I Entered the World’s Longest, Loneliest Horse Race on a Whim, and I Won

Somehow, implausibly, against all the odds, I became the youngest person and first woman ever to win the Mongol Derby. What made me so sure I was ready, when I was totally unprepared?

Lara Prior-Palmer | an excerpt adapted from Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race | Catapult | May 2019 | 19 minutes (5,344 words)

It was May 2013 when I was cooped up in an attic in Austria, au pairing for a family with six Ferraris. They lived in a converted hotel in the jaws of an Alpine valley.

“Lara? Larah!”

Every morning the mother shrieked my name up the endless floors. “Time to feed the baby!”

I had taken the role to practice my German, but she only spoke in English. My jobs varied from sitting with the toddler to vacuuming up the dead skin that snowed from his father’s bottom.

The family never left their house except to get in their cars, which they kept tucked up in the garage. They viewed their valley through window frames as you would a photograph. So sedentary a lifestyle in such physical surroundings made me itch. At night I hatched plans to creep up the mountain and slide down the other side into Switzerland, yet the mother looked appalled when I so much as suggested running to the church and back.

By the time she sacked me a month later, my body was rusty and yearning for usage. I returned to the silent butterflies of an England on the brink of summer, seeking an experience unlike any I’d had before. In theory, this ought not to have been difficult. The most exciting moment in my eighteen years had been collecting chickens from Dorset on the train and wrapping them up in wine crates for Christmas presents.

The next month, June, marked a year since my release from high school. Fleeing the red bricks had been my dream for years — at fourteen, I had thought of myself as the finished article, ready to either have babies or break free (to where I couldn’t say, though for many years I had been fixated on becoming a burglar). Despite my conviction that more education would poison me like pesticide on a lush forest, I had remained in London until I passed my final exams. Strangely, the dissolution of structure thereafter unnerved me.

What was it about turning into an adult? The color drained from the days and life became a calendar. I floated in a debris of possible dates and implausible plans, with neither the funding nor the fervor to propel me onwards. Friends were busy with jobs or university, inclined to holiday on beaches rather than accompany me to Kyrgyzstan — a place I fantasized about. Meanwhile, I hadn’t heard back from my application to go organic farming in Wales, nor from the orphanage placement in Ethiopia. Dead-end jobs and equestrian competitions came and went. I moved through the month of my birthday without any fixed direction.

It’s easy to forget the thudded moments of hopelessness involved in a journey, one’s deepest difficulties slowly made clear.

It was a warm city day when, for the umpteenth time, I cast my rod into the depths of Google as if the internet might contain my future. After opening and abandoning endless tabs, I brought up the page of a horse race.

The passing London Underground train shook the building as I leaned into the photograph — long-maned ponies streaming over green steppes, space poured wide and free — in Mongolia. The open-voweled sounds of the word matched the freedom the country conjured in my mind. I couldn’t place Mongolia in history, nor could I place it on the map. The magnolia tree outside the window had passed full bloom; its pink petals were turning brown on the pavement. For a while my head merged these two words — Mongolia, magnolia; Mongolia, magnolia.

*

I had spotted the Mongol Derby online many years before, but the entry fee was exorbitant (around $6,000 at the time) and I knew I’d never afford it, at least not until I was towing some dull job along in my thirties. Sadly, the price was now even higher, thirty riders were already signed on, and the entry deadline for the August race had passed. I moved the mouse to quit the page, blinking back to the ponies for a pause.

Here was a truly peculiar invention: a 1,000-kilometer race on twenty-five wild ponies, a new steed for every 40-kilometer stage to ensure the endurance fell on the humans, not the horses. A Pony Express–style format that mimicked Chinggis Khan’s postal system but seemed from afar more like a perfect hodgepodge of Snakes and Ladders and the Tour de France on unknown bicycles. A competition they deemed “the world’s longest and toughest horse race.”

I moved the mouse back into the page and worked out there were seven weeks until the start gun. The entry portal seemed to still be open, despite the deadline having passed.

Mustn’t squish the mole that lives in my heart.

“Apply” — click.

*

Why do humans put so much thought into some decisions yet plunge into others like penguins into freezing ocean? Are we met with a sudden urge to avoid the direct path to middle age and subsequent visions of growing old in a lonely world of cats? I certainly have a fear of falling into the routines of my elders — their eggshell worlds of dangers and do-nots. But maybe I had a simpler desire to settle something unsaid, away from home. Or a longing to be wild and snort about like a horse.

