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

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.

While on a five-day pack trip/pre-race boot camp in Montana, Leslie is handing the reins of her column to her dear sweet supportive husband Tommy. If you missed Part I, check it out here

The conditions in Montana right now won’t quite compare to the shiver-inducing 20° F to blazing hot and shadeless 95° F temperature range and 12-hour long riding days that Leslie has been preparing to face in Mongolia, but this trip — she’ll rack up about five days with five to six hours in the saddle each day — should be a good test for her gear, clothes, nutrition plan and constitution in general.

She’s come a long way since the suspiciously nonchalante reveal to me of her Mongol Derby intentions.

Preparations and Leslie on a Nine

As I now understand, a Mongol Derby rider needs to be able to check an array of boxes preparation-wise in order to even have a chance at a successful race. All riders accepted into the field seem to come with high marks in at least some areas and less experience or skill in others. Strengths and weaknesses, right? We all have them, to varying degrees.

What appears to separate Derby finishers from non-finishers, excluding the experienced endurance riders who may apply for the contest carrying high marks across the board already, is who can identify what they need to work on and how much progress they make before Race Day One.

For reasons Leslie has already outlined pretty thoroughly (much to the horror of our friends and loved ones), dangers exist on the steppe that can eliminate even the most skilled and prepared. In fact, the general expectation is that only something like half of the 40 riders accepted each year will actually complete the race. That much I learned the first night we sat and talked about the Derby.

Of course, it would be no real reflection on Leslie’s preparation to have to withdraw due to a nasty injury from a surprise tumble. Likewise, contracting a brutal stomach virus can zap the energy reserves of the toughest competitors, not to mention making it practically impossible to stay hydrated.

Being well-prepared for the challenge ahead does little to alleviate those types of risks. But, as Leslie and I learned more about this event, the landscape on which it takes place, and its black-and-blue-checkered history, it became apparent that there were a number of fronts on which there was quite a bit of valuable work she could do, starting with a simple evaluation of where she stood in each area.

Early on, I was primarily reading and watching whatever media coverage or blogs about the Derby I could find online and sifting through The Adventurists’ website with a fine-toothed comb. Leslie, meanwhile, was receiving regular official email tutorials, missives, and hot tips from event organizers and past competitors, along with personally interviewing many of the same for the Horses in the Morning podcast.

Her info was coming first-hand, straight from the source, while I felt a little like a second-rate P.I. whose main investigative tool was Google. So, why were we having conversations in late February in which I seemed like the more-informed of the two?

Because she was in denial. For nearly two months, Leslie either avoided the subject altogether or just focused on the hilarity of the situation (in a Fargo-the-movie way, not in a blimp-piloted-by-hamsters-at-Puppy-Bowl-VI kinda way). She was choosing to craft her character and myth as the ultimate fish-out-of-water/underdog story, which by necessity begins with a completely unprepared protagonist.

And it was funny; preposterous, even.

Then in March, her interview with Erik Cooper, Derby veteran and “blood wagon” rescue team member for this year’s race, pretty much ended that approach in her mind and heart (which has not really stopped racing since then), if not quite in her columns and interviews yet.

She freaked out (which I now see is the proper “step one” in preparing for the Derby), got serious, and got to work. Cue the training montage set to a blaring inspiro-rock soundtrack chock full of Kenny Loggins and Journey… or in Leslie’s case, it’s been James Blake, Slowdive and Phish. Trust me though, it works.

That was when she (belatedly) decided to share the emails and rider handbook with me, and I (belatedly) realized I should really start listening to all of her interviews (you should, too!), the picture got significantly clearer in terms of what she would need to work on, learn, and purchase to be considered “well-prepared.”

Bear with me as I break this down in way that works well for me: Categorization and numerical ratings arranged in a table!

What follows is my humble analysis of where Leslie was when she applied to compete in the Derby and where she is right now compared to what level (in my relatively poorly informed estimation) she would need to be at when the race starts for me to consider her well-prepared in each of five major areas of preparedness for the Derby.

First of all, it’s important to understand that the ratings in each category are on a nine point scale (not just to make it quirky and overwrought; Leslie on a 9 is as much as I safely dare to imagine, really). Secondly, a 9 rating on this chart is intended to represent the highest level possible for Leslie, specifically. It’s a Leslie-based scale of one to nine, and I suggest it’d be foolish to rate anyone else by the same metrics. Yes, that’s a blatantly biased concept, which is another reason why I’ve cordoned off my evaluation of her from the rest of the world in this way.

