Mongol Derby 2015 - The Chief's Report

The blood, the sweat and the tears have been rinsed clean, and some impressive scars and dents, with the attendant war stories, are already making the rounds of offices and dinner parties world wide. As the 2015 riders return home and pick up their normal routines again they will struggle to describe what they saw, smelled, lived and experienced out on the steppe. As third-placed rider Maxim van Lierde put it, "The Derby isn't something you can experience through someone else. I spoke to veterans pre-race and their stories excited me but they are such a poor imitation of the real thing. I wanted my own stories. You have to come and live it for yourself".

All the same: some stories are worth recounting, and come with statistics which together show what an exceptional race this year's Derby was.

Strength in depth - 37 starters, 34 finishers

Thomas learnt to ride only this year

What we have come to expect on the Derby is that from around day 4, the leaders speed up, and the midfielders and back markers slow down. We can effectively cleave the field in two and say "racing" vs "riding to finish". Not so this year, with some absolutely storming riding among what looked like "back markers" early in the race. Special mention must go to Thomas Ellingsen, who has learned to ride in order to take part in the Derby. After multiple falls and a couple of lost horses, he was firmly in the Adventure category....until he hit his stride, selecting rocket after equine rocket, gritting teeth and coping admirably with the fire breathing, wild eyed horses which no-one else fancied getting on, or could even get near. With his remarkable balance and endurance, he was able to let the horses do the work and basically bolt from station to station, bringing them in in great shape and full of running despite being one of the heaviest riders in the field. Thomas has proved that the race is not over until you decide it's over. Sophie Wilford and Bruce Chernoff also shot up the order, with multiple four-urtuu days towards the end of the race. While some riders tire and deteriorate, others learn and go from strength to strength. With another 300kms to race who knows how they would have finished...maybe the Derby just wasn't long enough?


Speed! - 5 legs in a day, Byeronie and Elise

Byeronie, riding like a champ

Riding four stations in a day has historically been the Gold Standard on the Derby, requiring great stamina, faultless navigation, discipline in the horse stations and of course, fantastic horsepower all the way. For the first time ever, we saw a Diamond Standard; Byeronie and Elise rode from urtuu 23 all the way to the finish, five full stations, in a day. They each took less than an hour of rest the entire day, with an average stoppage time of 13 minutes in each station. They powered away from the final urtuu, 27, with just two hours' riding time left, and reached heart stopping speeds of 30kms per hour for the first half of the leg. Here the girls showed their maturity and horsemanship, recovering their composure and settling into a more sustainable speed for the home straight.  To cover five legs, with time to spare, no penalties, between 7am and 8.15pm is a truly magnificent achievement.

Patrick was 'a kick-arse rider' as Katy puts it

Fastest ever leg Pat Sells

We knew we had selected some class horses for this adventure, but British vet Pat Sells broke the all-time speed record between urtuu 25 and 26, coming in in one hour 18 minutes. It's pointless comparing different years and courses and terrains etc, but by any metric, 34kms in 78 minutes is fast. Very. He certainly enjoyed having the wind in his hair and described the horse as one of the best he had ever sat on.


Biggest daytime temperature range on a Derby ever - 38 degrees to 8 degrees.

This isn't the kind of thing we normally analyse but it's interesting nonetheless; the same riders being treated for heat exhaustion on days 2 and 3 were being treated for hypothermia on day 7 as cold wet and windy conditions tore through tired and emaciated bodies and froze fingers into unwieldy claws.


Best team Kiwi SheWee

Max, Michele and Ben

The award for best metabolism on a Mongol Derby must go to Michelle "The Mongol Dumpling" Tanaka, who can proudly claim to have put on a few pounds during the race, a historic first. Wolfing down five meals a day and leaving a trail of little curds and doughnuts as delighted herders stuffed more and more delicacies into her pockets, Tanaka rode and ate like a Mongol and was universally adored for it. She also peed like a man thanks to her SheWee. Best of all the horses flew effortlessly for her, and time and again she breezed into stations, a broad grin and some doughnut crumbs on her face, to present a horse with a heart rate in the forties having cantered the whole leg.  With her adoring Kiwi team-mates in charge of the navigation she was the mascot and clown in a highly effective team.


Second time lucky - Paddy Woods, Si Pearse, Catriona Paterson

Paddy Wood had a cracking second shot at the derby

Three returning riders made a brilliant assault on the 2015 race.  Catriona Paterson led the field on day 1 and quickly formed a wonderful partnership with Uma Mencia, Sara Klymkowsky and Kat Whitney.  These four showed some brilliant team-work, swapping on and off horses to stay together and earning the admiration of our vet crews for the condition of their horses.  Paddy Woods, a fellow casualty on the 2013 event, was a model of consistency and crept up the order to finish 10th.  Simon Pearse crept in the opposite direction, from first to last place at various points on the race, with no loss of enthusiasm.  He earned himself the annual Keep Buggering On award as a result and was everyone’s favourite riding partner and ger-mate in the evenings.