No single reason seems satisfactory. I want to hand myself over to something, but I can’t tell what creates that need to leap nor what decides its timing.

In fact, maybe this was me at age eighteen: a bundle of urges, a series of plunges. I was loud and quick. I thrived on being the loser in the anecdotes I recounted — caught without a ticket on the Underground, shouted at unjustly by an anxious teacher. I bent the world this way and that — schlepping barefoot through London, to school in my pajamas, where I threw pens in class and blurted my frankest thoughts. What, besides a diagnosis of attention seeking, did any of this point to? I couldn’t yet tell.

If the fashion in which I applied to and signed on for the Mongol Derby was characteristically thoughtless, the event itself would, perversely, leave me deep in thought. Grasses and a blue-domed sky. Bodies and wind and rain and pain. Wide, open prairies, and twenty-five ponies saying, Who are you? and Who are we?

By the time I took the return planes to London, words were tumbling out of me. In the writing I could mull the matter over, as a cow ruminates her grass. We had been given ten days to ride twenty-five semiwild ponies a long way around Mongolia. Why the need to go all that way and do such a thing?

*

I am telling a story about myself. There’s a British disease called modesty, which nearly stops me from sharing what I’ve written. After all, this is about an event that seemed to go well. Somehow, implausibly, against all the odds, I won a race labeled the longest and toughest in the world — a race I’d entered on a whim — and became the youngest person and first female ever to have done so. We read of sporting victories in the newspapers, but what about all we cannot see? It’s easy to forget the thudded moments of hopelessness involved in a journey, one’s deepest difficulties slowly made clear.

*

“She is not going to Mongolia, Julia! Julia, do you hear me?”

My father had discovered my plan to ride in the world’s longest horse race and was insistent I wouldn’t go. I listened from the next room as he bellowed at Mum in the kitchen.

“It’s too” — his foot stomped the floor — “opportunistic!”

Dad had encouraged opportunism in the past, but when it came to horses, he was keen for me to steer clear. He often told people how he’d made it a condition of marriage that my mother give up horse riding. Years after the summer of the Derby, I would overhear him shouting at her once more. “Lara’s been to Stanford University, Julia. I am not having her riding horses.”

My father, Simon, is a large-foreheaded man with Victorian characteristics, who grew up alongside his horse-mad sister, Lucinda. He is anti-riding, anti-horses: waste of time, waste of money (and please don’t talk about them at mealtimes). Aunt Lucinda’s Olympic riding career had coincided with their father going into overdraft, while Dad worked long hours in the City. The story of him tying his sister to the oak tree when they were little circulates frequently in the family.

I felt empty in the concrete nowheres. Truly, I only loved the city for letting me leave.

“Julia, are you listening?” I heard him move closer to Mum at the sink.

Lodged in the thicket of my father’s anger, we would often find ourselves flapping with no clear way out. Mum quietly carried on with the washing up. If my father is a man who speaks clearly and interrupts often, my mother can be the catatonic opposite.

“Oh, I like prattling in the background,” she says whenever I tell her she’s mumbling, though she once followed up by saying, “I think I need to go on an assertiveness course.”

Mum is generally taken with the idea of horses (my older brothers used to jest that she married Dad just to get closer to his sister) and had been all wide-eyed when I first mentioned the Mongol Derby to her. Although my father’s fury had me bracing myself, it also summoned a sense of victory, since his anger seemed to speak from a powerlessness. Simon had no way of preventing me from going to Mongolia.

*

It seemed you needed to know how to ride to do this race, but the type of riding you did — the particular discipline — didn’t matter. I couldn’t say I myself had grown up riding — my parents did not ride, nor did my three brothers. Although Aunt Lucinda set me up with lessons when I pleaded for them aged seven, I lived and went to school in the city so horses were confined to Saturdays. More recently I’d been able to try Lucinda’s sport, eventing, but that only required riding for a mere hour or two at a time. A month after my nineteenth birthday, I would arrive in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, to discover that half the Derby competitors were experienced in endurance, which involved riding up to 160 kilometers from dawn until dusk. I had never even heard of such a sport.

