For five days, horsewoman Marianne Williams was living her dream of riding in what’s billed as the longest and most dangerous horse race in the world.
That dream ended abruptly with a shattered collarbone and a flight back home. But for the Tryon adventurist, just participating in the Mongol Derby was a highlight of an extraordinarily exciting life.
In August, Williams rode in the 1,000-kilometer race across Mongolia on the backs of semitamed Mongolian horses. The Mongol Derby pits upward of 40 riders from across the globe against one another and the elements. The course changes every year, but it always mimics the trails postal carriers took for Genghis Khan in the early 13th century. And just as in those days, the riders risk exposure to the weather, wild dogs, bandits and shaky footing.
Over the course of as many as 10 days, riders gallop across deserts, plains and the Mongolian hills, enduring weather that ranges from blistering heat on shifting sands to the freezing cold of the mountains. Horses are switched out every 40 kilometers. Nights are spent in native horse traders’ tents or in the homes of Mongolians along the route. Days are spent racing across the countryside with only 11 pounds of supplies, including their saddles.
The dangers along the way are not to be taken lightly, event organizers say.
“Your chances of being seriously injured or dying as a result of taking part are high. Individuals who have taken part in the past have been permanently disfigured, seriously disabled or lost their life,” states the website for The Adventurists, the organization that runs the Mongol Derby. “These are not holidays. These are adventures and so by their very nature extremely risky. You really are putting both your health and life at risk. That’s the whole point.”
From Aug. 9-14, Williams was among those embracing those risks. On her last day, her horse stepped into a marmot hole. It wasn’t the first time she had been thrown from a horse, but it was the last in this race.
“My final throw was completely unexpected. Seventy-five miles down that day, and I was walking my horse in for his vet check,” Williams wrote in an email. “I was almost to the station. I was told that he fell in a large hole that had been lightly covered by dirt. He panicked and bucked wildly and off I went.”
Williams says she was knocked unconscious and shattered her clavicle. She was immediately taken to the event’s emergency medical care facility and then to a nearby hospital.
“It took a couple of hours to get to SOS Medica, where the expats go for treatment in Ulaanbaatar,” she says. “I was X-rayed and bathed with having warm water poured over my bruised and broken body. The water had to be heated on a stove, as the entire city block was out of hot water. I had the entire emergency room to myself for two days. The nurses brought me local menus to order from, so I had a filet mignon, salad and a glass of red wine.”
For the 54-year-old Williams, the goal of life is not to slow down and take things easy. It’s to “‘not go gentle into that good night,’ but to slide sideways into [my] grave laughing like hell — while clutching on last cold beer in [my] weatherworn hand,” she says.
Riding in the Mongol Derby was just another adventure among many Williams has experienced in her life.
“As to why … well, why not? I love horses, adventure, traveling, wide-open spaces, challenging myself, adrenaline rushes and the company of like-minded individuals,” she says.
Her family, she says, was supportive of her adventure — mostly.
“My parents are 82 and 92. They learned a long time ago that I march to the beat of my own drum,” she says. “I tend to protect them by not telling them too much. For example, they don’t know that I’m hurt.”
But her boys are behind her all the way. Nathaniel, 24, lives and works in Manhattan, while Ben, 26, is an engineer in Bozeman, Mont.
“I discussed this thoroughly with them and asked their advice,” she says. “When I wanted to get a motorcycle a few years ago, my youngest vetoed it. However, they both were in favor of this adventure. I did explain the dangers and left them detailed instructions about my estate.”
“They were both proud of me, which tickled me. I’m accustomed to being proud of them, not the other way around,” she adds.
Williams’ sons are no strangers to her globetrotting lifestyle and penchant for new experiences.
“My boys and I grew up playing together,” she says. “We skied, worked lobster boats, spearfished, homeschooled on a 55-foot sailboat through 26 countries including Granada, Trinidad, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Mexico, Cuba, and others. … We played Scrabble, bocce ball, poker, badminton and fought a lot. We didn’t have a TV — this gave us lots of free time!”
Dragged away from wild horses
Even with a wealth of adventures under her belt, Williams wasn’t fully prepared for the complexities of the Mongol Derby, she says.
“You can’t prepare for the unforeseen,” she says. “I did the best that I could, but when you put yourself on 27 semiwild horses, in the middle of the Mongolian steppe, and attempt to navigate with one hand and control the horse with the other, while riding across marmot-infested land at breakneck speeds … well, there’s a bit of a variable in there somewhere.”
Despite being a veteran horsewoman, Williams found the Mongolian horses to be a big challenge.
“I had some fabulous, surefooted horses and I had one evil one who spent the entire 25 miles trying to get me off of him,” she says. “I wasted a good horse by pushing another rider’s horse who refused to go — 20 miles of ridiculous trotting that chafed my inner thighs and ate up my time. I was ‘rewarded’ for this effort by being left behind on the evil horse when this rider scored a great horse.”
Although the race ended with a party on Aug. 19, Williams wasn’t among those celebrating. She was flown home immediately, via Russia, for surgery.
Of the 42 riders in the race, only 36 finished. Five others, in addition to Williams, were forced out due to illness or injury.
The winners of the race, however, traveled the course in record time, says Liz Ampairee, spokeswoman for The Adventurists. The 2017 Mongol Derby was jointly won by 29-year-old Ed Fernon, an Olympic pentathlete from Sydney, Australia, and 51-year-old Barry Armitage, a former professional sailor turned adventurer from South Africa. “They crossed the finish line together in stinking hot conditions and have covered the 1,000 kilometers in seven days, riding 12 hours a day — and in some of the worst conditions the race has ever seen,” Ampairee says.
The race benefited Cool Earth, an organization that works alongside indigenous people to halt rainforest destruction.