In August 2017 writer/rider Leslie Wylie will be attempting her most fearsome feat of #YOLO yet: a 620-mile race across Mongolia. Riding 25 semi-wild native horses. Carrying only 11 pounds of gear. Relying on nomads for food, water and shelter. On a mission to help stop deforestation.
The Mongol Derby is widely regarded as the toughest horse race in the world. Inspired by the Genghis Khan’s original “pony express,” there’s no trail or set route, just 25 GPS checkpoints/horse exchange stations to hit over the course of 7-10 days. Keep it locked here for weekly updates from Leslie as she prepares to embark upon the ride of a lifetime!
When I told my husband I’d been picked to ride the race a few months back, he went online and started doing some research like the rational, thinking, adult human being that he is. That’s when he noticed this warning:
“Ha!” I guffawed, nearly spitting out my mouthful of wine. “Where’d you find that, honey?”
Tommy glared at me through his dark-rimmed Warby Parker glasses. “It’s on the Mongol Derby website.”
“Fake news,” I laughed, playing along with his little joke. My husband, always the comedian.
“No, I’m serious. It’s in the fine print at the bottom of the homepage,” he said, spinning the laptop around and jabbing his index finger menacingly at the screen. “Right HERE.”
I squinted and frowned. He was right. Guess I didn’t scroll down that far.
Alright. I’ll admit that on paper, this Derby thing seems like a pretty bad idea. Injury, illness, isolation … it’s kind of a “buy one get two free, whether you want them or not!” sort of a deal.
Good thing I’m Katniss Everdeen with the Magical Wine Bra. ©Erik Cooper
A Wylie in its natural habitat.
Erik is a 2012 Mongol Derby survivor who now participates in the race each year as part of the search and rescue crew. They trail along in a Soviet-era, four-wheel-drive Furgon lovingly referred to as the “bloodwagon,” responding to SOS calls and scraping felled riders’ body parts off the ground.
I am unclear about Erik’s official profession is but he is for damn sure living his best life and basically cooler than all of us combined. I highly recommend following him on Instagram (@erikcooperadventurist), where you can find photos of him riding reindeer, befriending elephants, gazing into distance with majestic birds of prey perched on his shoulder, wrestling bears, building treehouses in South Africa, and literally/metaphorically galloping willy-nilly into the great unknown. (*One of the above is not true but you have to guess which — find the answer below!)
Erik Cooper, Commander of Leash-Trained Eagles, Warden of the Steppe, Master of un-PETA-Sanctioned Fashion, First Sword of the Blood Wagon, Savior of American Girls in Over Their Heads.
A couple months ago, when I was still in obvious denial, I interviewed Erik on my weekly Horses in the Morning segment alongside HITM co-hosts Jamie Jennings and Glenn the Geek. It was an illuminating experience, let me tell you, and shed some real-talk light on this “unique situation” I’ve gotten myself into.
You can listen to the whole interview on this player (skip forward to 1:04:40), or here is an edited-for-length version of our chat.
Leslie: So what was your race experience like?
Erik: My race was pretty insane. The horses were feral, you know, semi-wild. The race has been modified over time. Now we have a highlighted route, a suggested route you can follow or not follow, but the year I did it there was really just like ‘There’s point A and there’s point B — get this horse and figure out how you’re going to get to the next station.’ You’ve really got to navigate yourself. There’s no Waze app in Mongolia, so you’re kind of looking at this gray screen with your dot and then the dot you need to get to, and what’s in between all that.
Erik: And you’ll find out there is a lot of crazy shit in between all that! There are mountain ranges, sand dunes, flooded rivers, marmot-ridden steppe which claims a lot of riders every year … Yeah, so it was an interesting experience for me. I barely was able to complete but I did it. A guy broke his neck my year, and I was with him when he got thrown off and broke his neck.
Leslie: [Strangled moaning sound]
Jamie: At least you beat him!
Don’t worry: If I can stay on a mechanical bull for 30 seconds after half a pitcher of margarita, I can stay on anything, right?
Erik: Yeah, right? So it really is an adventure first, horse race second. The special thing about the Derby is you’re doing it alongside the nomadic horse herders, and they’re saving your ass left and right and they don’t even know your name. So it’s a really, really cool experience. And now I live there every summer so clearly it’s something special.
Leslie: Did you manage to keep the horse between yourself and the ground the entire race?
Erik: It’s so funny because between day three and four I was getting a little cocky, which is stupid, and I was like, “Ha! I haven’t been thrown off yet!” And the next thing you know we’re racing across this flat area and my horse fell into a marmot hole burrow and we did a somersault at the same time, both of us. That was my only tumble, thank God, but it was definitely an epic one. I wrenched my back pretty bad and was in back therapy for like three years. But anyway, it’s safe enough. Aren’t you excited to do it?
