Wylie vs. the Mongol Derby, Powered by SmartPak, The Race Part I: ‘Wait, What, I’m Winning?’

Leslie Wylie’s latest “YOLO” adventure: the Mongol Derby. She’s home safe and sound, and boy, does she have some stories to tell.

Go pony, go pony, go! Picture by Julian Herbert/Mongol Derby/The Adventurists.

Day 1: Wait, whut, I’m winning?!

If post time at the Kentucky Derby were a polite tea party, the start of the Mongol Derby would be a stein-smashing bar brawl. All around me, mayhem: 42 white-knuckled, steel-faced riders mounted up on tiny horses with steam blowing out their ears, the most civilized among them skittering around like popcorn while others spun like tops or flat bolted through the crowd.

These were the descendants of Mongolian warhorses and for all they knew we were charging off into battle, having missed the memo that Chinggis Khan’s mighty empire fell several centuries ago. In the final moments before the race a couple riders were still endeavoring just to climb in the saddle, their mounts issuing a buck-spin the moment they put their foot in the stirrup despite the herders trying to hold them down.

We’d been randomly issued horses for the first leg of the 28-leg race. Mine was midnight black and moved with a cocky mob-boss swagger, and I wanted desperately to stay on his good side. Ed Fernon, an Australian Olympic pentathlete whom I’d gotten to know on the six-hour bus ride to start camp, pointed out that I’d drawn the winner of the nadaam children’s race that had been our afternoon entertainment the day before. So he was basically a kid’s pony, right? Surely I could handle that. As the countdown began I lingered near the back, hoping to avoid fallout from the frontline and just run with the pack for a while.

Derby chief Katy Willings, who throughout the race somehow always managed to look like a glamorous starlet on an African safari holiday, counted us down. Three, two, one …

My horse lunged forward, haunches gathered underneath him like a genetically mutant greyhound. I chucked him the reins, figuring he could better navigate the pandemonium without my amateur-hour input. He hung back for a few strides, apparently did a few quick physics calculations in his head, and then surged ahead, deftly maneuvering his way through the frantic horde. We gained speed and seemed to get lower to the ground with each horse we passed, until suddenly we were out front and somehow still gaining speed.

Oh [expletive].

This was NOT part of the plan.

This is how not part of the plan it was: I didn’t even have my Garmin GPS navigator turned on, figuring I wouldn’t need it for the first few legs as we’d just be going with the flow. Now, with a growing gap between myself and the field, dozens of riders following my lead and tears streaming from my eyes from the wind, I had only the vaguest sense of what direction we were supposed to be heading. I pulled the navigator out and punched its buttons haphazardly, trying to pull up the correct track. Finally a disembodied arrow showed up, hovering meaninglessly over a gray screen. Not helpful.

[Expletive, expletive, expletive.]

I yelled back to the nearest rider, who happened to be Ed: “Dude! You gotta keep up! I don’t know where I’m going!”

Between me pulling back and Ed kicking on we sprinted along together for a solid chunk of the leg, him yelling directives while I veered wildly in a number of directions, most of them incorrect. The steppe landscape is deceptively difficult to navigate, an undulating carpet of seafoam green in every direction with maybe a hazy mountain in the distance to aim for if you’re lucky.

A handful of riders eventually caught up and we arrived at the first horse station together, where a vet checked our horses’ heart rates (they had to be below 56 within half an hour of arriving), hydration, gut sounds, soundness and overall condition. If they weren’t up to par on any front, riders received a time penalty in accordance, to be served at one of two penalty urtuus later in the race. Horse welfare is at the forefront of the Derby, and the penalty system is in place to encourage good horsemanship throughout.

My horse sailed through vet check like a champ and I headed up to the gers, where the host family had set out boiled water and food, in this case a giant vat of fried noodles. I scarfed down an entire plate, not caring in the least that other riders were already mounted up and heading out on leg #2. At least I know what’s important in life: carbs.

After I’d eaten, refilled my hydration pack and sorted my GPS woes, I wandered out to peruse the next batch of equines. Riders were allowed to select our own mounts, first come first serve, and I felt like a kid in a candy shop eyeballing several dozen horses of all shapes and colors. Before I could make a decision a Mongolian girl, maybe 13 years old, took me by the arm and led me excitedly to a wild-eyed, giraffe-necked chestnut. “Choo choo!” she said, making a gesture like a rocket ship.

The infinite wisdom of horse-crazy teenage girls cannot be denied: sold!

Climbing aboard was a bit nerve-wracking — as soon as I got a leg over the horse leapt into the air — and when the herder let go we were off to the races, literally. The horse bolted with blinding speed, his head practically in my lap; I could have been steering him by his ears. I had zero brakes as he took off into the great unknown, zooming past a couple riders immediately. All I could do was hold my breath as he nimbly leapt and dodged the knee-deep marmot holes that claim so many Derby contenders every year.

At some point down the road a herder in a truck pulled up beside us and indicated via coarse sign language that we could slice off a corner of the race route. The recommended route had us crossing a river via bridge, but the herder seemed to be saying that I could ford the river instead. “Baklava,” I yelled, butchering the Mongolian word for thank you, баярлалаа (pronounced “bayarlalaa”). After all the noodles I scarfed down at horse station #1 you’d think I could go one leg without a Freudian slip involving pastries, but no.

The advice paid off; the water level was low enough to splash through and to my surprise I arrived at horse station #2 ahead of any other riders. The herders crowded around me as I dismounted, like I was some sort of warrior princess just returned from slaying a dragon.

“You are best,” one of them whispered in my ear.