Second time unlucky - Devan Horn

Devan at Urtuu 7 on day 2

Devan Horn, the 2013 runner-up, was the bookies’ favourite pre-race, a heavy burden for any athlete to carry.  After blazing a trail and leading the field for three days she succumbed to severe heatstroke and dehydration and was forced to retire.  The thing that makes Devan so good also made her vulnerable out there. The ability to push beyond your limits is a great gift until it puts your life in danger. After her first intravenous rehydration on day 2 she bounced back and left urtuu 10 with Si Pearse. She put 12km between them on a single leg, travelling literally 50% faster.  It was just not in this girl’s lexicon to “take it easy” and “see how she feels”, and a second medical intervention was the end of her bid for victory.  But having spent a week following the race from the Blood Wagon and cheering the finishers across the line we were treated to another side to Devan; her grace and sportsmanship, and her genuine delight in the triumph of others, even in the face of her own tragedy, was great to witness.


EP rode at a serious lick

Fastest urtuu changeover - five minutes

Five minutes! Elise and Byeronie were both able to present to and pass the vet immediately, a function of their riding skill and possibly also a big weight advantage over the Kiwi boys Ben, Braden and Maxim, who tended to spend a good half hour at the urtuus. By day 5, BE carried a 2 hour advantage over EP who had picked up a vet penalty at urtuu 13, which she would have to sit out at urtuu 21. This was perhaps the decisive moment of the event. Elise rode in to U19, having started the day some 160kms back at U15, at 19.10. While some might have enjoyed a pat on the back, a dip in the river or a turn with the urtuu host Sanj's bow and arrows, Elise was back on a horse and away 5 minutes later at 19.15, a full 15 minutes before her rival Byeronie rode into the urtuu. This was a big gauntlet being thrown down; Elise was clearly aiming to neutralise her penalty disadvantage, perhaps assuming that no-one else would get beyond the urtuu that night. For Byeronie to not only follow suit, with a ten minute pit stop and a 19.40pm departure, but to catch up with Elise and overnight with her so that they rode into U20 together, was testimony to just how steely and determined she is.  It also turned the leading bunch of 5 or 6 into a definite splinter of two riders.


Best piece of kit - the Fast Fabrics seat savers

Comfiest bums thanks to the brilliant Fast Fabrics, whose custom made, special edition seat savers were universally admired. Plenty of other skin got a pounding (Thomas actually rode 40kms with his balls in his hand before finding the optimum duct tape configuration in which to sling them) but the gory saddle sores of 2014 were largely absent.



Will Graham at Urtuu 3

Very few penalties awarded this year, despite a tougher than ever Heart rate rule, and some seriously fast riding. This shows both skilful riding, and quality horses, well prepared to run. There were almost no technical penalties for late riding, too, with most riders camping out between stations multiple times rather than limping into horse stations late in the evenings. They are getting braver and more expert in securing and taking care of their steeds overnight, which opens up a whole host of tactical advantages: witness Byeronie who rode out of U19 with less than an hour's riding time left in the day giving chase to Elise.

Camping out still backfired in a few notable cases however, possibly putting an end to Will Graham's bid for victory as he stalked the leader Devan Horn at the end of day 2. Whilst preparing to saddle up and ride on from his camp spot the following morning his horse got away and he was left with no choice but to back track on foot to Urtuu 8, take out another horse (bareback) and try and retrieve his errant steed. He never made it back up the order despite some class riding.

More than ever before we saw teams stay together and sit out one rider’s penalty, in order to stay together.  As well as being chivalrous this can be a great tactic; in teams riders were able to self-help much more than on previous Derbies.  Tales of lost horses being chased down and collared by other Derby riders abounded, and the first the back-up crews knew about some of the dramas out on the battle field were the swaggering gait and impish smiles of folks who had saved the day for themselves or their fellow riders, no outside assistance required.



Alexander Dobres with his new improved riding position

Amongst the usual array of split lips, black eyes, raw thighs and blistered hands, a few notable injuries.

Catriona sported the best dressing at the finish, after a horrible fall which cut her cheek right down to the bone.  Team-mate Sara recounted how profusely she bled from the wound, and how stoic she was about being stitched back together.  

Alex Dobres impressed everyone with his grit, getting thoroughly decked between Urtuu 26 and 27 and cracking a rib or two.  The eagle eyed observers of the party noted that he sat up much straighter as a result and his riding ability if anything improved.  Learning to ride by going hunting in Ireland, where “safety last” is the governing principle, probably had something to do with this stoicism.  

Bruce Chernoff fell and got dragged twice, and was sporting road rash to make you wince, his shirt shredded and arm flayed.

In conclusion. It was a protracted labour but I'd say 37 new Adventurists were born, or forged, on the Mongol Derby this summer. The blood, sweat and tears all flowed but they nourished an almighty, life changing adventure. Borrowing the strength and spirit of their equine partners the riders found themselves hurtling across the world's finest open country and welcomed and feted like the heroes they proved themselves to be. Borrowing the audacity and sheer magnetism of Chinggis Khan they then all snogged each other indiscriminately at the finish line. We await news of further Adventurist arrivals. 

Interviews for the 2016 Derby have begun. If you think you've got what it takes you can get an application in here.