Mongol Derby
Wherever man has left his footprint in the long ascent from barbarism to civilization we will find the hoofprint of the horse beside it.... ~ John Moore
(2010 Write-up on the Mongol Derby)

By Tana Ross (Greater Houston Weekly):

Billed as the “Greatest Horse Race in the World” and the “Longest Horse Race in the world,” the Mongol Derby is not a challenge just any horse rider is willing to take on.

Indeed, the 1,000 kilometer (more than 630 miles) endurance race over the Mongolian steppe — a diverse, often unforgiving terrain that includes forest, mountains and desert — is so challenging that organizers of the race provide three days of training for the small group of international competitors who qualified to be in the race.

A true adventurist, 33-year-old Justin Nelzen, a-Pinehurst-farrier- turned-endurance athlete, is one of 16 representing five counties who qualified for the second annual derby to start Aug. 7. In fact he is one of the first three Americans ever selected for the 10-day equestrian event. And, while several might be happy just to finish the race, Nelzen’s standard is set a bit higher.

“My goal is not just to complete the race, but to win it,” he said.

With only three years of endurance horse racing under his belt, some might think Nelzen is a risky bet, but his record says otherwise. Not only has the 5-foot, 8-inch, 158-pound, athlete competed and won in a variety of competitions since college, including martial arts, triathlons and marathon running, but his list of wins with his own Arabians in endurance horse racing has garnered the attention of experts in the sport.

“Justin is very accomplished,” Rhita McNair of McNair Internationale, who has trained horses for more than 40 years, said. “I am very impressed with his skills as a rider and as a trainer. He took a mare he bought from me all the way to a world champion.”

Last year, Nelzen also swept first, second and third places in the Hog Scramble, a 30-mile endurance race in Huntsville, on horses he owns and trained. His 7-year-old daughter, Trinity, placed first.

“I didn’t know anything other than to train my horses like I trained myself,” he said. “Someone asked me before my first race what I expected. I told them I expected to win, and I did. I didn’t know any better at the time.”

Excited at just the thought of Nelzen winning the derby, McNair said Justin is very good at reading horses, a skill that is sure to pay off when he selects his Mongolian mounts for the derby.

Longest race is on
Averaging 10 horse endurance races a year Nelzen most recently rode for the Al Kamda royal family in the desert of Dubai, UAE, where he placed fourth in a 100-mile race on an Arabian he had never ridden. But the Mongol Derby is more than 630 miles, tracing one of the 13th century routes Genghis Khan’s supply and communications carriers used — an ancient pony express. Will Nelzen’s experience be enough to carry him over the finish line? Will it be enough to give him the win? He definitely thinks so.

“Last year’s winner finished the race in eight days, I am hoping to do the same or better,” Nelzen said. “But my concerns are not really about my abilities — the Marine Corps trained me well — as much as they are about what I don’t know.”

On the “don’t know” list are sleep, environment and the 25 horses Nelzen will be given to ride. The tradition of Khan’s massive network of horse stations, called the Morin Urtuus, will be implemented for the race. Hosting Mongolian families offering a fresh mount along with a meal of mutton and mare’s milk will be identified every 30 miles or so along the yet-to-be-announced derby route. Because contestants may ride from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. there is no guarantee Nelzen will be at a host family’s yurt at the end of each raises.

You will be responsible for the welfare of the 25 horses you are provided with between one Urtuu and the next/

“If I sleep out, the major concern is wolves and feral dogs and I understand there are horse thieves who would like to steel our mounts,” he said. “The temperature is also a factor. While it gets to upper 80s and 90s during the day, it falls into the 40s at night.”

If the countryside and route don’t offer enough challenge and history then the horses supplied for the derby certainly do. Decedents of the horses that gave Khan and his warriors superior advantage over their enemies and helped establish the Mongol Empire, make up the pool of more than 200 horses the derby supplies.

“This is a land where horses outnumber people seven to one,” Nelzen said. “They are practically worshiped by the people there.”

Riders will get a fresh mount at each station choosing from a collection of the Mongolian horses on a first-come, first-served basis.

“I hope I’ll get there first, have a good selection and be able to choose a good horse,” Nelzen said.

Imagine sizing up a 13-hand, almost pony-sized horse in minutes considering size, confirmation, overall health and disposition — all this without a test drive. Described as being tougher than Rambo on steroids, the small native mounts are a far different ride than the floating Arabians. The Mongolian horses are tightly coupled with eight speeds rather than the familiar four gaits of most horses. While Nelzen is confident of his riding skills, he prays the steeds he rides will be as fast as the Arabians he

Before you agree to partake in the Mongol Derby please carefully consider the following. When we talk about horse riding, we mean riding a series of unfamiliar horses across wild Mongolian terrain. By taking part in this race you are greatly increasing your risk of severe physical damage. You could break limbs, suffer internal injuries and become paralyzed or even die. Whilst much of the website may be written in a light-hearted manner please do not underestimate the extreme nature of the Mongol Derby.

Here are just a few statistics about riding and some facts about the Mongol Derby.

You are twenty times more likely to have an accident on a horse than a motorbike.

Air ambulance crews had to be scrambled to help the victims of serious riding accidents in rural UK counties Yorkshire and Lincolnshire alone nearly 150 times in 2006.

Falls from horses can result in broken bones, spinal injuries, even brain damage.

The nature of the Mongol Derby means that if you do fall off, the response time of the medical back up is going to depend on where you are and if you have been able to activate your emergency beacon. And if you are seriously injured you may be hundreds of miles from the nearest hospital.

