By Kelsey Riley
Nine months and a week after receiving the call that I was in, the road to the Mongol Derby has come to an end. on Wednesday, I board a plane to Ulan Bator and brace myself to be thrown into a seismic challenge that I’ve spent every day of the last 37 weeks preparing for, but that I know I could never be truly ready for.
To recap, the Mongol Derby is a 1000 kilometre (620 mile) race across the Steppes of Outer Mongolia on ‘semi-wild’ (aka varying definitions of broke) Mongolian horses. There is no marked course; we’ll navigate to each checkpoint by GPS and change horses every 40km. We’ll ride 14 hours a day for 10 days straight and camp out with the nomads (no showers), mimicking their lifestyle and diet. We’ll do all this with maximum 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of kit carried by saddlebag. Race training starts on Aug. 5, the starting gun fires on Aug. 8 and riders have until Aug. 17 to reach the finish line.
What has preparation looked like? First, seemingly endless winter months of galloping in the Lexington deep freeze, snow, and once even an ice storm. And suddenly, within about two days, riding out in the suffocating heat. Galloping racehorses turned out to be the best preparation I could have dreamed of in terms of fitness, strength, but most importantly, the confidence to jump on an unfamiliar steed and head off at full speed; the mantra of the Mongol Derby.
More recently, I’ve been fortunate to spend time at the beautiful Mt Brilliant Farm hacking their polo horses all over the farm. Truly brilliant for getting a feel for long hours in the saddle, which I believe became more a mental exercise than a physical one. Any spare moments were spent in the gym, researching or shopping for kit, or making frequent visits to the travel clinic for rounds of various inoculations (fun fact about me: I am now vaccinated against rabies-come at me wild dogs!)
Now, as I bask in recovery mode and carb load, I feel like I’m as physically and mentally prepared as I can be for a challenge that will test every ounce of my fortitude in both those areas. I am left with the feeling, however, that one couldn’t ever be fully prepared for a task as gargantuan as this, and I can’t wait to see how I hold up through the inevitable pain and pressure.
Last week, I made a video going through in detail everything that’s coming with me for the race. It was way more popular on my social media than I expected, so I thought I’d share it and give a written recap. Here is everything that’s coming with me in my 30″ by 12″ saddle bag, currently weighing out a shade under 5 kgs:
On me: merino wool long-sleeved top and Kerritts endurance breeches. These are seamless, as are my Under Armor athletic underwear. This is paramount; long before the 620 mile mark, seams will cause chafing!
Merino wool socks, Roeck riding gloves, and a wool hat for nighttime. I am packing one full clothing change for the halfway point, and those will stay in a drybag in my saddle bag until the 500km mark.
A fishermans vest that will be my top layer, with lots of little pockets on the front to keep my GPS (Garmin 64s), compass, maps, sunscreen, pocketknife, etc. accessible while riding. I have a highly compressible and lightweight but very warm down jacket for those inevitable temperature drops and a Goretex shell for the rainy days.
Tipperary helmet with headlamp for riding in the dark, and polarised jockey goggles for the sunny days.
Ariat endurance boots and half chaps.
EZ Ride endurance stirrups and stirrup leathers, with a spare leather that will be used as a neck strap until its needed.
Sea To Summit down sleeping bag that is super compressible (it squishes, they say, to the size of two grapefruits-I don’t know why they chose that as the scale!) and a bivy bag to use as its outer layer.
GoPro with pre-charged portable battery packs, so you can all relive my suffering when I return. Oh, I also have spare double and triple A lithium batteries for my GPS and headlamp.
Cheap-o wristwatch (time is of the essence-we can start riding at 6:30 a.m., and have to finish by 8 p.m.).
Medical kit: Advil and Tylenol, iodine, Icy Hot, antibiotics for, err, digestive upset; water purification tablets, a variety of bandaids and gauze pads, duct tape (apparently useful for slapping over chafe spots and riding on), and vetrap (potentially very useful for both me and my steed). I have Wilderness Wipes, which will serve as my shower; toothpaste, SPF70 sunscreen, three tubes of SPF50 lipbalm, and insect repellant (all my kit will also be treated with a longlasting repellant before I leave). And, finally, Chamois Butt’r, invaluable for warding off chafing and heat rash for as long as possible.