*

One of my father’s fears had always been that I might turn out to be a horsewoman like his sister. Unfortunately for him, by my teenage years I sneezed and itched when around the creatures — symptoms of uncontainable excitement rather than an allergy — and could possibly be classified as a pony girl: I dreamed of saucy centaurs. I’d once hallucinated, while sober, an azure blue horse cantering towards me. I was truly taken with the romance of those rolling English parklands where my aunt laid down her horse histories.

Yet my equestrian imagination was tethered to my urban home, a hearty part of me city-slick, London-sly. My schoolfriends and I grew up fast in the capital, leaping across it alone on the Tube and pacing its streets with elastic courage. But I felt empty in the concrete nowheres. Truly, I only loved the city for letting me leave — on Fridays, we eased our way out through darkened traffic jams, arriving centuries later in the village of Appleshaw.

Appleshaw floats in a shallow valley where the tameness of Hampshire stops and the wilds of Wiltshire begin. Weekends there sent me out to make mud-balls with my brothers, walk miles without purpose, and swim away from time. The city basin, tasked with curating our futures, drew us back every Sunday night. My brothers and I slotted into the week as dirty plates do into a dishwasher. The routine days crawled by until the eventual swing back to Appleshaw on Friday, holy Friday.

In this way, privilege had us always on the move, and it shaped me — an in-betweener ungrounded, too spacey for London, too colorful for the country, probably suspended in particles above some motorway between the two. Certainly the M3 has more of me than most places do.

*

Within a week of my application, Katy, the Mongol Derby organizer, returned from plotting the course on the steppe and sent me an acceptance email. I might’ve been gleeful were it not for the phenomenal entry fee. She said most riders had entered the previous year with sponsorship secured. For several nights, I prepared to let the dream decay with the remaining magnolia leaves.

There’s no knowing why Katy gave me 50 percent off when I asked for a discount, nor why she granted another $650 off when I couldn’t afford the halved amount. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I had name-dropped my aunt, Lucinda Green, on my application — Katy turned out to be a “bit of a fan.” Or perhaps it was my opening sentence: I am extremely competitive and want to become the youngest (am 18) person to finish.


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I trotted down to the bank with my head held delusionally high and poured out a lifelong collection of pennies from my checkered plastic pig, hoping they would top up my balance to near enough the asked-for price. Prior to that, I had refused to spend any of my savings, and it’s endearing to me now that I was willing to hand all of it over for a horse race I might not last very long in.

I was expecting quite the holiday — a green steppe stuffed full of feisty ponies, with hunky riders from all over the world. One to trump the sightseeing and sunbathing holidays I was used to. Earlier that year I had wound my way through India, stopping at temples highlighted by a Lonely Planet guidebook, viewing the world through a manicured prism as any good tourist does — but my eyes had run out of space. By the time I applied for the Derby, I was no longer keen on touring the world’s buildings with awestruck stares. My thighs were strong and my heart was raw, yearning for my own motion.

*

“You won’t enjoy it.”

I held my tongue.

“Sure,” the voice on the telephone continued, “it’s phenomenal, but the accidents last year were horrific. Google them.”

It was high July when I rang Lucy, a past competitor. Down the line came factual splatter: broken ribs, amputated finger, cracked pelvises, punctured lung, torn ligaments, broken collarbones. On she went as I watched a ladybird crawl up the lamp at my side: bucking ponies, fraying girths, sicknesses, extreme dehydration, getting lost, not fun, don’t expect fun.

I couldn’t just slump there in that dusty Appleshaw chair and roll my eyes. Mongolia was coming for me in a month.

How many riders finished the race during her year?

“I think thirty-five of us started. . . . Seventeen finished.”

I thanked her and said goodbye, feeling my wrist wilt as I dropped the phone back onto the receiver. I wanted to pull out of the race. Summer had swallowed its charm.

In the kitchen I told my older brother Arthur the news as he traipsed on by.

“Oh my.” He shivered and dashed upstairs, relieved not to be me.

*

I could not pull out of the race — I had paid for it and written letters asking for charitable donations in the name of it — so I let the terror energize me instead. Asked afterwards if I would dare attempt the race again, I’d reply that I could never again be scared enough to do so. The supernatural power of fearing the unknown stunned me into a state of readiness. With four weeks to go, I launched my attack.

Although my application claimed I’d been riding five horses a day, this was fiction. I had been au pairing the toddler in Austria.

“Never too late,” declared Mum as she poured herself another cup of tea.

