After a two-year absence, the world’s longest and toughest horse race, The Mongol Derby, has been thundering across Mongolia’s steppe for the last eight days.
Based on the ancient horse messenger system used by Genghis Khan, in a country where the horse is king, at 1000km the Derby is the toughest test on the planet for equestrian endurance riders. Whilst horses are changed roughly every 35km, at checkpoints strung out throughout the country, riders must endure being in the saddle for up to 200km a day and face the challenges of riding over twenty-eight different semi-wild horses, with varying temperaments and bucking abilities, the inevitable falls and mishaps that happen along the way and navigating through challenging terrain, from giant sand dunes to freezing mountain passes.
The twelfth Mongol Derby
After the pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 editions, the twelfth Mongol Derby kicked off on the 23rd of July and looked set to be one of the most fiercely contested races to date, with 46 riders, from ten different nations, competing for the prestigious win.
Day one saw young Kiwi pair, Sam Edney and Annie Hackett, take an early lead, as other racers suffered navigational errors and falls. By the end of day, two riders had found their groove, and four had caught the Kiwis, as six riders bunked down together at station six (the race is made up of 28 stations, strung out along the route). Riders aim to be at one by the end of the riding day but can opt to, or unintentionally, wild camp or try and find a friendly Mongolian family with space in a ger.
By day three of the 2022 Mongol Derby, riders were pulling out of the race with bruised and battered bodies (some chose to ride on with broken bones) whilst others served time penalties for riding past cut-off times the night before. The names changed, but the end of the day still saw six riders neck and neck, amongst them, experienced riders Irishman Patrick Heffron and Brit Chris Walker.
The pair’s navigational nous saw them take a slender, but clear, lead on day four as the race hit some serious mountainous terrain and the weather deteriorated to ‘cold, wet and miserable’ – a sudden change for a field up until now more concerned with getting enough water on board than shaking it off.
Day five of the 2022 Mongol Derby and the pair kept their lead, just, as they chose to wild camp only 18 minutes ahead of a chasing pack of seven, including American Diedre Griffith (who was right at the back of the race at the end of Day One) and South African Willemein Jooste. Patrick and Chris rode out front through days six and seven, but never with enough of a lead to relax and, with just a few hours riding left, on the final day (the morning of the 30th), Diedre and Willemein passed them – a perfect example of how tackling the Derby as a team can carry you a long way (sharing navigation, helping each other out of scrapes and generally keeping up moral). They crossed the finish line together to win the toughest horse race on the planet, leaving Chris and Patrick to finish just behind to take joint third.