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  • Writer's pictureEmmelia Potts

How not to train for the Mongol Derby.

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

Racehorses on the gallops
Training on the racehorses for the Mongol Derby

A few notes and tips from my training in 2022 and early 2023 (or lack thereof) for racing across 1000km of Mongolian landscape. If you are thinking about participating in future years and you want a head start, here is how not to do it.

Time Flies (April 2022 - August 2022)

I received my acceptance email in April 2022. After dancing around the work office for 10 minutes I calmed down and got excited about all the planning

Jumping a horse
Blissful ignorance, also known as Dillon

I had to look forward to. I went overboard and put together a training plan, a riding plan and a finance plan to ensure I could cover all the remaining costs.

The only one of these that got actioned was the finance plan. Excellent, I could afford to go but riding and fitness may have been left by the wayside.

In the back of my mind, I had well over a year and I had trained for ultra marathons and triathlons in less time which relied on me actually going the distance. Surely riding horses would not need more time? So I lived in blissful ignorance over summer doing the standard riding of my (very easy and bombproof) horse and occasionally riding other horses at the stables, enjoying leisurely summer jaunts. All was well in the world of blissful ignorance.

Excuses, Excuses

Excuse 1. In 2022 I moved home, which has taken up a lot of my time. Riding and the gym were pushed to the wayside. However, watching the Mongol Derby races over that summer I was inspired to at least go and join the local gym. I did this but again it was a nice swim or an enjoyable weights session rather than hammering the cardio.

Excuse 2. Much time was spent nurturing a fairly new relationship that for the first time in my life I wanted to work and saw a future with. Afraid of letting this vanish I put it as a priority, something I do not regret at all. However, in the eyes of Mongol Derby training ... still an excuse of sorts. After all, going on nice dinner dates is a bit more appealing than riding in the freezing cold rain!

Finally, I started a new job in 2022 which took up a lot of time and meant 4-6 hours of commuting every day depending on where in the country I was. A bit of a change from my 2-hour commute each day. Excuse 3

It appeared that grown-up life was happening all around me. For previous sporting ventures and goals, I had been working part-time or had a small commute for full-time positions, been fairly single and lived at home. Time was always on my side previously, but now it was not. I had convinced myself that life would settle down eventually and I could focus solely on training. Realistically, this was just burying my head in the sand even more.

The bare minimum (August 2022 - September 2022)

I continued to gym and ride in a manner that resembled a panda waiting for its evening feed rather than the women possessed I had adopted in the past. "This is fine" I would tell myself, "it is laying a foundation for progression". Whilst in part this is true, the foundation laying is not meant to take 5 months. Whoops.

Pony jumping on a sponsored ride
Pretending to train on a Cross Country ride on the lovely Kid
It takes all sorts (September 2022 - October 2022)

One of the biggest things that resonated with me from the interviews for the Mongol Derby was from Erik, who told me riding as many different horses as possible was the best way to prepare for the tenacity and uncertainty of the Mongolian horses.

With this in mind, I started asking Karen Jewell (who is the trainer at the racing yard where I keep my horse) if she had horses I could start riding again, to get a feel for jumping on and off different personalities. This was with a view to start riding the racehorses again as my riding stamina was never greater than when I worked in racing many years ago.

I would take my Dillon out on his usual hacks and pop over fences, ride the event and livery horses

Horse riding lesson
Riding Vouge in a lesson with Karen Jewell. Starting to take it a bit more seriously

in the school, take one of the livery ponies out on cross-country training days, have a lesson on Karen's showjumper and take the odd "easy" racehorse around the track for a spin. I was, at last, doing something productive towards training and riding different types of horses and jumping on horses I had never sat on before was really helping the "just get on with it" mentality.

However, deep down I knew it was not enough. I was building up stamina gradually but I was still tired after riding a few horses in a row. I needed to be pushed.

Just as this realisation hit I went on a 2-week cruise, ate all the food and gained a lot of weight. Whoops.

Realisations part 1 (October 2022)
  • I needed to ride trickier horses, in trickier situations. Not just easy horses in the school.

  • I needed to ride longer hours but also more extreme riding for longer periods of time. Not just hours of trotting around fields.

  • I was rather unfit despite the increase in hours of riding.

  • With riding technique, if you stop using it you lose it. I realised this when I moved away from the hacking and back into the school and on the racehorses. True, riding is like riding a bike, you do not forget how to ride per say but the fine-tuning goes out the window as does the stamina and flexibility, ultimately making your riding worse. Mentally you know what you should be doing, you just can not quite physically do it justice.

Boot camp (December 2022)

Christmas holidays are the perfect time to partake in an intense kick-up the arse as there is a week of no work commitments. I put everything aside for 5 days with a full commitment that this would be for riding and working in the racing yard. I downloaded the Equilab app to track the hours I was riding etc and got to work.

Day 1

Two racehorses around the track.

1 livery/retrained racehorses in the school.

Hack out my Dillon for an hour.

Felt fine and it was nice to be out and about for a few hours on various horses.

Day 2

3 racehorses around the track.

Hacked out Dillon after.

Still felt okay, a bit tired from getting up early but nothing serious!

Day 3

3 racehorses around the track.

2 livery/retrained racehorses in the school.

Hacking out 2 ponies afterwards, one of which was Dillon.

Beginning to get blisters on my calves from the track work.

Day 4

3 racehorses around the track in rain and wind.

1 livery/retrained racehorse in the school.

Hacked out Dillon afterwards.

My calf rubs were very sore and blistering. My muscles were aching but nothing too bad.

Day 5

5 racehorses around the track. All in foul weather.

Hacked out Dillon after.

