Catherine Stott finished fifth in this year's Mongol Derby. She tells H&H about the ultimate endurance race — navigating 1,000km at a wild gallop, spending 13 hours a day in the saddle and dining on noodles and mutton
If you are looking for adventure, I have three words for you: The Mongol Derby.
This August I spent eight days racing across the Mongolian Steppe mounted on a succession of 28 small but hardy Mongol horses, with unrivalled stamina and speed.
The Mongol Derby is billed as the longest, toughest horse race in the world — and I echo that sentiment.
Navigating 1000km at a wild gallop across marmot-hole strewn land, whilst sporadically checking your GPS to orientate yourself was a new and exhilarating experience — and not one for the faint-hearted.
Covering around 130km per day, we spent up to 13 hours in the saddle, changing horses four times a day. At night we were hosted by our hugely accommodating Mongolian herdsman families in their gers and fed on traditional cuisine, which seemed to consist solely of noodles and mutton with large lumps of fat, washed down with a bowl of airag (fermented mare’s milk).
Out of the 48 riders who started the race, 37 finished, with retirees suffering a range of catastrophes including two medivacs for neck injuries (thankfully neither serious), a broken collarbone, two concussions and a combination of exhaustion and sickness.
For my part, I seemed to dodge much of the ill-fortune. Riding with the front pack meant we had the pick of the best horses — a theory vehemently contradicted by some of my group — and I found myself blessed with a succession of “pocket-rockets” which, whilst rather hard to control, were more than willing to transport me at speed to the next urtuu (horse station).
Of the 28 horses that I rode, I had only three that I deemed “below par” — including one minx who took affront to my checking his girth and erupted into a fit of bucking which continued apace until I could get his head up. Lesson learnt!
Day five brought the unwelcome element of illness which forced me to take a short break after two difficult legs that morning, meaning that I was now a station behind the leading pack of seven riders for the first time. It was a bitter pill to swallow but definitely the right decision.
My last race day turned out to be one to savour, as I was given fantastic mounts for each leg and rode through some wonderful scenery.
My second to last horse, whom I named ‘Arkle’ was 12.3hh of pure racehorse.
Had I not given him enforced rest breaks, he would have easily galloped the 41km mountain pass leg without pausing for breath. As it was, he merrily trotted into the penultimate urtuu with a heart rate of 61. This horse was an athlete and nothing less than a privilege to ride.
I completed the race in fifth place and was the second girl to cross the finish line, but by this time that seemed unimportant. In endurance racing “to complete is to win” and that certainly rings true for the Mongol Derby, the ultimate endurance race, where the emphasis is on the horses’ welfare and each rider’s individual journey.
For me, far more than being a race, this was the adventure of a life time, riding incredible horses through the vast and breath-taking plains of the Mongolian Steppe, with fellow riders who have become true friends, forever united by the unique experience that is the Mongol Derby.
Catherine’s Mongol Derby was ridden in aid of Spinal Research. If you would like to donate please visit: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/catherinestott