Katy Willings’ Mongol Derby blog: I survived, but I didn’t win

  • This missive brings to a close a summer spent in preparation for, and joyful participation in, the trip of a lifetime for me — The Mongol Derby.

    It’s not easy to break down, but having been home a couple of weeks and been wheeled round a fair few dinner parties in that period to regale people with tales of my courage, stoicism, horsemanship and astonishing lack of survival skills, I will attempt to answer the most frequently asked questions, in roughly the order they come up.

    The Adventurists should be paying me for this because everything I write will be testimony to just how much I enjoyed it, and how much I wish it wasn’t over. I suspect they will be flooded with entries for next year. Well, assuming I have any readers left that is…

    “So, did you win?”

    Reader(s), I did not win. Apologies, I believe some (one) had put money on me. I led for about three furlongs, but then contingencies got in the way rather. Actually, the race ended up being a lot less of a race than most of the riders had anticipated.

    With no precedent to follow, and no real concept of what lay ahead when we thundered off into the sun on that Saturday morning, and with the pleas of my family ringing in my ears “just find someone to ride with — don’t try and do this on your own!”, I started playing safe, and joined up with two other riders, as did almost all of my fellow Derbyists.

    The winner, Charles Van Wyk, was one of the few to go solo, though he had the silent but deadly Stig (as we referred to our Mongolian entrant, Galbadrakh) at his side, mirroring his every move, after a few days.

    The advantages of riding alone, being responsible for route, timings, pit stops, and strategy are clear; get it all right and you are streets ahead, with no-one to wait for, and governed only by the speed and temperament of your horse. In a group we travelled at the pace of the slowest horse, and there was often significant variation in the horses’ cruising speed.

    However, there were also huge risks inherent in going it alone, and this was demonstrated to me on day 2, when I had my one and only fall. On a relatively easy piece of going my horse, Bob V, put a foot wrong, crumpled and turned over, trapping me underneath him and getting up before I could get to my feet.

    If I had been riding alone, he would have got away. This happened to several riders, and while some horses turned tail and trotted off home, the majority just grazed, nonchalantly, out of reach, and refused to be caught again, often for several hours. These horses are used to being herded and lassoed, and don’t really come when you whistle.

    I was reunited with Bob V because Dave and Annelie were clever enough to pincer him, and, when he looked up and realised their plan, make a lunge for him and hang on at all costs. After that, I was resolutely riding in a team.

    Sharing all the ups and downs, rescuing people and being rescued, made the whole experience so much more special for me, too. I think everyone made lifelong friends on this trip, and I wouldn’t have traded a few more places up the finishing order for all of the giggles we had en masse.

    “How bad did you smell by the finish?”

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