Wylie vs. the Mongol Derby: What Could Possibly Go Wrong? 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 locked here for weekly updates from Leslie as she prepares to embark upon the ride of a lifetime!

In case you missed them: What If?, Katniss Everdeen and Her Magical Wine Bra.

Don’t worry, mom, I’ll be fine. Mongol Derby photo by Nick Farnhill/Creative Commons License.

When the end times come for us, probably any day now, my first plan of action is to find my friends Tony and Hunter. You know the type: resourceful, scrappy bros you want on your side in the face of a nuclear winter/ice cap meltdown/comet-earth fender bender/dinosaur comeback/supervolcano explosion/Apple technology uprising/Death Star laser strike/other assorted mass extinction event.

Because no matter what comes along and tries to take out mankind, Tony and Hunter aren’t going down without a fight. Unlike me, who will likely be the first one to get vaporized/eaten alive/swallowed up into the earth/transformed into a PB&J sandwich by mischievous aliens/other assorted bad way to go.

I’m pretty sure Tony keeps a bow and arrow under his bed, and legend has it he once opened a locked car door with an avocado alone. Hunter specializes in blowing up melons and knows how to start a fire with a sandwich bag full of water (and you can, too!) The Mongol Derby is no apocalypse, but when it comes to pro survival tips, I knew where to turn.

Notes from a recent strategic planning session with Tony and Hunter.

The first thing I needed to do, they agreed, was make a “preparedness threat assessment” for the Derby. Which is prepper-speak for identifying all the stuff that could possibly go wrong out there so I can have a plan in place to mitigate it. Hence, the topic of my next couple Derby columns: What could possibly go wrong?

Answer: a lot of things.

British veterinarian Patrick Sells, who finished seventh in the 2015 Derby, journaled his experience and has kindly allowed us to share his notes. Here’s an excerpt (you can read his full account here):

“Feeling the scrutiny of the satellites as we crawled with our trackers along the Earth’s surface, it sometimes felt as if we were a part of the Hunger Games. Stories filtered down the lines through vets, medics and translators of other riders’ woes. One girl, on her second attempt to continue the race, was found hypothermic and lost in the forest, with a pack of wolves closing in menacingly. Four girls I rode with mid-race (all highly competent horsewomen) had a horrendous 24 hours of bolting, bucking horses, serious falls and lost horses during that freezing weather. Listening to their accounts afterwards, I was awestruck by their resilience to carry on. Catriona was thrown face­first onto a rock, splitting her cheek to the bone; Uma bled from the nose from the force of her head hitting the ground. Two riders further back in the pack had been kicked in the head, one unconscious.”

Lots to unpack here. Let’s break it down into a nice, neat, sensible bullet-point list of the most common ways Derby riders get taken out, starting with a no-brainer:

  • Horses

As we all know, horses can and will ruin everything at every available opportunity, and the Derby is no exception.

Nobody expects to get through the Derby without finding themselves in the ejector seat a time or two (or more). It’s not a matter of if you’ll fall, but when. The more pressing variables: with how much force you hit the ground, how you land, and whether or not you get smooshed by your horse in the process.

Mounting and dismounting are particularly perilous moments. The semi-feral horses aren’t keen on gentlemanly behavior, like standing politely whilst its rider climbs aboard. Pat recalls:

“Generally the herdsman would jump on first to calm it down, but even so the animals were so unused to ‘Nongolians’ that the white of the eye would show when I approached. One or two herdsmen would have to hold the horse down, even with ear twitches, or spin it in a tight circle. I would focus on the calm of the Steppe, keeping a low heart rate and a soft voice, swing aboard as lightly as possible with my ruined legs, clamp both hands to the front of the saddle… and then hold on for dear life.” 

Over the course of the race we’ll ride 25 different horses, each with its own unique personality. Pat, who broke the all-time record that year for turning in the fastest ever leg (34kms in 78 minutes), describes a few character types he encountered during the race:


“Once the horse had realised it wasn’t going to shift its alien cargo by bucking or scraping me against a tethering post, it would bolt. My world would become a white­-knuckle ride of whistling wind and blurred landscape. I would blink away tears, sweat or rain and strain my eyes ahead to try and read the fast approaching terrain, not that I could do much about it.

“‘Bolters’ usually had an uncanny knack of swerving around rocks, rabbit holes or hillocks at the last minute. Most could even read the subtly different patches of grass that grow over the top of marmot caves and steer around them. To ride over these underground burrows meant a high chance of a leg plummeting through the surface crust. Travelling at speed, this meant a stumble or fall, and at least once a rider alongside me suddenly vanished onto the deck with their mount rolling on top of them. Miraculously, the worst injuries sustained were broken ribs.”

Couch potatos:

“Much worse than dangerously fast horses, were unfit or lazy ones. To face a 40km leg in very hot or cold conditions on an unwilling horse that would travel at a ‘jackhammer’ trot at best, was something close to torture. Although my body adapted and strengthened towards the end of the week, in the beginning my feet, ankles, knees and groin were suffering so badly from the duress that the staccato of a Mongolian horse trot was unbearable.”

Straight-up homicidal lunatics:

“Other horses were outright lethal, galloping with abandon, no regard for their own safety. I can recount several times when I thought my number was up, and even remember saying my farewells. Battling with the horse’s head but still travelling at flat gallop over rocky, crevassed ground littered with moguls, ditches and rabbit holes, I experienced terror in its rawest form; that absolute certainty that a sticky end was imminent.

