It was pure joy galloping across the Mongolian grassland through cold rain and wind, a freedom unlike any other Rick Helson had experienced, a freedom worth the bowel issues to come.
Helson, a public defender from Sweetwater County, had traveled thousands of miles to try his hand at the self-proclaimed toughest horse race in the world. The event’s premise is simple and insane: draw a handful of riders from around the world, supply them with a fleet of semi-wild horses and give them 10 days to race 600 miles across the Mongolian steppe.
“The horses just ran and ran, that was an incredible feeling,” Helson recalled Wednesday, safely back in his Rock Springs office. “They just have heart like you haven’t seen.”
Helson had few expectations when he arrived for the race, modeled after a postal route created by Genghis Khan in the year 1224. Competitors even ride the same small, sturdy breed of horses that carried Khan to victories across the continent.
“I’m just old enough to know that it’s not going to be like I expect,” the 59-year-old said with a chuckle.
The idea to take on the race came to Helson a few years ago after a friend sent him a link to a National Geographic story about the event. This year, he decided to apply to the race, which is organized annually by a British company called the Adventurists. When he was accepted, he went to work preparing for the adventure.
Completing the race, Helson knew, would take a combination of training, grit and, most importantly, luck.
He tackled the first requirement with vigor. For months, he worked with a personal trainer to get in shape and lose weight. He took riding lessons on his grey Quarter Horse mare, the first horse he learned to ride just seven years ago. He learned about endurance riding, a sport far different than the ranch work with which he was more familiar.
Then, at the beginning of August, he left for Mongolia.
After arriving at base camp, Helson and the other riders spent three days practicing navigation and learning to ride the horses. The classes were meant to prepare the riders as best as possible, though the event’s website warns potential participants that the “chances of being seriously injured or dying as a result of taking part are high.”
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“But there were no guarantees,” he said.
His first horse in the race seemed determined to prove that true. While many of the horses he rode preferred to run at full speed at all times, the first one simply refused to move quickly. At one point, the horse simply stopped and then proceeded to roll over with Helson still on board.
Other riders throughout the race faced similar acts of equine defiance, the competition’s blog shows. One got kicked in the face. Others had to dismount and walk their horses for miles when the animals refused to be ridden. Multiple competitors lost their horses — and gear — altogether when their steeds took off riderless. One rider went without stirrups for nearly 25 miles.
Unfortunately, Helson’s luck did not hold and race organizers pulled him from the competition halfway through the second day due to dehydration and hypothermia. He had picked up a bacteria during his time in country and it was creating chaos in his bowels.
“I was very disappointed, but I was just rational enough to recognize that it was for the best,” he said. “I knew going into it that it was one of the possibilities.”
Organizers did allow him to ride again on the ninth day of the competition. Along with a few others who were disqualified from the race, he rode about 75 miles while accompanying competing riders during their final miles. While the group was competitive, everybody wanted to help each other out, he said.
“We’d rather see them finish than not,” Helson said.
After a celebratory night of bonfires and vodka, Helson and the others started their journeys home.
In the end, it certainly was worth it, Helson said. But it’s unlikely he’ll attempt the Mongol Derby again.
“There are so many other things to do out there,” he said.