The Mongol Derby is an extremely physically demanding and dangerous race. This really is the toughest horse race in the world and that is a title it holds for good reason.
August 7, 2010 Justin Nelzen raced in the Mongol Derby, the Worlds Longest Endurance Race...and WON! The Mongol Derby is a 1000km (630 mile) race across Mongolia. There are no marked trails and little help as international competitors make their way across the country side with only their gps and their wits to get them through it. Justin was among the first Americans to ever be invited to attend the derby. This page is dedicated to his journey across Mongolia.
2010 Mongol Derby champion, Justin Nelzen's interview before the start of the derby:
Interview with Justin Nelzen moments after winning the 2010 Mongol Derby
Trailer from the 2009 Mongol Derby which prompted Justin to apply for the 2010 derby. Not just any rider can race in the Derby. There is an intense screening process where international riders are chosen from a pool and narrowed down to a select few.
(Follow-up Story to the Mongol Derby after Justins win)

By Tana Ross Houston Community Newspapers

In June 33-year-old Justin Nelzen of Magnolia said he was going to ride the Mongol Derby to win it, and last month he did just that.

On Aug. 14, Nelzen crossed the finish line after spending a grueling eight days in the saddle covering 1,000 kilometers or more than 630 miles. With only three years of endurance horse racing under his belt the former Marine turned adventurist may have surprised some but not his mom.

“Since he was in Little League, Justin has always had a mind-set to win,” his mother, Tami Horton, said. “He would ask us what he needed to do, then go out and do it.”

The win
Nelzen is calm and gracious about winning the world’s longest horse race based on 13th century Genghis Khan carrier routes. He even calls second-place rider Saskia van Heeren of South Africa his partner.

“You can’t do something like this alone, you have to have a team,” Nelzen said. “By the third day of the race, for a lot of reasons, Saskia and I teamed up to go the distance. She is a strong competitor.”

Nelzen’s excitement becomes palpable when he recounts the epic race that took him across the wilds of Mongolia testing his survival skills in an extraordinary and demanding adventure.

“I went into it racing, but you get done and realize it is so much more,” Nelzen said.

The beauty of the countryside, called the steppe, combined with the hospitality of rural host families was so prized by Nelzen and van Heeren that they forfeited setting a new seven-day record for the race.

“On the last day we knew the competition was only a station behind — roughly 20 miles. So we rode out, hoping the third place rider would decide to call it quits and spend the night in [sic]. She did, and when we came riding back to our ger (tent), they were all surprised,”

Nelzen said he and van Heeren did not want their experience to end.

“There’s a huge anticlimax at the end. You just want it to go on,” he said. “Everything becomes so simple out in the steppe. You are focused on water, where you are on the route and whether or not you and your partner are doing well physically and mentally. Everything else is gone. I felt like I was in the 13th century”

“Doing well” became a crucial concern on Day 6 of the race when the lead pair ran into a challenge even Khan’s riders would have found difficult. A sudden hailstorm on the flats left the two with nowhere to go, and no way to protect their Mongolian mounts. Riders can be penalized if the prized nomadic horses do not pass their check-ups by station veterinarians. The storm threw Nelzen and van Heeren into near desperation for a long 30 minutes.

“It was a storm best described by Forrest Gump, ‘God showed up and He was mad.’ The native people said it was a torrential downpour of biblical proportions,” Nelzen said.

Not only did they endure and survive the storm but Nelzen and van Heeren managed to cover 40 kilometers (26 miles) in three hours before stopping at their next station. As soon as they were recovered and on fresh mounts the storm threw hail stones at them again.

“I’ve got to give Saskia credit. I asked her what she wanted to do, and she said ‘go on,’” Nelzen recalls “The horses we had for this stretch were true rock stars, they took us to the next station in two hours — that’s over 20 miles, beginning with a hailstorm, and they never stopped.”

The race
The Mongol Derby traverses more than 630 miles of punishing terrain. In the tradition of Khan’s supply and messenger carriers, Derby riders are given fresh horses every 26 miles or less. Descendants of the horses that gave Khan and his warriors superior advantage and helped establish the Mongol Empire make up the pool of 200 horses the Derby provides riders each year.

A network of 24 horse stations or urtuus hosted by nomad families is set up along the 1000-kilometer course. Maintaining the lead and being first to the stations like Nelzen and van Heeren were, meant pick of the herd — a good advantage for riders who know how to select the right mount.

“You learn real fast,” Nelzen said. “The first mount I chose was a stallion. That’s not something you want to do. He was fast then slow, a Naadam horse and they only race 10 to 15 kilometers; we had more than 20 kilometers to go.”

In the end, a theory Nelzen developed during the three days of pre-race training paid off. He would choose horses that showed signs of being ridden a lot, those that actually looked like work horses. On the final day his theory helped win him the race.

“Half the time I would take the horse my host chose, and half the time I would choose one,” Nelzen said. “But on the last day when I saw that their pick for me was a Naadam horse, I knew I didn’t want it. I saw one of the mounts that had taken us through the hailstorm. He had this look in his eye, I chose him and it paid off.”

The finish
Having agreed to finish the last leg of the race together, Nelzen and van Heeren started their final trek at an easy pace, but the deceptive terrain pulled one more trick on them before the end. What looked like flatlands near the finish was actually a series of five to six-foot drop-offs.

“The first one took me by surprise and I had to ride like ‘The Man From Snowy River,’ leaned back in the saddle with my arm in the air for balance,” Nelzen said. “A drop-off like that can be treacherous when it is unexpected.”

With race banners in sight, Nelzen and van Heeren sprinted to the finish line. Nelzen said it was close.

“We took a final look at each other, asked if we were ready, and let the horses go all out. It really didn’t matter who won at this point. Saskia came in just 40 to 50 feet behind me,” he said.

(Yes, thats me on my first horse)
Worlds Greatest Endurance Race