Not your run-of-the-mill horse derby

Jun. 27, 2014 @ 05:17 PM

Rose Sandler wants to gallop in the footsteps of a conqueror.

Centuries before Pony Express riders thundered across the untamed American West, Genghis Khan established a long-distance postal system using horse messengers in the Mongol steppe.

Since 2009, a group known as The Adventurists has hosted the Mongol Derby. It’s a race that covers 621 miles of rough, marmot-riddled terrain through unpredictable weather, all on the backs of 25 different horses that riders can only hope want to go the same direction as them.

“It’s going to be awesome, life-changing,” said Sandler, a former Rougemont resident who now lives in Culpeper, Virginia, but often visits Durham to enjoy the music scene at places like Motorco.

The race through the Mongolian wilderness was inspired by Genghis Khan’s use of horse stations – known as morin urtuus – to allow messengers to travel the breadth of his empire, from Kharkorin to the Caspian Sea.

At each urtuu along the route, Mongol Derby riders must stop to switch horses and allow veterinarians to care for the ones just coming in from their legs of the journey.

The exact course varies year to year, but the terrain is expected to include high passes, open valleys, wooded hills, river crossings, wetlands, rolling hills, dry riverbeds and open steppe.

In her limited gear, Sandler will carry a GPS tracker so that race officials can follow her progress and make sure that she’s only traveling by day – for the good of the horse, which might get hurt stumbling on terrain in the dark.

It’s a dangerous undertaking, but about par for Sandler’s thirst for adventure, which has taken her glacier climbing in Patagonia and diving on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

“I used to commute on Interstate 95,” Sandler said. “That’s truly terrifying. Scarier than any pony I’ve ever seen.”

She departs for Mongolia at the end of July. Until then, Sandler’s trying to line up sponsors to help raise $20,000 to cover the entry fee and support for charities such as Cool Earth, which aims to help indigenous people in Peru take control of land for preservation, and the Central Virginia Horse Rescue. Sponsorship and contact information can be found on her website at rose4mongolderby.com.

Sandler can’t wait for the challenge that lies ahead. Whether she’ll win the derby or not may be an open question. But she’s got no doubt about crossing the finish line.

“I’m totally going to finish, no question,” she said. “Unless I am literally broken, I will finish.”

Wes Platt can be reached at wplatt@heraldsun.com or 919-419-6684. Follow on Twitter at @HS_WesPlatt. Connect on Facebook at facebook.com/wesplattheraldsun.