I volunteered at the local stud, where I began riding three or four horses a day. I also started playing tennis again and running farther than usual. It is a horse’s habit to pace about when she feels a storm approaching. Winding herself up seems to ready her for the coming saga. Now that I’ve forgotten the accompanying terror, I long for the manic flurry of those July days, hopping from horse to horse as I edged towards the race. The whole affair indulged my existence.

Although my application claimed I’d been riding five horses a day, this was fiction. I had been au pairing the toddler in Austria.

Bartramia, a small and racy gray, was the closest creature to a Mongolian pony I could find at the stud. I rode her through all the valleys — even rode her bareback once. Her canter quickened as my calves clung to her full-moon tummy, my boots ripping through the knee-high ragwort. Onwards she flew, a wood ahead, no sign of slowing.

“Woah!” I shouted into the wind at her ears — could I bear this for 1,000 kilometers? “Woah now!”

At the last second she jinked left, braking on the turn as my chest jolted over her shoulders, leaving me hanging on with my thighs as she picked up her gallop again, on up the hill along the rim of the woods.

This was the terrible thrill. Come August I would encounter it atop twenty-five wilder ponies, free of the tightly bound English fields. Our Mongolian ponies would be the descendants of Genghis Khan’s famed Takhi horses, who shouldered his empire’s postal system from the thirteenth century onwards. Their speed allowed letters from Siberia to arrive in Poland within twelve days, though our ride wouldn’t go beyond the border of Mongolia’s green oasis — a wide island surrounded by the Gobi Desert to the south, the barren Altai Mountains to the west, and the freezing wastelands of Siberia on the northern border with Russia.

I had begun to notice how the idea of Mongolia made many a Brit go quiet. I don’t think the reason is Genghis Khan as much as the void in our history. Where British culture has not forced its influence, we tread carefully, sensing a different lay of the land. England was crafted by roads and fields, flooded with a web of happenings with which I was familiar. The steppe would strip all this away.

*

The race was set to begin on August 4. In the first week of July, the organizers sent me a month-by-month “Your Year of the Derby” calendar. They had sent this to everyone else at the beginning of the year, since they had applied on time. We were advised to assemble our gear in February, get vaccinated in April, commence language-learning in May, use July to visit relatives and update our wills, and devote the entire year to training.

Maggie, an endurance-riding specialist, had apparently been sending handouts on fitness, navigation, horse pacing, and hydration. “You’ve missed those now and it’s too late for you to be training anyway. You can’t get fitter in the final two weeks,” she stated on the telephone. I gulped and clung closer to the daft resistance within me.

The month-by-month calendar from the organizers read: You could do all your preparation in July if you have unusually low blood pressure — no? Thought not.

I do happen to have low blood pressure, and a low heart rate. Perhaps that would help. When I was small and we measured our vital signs in class, Mrs. Bleakley said my results meant either I was an athlete, or I was nearly dead, or I couldn’t count. Likely the latter — despite being a decade older when I entered the race, I still struggled with numbers and time.

July rolled by. I researched all the race’s sore statistics and found that Lucy was right. Every year just over half the field made it to the finish. No woman had ever won the Derby, nor had a Briton. South Africans tended to triumph. The youngest person ever to cross the finish line had been twenty-three.

*

Beneath the plane window the steppe folded in green waves. As we descended, white tents appeared at valley mouths, met by colorful tin-roofed houses flowing down the gullies towards gray high-rises. The plane let me out in Ulaanbaatar, 8,000 kilometers away from home.

Through the taxi glass I saw fragments of a city. Men in big coats curled around fires, denim-clad figures spilled into the traffic. Small-windowed blocks stood alongside nomads’ tents at the outskirts; farther in, Soviet architecture leaned into slicker glass structures. By now there was no sign of the steppe. The only hint of horses rested on the tögrög — the Mongolian currency — that I handed to the taxi driver: wild-maned ponies cantered off the banknote edges.

*

At four the next morning I sat sleepless in a hotel room among bloated white pillows. Delving into my suitcase, I pulled out a collection of tangled ropes and confused penknives that had spent their lives dormant in my brothers’ drawers. There was also a copy of The Tempest, which I had taken no interest in at school, but after leaving found myself diving into for comfort. Shakespeare speaks another language, yet I never needed to know the whole meaning to be moved by the sounds — Caliban’s “I cried to dream again” moves me to real tears.

