Kelsey Does the Derby
Kelsey Eliot is a petite woman whose dark hair is tightly French-braided to better fit under the helmet currently swinging by its straps from her hand. Wearing riding tights and half-chaps, striding toward a pony she’s just carefully groomed and saddled, she’s the image of energy and determination. She’ll need both when she begins the Mongolian Derby, a legendary horserace across 1,000 km (just over 621 miles) of the Mongolian Steppe, the world’s longest horse race, recreating the route of the horse messenger system created by Genghis Khan in 1224.
Forty people from all over the world, who have passed the selection process and raised the more than $14,000 in entry fees, converge in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, on August 4 for three days of pre-race training and practice. Once they begin the race, August 7, they have ten days to complete the course, riding from station to station to rest and change horses. Throughout the race riders are mounted on over two dozen different Mongolian ponies—all resilient, working animals described as “equine gladiators” for their toughness and adaptation to the taxing conditions of their landscape. They’re joined by a support team of 250 herders, plus host families, veterinarians, medics, and crew.
Having heard about the race when another area rider participated last year, “I applied because it sounded cool,” Kelsey says now. “I had no expectation of getting in. I told them [on the application] I wanted to ride something other than a desk. I had a desk job I was unhappy with and I didn’t know what else to do.”
Fast forward to late June with another month to go before she leaves. She’s spending as much time as possible at Painted Bar Stables in Burdett, New York, where owner Erika Eckstrom is training her. “At this point, the goal is to get more distance,” Erika says, suggesting to Kelsey that, “I’ve got a bunch of horses that need five miles today. That’s where we’re going this month. She needs to take on horses that don’t know how to go by themselves—as many different types as possible to test her physically and emotionally.
“Basically she’s going to be okay. She’s all heart. My goal is to get you into more of a robot mode,” she adds to Kelsey. “It’s more about living in the moment. Give you more struggles.”
“Sometimes I’m afraid I’m thinking too big,” Kelsey admits.
“The goal is to chunk her goals into a lot of little goals,” Erika says. “And we still have hay season coming—good training for your arms!”
This past fall and winter were difficult times for training for Kelsey, meaning this spring has been about playing catch-up. When she couldn’t ride, she did a lot of home workouts using a personalized training program of free weights, stretching, even wearing a weighted vest and walking up and down steep steps for twenty minutes at a time. She bought a replica Mongolian saddle and a bad-tempered pony named Cowboy, now stabled at Painted Bar. The more socialized Cowboy gets, “the less he tries to kill Kelsey,” Erika comments. It’s good preparation, as she’ll be riding a variety of horses, many less agreeable than others.
Racers have a personal weight limit—the sturdy Mongolian ponies are not meant to carry large people, and lighter riders, like Kelsey at 120 pounds, have an advantage. They have a maximum gear limit of eleven pounds—that’s all her clothing, toiletries, vitamins, medicines, and ten days’ worth of snacks. “Electrolyte tablets?” Erika asks. Many riders suffer digestive upsets from unfamiliar food, germs, and water, which, by the way, they have to carry themselves and is considered part of the rider’s weight.
Each day riders might change horses two or three times as they navigate between well-spaced horse stations. The choice of horse is often a gamble—it’s hard to know how cooperative an unknown horse may be. “My strategy is to ask kids which horses they ride,” Kelsey says.
Near nightfall, if they’re among the first to arrive at that evening’s stop, they might find a place to sleep inside a nomad family’s yurt or ger. Latecomers sleep outside. Some who are really late might need to camp out en route or stay with a herding family who wasn’t expecting them. “You could go and knock on a door,” Kelsey says uncertainly. “The nomadic families are very friendly and they give us a note in Mongolian explaining who we are.”
Videos online about the Mongolian Derby emphasize how difficult it is. Riders may become lost when separated from their fellow riders, or thrown by a rambunctious horse. Some are injured; most are saddle-sore and chafed. Most continue anyway. Simply completing the course is a victory. “Winning [by finishing first] isn’t the thing,” Erika says. “There’s a hundred ways to win.”
Kelsey’s husband, a New York State Trooper, has been supportive of her efforts and is traveling to Mongolia with her. Those accompanying Derby entrants have the option of taking a guided tour through Mongolia themselves, including a trip through the Gobi Desert, ending at the finish line to meet their favorite participant, which he plans to do. They leave at the end of July, and will return to upstate New York before the end of August.
Those who want to cheer her on can visit her public Facebook page, “Kelsey does the Derby,” to track her progress.
Erika sounds confident about Kelsey’s progress and prospects. “I’m excited for her,” she says. “It’s a crazy mission—but anyone can pursue a crazy dream with enough preparation. I’ve been yelling and screaming and brutally honest and Kelsey has become like a little sister. We’ve gotten really close.
“We’re all rooting for you,” she adds to Kelsey. “Our goal is to inspire everyone to do their own Derby and get out of the box.”