Also, the inclusion of a 10 in Horsemanship is no error; it represents the combination of the esteem in which she is held by other “horse people” that are familiar with her skill set and the fact that the limits of my equine knowledge are so far surpassed by her seemingly effortless proficiency that it’s beyond me to seriously attempt any judgement in this area.

So, given that she is either where she needs to be or beyond that in the first two categories, Fitness and Horsemanship, and since much of what she’s been writing about has been the on-and-around-the-horse parts of her training, I’ll briefly touch on the other areas.

To put it bluntly, she’s been putting in the work and making tough decisions.

Logistics started at 0 and now sits at 8 because neither of us knew what she needed at all in terms of travel plans, insurance, packing strategies, and support. It would now be a 9 if I felt she had over-prepared for any possible red-tape-y type unexpected curveballs, which I think is safe to say is not the case. All of the big logistical issues are currently sorted out, and most of that is boring.

I’m leaving Gear & Tack just one point shy of the target primarily because she is still sorting out an item or two. She has taken some excellent recommendations from reps at the fantastic companies that are sponsoring her (thank you all of you!) and race officials (thank you, Erik Cooper!). She’s gone through somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 pounds of potential saddlebag contents to get down to the roughly 10-and-a-half pounds it weighed (including the added weight of sleeping bag number three which was not there at the time) after a final consultation with our survivalist/engineer friend Tony recently (thank you, Tony!). I fully expect the rating in this category to be an 8 or a 9 when I drop her off at the airport on August 3rd.

Tommy with Tony and Leslie.

One thing I’ve learned regarding Survival Skills in this race, is that they are not as important as I initially thought they were.

Hear me out on this. Her ability to apply the lessons she’s learned in training, listening to and taking care of her body, and seeking/accepting help when she needs it will do more to keep her safe through her eight to 10 days out there than knowing how to build a fire with a piece of string and a dried-out poopball.

The facts are that she will be tracked by GPS and highly-trained emergency medical assistance will be hours and not days away at all times. That being said, she has some basics down. Staying hydrated and having the ability to stop any major bleeding that may occur seem to top the prioritized list of survival skills she may need in an emergency, given the circumstances. They are also situations I consider her prepared for.

Those situations are not enjoyable to imagine her in, but they’ve been necessary to think through. Any other tips and tricks she may need — staying warm/cool, keeping gear dry, proper nutrition, and such — have been picked up during previous training rides. Plus, she is in Montana right now on her longest hack yet to give her Gear & Tack a final test, and bump that Survival Skills rating up one more notch.

All told, I’m confident she’ll be either at or very close to where I think she needs to be when she leaves, which is reassuring. But this is more important than any rating I assign about stuff I only kinda know about: She’s worked her butt off to get as ready as she can for the Derby. And she is out there now, still working.

I wish we had one more quiet weekend to enjoy at home before she left for Asia. I wish I was with her now in Montana. But all things considered, I’m glad she’s out there, and I’m proud of her.

Journeys and Being a Partner

“Most spouses, friends, family, etc. don’t come out to the event because there isn’t much for them to do so it’s not interesting. The riders are in training before the event and once they leave the city it’s not possible for visitors as we don’t have the facilities to accommodate extras out on the Mongolian steppe.”

That’s the emailed response I got in April from The Adventurists, the British company that created and runs the Mongol Derby, when I asked about where to stay or, really, for any help at all with logistics for a spouse intending to travel for the race.

The response seemed pretty matter of fact, and it makes sense. For them to have the resources required to assist in any way a throng of over-inquisitive, underprepared, nail-biting husbands, wives, and parents while also managing an adventure of that scale, well, it was simply too much to expect.

But it was jarring for me to switch so quickly from the mode I was in — all the exciting problem-solving and research that goes into planning an international trip — to suddenly trying to wrap my head and heart around the fact that I’d just be following a tiny, computer-generated Leslie Dot on a map from 6,460.38 miles away. That’s the straight line distance from our house in Knoxville, up and over the North Pole, to Khatgal, a village on the southern tip of Lake Khövgöl, near the finish line of last year’s race.