My eleven-year-old self, on the other hand, did not spare the play a thought — I was pursuing real commotion. There was nothing like the sound of Mr. Thompson’s angry voice soaring. “Get out,” he’d shout, when he caught me whisper-giggling. “I said, ‘Get. Out.’” In the wasteland of the corridor I would lean against the wall while the pink in my cheeks faded, unaware that in the play I’d left on my desk were a series of rebellions I might have admired.

Now I lay on the floor of that sublimely square hotel room ripping out soliloquies and gluing them into my flimsy Winnie-the-Pooh notebook. I imagined they’d live out the race in my backpack and might lift me out of any lows. U just have to get through the pain with . . . poetry, Mum had written in an email that midnight, British Time.

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.

*

The following morning, competitors met for the first time. Stuffed into a corporate room in the city, ours was a silence of not quite wanting to begin. Horses seem to do these things better. On meeting, they amble and sniff bottoms. Sometimes they squeal.

In the 1930s, John Steinbeck embarked on a scientific research trip to the Sea of Cortez. Reflecting on his fellow crew members, he wrote, “None of us was possessed of the curious boredom within ourselves which makes adventurers or bridge players.” Were we a handful of those people who cannot sit still? Or were we all seeking the great death? I believe we sought some kind of oblivion. The characters in The Tempest leap from their sinking ship in a “fever of the mad.”

Maybe we desired a heroic proving. I was aware there were people in the world who classified themselves as adventurers, inhabiting the realm of the extreme, dog-panting for epics and gagging for photos in Gore-Tex. I didn’t know how many were here, or whether I was about to become one. The “longest, toughest” superlative had surely appealed to many, though I’ve conveniently erased from memory whether or not it had been a draw for me personally. What would my eleven-year-old self think of me buying into such a constructed adventure?

*

As the hello-how-are-yous of the crew piled onto one another, I spotted Maggie, the race steward, at the head of the room under mattresses of curly red hair. In a phone conversation two weeks prior, she’d told me that I “frankly” didn’t sound prepared. She was not to take me seriously until the finish line, and even then her eyes would search me with the same unconvinced look, a shock that I’d ever made it beyond the borders of my mother’s vegetable patch.

The day was made up of a series of briefings on the race. The veterinarians explained horses’ hydration levels, gut sounds, lameness protocol, and heart rates. Pushing horses too hard would lead to elevated rates. The rules imposed a two-hour penalty or race expulsion if a horse’s heart rate remained above 64 beats per minute for a period longer than forty-five minutes after the end of each leg.

“Look — after — your — horse,” concluded the Scottish vet.

It seemed simple enough, though it hadn’t crossed my mind you could take a horse’s heart rate, let alone how four hours’ exercise might change that rate.

U just have to get through the pain with . . . poetry.

During a break, the paramedic handed out medical forms. I didn’t meet his gaze as I handed the paper back to him, uneasy about its incompleteness. Aunt Lucinda is a stickler for eye contact. If I manage to look her in the eye when she’s telling me off, she congratulates me later (such is her stick-and-carrot formula), but I find focusing difficult.

“I haven’t had a rabies vaccine. I’m sorry. I’m not sure what these other ones are.”

His mouth opened. Apparently the steppe was teeming with rabid dogs. I’d not had time for the recommended vaccinations before departure.

“Not even hepatitis A?”

Was that a sexually transmitted disease? I slunk away.

Bureaucracy flapped on like a beached fish — riders weighed, papers signed, headshots taken. By the lunchtime talk, “Rules of the Race,” the room understood itself a little better. The Derby (they went on) was an unsupported one-stage race, but riding would be limited to the hours between 7 a.m. and 8:30 p.m., outside of which we’d be penalized. Positions were policed by rider satellite trackers, which would also allow people to follow the race on the internet. There was no set route, only twenty-five obligatory horse-changing stations, where we would choose our next steeds. Those stations changed every year, and the course had been kept secret until today, when we were handed map books with wiggly red lines on each page.

By the time Maggie and Katy, the organizer who discounted my entry fee, leaned back in their armchairs and opened the floor for questions, I had grown comfortable enough in my seat to share some qualms. I raised an arm and waited.

“Will anyone be waking us up in the mornings?”

My voice was meek, as if I’d emerged from a breathless swim in a chlorine pool. These voices — the chlorine edition is just one — bring themselves up from my internal cellar and pour forth, unfiltered.

