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Ride of a lifetime

  • 4 min to read
Ride of a lifetime

You couldn't drag Christine Roberts away from wild horses. She is traveling thousands of miles to be with them, to compete in a world-famous endurance race she hopes to win and to experience something unlike anything she's ever done before.

Roberts will celebrate her 30th birthday by riding semi-wild horses more than 600 miles through the Mongolian steppe and competing in what the Guinness Book of World Records crowned the world's longest horse race.

Roberts, who first started riding horses as a little girl on her parents' farm north of Fruita, is an endurance racer who snagged one of the coveted spots in the Mongol Derby, a unique race chronicled in a documentary called "All the Wild Horses."

On Saturday, her birthday, she already will be on her fourth day of the race, which will take her and the other riders on an unmarked course across Mongolia, the largest landlocked country in the world. The race is a test of horsemanship, athleticism, endurance, navigation and sheer nerve. The course remains secret each year until the race begins, but each year's race pays tribute to Genghis Khan's network of horse messengers who crisscrossed his kingdom.

Roberts, who graduated from Fruita Monument High School in 2006 and now lives near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, is one of 26 women competing in the race this year. There are also 18 men, and the competitors are from all corners of the world, with riders hailing from 12 countries, according to The Adventurists, the British company organizing the race.

The race is incredibly competitive for a number of reasons, including the fact contestants ride Mongolian horses that aren't accustomed to being ridden. During the race, they change horses at different checkpoints, and must keep the horses' welfare in mind. Horses with saddle sores, lameness, other injuries or high heartbeats that don't recover within 30 minutes of arrival at a checkpoint earn the riders penalties and they lose time on the race.

The possibility of getting bucked off and injured by a wild horse, as well as other hazards a rider might encounter along the route, add more elements of danger to the race. Hazards could include wolves on the steppe, packs of dogs used for livestock by herders, geographical challenges such as rivers that must be forded, and unpredictable weather and no water for long stretches of the race.

The horses, owned by Mongol herders who live on the steppe, are rounded up for each leg of the race. The Mongol horse is a smaller, pony-sized horse, but they have a reputation for being spirited and tough.

"They're small, hardy and feisty," Roberts said. "They're semi-feral, and they have to be able to survive out there, so they need to be a bit wild."

Riders who arrive at the checkpoints before their competitors have first pick of their next ride, which can be a real advantage. Choosing the right horse is something experienced riders like Roberts know is vital. A horse might be fast, but if it has a crazy-eyed look and spooks easily, things can turn out badly.

She knows these horses won't be like her own horse, an Arabian mare named Belle born nine years ago on the farm near Fruita. Roberts bottle-fed Belle with goat's milk, after her mother died only weeks after her birth.

The wild Mongolian horses aren't likely to be so friendly, and Roberts will ride as many as 30 different horses during the race, switching them out at the various checkpoints, which are spaced about 25 miles apart.

The Mongol Derby is a dangerous event in which riders have been injured, breaking collar bones or vertebrae during falls or suffering from heat stroke or gastrointestinal problems requiring them to drop out of the race. But Roberts isn't afraid of those things and said she's as prepared as she can be for the unpredictable.

Roberts has plenty of experience racing horses over long distances. She has competed in numerous races where she rode up to 100 miles in a 24-hour period. She also has a 100 percent completion rate in her races and has logged about 500 competition miles.

Roberts will be allowed a pack with 11 pounds of gear, which filled up fast with contents including a first aid kit, rain jacket, lip balm, water-treatment tablets, some Crystal Light powder to improve the water taste, electrolytes and a nutritional supplement called GU, an energy gel that endurance racers use. She managed to cram in a toothbrush and toothpaste she dehydrated to save on grams, but she isn't taking a hairbrush.

She doesn't plan on wasting time eating during the day. Roberts also has some seamless compression shorts to help with the chafing issues riders have from being in the saddle for hundreds of miles.

She's most excited to experience the Mongol culture and see how people live in remote locations in yurts with no electricity or contact with the modern world. She doesn't speak any Mongolian, but has a "cheat sheet" of phrases ready and is looking forward to experiencing the locals' hospitality, should she need it.

The riders must plan their stops at night, as they're only allowed to ride until a certain time each day. She's plans to sleep in yurts at the checkpoints where there will be traditional Mongolian foods for dinner and breakfast, but she is taking a sleeping bag just in case she runs out of time and must camp on the steppe. Some riders also stop at "gers" on the route, the traditional round Mongolian homes where families will take them in for the night.

She's not worried about the navigation, as she has a GPS system, and she's not daunted by the idea of wide-open spaces where she might not see another rider for a whole day.

"It's not scary," she said. "It's not intimidating to me ... I'm fine being out there by myself."

Her parents, Tami and Gary Roberts of Fruita, are incredibly proud of their adventurous daughter who grew up riding horses with her brothers Kevin, Scott and Brian. Her mother, Tami, rode horses when Christine was in utero, so she likes to say Christine has ridden horses since before she was born.

"My mom was a little nervous," Roberts said, but those nerves have since turned into excitement. The Roberts family will follow the race online like the rest of the world, tracking Roberts' movements marked by little dot indicating her GPS position. The race begins Wednesday and spectators in the Colorado should remember that Mongolia is 14 hours ahead of local time. The race officially ends on Aug. 17, although in past races the fastest riders have finished in seven days.

Riders in the Mongol Derby also are required to raise about $1,500 for charity, and Roberts selected the Oscar Mike Foundation, a nonprofit that helps disabled veterans. Donations can be made through her website, robertschristine.com.

Being chosen to compete in the Mongol Derby is a big deal, as Roberts was selected after she applied, completed a phone interview and paid the $13,000 initial race fee, which doesn't include flights, lodging, international health insurance or gear.

"I've been saving for this for years," she said.

Sometimes she tells people about the race and they wonder if she's a little crazy, and they ask her why she's doing it. They wonder what kind of person would travel so far to do something so hard.

"I want to see what I'm capable of, how far I can push myself," Roberts said. "When I'm waking up in the morning and I'm tired and sore and hungry, and I don't want to get up, can I do it?"

"You have to get out of your comfort zone," she said.

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