PORT ANGELES — For five years, Ella Mildon has had what some might consider an unusual dream — racing a horse across the empty steppes of Mongolia.
Next month, after years of planning, her dream is coming true.
Mildon, who lives in Joyce with her husband TJ Mueller, has signed up to ride in the Mongol Derby, a 1,000-kilometer-long (620 miles) race over 10 days across some of the most wild and empty country in the world, the 14,000-foot-high steppes of Mongolia.
The Mongol Derby largely recreates the ancient “Pony Express” used by Genghis Khan 800 years ago through the Asian steppes.
Khan’s riders would carry military communications for hundreds and even thousands of miles through staged rides from camp to camp.
This race uses a similar technique. Competitors ride a horse for 25 miles, then switch to a fresh steed for the next 25 miles.
The race, run by a group called The Adventurists, is billed by organizers as the “longest and toughest horse race in the world.” Only 35 riders compete in this ordeal each year.
Participants and their horses must traverse all sorts of terrain — navigating marshes, empty steppes, climbing mountains and fording rivers.
They have to deal with whatever weather is thrown at them at 14,000 feet (and August is the rainy season in Mongolia). A promotional video of the race shows the amazing austere beauty of Mongolia and the rewards and challenges experienced by the riders, including some riders being physically beaten and battered by the race.
Mildon isn’t intimidated. She once rode across the country from New York to Washington alone on a motorcycle. “We’ll see how it goes,” she said.
Mildon has been riding horses most of her life.
“I’ve worked in barns since the end of elementary school,” she said.
She ran a horse-training business and got very involved in eventing (an equestrian event in which a horse and rider compete in three disciplines of dressage, cross-country and show jumping.).
She was working at an eventing barn in Woodinville when she heard about the Mongol Derby. She immediately had an interest in it.
“I was pretty engrossed in the eventing world, I wanted to do something different,” she said.
Mildon said there isn’t a cash reward for winning.
“I keep hoping there’s a secret prize,” she said, but she admitted there probably isn’t.
The reward is the experience of the race itself.
A quote from 2016 rider David Redvers posted on the Mongol Derby website might sum it up best: “It’s a difficult one to sum up in anything other than a short novel. It’s been quite staggering, that it’s quite hard to talk about. It’s been one of the most powerful and inspiring and equally the most draining experience of my life.”
Once Mildon made up her mind to do the Derby, she discovered it would be exceptionally expensive.
It was a “weird struggle” between wondering if she could afford it and wondering if she could dedicate the time to doing it, she said.
“The entry fee [11,375 British pounds — about $14,100] is ridiculous,” she said. She said the organizers are letting her pay in installments of $1,700 a month.
Then, there is the travel. Mildon said she spent a whole night matching up flights to find the cheapest routes to and from Mongolia. She found some good deal on flights from Everett to California to Beijing, then to the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar. She is flying back from Ulaanbaater to Seoul, then back to the U.S.
It will take her 36 hours to get from Washington to Ulaanbaater, but she said she got a couple of cool 6-hour layovers in Beijing and Seoul.
Mildon leaves on July 31. After the day-and-a-half travel time, she’ll spend another couple of days acclimating to the 14,000-foot elevation. It could be particularly hard for her living at sea level.
“I’ll do some walking around for a couple of days to see if I can breathe,” she said.
Also during those first couple of days, the riders will be given the chance to become familiar with their steeds. Mildon said they’ll get a crash course in how to communicate with their Mongolian horses. These are small, semi-wild horses and much different from the show horses she’s familiar with.
“They’re super hardy. They won’t ever trip … they know where all the potholes are,” she said. Basically, the riders will just “point them in the right direction and let them go.”
However, the riders will also be taught to respect the horses and not run them too hard.
“Their horses are their livelihood [in Mongolia],” she said. “These people are giving us their time and a whole lot of effort.”
Though this is an actual race, there’s a lot of cooperation among the riders. “It is a race, but realistically, we’re pulling for each other.”
In addition, the race will have Mongol support riders and the Mongol people are known to be friendly to the riders.
“If you break down, a nomad will come along and help you,” she said.
Each stage averages roughly 100 kilometers a day with 25 staging areas along the route.
It’s a daytime-only race. At night, the riders have to find a place to sleep and rest their horse. It might be at one of the race stage centers or simply camping out on the steppe somewhere. Or, they might have to find a place to stay with a local family. All the riders will carry cards written in Mongolian explaining that they’re with the Mongol Derby and asking if they can spend the night.
Riders will also be given local currency in case they want to treat themselves to snack or sodas when the race route goes through towns.
Riders are also encouraged to raise funds for their personal charity. Mildon’s charity is The Outdoor Project, group that encourages people to create their own outdoor adventures. In Mildon’s words, “to teach people that being outdoors in wonderful.”
So, did Mildon’s cross-country ride on a motorcycle prepare her for this next adventure?
“A motorcycle is a little smoother … but similar,” she said.
Sports Editor Pierre LaBossiere can be contacted at 360-417-3525 or [email protected]