Seriously sore and aching. Rubs on my calves had erupted and puss and blood were dripping down my leg when the boots were removed. Note to self, find a solution for this!

Felt battered but content that I had managed 5 lots of racehorses (even if I was exhausted on the last one) and on watching videos back from October there is improvement in posture, balance and flexibility.

Realisations part 2 (December 2022)
  • How unfit I still was from the aching of the past 5 days.

  • How quick you can build stamina if you push yourself.

  • How little time left there is to train.

  • How much you ache after 5 days riding

  • The realisation of blisters and sores and trying to ride with them. Having them freshly open up every day was horrendous.

  • How much I want to be able to do pre-Mongolia such as:

  1. Have my flexibility back,

  2. Riding stamina at full throttle,

  3. Strength endurance in the gym improved significantly,

  4. Balance to be as good as it possibly can be both in the gym and on the horses,

  5. Running and cycling distances for cardio at a high capacity.

The ultimate kick up the arse (January 2023)

Aching and sore from the 5 days of Christmas riding I was laying in bed feeling mortified with myself that I had let it get this far. I was 7 months out and the most unfit I had ever been. What on earth was I doing?

Horse racing
Riding Smartie the racehorse.

I had a mini meltdown. Fortunately, Ben (the rather fabulous boyfriend) talked some sense into me, encouraging me to stop dwelling on what I had not done and to focus on what I could still do in the time provided. Support systems in any training program are of the utmost importance, a separate blog on how to rally yours around you will follow!

We sat down and figured out the time left, noted areas I needed to improve and came up with ideas on how to replicate endurance horse riding where I couldn't spend hours at a time on one horse. I had a concrete plan for off-the-yard fitness and was motivated to carry on riding from the previous 5 days of boot camp. For the first time in a long time, I felt motivated that this was doable.

I have now come to terms with the fact life is not a linear fashion movement it is more of a juggle. You will never be able to focus solely on training, life is busy, just find the time. Out of this realisation, the fitness and riding plans I should have probably started in July 2022 were drawn up around my life and put into motion.

February 2023 Double Whoops.

It was going SO well. In January and the beginning of February I rode out before work and went to the gym a couple of times a week. I was motivated and riding the wave of consistency. I was feeling good and my riding was improving. Then BAM, the holiday struck again. This time it was a quick skiing trip so at least I was not sitting still all week. However, I ate and drank and there was no riding or cardio. Mentally I hit a rut when I returned home, believing that I was starting from scratch again. A week of skiing turned into another week of trying to catch up with work and the car dying so no riding and no gym. Two weeks of no training heading into the final 5 months was not ideal...*insert chosen expletive here*

Enter March 2023

Car fixed, riding out before work again possible and work was in more of a routine. "This is it. This needs to be the beginning of no more excuses" I thought. I have always run on optimism and adopted the "it will be alright on the night" philosophy. After all, what is the worst that can happen? This has led to maybe being not as well prepared for races or events as I could have been in the past. Mongolia, I do not think I can run solely on optimism and I do need to give myself a slight kick. However, I am learning not to punish myself for not doing something. Life happens. Life gets in the way. It is the ability to say "oh well that did not go to plan let's try again tomorrow" that gets us through. It will indeed be this mentality that gets me through Mongolia I suspect.

How not to train for the Mongol Derby conclusion:

  • Try not to plan all-inclusive holidays (where you won't exercise) for the year leading up to the race. I gained a lot of weight and lost the fitness and motivation I had built up in the weeks prior.

  • You can not just write a plan down and expect everything to fall into place. You do have to do the things on the plan. Sucks I know.

  • Life is always going to be busy, there is always going to be something else that might be more important. Find the time not the excuses. Cliche as it is " fail to prepare, prepare to fail" is a very real statement, however, if it does all go wrong do not stress and chastise yourself. Just pick yourself up and try again, you are only human!

  • If, like me, you are most productive when induced with fear, try to just force yourself into some intense training for a week or 5 days straight and then you'll get a feel for it and will want to carry on. Once you establish a routine, see some results and feel the familiar feeling of endorphins zooming around the body you will get hooked and become remotivated.

Horse jumping
More cross country on the Kid
  • Excuses are just displays of something not being a high priority on your list. If you find yourself putting training off time and time again try to remind yourself why this is a priority to you. If you have paid for it already then look at the bank statement with the money leaving your account that will make it a high priority again!

  • Feeling unmotivated? Watch videos of the event, look at other competitors' Instagrams, read other blogs for inspiration, write a list, and revise a training plan so it is achievable. Do not do what I did and beat yourself up over the lack of work done so far or you are negatively reinforcing the experience and process. Start fresh and put a positive spin on the training.

  • Try to not do what I did and leave it 5 months out to start training properly and then cram as much in as possible. It will probably work in the long run but I do not envision the next 4-5 months of my life being overly fun!

  • Happy hacking does not count as training for the Mogol Derby. You may think you are covering the hours required but you really aren't. Mix up the disciplines, ride different horses, get to the gym and get some speed under your belt. Variety is the spice of life!

  • DO NOT STRESS. This is meant to be fun so enjoy it! Enjoy trying new exercises, new horses, new riding disciplines, meeting new people, and being put in odd situations. If something does not go to plan try not to worry, talk to yourself as you would a friend, recenter and kick on the next day.

  • If you find you really can not get out of the unmotivated hole of doom, speak to fellow Mongol Derby riders in your race. I have never come across a more supportive, funny and enlightening group of individuals. In amongst the competitive streak (ultimately this is a race after all!) they offer calm, support and humour. You are driven by these people to train from seeing their posts on social media, but if something is not going to plan you know they are there to talk as they are also going through the same battles during the training process.


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