Leslie: Oh man, I really am excited. And I’m entrenched now in the process of acquiring some basic survival skills. Which I would say has been a little hit or miss.
I went to do this day-long orienteering course in the mountains on Saturday because I can get lost between, like, my house and the grocery store. But I left at the lunch break because I was so bored. Oops. So now I’m definitely going to die.
“Siri, I need directions to anywhere on earth other than this stupid classroom.”
Erik: You need go and do a geocache thing where your friends hide something, and you’re on horseback in the middle of nowhere — it’s got to have some terrain, like mountains and rivers to cross — and they hide it but they mark the coordinates. And then you take the GPS you’re going to use in Mongolia and you go out and that’s how you test it. Maybe grab a friend, maybe drink a little bit, and go out and look for it. That’s the best way to really practice the GPS.
Helpful hint — always make sure when you’re on that GPS … [something about zooming in and out on the GPS depending on terrain, or something].
Leslie: Uh, OK.
Jamie: Let me jump in here. Leslie, you’re going to have to go back and listen to that because I know you did not pay attention to any of that. You just totally checked out while he was saying that. I know you did.
Leslie: Yeah, the whole time, I was thinking about that app, the one where you go out and catch the little Japanese creatures?
Erik: Pokemon Go?
Leslie: Pokemon Go! So that’s pretty much like the Mongol Derby, right?
Erik: Mmmm … not really. Sounds like you might be in my blood wagon. Don’t worry, we serve cocktails.
Pfft, I guess so if you consider an IV drip of morphine a “cocktail.”
Glenn: I’ve got to ask you, Erik, what are the chances of Leslie actually dying?
Leslie: I don’t like this line of questioning!
Erik: Leslie has a really good game face. I think she’s going to do really well. And she has the right attitude. She just has to not get lost.
Jamie: And maybe not dip out at lunch breaks of orienteering classes. That was probably not your best idea.
Leslie: It was just boring. We were learning to use maps. And I’m like, ‘Maps, who uses those? I have Google Earth for that.’
From my notes: Cliffs. Bad. Don’t accidentally gallop your horse off one.
Erik: Lord. Your horse skills are on point, but you better work on your navigation. That’s definitely a huge factor.
Glenn: Will she have a GPS tracker on her so if she does end up in China, somebody can go find her?
Erik: Yeah, there will be a live race feed and map that you can follow and her dot will be on there. Provided she brings the right batteries.
Glenn: We are so screwed.
Jamie: She’ll be like, ‘Hey local people, can I use your charger? Can I plug into your tent wall?’
Leslie: ‘Um, what’s your WiFi password?’
Jamie: And don’t go to Russia. I know it’s tempting, it’s right above you. Don’t do it.
Erik: Keep it together. Keep it on course.
You guys, I’m not even kidding. Erik really rides reindeer.
Leslie: Do you have any more, like, survival top tips?
Erik: I think the biggest thing is making sure you’re mentally prepared. So get out there and rough it. Ride in the cold, ride in the rain, ride in the lightning, see how your kit does. Go get completely soaked and then see how long it takes for everything you have on to dry.
Say you’re in Mongolia and it pours all day long. And then you get into the ger [this round, animal skin teepee type deal the nomads sleep in], and there are no trees there so they really are burning horseshit and that only lasts for half an hour, so your clothes aren’t going to be dry in the morning. So get used to that and desensitize yourself to discomfort.
Leslie: Practice suffering. Check.
Brainthought: What if Erik Cooper is actually … SANTA CLAUS.
Glenn: How about the food? All the winners we’ve had on over the past six years have gotten violently ill at some point. Is there a way she can prepare? Can you ship some of the fermented mare’s milk over so she can get used to it?
Erik: That’s not going to be what makes you sick, per se. I’d get over there a week early and eat everything and drink everything local that you can. Get in there, and honestly get the diarrhea and all that out of the way the first week. Because you don’t want to be dealing with that while you’re on a horse.
Note from Leslie: Yep, definitely I did not do that. Flying in the day before orientation.
And you aren’t going to be throwing back tons of shots of mare’s vodka the whole time. That’s really kind of a special, ceremonial thing. But watch me say that and you get there, and there are some dudes being like, ‘Here you go.’
Jamie: She’s kind of cute.
Glenn: She is kind of cute.
Erik: Cute and tough.
Glenn: Leslie has found this contraption, Erik, called the wine rack. It’s basically a bra that you can put about a liter of wine in.
Leslie: That was supposed to be my secret weapon, Glenn! You blew it!
