Deirdre Griffith | Winning the Mongol Derby

The Mongol Derby

It was the nerve system of the largest empire in human history, and at its height, Genghis Khan's mighty horse messenger system connected half the planet. For a decade we've been rebuilding this ancient network to stage the world's greatest equine adventure race.

You square up to 1000km of Mongolian steppe on semi-wild horses, changing steeds every 40km. You navigate and survive on your own wits and skill, living among the herders. It's you and your horse vs. the wild.

This is the longest and toughest horse race on earth. This is the Mongol Derby.

Wow! You Won the Mongol Derby? How do you feel?

It's still like a dream. Each day that goes by I have a moment of €œwow, I actually won that thing! €. The feeling of accomplishment I felt crossing that finish line cannot be overstated. To have 2.5 years of work and sacrifices all come together into the ultimate outcome was overwhelming and incredibly satisfying.

Did you think this was a possibility going into the race

It was definitely one of my goals. Primarily to finish, but I wanted to give winning a real go. Going into this you never know who you're up against. Many are professional riders or jockeys. Everyone there was an excellent rider no doubt, but I was confident in my other skill sets that would serve me well during the race.

Tell us a little more about the race?

It's a 1000km (625)mi) race across the steppe of Mongolia. It was originally designed to mimic Genghis Kahn's messenger system (think our pony express). A rider will ride a distance on a horse, get a new horse and continue on. It's designed specifically to be hard on the rider, not the horses. Riders change horses every 20-25miles, pass a vet check, then select a new horse and ride on. I rode 28 horses over the course of the race. It took me 8 days.

I noticed vet checks were a big thing? How did you avoid this penalty?

I tried to ride the horse I had (not the one I wished I had) each leg. The weather also played a big role in how I rode. The horses have a hard time pulsing down in the heat due to dehydration. I was able to ride the morning legs faster than afternoon legs in the heat of the day.

How did you know which horses to choose when you made the switch?

I looked for overall body condition. I wanted leaner horses with markings that it had been ridden (white mark from saddles, worn down hooves, bit marks etc). On legs where I knew I'd have to trot a lot I looked for a long sloping shoulder which allows the horse to have a longer stride.

Did you sleep well during the race?

No. The first night I stayed up recounting my mistakes and going over how I could re-group and do things differently going forward. I then stayed 5 nights out with families not associated with the race. When you're staying on someone's floor and they're in and out of the ger (yurt) while you're trying to sleep, you don't sleep soundly. Also, the Mongolians stay up late in the summer, and we were going to bed early after a long day.

What did you eat?

I ate all local food and had one Gu Stroopwaffel for each day. Each horse station is hosted by a family that will prepare food for the riders. Typically it is rice with pieces of mutton or noodle soup with pieces of mutton. They also have these small pieces of bread (supposed to be donuts) everywhere so I would stuff my pockets with those and eat them while riding. One night out we were served a bowl of boiled sheep leg bones. We cut off what meat there was, put some soy-type seasoning on it and had that. It was pretty tasty.

How was your recovery?

The largest success of my whole race was that I didn't get sore the entire time. My body felt strong and prepared. I came home without a mark! The night after crossing the finish line my body got feverish while going to bed and had a brief bout of overall aches, but everything was gone by the morning. I think it was the final adrenaline let down. I count that as an enormous success.

How do you feel WT strength program contributed to your success?

The base fitness and tailored strength training was paramount in my success. The discipline to show up to one on one sessions twice a week for almost a year also helped me mentally. We focused a lot on muscles used for riding and areas where I typically get sore when riding. my body felt so prepared.

You had injured your hand going into the race? How did this play a factor?

I broke my 4th metatarsal at the end of May. This was hugely disappointing as I looked forward to a summer of long days riding. I wasn't able to do that. I took it as a sign from the universe to slow down and take a pause. I could still ride some, hike, cycle, and run, so I did those things to maintain fitness. I did a lot of hand therapy, acupuncture and cupping to help the healing. Teton Hand Therapy made me a minimal splint to ride with in the race. I was skeptical I'd be able to wear it without rubbing, but I wore it the whole time and never felt it!

You ready to do it again!?

I'd do it again, because it was that awesome, but I had such a perfect experience I couldn't top it. Something else will be on the horizon. I like having goals on the calendar to keep me motivated and engaged.

Anything else you want to add?

I'm posting a day by day recap on facebook and instagram if people want to read! @deirdredoesthederby

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