The 1000km the Derby is the toughest test on the planet for equestrian endurance riders.
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. In one of the closest ever races, an American and South African rode in joint winners yesterday.
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.
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 twenty eight 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 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 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 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.
Diedre, 34 from Jackson Hole, became the second person from Wyoming to win the race in a row, after Bob Long in 2019 (whom she spoke to before the race) and made an incredible recovery during the race, after being right at the back at the end of Day One. Willemien Jooste, 38 from Philipstown, became the fifth South African to cross the finish line in first place.
Comments from the finish line:
Diedre Griffith on being at the back of the race on Day One
“That was demoralizing. I decided with fellow rider Lena Haug at start camp that we would head the straightest route. We underestimated the elevation and so it look us a long time to reach station 1. That was one of my best horses of the Derby and it’s a bit of a shame I didn’t get to race him against the front of the pack. Overall though, I think it was a blessing as I wasn’t then running with the front runners and pushing my horses out of competitiveness. My strategy never changed throughout the whole race: Race my race & ride the horse I’m on.”
Overtaking the leaders right at the end of the race was a stand-out moment for her.
“The high was the last day at HS 27 where we made a great nav choice and had an opening to overtake the front runners we’d been chasing for so many days.”
Whilst motivations for taking part on the Derby included inspiring her children:
“This race has always piqued my interest as an epic challenge both mentally and physically. Travelling horseback I think is the best way to see a new country, and getting to interact with the locals in such a horse-oriented culture was really special. One of my main reasons for competing in this race is to show my girls (5 & 6 yrs old) that they should dream big, and they can achieve anything they set their minds to with hard work & determination.”
...and raising funds for the hospital in Jackson:
“I raised money for the hospital in Jackson, WY to begin a mental wellness program for new parents. This helps screen new parents for post-partum depression and connect them to subsidised mental health care. This was very important to me after I struggled with PPD after having both my daughters. We raised over $100,000 and the program launched in March 2022!”
Willemien Jooste also had tough moments in the race:
“It’s very tough, no doubt about it. It’s getting up every day and pushing on no matter the heat or cold or tiredness. It was a constant mental game telling yourself to stay positive, smile no matter how tired you are and keep going.”
Whilst the Mongolian culture and teaming up with Diedre were highlights for her:
“My high was teaming up with Deidre. We got along great and sharing the load made it so much lighter work. We shared jokes and kept each other motivated to keep going. It helped when the going got tough to share the moment and get over it and smile at what you have already achieved by just being where we were. Our last night with a family in a valley was the best, they were extremely friendly and showed and shared every part of their lifestyle with us. The husband even got up early the next morning to help us saddle our horses and see us safely on the road. To watch a day in the life of a Nomadic Mongolian family is a rare experience. I am honoured to have been allowed to see and experience it to the full.”
On chasing down the leading pair of Patrick Heffron and Chris Walker, Willemien commented:
“It is always better to be the hunter than the hunted. We tried not to think about it too much though. We rather tried to focus on our own race. We would select good horses that would keep up with each other and looked like athletes. This usually worked well and we would have one in front of the other if needed to keep each other motivated and keep up the pace. Deidre would keep an eye on the navigation and select the best route to the next horse station- preferring to select the best route for the horses and to spare as much energy as posssible whilst still setting a good pace. We kept our focus on ‘steady but consistant’, and had two basic motivations to keep us going:
“How do you eat an elephant? Bite by bite” and “don’t sit down””
For more details on the race, which is run by British company The Adventurists, visit www.equestrianists.com
1/ Riders in full race mode - CREDIT SHARI THOMPSON
2/ Diedre Griffith (USA) and Willemein Jooste (South Africa) - The Dream Team in action CREDIT SHARI THOMPSON
3/ Willemien Jooste, left in white hat, and Deirdre Griffith cross the finish line together – CREDIT SHARI THOMPSON
4/ The winning pair embrace CREDIT SHARI THOMPSON
5/ Willemein Jooste (South Africa) emotional at the finish line CREDIT SHARI THOMPSON
6/ New Zealander, Annie Hackett (who took an early lead) all smiles - CREDIT SHARI THOMPSON
7/ Brit Chris Walker (left) and Irishman Patrick Heffron
8/ Brit Chris Walker (left) and Irishman Patrick Heffron cross the line in joint third CREDIT SHARI THOMPSON