SHSU Endurance Rider Completes The Ride Of Her Life
|SHSU criminal justice major Devan Horn walks her horse around after the finish of the Mongol Derby on Aug. 10. She passed the line first, but because the horse's heartrate was too high, she earned a two-hour penalty and was placed second. —All photos are by The Adventurist / Richard Dunwoody (You can see more of his photos here.)|
For competitive bicyclists, it’s the Tour de France; for the fittest of runners, it’s the Badwater Ultramarathon. For SHSU criminal justice major Devan Horn, it’s the Mongol Derby.
“It’s been a passion of mine for a long time, and I’ve been competing all over the world; I just had to do the longest horse race in the world,” said Horn.
Described as the longest and toughest, the Mongol Derby is a 1000-kilometer (620 miles) multi-horse race across the epic wilderness of the Mongolian steppe.
There is no marked course or guided tour and no scheduled meals or bathroom breaks. Competitors are equipped with nothing more than a GPS system. They start the race on a wild Mongolian horse and exchange it for a new horse every 25 miles through a network of horse stations designed to recreate Genghis Khan’s legendary postal system.
“It’s kind of like a relay race for the horses and the rider is the baton,” said Horn, who finds a little humor as she looks back on the most physically and mentally grueling week of her life.
In April, Horn received the official word that she would get to compete in the 2013 Mongol Derby. Although she had been competing in endurance rides since she was 10 years old, she knew preparing for this race would be different.
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With just four months to get into the best shape of her life, her father, an ultra-marathoner, developed a workout routine of running, swimming, core exercises, and, of course, at least 100 miles in the saddle every week.
She also teamed up with Justin Nelzen, whom she calls the “best possible trainer.” Nelzen lives only 20 minutes from Horn’s Kingwood home and has not only competed in the Mongol Derby but won the race in 2010.
“He helped me prepare for what to expect out there, and he helped me get my body fine-tuned. He is a really tough trainer,” Horn said.
When it was time for Horn to fly halfway around the world to compete, she felt she was in the best physical shape of her life and hoped that she was mentally strong enough for the competition as well.
“I believe this race takes enormous mental fortitude,” she said. “I didn’t train mentally because I knew I could handle 100 miles (the most she would ride in one day), and I really didn’t feel there was any other way that I could train myself mentally.”
Once in Mongolia, Horn took part in pre-race training that involved one day in a classroom learning how to use the navigation system and how to care for potential medical situations. Then she had a few days in the saddle, trying to get a feel for the wild Mongolian horses.
“All of the horses were so different, but they were all wild and in great shape. Some had more energy and were more skilled in keeping their feet and dodging things,” Horn said. “They are not like American racing horses that complete a mile and then they’re done. These horses are used to running 12-32 kilometers without stopping.”
Once it was race time, Horn made it no secret she wanted to win.
“I wanted to be the first person across the finish line,” she said. “Others acted, at first, like they just wanted to finish and then tried to get competitive later.”
Horn and Nelzen developed a strategy that was simple but tough: On day one, Horn was to complete 75 miles as quickly and strongly as she could to see which racers were serious enough to stay with her. They anticipated three or four of the 30 racers would ride alongside her, but Horn was surprised that was not the case.
“On the first day, I did my 75 miles and everyone else did 50 miles. Nobody stuck with me,” she said. “So to my absolute surprise, I found myself running the rest of the race alone. I never expected that; I thought I’d be with other riders.
“Coming out of the first day, everyone was very impressed, and I was pretty impressed with myself as well,” she laughed, still seeming surprised by her accomplishment.
What may have been most impressive is that Horn managed to complete 75 miles despite the heavy rain and hail storms racers had to endure that first day. The rain continued for three days, even causing a flash flood on day two.
Day two proved to be more challenging for Horn, but she doesn’t blame the wet conditions.
“When you’re alone, you are kind of at a disadvantage. You’re tired, stressed and your mental focus dwindles,” Horn said.
On day two, Horn lost a large portion of her lead when she navigated incorrectly. But that doesn’t come close to what she endured on day five.
“In the morning, trying to get on the horse, I got kicked and thrown several feet. Later in the day I got bucked off a horse, and I had to hike six miles to a horse station to catch up with him,” she said. “I got back on him and soon realized I had very bad stomach flu.
“It was a day from hell,” she said. “I could barely ride, but I knew if I got off that horse, I’d regret it for the rest of my life.”
Others encountered similar grueling obstacles, causing half of the 30 competitors to drop out before completing the race.
“There was no point when I thought, ‘I’m going to quit.’ I knew I had to get through whatever bad situation I was in and it would get better,” Horn said. “I did not want to let anyone down.”
“I know that other people had to stop, and I respect their decisions, but I knew it was not an option for me,” she said. “This race is expensive; it’s so far away, and the chances of me being able to get back next year and try again were pretty minimal.”
With true grit and determination, just six and a half days after beginning the toughest endurance challenge of her life, Horn was the first racer to cross the finish line.
What seemed to be a sure victory turned bittersweet when Horn received a two-hour penalty after her horse failed to maintain what was considered a stable heart rate in the allotted time following the completion of the race.
“My horse was ill with an upper respiratory infection; it was very obvious. He had a discharge out of his nose,” she said. “The horse was not overridden or stressed, or in any way in trouble. A lot of people were pretty upset about the penalty, and I was a little sad.”
Horn knew her closest competitor wasn’t two hours behind her, so when British rider Lara Prior-Palmer crossed the finish line an hour after Horn, she was declared winner of the 2013 Mongol Derby.
“Looking back, I realize nothing could have happened at the finish line that could have taken away the victory. I gave that race everything I had, and every day I did my best,” Horn said. “Every day I tried my hardest and I won; no technicality can take away what I achieved.”
When Horn returned to the United States, she spent one day in the hospital being treated for dehydration and is now catching up on some much-deserved rest.
With youth and now experience on her side, one must wonder if she would ever return to Mongolia if the opportunity was available.
“I don’t know,” Horn said hesitantly. “That’s the really honest answer; I just don’t know. I can still remember what it took out of me. Maybe ask me again in a month or so.”
In a month or so, Horn will be well into her senior year at SHSU, contemplating future careers in criminal justice and, of course, reflecting on her summer “vacation,” one that proved to be a life-changing experience.
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