December 1, 2020

Category: Mongol Derby

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Racing in the Derby


Did we mention a million times that the Derby is physically and mentally challenging?  However, there always seems to be a pick-me-up when you least expect it. Here’s Rachel’s take on it, including the kindness of the crew when she most needed it, and an unexpected proposal that came at one of the lowest points of her race. Perhaps she’ll return one day and accept the lady’s offer?

Rachel Roman ~ “The Derby was a physical and mental test for me. Honestly I was lucky my body held up super well. By Day 4 my knees felt like it was bone-on-bone but then they kinda just froze and got better. I only got sick during start and finish camp which was super lucky.

There was the group of horses we got near the end that would not move, period. I cried and screamed and laughed hysterically during that leg. It was the first time I was exhausted all over. It should have been a short fast leg, but it took us three hours and all our energy to get to the next station. Once we cleared the vet check, one of the vets actually said “Those horses broke you.” But the crew gave us Snickers bars and we chose fast horses for the next leg. I was too weak to actually get on my horse which was embarrassing AF.

On Day 2, I got a slow, herd bound (but very handsome) horse. The two riders I had been with went off ahead of me and I said something like “No worries, I’ll catch you!”  I tried to keep up but as soon as they went over the horizon, my horse slowed to a plodding walk. He tried to stop at every herd or ger to “visit”.  It was rainy and misty and we were in very shire-esqe rolling hills that all looked the same. I got so turned around. I started crying. I worried I wouldn’t get to the next station by 8pm and thought I would be sleeping out in the rain alone. I thought maybe I should turn around. Got more lost. Said “Fuck it” and rode up to a ger to ask for directions. Luckily the lady from the family spoke some English. They gave me warm soup and told me they could find me a Mongolian husband.”

Michelle Jarvis ~ “My horse dropped to roll in a water hole on day one when I was giving it a drink, so I was riding with wet gear for a couple of days and the saddle took a while to dry. My legs started chafing on Day 2. I put some bandaging on and it started rubbing more at the edges, but it was better with the bandages on. I only had enough supplies to change the bandages once, so on Day 6, I took them off at night to air my legs, and they bled so much that they stuck to my sleeping bag. I remember peeling them off – that brought a tear to the eye. But I just kept going, trying to ride out of my saddle most of the time. Hurt like a bitch, but we made it.

Photo by Richard Dunwoody

I’m a stubborn Kiwi and giving up was never part of my plan. I said before I left that it would take a bone sticking out or for someone to tell me that I had to stop to not finish the race. Neither of those happened, so I kept on going. I remember thinking to myself early on “Imagine coming home not finishing because of a little saddle sore.” Having had that conversation with myself, there was only one thing to do. There was also a strange curiosity within me to see how far I could push myself. I did however have to move the goal posts a little. I realized I couldn’t be competitive and wouldn’t be in the leading pack, so reaching the finish line became my win.

All of the riders coming into the horse stations were staggering around, tired and sore, so nobody really noticed anything different about me. I knew it was time to change the bandages on Day 6, though, when Jade Sevelow-Lee said “ Not being rude, but you smell like you are rotting.” Quite the statement coming from someone who hadn’t showered for 6 days.

My plan was always to just carry on and smile  – and it was hard not to smile in such a magical setting with the loveliest people on earth, and incredible horses which are incomparable to anything I’ve ever ridden. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.”

 Photo by Richard Dunwoody


Holly Rivett ~ “As the herders tacked up my spirited horse, the stirrup on the offside got caught under the girth strap. I could see the stirrup was caught and was trying to tell them, but they didn’t understand. As they went to tighten it, the horse panicked and bolted.  In the picture you can see the saddle is actually underneath the horse – that’s how the D-rings got ripped off my saddle bag. The pouch in the front of my saddle also got lost, which had my sun cream, electrolytes and my friends GoPro in it! I thought I was going to have to ride the rest of the race without all my survival kit and here we were only at horse station 4 of 28! Two herders went after the horse on motorbikes. Luckily they caught him (he was fine); one herder returned with the saddle, and a couple minutes later one returned with my saddle bag.

Once I got the saddle bag back, I saw that it still had all the fabric intact. I had brought good needles to do some repairs but the thread I had was rubbish, so I borrowed some waxed cotton from Alanna and was able to stitch my bag back together. I had to use the loops in the middle of the bag and some long paracord to attach it to the saddle. Eventually, the stitching round the end of my saddlebags started to fray. Luckily I was able to borrow event manager Louise’s saddlebag at horse station 14, which is also why I was riding with Australian flags (I’m Scottish) on my saddle bag.

Being able to ride the derby alongside Alanna was brilliant.  We had such an amazing adventure together and to think – we only met while doing the Derby.  My favourite part about racing in the Derby has to be the horses. They may have been small but they didn’t lack in personality. They had so much confidence in themselves and the ground they were crossing, whether it was bogs, marmot hole ridden plains, rivers or mountain peaks. I knew that as long as I pointed them where I wanted to go (whether it was the right direction or not) they would carry me, usually at a flat out gallop, safely to the next station.”

Photos by Ian Haggerty