The Leslie Dot at horse station #2. My GPS tracker was on the fritz for the first few legs, hence the illusion that I rode a perfectly straight line between stations and/or was teleported by a magic unicorn.

When you’re winning all the herders want you to ride their horses — having one of their own in the lead comes with a big vodka toast at the end of the day, I bet. Ultimately, though, it’s the rider’s own decision, and I pointed to a little dun colored horse with conformation similar to the first horse I’d ridden: small and ribby, with a big jug head and an “I’ve seen things, kid” look in his eyes. The Derby ain’t no equine beauty contest, that’s for sure. We peeled out of the station just as the next batch of riders arrived, and I was immediately struck by the horse’s sportscar-esque rideability. The reins seemed unnecessary; I could turn him, rev him up or slow him down with my body weight alone.

It wasn’t really until that moment, as we were sprinting headlong across the steppe with the setting sun as our only rival, that it started to sink in: By some combination of luck and the gutsiness that sometimes accompanies not knowing what the hell is going on, I was WINNING the Mongol Derby. I felt honored and humbled. No matter what, even if things went south and my Derby ended tomorrow, I would forever have this moment.

I arrived at horse station #3 with about an hour-and-a-half before the 8:30 p.m. cutoff time and was faced with a tough question: Should I stay put for the night in the official Derby urtuu prepared for us, sharing the top of the scoreboard with other riders who would soon land there, or hop on a fresh horse and set out on the fourth leg to keep the lead? That would mean finding my own lodging for the night, be it camping out or overnighting in a family ger along the way.

I imagined my husband Tommy waking up in the morning to see the Leslie Dot well in the lead of the Mongol Derby, and the decision was clear: I would ride out. I wanted to make him, and all my family and friends following the race, proud, or at least make them spit out their coffee in surprise. In the Derby fortunes can shift at any moment, and more often than not they do. I knew I might not get another chance.

I galloped out of the station on my fourth horse of the day, a relatively gargantuan (AKA probably 14.3-hand) bay. It was a gamble, but this leg of the race route ran parallel to a major highway (AKA two-lane road that might as well have had tumbleweed blowing down it) so I hoped there might be some semblance of civilization along the way.

With just a few minutes left to ride I came across a group of herders attempting to load what seemed like 40 horses into the bed of a single pickup truck outside a corral. I pulled up and showed them a note I’d had the translator write up for me explaining my situation. The herders talked heatedly in Mongolian, discussing what to do with this random American girl who’d shown up on their doorstep like a stray kitten. Just when I thought they were about to resort to rock-paper-scissors, one of them took the reins of my horse and headed off toward a nearby ger, gesturing for me to follow.

My final day 1 resting place was just a ger in the middle of a goat field, but for whatever reason it hilariously showed up on the map as “Golden Meadows Shopping Mall.” #GPSfail

Reader commentary = on point.

The herder sent me into the ger with his wife, who was friendly and seemingly nonplussed by the surprise houseguest. She gave me a bowl of warm milk from a big vat of the stuff she had simmering in the middle of the small canvas hut. The weather was turning — the wind had picked up and the air temperature was plunging lower by the moment — and the milk was a comforting gesture.

The ger was spartan in its simplicity: two hard twin beds, a couple cabinets showcasing assorted trinkets, and a dung-burning stove in the middle (I didn’t see a single tree until about halfway through the race, so poop is the fuel of choice). A chubby-faced toddler, maybe two years old, was playing contentedly with a ball in the middle of the floor.

The herder soon came in, accompanied by several of the men who had been helping to load the horses. He ladled some airag, a ceremonial drink made of fermented mare’s milk, into a bowl and gestured for me to take a sip. It’s really not as bad as it sounds — with a splash of Kahlua airag could be the Mongolian answer to a White Russian, I think! — but when I puckered my lips reflexively everyone laughed.

I’d brought some American Spirit cigarettes as gifts for helpful herders and passed them around. The men smoked them appreciatively and broke out the vodka while the wife passed around a bowl of sour-tasting cheese curds. Despite the fact that I knew not a word of Mongolian, nor did they understand an ounce of English, it was a pretty congenial gathering. Mix that vodka with some Jell-o and sub cheese puffs for cheese curds, and we could have been bro-ing out in a college dorm room.

After they left I rolled my sleeping bag out on the floor, not wanting to take up a bed. I laid down to a staring contest with a mouse who was checking me out from the beneath the cupboard. As the herder’s final party trick, he pulled a giant pair of pincers from beneath the bed and baited its tips with cheese, immediately luring another mouse buddy out from the shadows. He looked at me, raised his eyebrows and then … crunch, accompanied by the tiniest death squeal ever. The herder looked impressed with himself. Not sure how to respond, I forced a smile and slow clapped a little. Nothing like a little violent murder to cap off a long day on the steppe.

The weather worsened overnight, with day one’s blue skies and warm breeze deteriorating into icy rain and gale-force wind. I would later learn that a few riders got caught out camping between horse stations #2 and #3 that night and were forced to pack up and ride forward to shelter after dark. They were in bad shape when they arrived to the horse station, but staying out would have meant hypothermia or worse. That’s the Derby — you never know what is going to happen next.

As night wore on it got colder, and father, mother and son ended up piling into the same bed for warmth. I tossed and turned on the floor, kept awake by the scurrying of mice and the cries of sheep and goats encircling us outside. Every couple hours the guard dog would go crazy about something, and the herder would go outside to scan the vicinity for wolves.

The storm buffeted our ger for hours on end. Eyes closed I imagined that I was aboard a small sea vessel slowly passing through a midnight squall, rocking back and forth on black waves, nothing but emptiness in all directions. It was only day one but already I’d never felt so far away from home.

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