Not that I could have watched her or been of any help, anyway. Even if I were there, I’d have no contact with her or anyone involved with the race until the whole crew returned to the capital city. I just imagined it’d be nice to be in Ulaanbaatar when the race was over to scoop her up, carry her luggage, and keep her company on the long flight home. And, heaven forbid, if she were to get hurt, I’d only be 300 miles away instead of 6,000. But, Leslie had been essentially trying to talk me out of it, too, on the basis that the expense just wasn’t worth it and that she’d much prefer that when I took that amount of time off from work, it would be for us to do something together.

So I relented, and it kinda hurts to even imagine seeing her off to a monumental, and perhaps life-changing, three weeks of adventure from McGhee Tyson Airport in Alcoa, TN, after which I would go to work, feed the cats, follow the Dot every chance I get, and hope she’s OK. But, that’s precisely what I’ll be doing in August.

“Love itself is pain, you might say — the pain of being truly alive.” Thank you again, Joseph Campbell, this time for an inspiring, if pretty dark, insight on how connecting with and committing to another person can feel sometimes.

What resonates with me lately about this is the thought that there is a state of being that is less than true, less than fully alive. I’m fairly sure I’ve spent some time in, or at least travelled through, that state once or twice. It comes with less pain, because fewer risks are necessary to maintain it.

However, when we aspire to a more complete human experience, when we open ourselves up to a potentially life-long love and partnership, we need to understand that along with the comforting depths of real connection to others and the thrilling emotional highs can often come confusion, fear, and potentially even actual loss.

Leslie’s risk is physical. Her Derby journey is exactly 1000 km long through the grassy steppe of Outer Mongolia. She’s respectful of the risks, informed about the task at hand, and will be prepared as she can be for the challenges it will present. She’s thrilled to have such an opportunity.

My risks and journey are emotional and mental, and they’re an outgrowth of the larger journey through life and maturity that I’ve agreed to share with her. The tasks at hand for me are to be supportive, encouraging, and to contribute as much as I can to her preparedness. I’m proud of what she’s accomplished so far, excited to see what’s next, and unequivocally thrilled that I have the opportunity to grow alongside and closer to Leslie.

There’s no perfect template for modern life-long partnerships, or at least none that fits for us. We’re not Ward and June Cleaver, and we don’t want to be.

Robots in love.

If I had carefully planned out my adulthood before I reached mid-life (which, for the record, I definitely did not) and then aggressively sought a specific type of relationship to accommodate my plan, it would have been a fool’s errand for two reasons:

1) I’d have tossed the plan out and rewritten it several times already.

And, 2) Finding a person to fit a plan is putting the cart before the horse, so to speak. Conceptually, it’s just backwards, reductively placing your potential life partner in your tool box, along with your education and your financial planning strategy. (Don’t ask me about either of those, by the way.) Further, in terms of practicality, well, that cart is going either nowhere or possibly the exact opposite direction from where you were planning to take it.

Stories, myths and tales of journeys offer us not just diversions, but often reveal an aspirational element: the emotional development of their protagonists as they find ways to view their place in the world through a new array of lenses. Again and again, our heroes realize their travels and travails are not simply a means to an end; they are merely excerpts from the larger, never-ending search for purpose and struggle for security amidst even the most preposterous circumstances.

In my experience, finding the compass and map with which to navigate the wild, open spaces of our souls, and learning how to use them — figuring out how to accede to the at-times preposterous requests made of us in scenarios that only truly loving someone else can place in our paths — involves acknowledging one’s self first (determining my location), and then making decisions about one’s future that may at least temporarily deprioritize one’s own comfort, pleasure, or even sense of reason (charting my path and bravely setting out, despite the apparent risks).

If the destination you choose is a place you’ve never been before, then mysteries, unexpected obstacles, even profound risks, very likely await you. The only way to avoid the unknown is to go back the way you came, or to simply stand still.

Taken even further, if what you’ve chosen (as is the case for me) is not a specific destination but the journey itself, then the thought that it (much like the struggle for security and meaning) will never be over is not a burden, but the purest joy, the best possible future. It’s a lifetime of learning and challenge, of risk and reward, of give and give more — because you know you don’t have to take, as there’s little doubt that the journey and your partner both will give back to you all you are searching for.

To the surprise of exactly none of you, neither going back nor staying put are a part of Leslie’s state of being, and I’ve come to realize that I was able, willing, and overjoyed to sign on as her partner precisely because they’re no longer a part of mine either.

So, let the journey continue.

To the Mongol Derby, and then to whatever’s next!

Go Leslie!

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.