Worldly Fitness Feats: Mongol Derby
Equestrians battle the elements on a 621-mile course in East Asia.
The Mongol Derby is the world’s longest and most dangerous equestrian endurance race. Founded in 2009, it covers more than 600 miles across a specific span of grassland in Mongolia and northeastern China known as the Mongolian Steppe. Adrian Corboy of Wangaratta, Australia, and Annabel Neasham of Oxfordshire, England, won this year’s race in August, completing the course in six and a half days. Men and women compete against each other, but sometimes riders cross the finish line together rather than fighting for a solo win.
All the competitors have to be experienced riders and in good shape, since it can take up to 10 days to complete the course. They’re mostly show jumpers, polo players, and eventers (who do dressage, cross-country riding, and show jumping). The Mongol Derby is a one-of-a-kind bucket list item for these athletes, and it’s rare to compete twice.
To learn more about the challenge, Furthermore spoke with former Australian Olympic pentathlete and 2017 Mongol Derby winner Ed Fernon. “After retiring from the modern pentathlon in 2015, I decided to look for a significant challenge every year to get myself outside my comfort zone,” says Fernon, who climbed Aconcagua, a 22,837-foot peak in Argentina in 2016. “You learn the most about yourself during moments of discomfort.”
Here’s what the athletes face on the course.
The 621-mile route changes each year and is kept a secret until the race start. Riders never know what to expect. “It’s essentially a real-life Hunger Games where all the competitors face ongoing adversity,” Fernon says.
They encounter monsoon rain and temperatures ranging from 37 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit. Most riders are used to thoroughbreds or quarter horses, but in the Derby they ride stocky, semi-wild Mongol equines. About half of those Fernon rode bucked or reared each time he mounted.
The competitors switch horses up to 25 times throughout the race as they trek across open steppe, wooded hills, and arid riverbeds. “At the end of each 20-mile leg, the horse goes off to graze but the rider is on to the next one,” he says.
On average, only 60 percent of the 40 competitors finish. For many of them, fractured collar bones, punctured lungs, and even broken necks bring their race to an early end. Others drop out because of less urgent physical challenges, like stomach viruses, dehydration, and exhaustion. Plus, the race ends after 10 days, so riders who are too slow or receive too many time penalties won’t cross the finish line in time. The strongest competitors are those who can best handle the uncertainties and challenges of the race, Fernon says.
“While training, I focused on the main muscles and body parts I would use while riding: legs, lower back, abs, and quads,” Fernon says. He ran 10 miles seven days a week, then spent an hour strength training. He trained his core with 12 minutes of planks, sit-ups, weighted bridges, and ab wheel exercises to improve his balance. On the weekends, he’d try to do a 50-mile ride on his horse.
Fernon also went on a strict diet and dropped 18 pounds (going from 178 to 160 pounds) pre-race. He drank lemon and hot water to help with digestion, cut down his portion size, and ate carbs in the morning and protein at night.
Despite all his prep, Fernon was an underdog in some ways. He was heavier than his competitors and had limited experience endurance racing. “My Olympic training and mindset were the most defining factors of my success,” he says.
The Daily Schedule:
5:30 a.m.: Depending on where competitors finished the night before, they might wake up under the vast sky, in a local family’s yurt, or at a campground at one of the horse stations. They get dressed, pack up, check their gear, and stretch. If Fernon was staying with a family, they would give him something like mutton or yak’s milk for breakfast.
6:30 a.m.: Everyone chooses a horse and the ride begins.
The Ride: The competitors have to use their own navigation skills to find and sign into several checkpoints. “I always made sure I knew the direction I was going before I mounted because it’s difficult to navigate as the horse is bucking,” he says. Getting lost, and then backtracking, is part of the experience. Vets check the horses at the end of each leg to test for lameness, gut sounds, and heart rate to show they’re healthy. If your horse fails the health check, you get a two-hour penalty.
8:30 p.m.: Time to dismount. To ease soreness after the 100-mile rides, Fernon did self-massage with a rubber ball and used anti-inflammatory cream. Then, the riders eat, sleep, and repeat until they cross the finish line or once the 10 days are up, whichever comes first.
Keys to Success:
A winning mindset: When he felt stressed, Fernon focused on having “a WIN mentality, which stands for What’s Important Now. You need to do the best you can in that moment,” he says. “If you can win the moment, then you can win the minute, the hour, and the race.”
Self-talk: When he was in pain, Fernon would tell himself: “No matter how hard it is, I’m just going to keep pushing.”
Visualization: To speed up his changeovers, he’d visualize. “I pictured the process going perfectly and then I’d visualize how I could improve on it next time,” he says.