Erik: She can do that but we’re going to weigh her so it will count toward her rider weight. Throughout the race maybe you can fill it up with airag [aforementioned fermented mare’s milk booze] or whatever, but I don’t know if you want to be sipping on that the whole time. Basically bring a lot of flavored electrolytes. They’re going to be your friend, because everything else is going to taste like goat.
Leslie: I like goat cheese.
How Erik packs for an adventure trip.
Erik: Have you figured out what you’re bringing in your survival kit?
Leslie: Uh …
Erik: Besides a GoPro and a wine bra?
Leslie: I mean, I think I’m set with that, right? No, actually I have a little box going of things I want to bring with me but it’s not all super practical.
How Leslie packs for an adventure trip: Wine Rack (“cheap alternative to a boob job, and way more fun!”) courtesy of Kate Samuels, intimidatingly large knife, peppermints for horses that don’t buck me off, Noble Outfitters combo hoofpick/wine tool and American flag flask courtesy of Lindsey Kahn, giant French press I definitely don’t have room for, mini SOL (“Survive Outdoors Longer”) survival kit and Batgirl action figure from my sister-in-law Trish, mustache duct tape, glow stick for possible Mongolian raves or when I get lost in the dark, GPS handheld navigator I have no idea how to use, protractor thing they gave us at the orientation course which I also don’t know how to use but looks tough, rope so I can tie myself to someone who actually knows where they are going, sleeping bag.
Erik: If it’s not going to save you, don’t bring it. Bring duct tape to tape your ass back together, vaseline or anti-chafe, definitely flavored electrolytes …
Leslie: I have this little batgirl action figure I was going to bring but maybe I can replace that with electrolytes.
Erik: The action figure might be necessary, though. You might need that as a morale booster. I’d say keep that.
Glenn: Tell her the story about the girl who got stuck at the top of a mountain you had to go rescue.
Erik: It was one night, I was setting up my tent, we’d made it to horse station #18 — it looked liked the Grand Canyon of Mongolia. We thought the day was over and then we got this distress call and there was a rider stuck on top of the canyon because her horse wouldn’t come down it.
We had to snake up there in the bloodwagon. She was only a kilometer away, but it was so high up it took us like two hours to finally get to her. It was about midnight when we found her. It had been freezing rain, cold … she was a bit hypothermic and miserable. As you know you don’t bring a heavy coat because of the weight limit, so imagine your down poofy jacket gets soaking wet and it’s 35 degrees outside.
So we get her in the jeep and now we have this horse on our hands, right? Well we can’t be leaving the horses behind, hello, top priority. So I rode the horse home. It was kind of funny because my translator was like, ‘Erik, you ride horse through dark, you die.’ I was like, ‘Yanja, I got lost my entire Derby in the dark, I’ll be fine.’ I think I got back to the camp at 2 or 3 a.m.
It was fun. I mean, it sucked for the rider and she learned a valuable lesson, but for the crew we live for the rescue missions. We had a great time.
Glenn: So it sounds like if you screw up, Leslie, he’ll be happy to come find you in a puddle somewhere.
Erik: Yeah, if you’re going to press your SOS please make sure it’s something really cool and important so I can write a story about it.
Leslie: Yeah, like, ‘Guys, I’m hanging by one hand to the rim of this volcano, I’m about to fall in, I really need some help.’ That seems like a good premise for a story.
Erik: That will work. That will get us some views.
One thing to point out about how the SOS works: This is the middle of Mongolia, and riders are crossing things on horses that vehicles can’t get across. So if someone presses their SOS it could take quite a long time for us to get to you.
That’s something to keep in mind when deciding which route you’re going to go, which risks you are going to take. This isn’t a ‘I’m going to press the SOS on my tracker and a magical helicopter is going to come out of the sky and save me and pull me out of here.’ No, it’s going to take us time to find you, and we’re probably going to have to use local herders on motorbikes to help in that effort as well.
Yanja and Erik atop the bloodwagon, scanning the horizon for dead bodies while saying important things into a walkie-talkie.
Glenn: What I’m picturing in my mind is Hunger Games, and we have our own Katniss Everdeen right here.
Erik: Katniss Everdeen and her magical wine bra.
Glenn: That’s it! That’s our new super hero.
Erik: You’ll save a lot of lives out there.
Jamie: Leslie, you mentioned hanging off the side of a volcano — when you hit that SOS button, Erik is telling you you’re going to have to hang on for a while. Nobody is going to come and get you. So you better have some strong hands and be ready to hold on because it’s going to take, like, two days to get you.
