CAMBRIDGE — Cambridge native Rachel Roman, an avid equestrian, wanted a riding journey unlike any other she has participated before, and the Mongol Derby gave her the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I got to witness the rolling steppe with no trees, marshy bogs, jagged mountains, the mini gobi (desert plateau), and some forested mountain areas that made you think you were in Switzerland,” said Roman.
Before participating in the grueling derby, Roman spent her entire life riding, training, competing and caring for horses. When she discovered what the Mongol Derby was and what it entailed: “horses, wilderness and adventure,” she said. She vied for a chance to compete, along with hundreds of applicants from around the world.
She then got the call to be one of the riders to take the grueling journey from August 4 through the 17. Nearly fifty riders were in the race, but only about half finished, with Roman placing 20th.
Roman, who grew up in Cambridge and Royal Oak, finished the race in nine days.
“There were many riders who got ‘carry forwards’ because of bad luck and circumstances out of their control,” Roman said. “They were put in the ‘Adventure Category’ and were allowed to keep riding but did not get an official standing. Some very tough riders had some nasty falls and bad injuries but still made it back out there to ride a few legs of the race.”
Roman started and ended her journey at the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and was taken aback by the modern structure of the city.
“(The city was) full of malls, restaurants, community outdoor spaces and a very young population. It has the feel of a city bursting at the seams with growth pushing some forward and others behind,” Roman said.
After looking at the modern side of the country, Roman pushed forward to the world’s longest horse race that extends 1,000 kilometers, or 621 miles, through the wilderness of the Mongolian-Manchurian steppe.
The race entails semi-wild Mongolian horses, which are described as “diminutive, sturdy, fearless” on the website theadventurists.com. With this venerable breed, “riders must navigate and survive using only their own wits and skill, whilst living among the herders,” Roman said.
“Only about 30 minutes outside the city you are in the vast never-ending steppe region dotted with ‘gers’ (portable, round tents) and the occasional small city,” Roman said.
The start of the race was a cold and wet one for Roman and the other competitors, with cool rain falling. However, this did not stop Roman from keeping up with her survival skills.
“I fared pretty well compared to others. The trick is to keep moving and keep eating and always have dry clothes to sleep in at night,” Roman said.
On the seventh day of the race, she came close to falling off her horse. After a very challenging four-hour slow leg on a horse that would not move forward, Roman had the most exhausting day of her journey.
“(it was) my first and only time hitting the dirt during the race. However, since I technically never sat on the horse I like to think I did not actually fall off,” Roman said.
“The amazing Mongolian horses were some of the most powerful and surefooted animals I had ever sat on,” Roman said. “These little super horses is what makes the race such an amazing experience.” Roman changed horses every 40 kilometers, or 25 miles.
One of the ways Roman prepared for the race was with her GPS, and she believed her experience reading and navigating by topographical maps was going to cut it. However, what she was not prepared for was “the map in the GPS unit was a 1980s Soviet map,” instead of a standard satellite view, she said.
“(My) GPS unit was pre-loaded with all 29 horse stations that competitors needed to navigate to,” Roman said.
With a tough beginning, Roman quickly learned through the difficulty that there were a lot of dirt roads that wind around the steppe; and taking these roads meant “you can often ride faster avoiding the marmot holes and elevation; and there was no guarantee the roads went anywhere,” she said.
There was a silver lining at one point during the race where she was, of all things, lost. She mustered up the courage to go inside a ger to ask for directions. She got directions — and an invitation to dinner.
“They helped me tend to my horse and then gave me a delicious bowl of noodles and milk tea. They had a very full house, one newborn and a few toddlers,” Roman said.
Each horse station Roman rode through or slept at was the home of a local family. As she got to know the Mongolian people, she made it a point to go inside each time to refill her water and get food.
“It became clear very quickly that the Mongolian grandmothers or mothers were our surrogate mothers for the race,” said Roman. “(It was similar) to when you visit your grandmother and they insist you eat just one more cookie before you leave while also filling you up a bag of stale candies to take along with you.”
These lasting impressions inspire Roman to revisit Mongolia. The memories of these families looking out for her during exhausting times makes her want to strengthen the connection.
“Some I got the chance to connect with more than others, and I know when I do make it back to Mongolia I will have some families to visit,” Roman said.
Roman also built friendships with many of the riders.
“There were some people I wish I got to spend more time riding with, but that is just the nature of the race,” she said.
When Roman reached the finish line, on the other side was her number one fan: Her mother, Jennie, a big supporter of the race.
“She never once questioned my ability to finish,” Romand said. “She has been one of my role models and I have no doubt that if she entered the Mongol Derby she would finish.”
Despite the challenging course, Roman never suffered an injury and, looking back, Roman never doubted herself. This journey just made her want to keep entering more races, including “Race the Wild Coast” in South Africa.
“I thrive when the only plans for the day are staying on your horse, paying attention to where you are riding and taking reasonable care of yourself. Adventures are easier for me than office work,” Roman said.
She also used her adventures for a greater cause. She wants to raise $7,000 to raise awareness about the work The Nature Conservancy is doing in Mongolia.
“My goal is to to give back to the nomadic people and protect one of the few truly wild places left in the world,” Roman said.
For more information about Roman’s mission to raise funds for The Nature Conservancy, visit www.crowdrise.com. Search for “Rachel Roman,” and click on “Racing To Support Conservation And Community Work In Mongolia.”