The room cackled more with amazement than amusement. They didn’t know my alarm clock was an untrustable brand of wristwatch from a French supermarket. The panel, including Maggie, barely answered. “One fool can ask more questions than ten wise men can answer” — so says a Mongolian proverb.

My tongue asked the next question without me. “If you’re with a partner and one of you falls, can you both ride one horse?” Heads swung around. I vacated my face as though my words weren’t intentional. I wanted to feel out the limits of this strange race. The panel admitted to having no rule against my proposition. As usual, I could sense everyone else in the room but had no grasp of myself — not of how I appeared, nor of what I might do next. Pixie mode is automatic, a relic from school, released to tickle any uptight armpits in a room. She was born, this pixie inside me, in response to an atmosphere of seriousness.

On she went, wondering aloud, “So you could do the whole thing in a truck? With each of the twenty-five ponies successively loaded into the boot?”

Frowns met frowns, a few stragglers laughing. In this way, the beginning quickly slipped from my control. That the great race was a bit ridiculous — that we were in danger of forgetting this — was the idea hiding behind my questions, but those questions probably just prompted other riders to decide I was delusional. Never mind. The following day would cast us into the grasslands.

*

We move to the start line, tensed upon our horses, talking at their ears. There are stories of carnage at past race starts — ponies celebrating the gathering by flinging their backs and disposing of their riders. The pony I’m on doesn’t seem the type for such theatrics. He walks in a trance, his tail swishing against space, sights of grass. So much to eat, so little time. Is that what they all think? He sighs.

Ahead on the plain a blue banner hangs from leaning stumps: WELCOME BRAVE RIDERS. It’s a brittle sight. I am not brave, am actually very jittery — scared of the dark in the yard at home, always creeping through it in the gait of a chicken. Then again, I’m tired of the hype. Even here on the start line, I only half believe the stories about the race being so awful. A part of me is looking back up at the world from its underbelly, saying Come along, don’t be scared, there’s nothing down here, like Dad used to say from the cellar, even if it was full of deadly winter frogs.

*

We congregate around a red-robed lama, or “high priest,” who sits cross-legged on the grass. When he begins chanting a blessing for our journey, we try to hold the ponies still but they’re fidgeting in reaction to our nerves. Todd is slurping water at my side. Bubbles slip up the plastic tube from his backpack to his mouth. He radiates the smell of last night’s beer. Around us are the other twenty-nine riders. I feel the steppe inspect us: a curious bunch, a motley crowd, a sea of legs dropping from horse tummies. In one of her text messages, Aunt Lucinda worried that my long legs would drag on the ground from a Mongolian pony. She suggested I purchase roller skates to protect my feet.

My aunt and I did not part on the best of terms. The day before she went to Austria, I decided to rub some sweat off her horse’s tummy while she was near his head, which upset him enough to bite her boob. She got cross. I think she was in large amounts of boob-specific pain. I felt bad. In Ulaanbaatar, I received a wordless email from her, with a photo of a pink-and-purple breast in the attachment. The subject line instructed me not to share it with anyone else.

Some minutes into the chant, my gray pony begins dancing his hooves. A giggle ricochets down my body. I turn him away and see Matthias splatted out on the ground. Above him stands his confused pony — What little effort, for such results. The lama in red chants on, unaware. To the rescue strides the British doctor assigned to monitor competitors. He picks his way through the ponies, moving to the glory of his bristling beard, and leans down to inspect the wilted Matthias, while the Scottish head vet marches in to catch the loose pony. It kicks him. He rebounds with a pained vowel, muffling his whelp so as not to interrupt the lama.

Twelve minutes of chanting quietens us, though most riders don’t know quite what has been said — as far as I’m aware, none of us understands Tibetan. I have a verdant urge to explode into the plains. There’s an umbrella planted at an angle ahead, absurd in the midmorning heat. If ultra-trained Matthias is already on the ground, I’ve no hope of making it beyond the horizon line. So I’ll be the first past that umbrella and at least begin the race with a win.

“Shall we give o’er and drown?” says the Boatswain in The Tempest. “Have you a mind to sink?”

10 a.m.

Bang.

* * *

Lara Prior-Palmer was born in London in 1994. She studied conceptual history and Persian at Stanford University. In 2013, she competed in the 1,000-kilometer Mongol Derby in Mongolia, sometimes described as the world’s toughest and longest horse race, and became the first woman to win the race, and the youngest person ever to finish. Rough Magic is her first book.

Longreads Editor: Dana Snitzky