Gifts for the herders and their families: it is customary for riders to carry some small gifts for the herders that help them select good horses, and their families that prepare our food and rest areas at the horse stations. For the herders, I have cigarettes (that is, until, I decide to take up smoking and use them all myself-my prediction is that this will happen around the 300 km mark). For the women, hair ties, and balloons for the children. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I have my 2.5 litre Camelback hydration pack and electrolyte packs.
Amidst all of the excitement (and let’s be real, terror) in the buildup to what will be an epic adventure, it has never been lost that the most important part of this journey has been the fundraising we’ve been doing for the TRF’s Second Chances Program at Blackburn. Preparing for the Mongol Derby, without even having left U.S. soil yet, has already been a completely life changing experience for me. Seeing the Thoroughbred industry really show enthusiasm and get behind both my adventure and my cause has been both hugely humbling and also a timely reminder of the inherent good in people. I can’t thank enough everyone that donated some of their hard-earned money, either a little or a lot; I can honestly remember every single donation coming in, and just feeling so full of gratitude towards peoples’ kindness.
And then there’s Blackburn. I always knew this was a good cause, hence why I chose it in the first place, but the day I went out and spent a morning with the horses, the inmates and program manager Linda Dyer at Blackburn truly changed my life. Seeing the unbridled enthusiasm and love that the inmates had developed for the horses-who themselves are the beneficiaries of a much-needed sanctuary at Blackburn-was an incredibly emotional experience. It is easy to look at an issue like the broken American prison system and say, ‘it’s too giant of a problem for me to be able to make a difference.’ But Second Chances is a program that has proven to reduce recidivism rates and grow job opportunities for its graduates, not to mention the compassion, patience and sense of responsibility they gain from learning to love horses.
Prior to being invited to ride in the Mongol Derby, I knew it was time for me to start doing more for the Thoroughbreds that have given me my livelihood, my passion, and have enabled me to see the world and meet so many of the wonderful people in my life. My experience fundraising for Blackburn has been so immensely rewarding, and I know this is only the very beginning of what I’m going to do to try to pay Thoroughbreds back for the happiness they have given me. It has been a true wake-up call that aftercare is not someone else’s responsibility, and this applies equally to horses that cannot go on to an athletic second career. In case you missed it, check out the video and story on my visit to Blackburn.
Fundraising is not finished yet, and will remain open throughout the Mongol Derby. Visit my Go Fund Me page to donate and to catch up on past blogs and updates.
There are also plenty of ways to track my progress throughout the race Aug. 8 to 17. Here is the official tracking page where you’ll be able to see the moving dots of all 44 riders, and here is my individual page. If you see my dot heading up into Russia, please send out a smoke signal. A reminder: Mongolia is 12 hours ahead of U.S. Eastern time so my dot is likely to be sleeping during your daytime. If it’s moving, alert HQ, because I’m either cheating or have been kidnapped.
Finally, Horse Radio Network will be doing a Derby update show every evening Aug. 8 to 17 at 8 p.m. Eastern. They’ll talk about how the race is unfolding and have past riders on to share some insight into what we might be feeling.
It has always been my intention to ride the Mongol Derby as an adventure more than a race; ideally, clipping along at a good pace but not leaving all fun behind in an effort to win. However, I’ve recently learned that there is a shower, a masseuse and a bar at the finish line, so that could result in a change of tactics! I can’t overemphasize that finishing in itself will be a huge victory: about half the riders each year don’t.
Well, that’s it folks. Soon enough I’ll be losing phone signal on a bus out to the Steppes. See you on the other side with hopefully all my limbs, digits and teeth intact, not too bruised, chafed or emaciated and with plenty of great stories too tell. Happy trails!