

Myths as narratives and archetypes as characters, both of them, typically exist to represent something real or address a real question. They are an overblown overlay, dramatized for effect and relatability, but they serve in place of something actual; a story with an important lesson or a portrait of a real person with many facets, some perhaps even contradictory. They are, according to Joseph Campbell, bona fide myth expert, “a manifestation in symbolic images, in metaphorical images, of the energies of the organs of the body in conflict with each other.”

So yes, Leslie enjoys a glass of wine. We have a dedicated wine fridge and regularly receive curiously heavy and clanky packages shipped in from all over the world. And, yes, she comes to life at a proper party: she’s been to Bonnaroo(s), Coachella, multiple Phish shows, craft brewery showcases, formal Hunt Balls in the U.K., and probably some other festivals/large-scale throwdowns I don’t even know about, not to mention more competitors’ parties than you could shake a riding crop at.

But what those of us who’ve met real-life Leslie up close understood pretty quickly is this: she’s a badass.

She’s downright gifted with troubled ponies, and she’s fearless. As many of you may already know, Leslie made her dime (and quite a reputation) in horse-training by taking on some of the most violent psychos in our region, by getting tossed and getting back on repeatedly, until whatever flame-belching-dragon aspirations those horses nurtured had wilted in the face of Wylie’s iron will and beneath the persistent glare of her piercing (and stunning) eyes. Concussed? Maybe. Bruised? Usually. Successful? Nearly always. I saw her break a finger in the middle of a fairly innocuous mid-week training session, and it didn’t even slow her down. To be clear, she did not stop to so much as take her glove off until time was up. She showed me as we walked back to the barn afterward, and I agreed, “yup, it’s broken.”

She’s ridiculously fit. She works out nearly every day, sometimes more than once, and when she doesn’t, she beats herself up about it. She’s completed four marathons, a number of 10Ks, and numerous other distance runs in training for the marathons. She’s as comfortable in a yoga studio as she is in a CrossFit box or a barre class (and more so in any of those than I am on a stationary bike at our local YMCA). We’ve played soccer together for eight seasons crammed into just over three years, despite the fact that she’d never really been on a “ballsports team” before, as she puts it. She’s a bloodthirsty, speedy and relentless outside back, just so you know. I think the main reason she flirts with and recites poetry to the nastiest and biggest opposing strikers she faces is so they don’t take a swing at her when she chops them down at full speed juuust outside the penalty box. So, she’s quite crafty as well.

Leslie, Tommy and bro-in-law Trace. Photo by best soccer mom ever Linda Bateman.

She is competitive, disciplined, and driven. All of the the previous examples come from before she undertook this current endeavor, meaning that was her normal day-to-day. I’ll let her continue to fill you in on how her focus on the Derby has manifested itself in/consumed her daily routine lately. You’ll see.

What I’m getting at is this: Leslie is not taking the Wine Bra to Mongolia. In fact, barring Derby riders who were actually already serious endurance riders, Leslie was likely the most physically and mentally capable applicant in the pool.

I knew it right away. Add to the above characteristics her media credentials, her specific gifts as a writer, and how well her previous tellings of horse-related adventures across the globe have been received, and she was a stone-cold, lead pipe lock to get in.

How would her pre-existing and unique set of skills, her experience, and her tenacity serve her in the intervening months between her acceptance into the Derby field and her departure for Asia? How prepared for this singular experience could she actually become? As her partner, how would I process this experience emotionally, and how could I contribute in a tangible way (if at all)?

I’ll dive into some answers to those questions in Part Two. This was originally planned as just one column, but I’ve come to realize that writing about all this is part of how I’m processing it, and I’ve got more to sort through. Hopefully it’s providing you guys with a bit of a peek behind the curtain, a smile or two, and maybe even something to which you, as riders and lovers of riders, can relate.

Keep up with my adventures in the lead-up to the 2017 Mongol Derby each week on Horse NationEventing 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.