The Mongol Derby is a 'first past the post' race. There is no banking of advantage from one leg or one day to the next, so if you snooze, you lose. Hence, the main sticks and carrots the Adventurists wield over the field are in the form of time penalties. If you break the rules and earn a penalty, you will have to sit out the allotted time at the urtuu, unable to select your next horse and ride on.
Two of the horse-stations on the route are penalty Urtuus, manned by one of our sterling referees. Here riders will serve the penalties they may have accumulated and effectively 'settle up' their balance.
If riders incur penalties after the final 'penalty urtuu', then they will have to serve the penalty at the urtuu where it was incurred.
This means the leader away from the penalty urtuu is the overall leader. This also means that at certain points in the race, the leader in the field may not be in first place on the leaderboard. For example, if the rider in the lead is carrying 4 hours of penalties but is only 1 hour ahead.
But, why not serve the penalty as soon as it is incurred along the route?
Having all riders wait out their time penalties at these designated urtuus allows the back-up team to provide better coverage to the field. We are endlessly calculating when urtuus will be ready to shut down and when the vet teams can be moved. That's all scuppered if riders are suddenly staying put several hours longer than expected and tying up a whole team to sign them off.
We expect you all to respect the rules of this event, and recognise that they are designed to protect you and your horses. We also expect you to respect the hundreds of event staff who have come together to bring the Derby to life. Anyone abusive towards horses, urtuu families or Derby staff will risk disqualification from the event. The decision of the organisers is final and any rider disqualified will have to leave the course and make their own way home.
The Race and Adventure Categories
This is a distinction added for the 2015 edition which worked marvellously.
Once the leading 10 riders are through Penalty Urtuu 2, there will be no penalties awarded for the trailing groups.
After 4 or 5 days, the field is spread over some 200kms, and we have 8-10 urtuus in action in any 24 hour period. As the leaders smell the finish and speed up, the back-markers tend to slow down as they bear the brunt of bad luck and bad judgement.
At the back of the field, awarding technical penalties for outside assistance is counter-productive. It further slows down the people who are already going too slowly to guarantee a finish. It also increases the likelihood we might have to impose a race hold to bring the field closer together again and get back up crews in range of the various groups of riders.
Once the leading riders are have cemented their lead, we suspend the time-penalty system for trailing groups. Any rider who is not riding at a competitive pace and who will not finish in the top ten, are assigned into the Adventure Class. They can now get outside assistance 'for free.'
Negligent or abusive riding will be awarded a simple yellow card (warning) or red card (disqualification) rather than a 2 hour veterinary penalty. Similarly, any kind of idiotic misconduct (misuse of trackers, riding at night) will be penalised with yellow and red cards.
Members of Adventure Class will not get a numbered placing, but after reaching the final urtuu will be counted as "day 8/9/10 finishers." Figuring out who finished 38th and who finished 39th in a fog of horse catching, navigation assistance, dressing changes and Twix distribution is time better spent preparing for the arrival of every rider at the finish line and administering the hangover that will surely follow it.
This only applies to the trailing groups. For the front runners still in the Race Category, the time penalty system remains. At the pointy end of the field, the threat of penalties encourage respectful behaviour towards the horses and a fair contest among the riders as it gets increasingly competitive.
We expect this cut-off to occur around Day 5 of the Mongol Derby. That's a full five days of play to see who's in it to win it. We've seen plenty of magnificent field switch-arounds occur in that time, so even if you have a slow first few days don't be downhearted.
Here are the main culprits, and explanations.
Veterinary penalty - 2 hours; for presenting a horse which in the vets' opinion shows signs of poor or negligent riding. We cannot sanction either, and whilst we know that no rider would intentionally mis-treat their steed, having a veterinary penalty encourages them to be vigilant and more attuned to how their horse is doing. See the urtuu protocols section for details on the vet procedures and the all-important heart rate rule.
Riding in the dark; riding hours are between 7am and 8.30pm, basically daylight hours. This is because riding in the dark is hazardous to the horses, with marmot holes to fall in, tree roots to trip over, etc. It is also hazardous to the back-up teams to provide cover through the night, and respond to emergencies. It is almost impossible to navigate in rural Mongolia in the dark, so you really won't want to ride on anyway. If you're less than 30 minutes late, you'll get 2 minutes' penalty for every minute past 8.30. After 9pm, you'll get a flat 3 hour penalty. If you are moving after 10pm you are liable to be disqualified.
Enforced hold (non-penalty) - Riders who are visibly exhausted and in the opinion of the vets pose a risk to the welfare of their horses may be held at the urtuu on the authority of the vet or the urtuu manager, or any member of the organising team who have observed them on course. This is not actually a penalty, and will not be rolled up to be served at the 'penalty urtuus', but an enforced hold, to be served immediately.
It sounds serious, but is most likely to consist of Maggie noticing you can't remember your own name and had no idea you were riding a horse, and forcing a bowl of noodles and some electrolytes down your cake hole. Inconvenient at the time perhaps, but a race-saving ploy if it keeps you out of the Medics log-book later in the event.
We do not intend for the penalty system to have any tactical significance during the Mongol Derby. They are designed to encourage good riding and sensible, respectful behaviour towards the horses, the event organisers and their Mongolian partners.
Mis-use of the SPOT trackers - 4 hours; we have to treat every emergency call-out on the SPOT trackers as life and death. We drop everything in the Operations Room and clear the airwaves between Ulaanbaatar HQ and field teams until we have responded to the call-out, sometimes holding riders at urtuus and taking vets away from their posts. If we get to your location and you have a) moved, so we have to go looking for you, or b) just needed someone to talk to, you'll get a stiff penalty. Have a read of the emergency and non-emergency assistance section in this here handbook.
Non-emergency assistance - 1 hour; see the dedicated section for the philosophy behind this one, but if you press your HELP button on the SPOT tracker, for example to summon help catching a horse or to get a bit of medical advice on your raw thigh/itchy arse/eye infection, you'll have to take a 1 hour penalty.
Vehicle carry-forward - 3 hours; there may be instances where a rider falls off and the horse disappears over the horizon, turning up 2 days later back with his mates, tack still on. We don't expect riders to track their horses for 2 days. If you hit the HELP button and we cannot get you back on the horse with a couple of hours' wrangling, we may be forced to transport you by vehicle to an urtuu where you can get a remount and ride on.
If you go BACK towards the previous urtuu, you will not incur a time penalty, but if we carry your FORWARD to the next urtuu, you will have to take a 3 hour penalty. In effect you will not have ridden the full course, but elimination is too stiff a penalty in this case and the time penalty evens things up between those who ride every step (lucky things) and those that have a rougher ride.