EASTON — When 27-year-old Rachel Roman discovered the Mongol Derby last October, she took it upon herself to apply to participate in the toughest horse race in the world.
The Eastern Shore native, who grew up in Cambridge and Royal Oak, competed against hundreds of applicants from around the world to be one of the 40 riders to take the 10-day journey Aug. 4-17.
It is 1,000 kilometers in total, consisting of high passes, huge valleys, wooded hills, river crossings, wetland, dunes and the vast expanse of open steppe.
Roman recently moved to the West Coast to pursue an environmental career.
“I stumbled across the Mongol Derby because someone that I follow has competed in the race,” Roman said. “I went over to the website and checked it out, and it was a combination of all of my passions including horses, adventure, wilderness and a foreign country. Once I saw it, I knew immediately that it was something that would be an amazing adventure and a dream to participate in.”
In 1224, man of the millennium Genghis Khaan set up the world’s first long-distance postal transmission system. Using a massive network of horse stations, morin urtuus in Mongolian, his hardy messengers could gallop from Kharkhorin to the Caspian Sea in a number of days.
The Mongol Derby recreates that legendary system, building a network of urtuus at 35-kilometer intervals along the entire 1,000-kilometer course.
Using semi-wild Mongolian horses, riders must navigate and survive using only their own wits and skill, whilst living among the herders. The only rules in the race are for horse welfare, which is taken very seriously.
Mongolian horses were the intercontinental ballistic missiles of the 13th century. They carried the all-conquering Mongol warriors across half the world. Diminutive, sturdy, fearless, wild and unbelievably tough they have changed very little over the centuries.
Of the 3 million horses inhabiting the steppe, the great majority of them live in large semi-feral herds. Surviving temperature extremes from -40°C in winter to +30°C in summer, they mostly eat steppe grass, drink water as they find it and are rarely given any extra nutrition by the herders.
To the nomadic Mongolians living on the steppe, these horses are an integral part of their social culture.
One of the important qualities that made Roman stand out from competitors was how she was going to train and fundraise. As an events manager for the Nature Conservancy in Seattle, she fundraises for nonprofits, and outlined her fundraising process to staff members.
She also discussed her wilderness background, and how she planned to incorporate her training into her daily life, all while balancing a job.
“I am one of the riders that has a full-time office job. A lot of the riders are lucky that they have horse careers and they spend their days mostly in the saddle,” Roman said. “(During the interview) when I was speaking to staff on the phone, I was saying that to me this was an adventure outside of the office, and something that will inspire other people to break out of their normal 9 to 5 and try to pursue something else.”
Roman said she has prepared for this journey physically, emotionally and financially. She has ridden horses her entire life; but for the derby, she must build her strength and balance for the race because she will be on a saddle for 13 hours a day for 10 days in a row.
“I’m working with a personal trainer on my core and focusing more than I ever have. I am hoping that it is going to keep me safe and confident during the race,” Roman said.
Roman also participated in National Outdoor Leadership School, during which she spent three months in the wilderness. She is hoping to take a lot of the training that she learned during that experience.
“It is going to take a mental toll. So as part of my training, balancing a daily work life balance, it is already mentally pretty exhausting,” Roman said. “In itself it is helping me mentally prepare for another part in that training.”
Her goal is to raise $20,000 for flights to and from Ulaanbaatar; travel insurance; accommodations in Ulaanbaatar before and after the race; all personal equipment needed for the race, including survival gear, tools, appropriate layers; and pre-race training. Also included in the $20,000 goal is $7,000 she would like to donate to the Nature Conservancy in Mongolia.
Roman also plans on contributing at least $5,000 of her own money. As of June, she has raised more than $10,000.
“Truthfully, I want to use my crazy adventure aspirations for good — bringing awareness and financial backing to the important work that the Nature Conservancy is doing in Mongolia,” Roman said. “My additional goal is to raise over $7,000 that will give back to the nomadic people and protect one of the few truly wild places left in the world.”
From their renowned land acquisition efforts to cutting-edge research that influences global policy, the Nature Conservancy is constantly adapting to take on the planet’s biggest, most important challenges. Their vision is a world where the diversity of life thrives, and people act to conserve nature for its own sake and its ability to fulfill our needs and enrich our lives.
The Nature Conservancy began working in Mongolia in 2008 with the goal of protecting the vast, unspoiled landscape of the grasslands for nature and people. It is actively working with the Mongolian government to help protect and sustainably manage 120 million acres, or 30 percent of the country, by 2030.
Once the race is over, Roman would like to relax for a little while until she goes on her next adventure. She hopes the journey helps her become a better equestrian, and continue her equestrian career.
“I hope this opens up to new opportunities for me, but I’m sure it won’t be long until I find my next adventure,” Roman said. “I really hope that people follow along the race and that this inspires people to go do things. I never thought I would get into the race. Anybody can do something like this, anyone can go out and have more adventure.”
For more information or to donate to Roman’s journey, visit www.rachelmongolderby.com.