Journey to the Mongol Derby: Training for the Mongol Derby

Photo © The Adventurists via flickr

BY BIANCA FARMAS-GRIFFITH

So, you think you have what it takes. How do you prepare for such an adventure? The obvious answer is physical training, however, experience and mental preparation are invaluable as well. Because competitors change horses every ~25-miles, the pace carried is much faster throughout the day than your average endurance race. Each rider must physically prepare for these challenges, despite his or her discipline and fitness level.

My journey to the Derby has involved countless hours of physical training and numerous weekends and races spent riding in equestrian endurance. Shortly after my Derby acceptance in December 2018, I researched endurance riding and reached out to past Derby competitors via Social Media. I quickly found two Derby veterans operating an endurance program, Intergalactic Equine, and solicited them for help. The husband-and-wife team (who met during the Derby) own seven amazing endurance horses and offer rider bootcamps and race weekends for those interested in or training in endurance. Their horses also compete annually in the most famous endurance race, the Tevis Cup (100-miles in 24-hours). These are incredibly agile animals whose power and athleticism blew me away.

Although I ride multiple times per week, I also work in corporate America and spend 5-days per week sitting at a desk, or my living room floor, working hard to (attempt) to afford this sport. In January 2019, what was supposed to be a year and a half until my Derby debut, I increased my weekday dedication to non-riding exercise. I hired a virtual trainer focused on equestrian fitness, who I again found through Instagram, and committed four days per week to the gym. With an improperly healed collarbone from a past riding accident, I have some alignment abnormalities that have worsened over the years. I also have two reconstructed fingers thanks to my rescue mini-horse. All part of the course in this sport (pun intended)! My exercise plan consists of a variety of strength training exercises, stretching to improve flexibility and movement, and high-intensity interval training for cardio. Not only has this helped me withstand numerous hours in the saddle during Derby training, but also has helped me with my effectiveness in the saddle at home. 

I have been living and breathing the Derby since November 2018, working out almost daily since my acceptance. During the week I ride before work in the early morning and strength train in the gym during lunch. With a few weekly runs to strengthen my cardio and mental fortitude, I have seen some serious positive changes in my body and riding. I get pulled out of my tack less and less when jumping my strong hunter. I’m more effective with the appearance of minimal effort, something that is heavily judged and rewarded in the show ring (especially when competing against fancier and quieter rides). Although each rider has their own strengths and weaknesses, it’s important to remember that we are, in fact, athletes and must train like them. We spend countless hours training and conditioning our horses to perform their best – how can we as riders perform our best if we tend to ignore our own physical preparation?

Starting my second 50-mile race with Sonic in Nevada, April 2021.
Photo © Mikel Ann Hettrick

Through trips to Intergalactic, I have learned the basics of endurance riding and different positions to ease both horse and rider discomfort over long distances. Since my journey in endurance began, I have earned 395 miles in official AERC-sanctioned races (American Endurance Ride Conference). In 2019 I completed 50 and 30 miles; in 2021 I completed 50, 75, and 80-miles; and so far in 2022 I have completed 50-miles and two back-to-back 30s, with a few more planned including a 75. After some serious months of gym training, I was pleasantly surprised with how much stronger I felt in the saddle. By having a deeper base of support, I was able to properly apply some learned endurance techniques in times of exhaustion. Instead of focusing on muscular fatigue, I was able to redirect my efforts into breathing and releasing tension while staying out of the horse’s way. Although painful and exhausting at times, there is no feeling like pushing yourself to your limits while becoming completely synchronized to your equine partner and riding through some of the country’s most beautiful and rugged terrain. On more than one occasion I’ve even had some wild mustang sightings and run-ins!

With each endurance race, I have gained invaluable knowledge and experience. I have yet to complete one race where I did not have any pains, doubts, or misfortunes. These experiences were, and are, crucial to my Derby training, as gear selection, navigation, and preparedness are paramount for daily survival. During my two longest races, 75 and 80-miles, I experienced a few completely different issues which enforced the importance of experience, preparedness, and body awareness.

During a 75-mile race in Nevada in mid-July 2021, I experienced severe heat exhaustion around mile 45. Despite drinking plenty of water and electrolytes, or at least what I thought, I began losing my vision, hearing, and the ability to take full breaths. During our hour-long hold at mile-50, I was unable to jog my horse for the vet check and instead clung to our camp chairs crying and limp. My teammates came through to douse me in water, feed me energy and rehydration concoctions, and convinced me to attempt the last 25-miles. We stopped at each water trough where I dismounted, dangled my arms and head in the water, cried, and then mustered up the strength to remount and continue. The sun eventually set, and I was able to finish the 75-miles in good spirits and with regained strength, again blown away by my equine partner. I went to bed that night shaking violently with chills and woke up the next day depleted. Although a bit discouraged, I took my pain, suffering, strength, and gratitude, and molded it into a learning experience that I will use in the Derby. I have since changed to electrolyte pills, and depending on the weather, set a reminder to take them periodically throughout the day according to the instructions. 

Racing through the Californian Redwoods on Red Hero during my first 50-mile ride, in September 2019.
Photo © Dominique Cognee

During an 80-mile race in Oregon, I began experiencing severe pain in my left shin and calf. I attempted unzipping my half-chap in hopes that it was rubbing but to no relief. I had even added hobbles to my stirrup leathers to keep them twisted and the stirrup at a 90-degree angle, trying to avoid the awful rub and welt that can come from the stirrup leather, or fender, twisting around the front of your shin. By mile 70, and coming into our last vet hold, I could barely think of anything but the pain. We took off on our last 10-miles in complete darkness, using only the full moonlight as our guide.

Unbeknownst to me, riding in the dark can cause motion sickness, and some endurance riders preemptively take meds to combat this during dark rides. I used the motion sickness to distract myself from the excruciating leg pain, and switched between the two issues depending on what was worse. After finishing the last 10-miles I was able to properly look at my leg. It had turned bright red and had swollen considerably to the extent that I could barely pull off my pants. After some research and discussions with other athletes, I believe that I came quite close to compartment syndrome. Caused by overexertion, compartment syndrome is a painful condition that occurs when pressure within the muscles builds to dangerous levels. This pressure can decrease blood flow, which prevents nourishment and oxygen from reaching nerve and muscle cells. I’ve been working with doctors since to rule out any abnormalities in my leg and get to the cause of the issue before I depart for the Derby this July. Just another learning experience to catalog in my training diaries!

Although each competitor is intensely training for this race, it’s important to remember that this journey is different for everyone, especially given the added circumstances and effects due to COVID-19. We are all individuals with different needs, circumstances, strengths, weaknesses, perspectives, and mentalities. When it comes down to the start line and completing the Derby, so much of it is pure luck.


Bianca is a Hunter/Jumper rider with Mike Edrick Stables in Agoura Hills, CA. At 32 years old, she has spent her life combining her passion for travel and horses and is currently navigating the trials and tribulations of the Amateur Equestrian. To follow her journey to and in the Mongol Derby, check out her Instagram page listed below. You can also live-track her progress through the Derby via her satellite tracker by navigating to the Derby website (beginning July 23, 2022). Follow her on Instagram @BFG_MongolDerby2020

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