The 10-day, 1,000-kilometer adventure of Mary Donohue ’13
“I was in KDS (Kappa Delta Sigma) at St. Lawrence,” says Mary Donohue ’13, a former member of the Saints riding team. “I told them, ‘I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of a cold dorm, but we literally slept with the windows open in sub-zero temperatures all winter with just a heated blanket.’”
That detail about her St. Lawrence experience is just one of the ways that Donohue convinced the Mongol Derby organizers she was a viable candidate to participate in the 10-day, 1,000-kilometer summer race across Mongolia. “Everyone was like, ‘What? That’s crazy,’” Donohue says with a chuckle, “and I was like, ‘Yeah, it was great.'"
Donohue had heard from several sources over the years about the Mongol Derby, which retraces Genghis Khan’s ancient postal routes with 1,500 horses across 28 stations so that riders can change steeds every 40 kilometers. It wasn’t until a 2019 conversation she had with a neighbor at a dog park in Japan, where she was living with her active-duty husband, that the race became her reality. “We met at the dog park because, you know, animal people always find each other,” says Donohue, who quickly learned her new friend, Krista Carter, was also an experienced equestrian. The conversation took off from there.
A week later, the two women were trying to figure out how to convince organizers that they could apply as a duo. Organizers were trying to impress upon them the severity of the conditions of the race—no bathrooms or showers for 10 days, extreme weather exposure, and challenging mounts and dismounts on Mongolian horses. Organizers called the horses “the intercontinental ballistic missiles of the 13th century…diminutive, sturdy, fearless, wild, and unbelievably tough.”
Undeterred, the two received approvals for openings in the summer 2020 race. Two years of delays later, and with COVID-19 cases on the decline, they purchased their plane tickets, completed boot camp training, and set off to Mongolia, an excursion that involved 10 days, nine nights, 46 riders, and a support team of dozens of officials. Collaborations with locals helped them manage every aspect of the race.
“We only had from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day to go forward,” says Donohue. “You have to budget your time wisely. If you get to a station at five o’clock and it’s going to take about three plus hours to get to the station after that, you have to make a calculation: I have two hours in this day left which I can use to advance. Should I stay at the station, or should I go press on and see if I can find somewhere to stay for the night?” Every chance they could, the duo chose to press on for the night and hoped they would find shelter with a family before the sun went down over the Mongolian steppe.
“The Mongolian people were so inviting and welcoming,” says Donohue, who would show up with her partner out of nowhere. “I had a letter printed out that our hotel had written up for me in Mongolian that said, ‘Hi, my name is Mary. I’m a competitor in the Mongol Derby. Can I stay with you for the night, and can you help me with my horse?’”
“They didn’t really know what to do with us,” says Donohue, but five of the nine nights, the two stayed with local families on the steppe and would text their location to race officials. Officials would show up a few hours later with a translator who could answer any questions the family may have about the aliens who showed up at their encampment and help the riders thank the families properly for their hospitality. “This was probably one of the coolest parts of the race,” says Donohue.
“Definitely, the best part about the Derby were the horses,” Donohue continues, likening the adventure to her St. Lawrence riding experience. “You pick a horse. You get on it, and you go—no warmup, no having ridden it before.” The wiry, narrow frame of the horses was one of the biggest challenges. “It was very funny coming back. I felt like my horse was a dinosaur. He’s enormous. I was so used to swinging up onto a tiny little thing, so he seemed like an elephant.”
“The race was equal parts affirming and humbling,” says Donohue. “As an equestrian, it felt good to accomplish something of this magnitude. But at the same time, it revealed that there are so many things that I don’t know about horses, the sport in general, and different horse cultures around the world.”
Another takeaway for Donohue was the affirmation of teamwork.
“Krista and I stuck together through thick and thin,” says Donohue. “We started it together. We finished together and helped each other out along the way.”