Leslie: Whatever, I don’t even need that SOS button. I’m sort of a pony whisperer so I’ll just be like, ‘Pony! Come here! Throw your tail down! You know, like Rapunzel. And he’ll pull me out. And then we’ll hug and we’ll ride off and win the race.’
Glenn: Aw, we lost Erik. He dropped out.
Jamie: We didn’t lose him. He hung up.
Glenn: He is now calling the people at the Adventurists saying, ‘You need to cancel that woman. We need to find a replacement.’
Jamie: Did you ever see that ‘80s movie Sheena, Queen of the Jungle? What happens is Sheena is born and raised in the jungle. And she has this magical power where she can call animals, and she takes her hands and puts them together and presses that to her forehead and she can call elephants, zebras, giraffes, etc. to come over. You need to watch that movie and perfect that move, and then you can call the animals to come save you.
Leslie: Yeah! Or like a falcon, just swoop down and pull me out of that volcano and fly me straight to the finish line. I mean, I don’t think there are any rules against that.
Wylie was an innocent in a savage world …
Erik: Hey! I’m back! The call dropped.
Glenn: Are you in Mongolia? Where are you at?
Erik: I’m in Brooklyn.
Leslie: Hey Erik, a question did come up in your absence. So I have a new plan for the volcano scenario, which is I am going to use my animal whispering skills to summon a falcon who is going to come snatch me up and fly me all the way to the finish line. Is there a rule against that?
Erik: There isn’t but I think you mean a golden eagle. You’ve been looking at my Instagram too much.
Another Instagram photo of Erik and his falcon, I mean golden eagle.
Leslie: Oh right, a golden eagle. Got it.
Erik: That’s using the bush hustle. You can totally do that. Just make sure it saves your horse, too, because you can’t leave your horse.
Leslie: I’m going to need a big golden eagle.
Glenn: Or two eagles.
Erik: Maybe a whole flock of them.
Glenn: We need to have Erik back for an entire episode. We could just let him talk for an hour and a half and I’m sure we wouldn’t hear all his stories.
Erik: I’ve got a few stories. I’ll come back.
Glenn: Alright, good. Thanks, Erik, talk to you later!
Leslie: Thanks Erik! See you in the bloodwagon.
The closest I’ve ever gotten to being abducted by birds was when I tried to feed my sandwich crust to some pigeons in London’s Hyde Park. #neveragain #homealonepigeonlady
Glenn: Any second thoughts here, Leslie?
Leslie: Nah. Good talk, guys. Very encouraging. I’m going to go cry into my pillow now.
Glenn: Honestly though, I know you left halfway through the orienteering course, but you really ought to consider some one-on-one consulting with the whole direction-mapping thing. China is not hospitable to strangers and neither is Russia.
Leslie: It was just so … like, did you know there are three different kinds of north? It was just exhausting.
Glenn: Maybe at least learn about the north star so you have one point of reference.
My secret to cross country success: When they’re counting me down in the startbox, I lean forward and whisper in Princess’ ear “second star to the right, and straight on ’till morning” and then I just close my eyes and hang on for the ride. So, don’t tell Glenn, but I’m banking on that working in the Derby as well.
Jamie: Don’t listen to anything Glenn says, you just own it, girl. If it’s easy and successful, it’s not going to be a good story. I’m all about the story.
Glenn: I will be honest, we would rather you not end up in the bloodwagon.
Leslie: This is my one motto: No SOS button. If I am conscious, I will get to the finish line.
Jamie: Good girl.
Glenn: We have no doubt about that.
*Erik Cooper has never wrestled a bear … yet.
Keep up with my adventures in the lead-up to the 2017 Mongol Derby each week on Horse Nation, Eventing Nation and Jumper Nation, and tune into Horses in the Morning each Monday at 10 a.m. EST as I interview Derby crew and previous competitors.
Each Derby competitor’s $12,995 entry helps benefit the Mongolian families whose generosity with their horses and their homes makes the race possible, as well as Cool Earth, a charity that works alongside indigenous villages to halt rainforest destruction.
Can you help? Please visit the Wylie vs. Mongol Derby GoFundMe page — all donations are deeply and eternally appreciated! Corporate sponsorships are also available and include ad space on EN, HN and JN, product reviews and usage during the Derby and much more. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
Join me in giving a warm welcome to TaggCode, my newest sponsor for the race! And a more fitting sponsor there could not be. TaggCode makes these super-smart bracelets embedded with all your medical information and emergency contact info in the form of a Quick Response Code.
They are USEF legal to wear as a substitute for medical armbands in competition, but of course I’ll be taking mine a bit further afield! I am excited and honored to have TaggCode as a sponsor, and I can’t wait to tell you guys all about my experience with this innovative product as I put it to the ultimate test in coming months.