“The wild­-eyed horse (a particular one I named ‘Deathwish’) would be flying headlong through the rough terrain when suddenly a deep, stony riverbed would traverse our path, no possible chance of turning away or even slowing. Down over the bank we would plummet, clattering over rocks at impossible speed, the horse literally scrambling to keep his feet, and then up the far cliff, only to dig his toes into the pasture and hit maximum velocity once more. Variations on this theme occurred again and again.

“But amazingly, it wasn’t until the final day when I was lost and hypothermic that I hit the deck properly. Having had to ford a large river to get back on track, I was furious with myself for listening to someone’s inaccurate directions rather than navigating myself. However, on board a serious racehorse and numb with cold, even reaching for the GPS to check my bearing had been far too dangerous for the first 10km of the leg.

“At flat gallop the inevitable dry riverbed suddenly appeared from behind a grassy crest … and the horse flung itself down the bank with characteristic abandon. We hit the far cliff at full pelt, throwing us both spinning onto the grass on the other side. Thankfully the horse rolled alongside rather than on top of me, and as I came to with stars in my vision, the lead­rope trailed past my face. I grabbed it, and rather than dragging me across the landscape, the dear boy started to graze.”

Oh, that Deathwish and his silly shenanigans! Like Pat I’ve always gravitated toward speed demons, preferably accompanied by a dose of self-preservation but I’ll take what I can get. And I’ve ridden enough equine assassins in the my life that generic naughtiness — bucking, rearing, spooking at suspicious blades of grass — doesn’t faze me.

What makes me nervous are the marmot holes.

Nature is a prankster, and it usually seems like the cuter and fuzzier the animal, the more likely it is to inflict pain and suffering on your life. The cartoonishly bandit-faced raccoon that will claw your eyes out if you try to take away its garbage can. The honey badger, looking all sweet and innocent until it bites the head off a cobra. Adorable little ponies … need I say more?

You’re so cute! Please don’t ruin my race. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Marmots are probably perfectly nice animals; it’s their holes that are the problem. They dig waist-deep burroughs on the Steppe, and if your horse hits one at speed it’s game over, thanks for playing, thanks for your $13,000 entry fee.

Maddie Smith, a hunter/jumper rider from San Francisco, contested the Derby last year — briefly, at least. I interviewed her on the Horses in the Morning podcast a couple months ago about her sudden “game over” moment. (You can listen to the full interview here, beginning at 1:06:54.)

“The race was going great, the pacing was great, and it was the last leg of the second day, so going from station six to seven. I don’t remember what happened, I think I crashed but I’m not exactly sure. When I came to, woke up, the doctor had already come — I’d pushed my SOS button (which sends an emergency signal from the riders’ tracking device), although I don’t remember pushing it. I had an IV in my arm, they’d taken my shirt off, my helmet was to the side. And my horse was there, which was cool because my horse didn’t run away. I’d thrown up on myself. It was kind of surreal.”

The “adventure ambulance,” as she called it, drove her five hours through the night back to Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar, where she was treated at the hospital. Maddie says it was a bummer to drop out of the race so early in the game but, on the bright side: “It was nice that I didn’t have to be airlifted. A couple people did. I was happy not to have to go in a helicopter.”

Every day that you don’t end up in a medevac during the Derby is a good day, I guess. Undeterred, she’s going to take another go at it in 2018. Go get ’em, Maddie!

Maddie on Day 1 of the 2016 Mongol Derby. Photo by Richard Dunwoody courtesy of Maddie Smith.

Well, that’s about all the time we have this week for contemplating everything that can and probably will go wrong during the Derby. And we only got around to bullet point #1 … although that’s probably quite enough for my mom to handle.

Until next time!

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 latest sponsors in my Mongol Derby adventure! 

The latest item in my growing pile of stuff I’ll be attempting to cram into an 11-pound saddlebag is a tube of ChafeX anti-chafe cream. It was designed for marathoners and ultra runners but we equestrians know a thing or two about inner-thigh abrasion, too, don’t we? Especially when you’re staring down the barrel of 7-10 days of being in the saddle for 13 hours at a stretch, like I will be in the Mongol Derby. Chafex forms a durable yet flexible MicroLayer which reinforces the protective cellular structure of the skin, the result being a long-lasting avoidance of skin irritations like chafing, blistering, and rubs. I can’t wait to put it to the test out there on the Steppe! Learn more at ChafeX.com.

I am also excited to introduce Swan Mountain Outfitters, which offers a variety of horseback tours as well as guided hunting and fly fishing trips. This big game outfitter has access to thousands of acres of the Flathead National Forest, in and around the famed Bob Marshall Wilderness.

As I’ll be in Montana covering The Event at Rebecca Farm in July for Eventing Nation, Swan Mountain has generously agreed to let me tag along on a five-day horseback pack trip to ensure, which in addition to being fantastic prep for the Derby is an incredible opportunity to venture deep into the heart of some of the most stunning natural landscapes in America. If you’re attending Rebecca, consider sticking around for a Swan Mountain adventure! Have an unhorsey significant other in tow? Here’s a thought: Shoo him into the woods for a fishing or hunting excursion while you do your thing at the event, or treat him to a romantic three-hour wine and cheese llama trek through sister company Swan Mountain Llama Trekking.

And thanks once again to TaggCode, which makes these super-smart bracelets embedded with all your medical information and emergency contact info in the form of a Quick Response Code. They are USEF legal to wear as a substitute for medical armbands in competition, but of course I’ll be taking mine a bit further afield! I am excited and honored to have TaggCode as a sponsor, and I can’t wait to tell you guys all about my experience with this innovative product as I put it to the ultimate test in coming months.