They know Guinness calls it the longest and toughest equestrian race in the world – that they’ll be crossing the Mongolia steppe astride a series of unbroken horses while possibly or likely encountering dehydration from searing desert heat, hypothermia from penetrating mountain cold, roving packs of wild dogs, the snarling guard dogs of nomads, intense sleep deprivation, myriad diseases and, perhaps worst of all, dysentery from a local diet comprised of mutton, fermented mare's milk and – we swear this is true – blow-torched marmot.
Here’s what Kelly Hale of Red Lodge and Marie Griffis of Manhattan don’t know about the wild and woolly Mongol Derby, a 1,000-kilometer sprint in August that roughly follows in the hoof prints of an ancient Genghis Khan postal trail.
“I have two theories on this,” says Griffis, 42, a lifelong Montanan, dedicated horsewoman for just as long, and professional pastry chef. “One, they want to keep it a secret so nobody goes and scopes it out. And No. 2, for our safety.”
We hadn't mentioned the marauding bandits, lubricated by vodka and/or the mare's milk concoction called airag? They're in the Mongol Derby minefield, too.
So it won't be until on or around the Aug. 4 start near the capital Ulan Bator that Griffis and Hale learn, along with 42 other contestants from 13 countries, a remote route they’ll have 10 days to complete.
“Horse people think this is the greatest thing,” said Hale, 55, who moved from Texas to Red Lodge two years ago after hiring on as a dentist at the VA clinic in Billings. “Other people think, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ ”
Griffis explains: “The raw calling would be to prove to myself I can do the longest horse race in the world. I'm learning it's the toughest thing I'll ever do.”
Who could be lured to such a test of mind, body and spirit on horseback? Griffis and Hale both have equestrian pedigrees, though their paths to this place are dramatically different.
Griffis was born in Bozeman, attended high school in Manhattan and has never left Montana except for a stint majoring in bakery and pastry arts at Johnson & Wales University in North Carolina. Cheerful and polished, she looks the prototypical Montana cowgirl, though much of the rawhide is mostly turned inward.
Hale, whose corporate boardroom aura belies the adrenaline rushes on his dossier, is the essence of the Montanan-come-lately, right down to his immaculate wood-accented home with large picture windows framing pastured horses and the Beartooth Mountains.
The son of an oilman, he spent much of his youth in Saudi Arabia, where he learned to ride with Bedouin kids in the desert before evolving to show jumping in high school. He and his wife, Tracey, who spent some of her youth near Powell, Wyo., have traveled the world, and he made a comfortable living in cosmetic dentistry in Austin, Texas, before the couple moved to Montana.
What Griffis and Hale have in common is their affection for horses, non-lethal English-style fox hunting, and adrenaline rushes.
Their paths first crossed two years ago through Big Sky Hounds in Three Forks, where they chase foxes (or coyotes). It was around the same time that Griffis first learned of the Mongol Derby from a fellow hunter from Maryland named Barbara Smith, a 2014 participant; Griffis hesitated initially because of the $13,000-plus entry fee, but then she and her husband, Kurt, saw a slide show during another meeting with Smith.
“That’s the point when it got under my skin,” she said.
Tracey Hale had heard about it on National Public Radio when the couple still lived in Texas, but Kelly didn’t seriously consider registering until seeing Griffis at a fox hunt.
“All my friends said, ‘It’s right up your alley – it’s fast, dangerous and it’s on horseback’,” he said.
The derby was created in 2009 by a British outfit called The Adventurists, which says it’s “fighting to make the world less boring”. Outside Magazine and National Geographic have covered the event, the latter noting that “broken bones and torn ligaments are common, frustration and bruised egos the norm.”
Here’s how it works: After horsemanship, navigation skills and fitness levels are tested in the two days before the start, riders are weighed to ensure they carry no more than 187 pounds with basic riding gear. Once they pass muster, they’re given a pony-sized horse at the starting line, one of about 1,000 the derby leases from Mongolian nomads.
Horse stations, or urtuus, are roughly 25 miles apart. When a rider and mount arrive, a medical team immediately tends to the condition of … the horse.
If an animal’s heartbeat is above 60, the rider receives penalty. Injuries call for steeper fines. Riders must carry six $100 bills to compensate an owner for a horse going lame from stepping in a marmot hole or dying from over-exertion.
“We cannot abuse the horses,” Griffis said. “It’s an endurance race for the rider, not the horses.”
Riders change horses at each urtuu, and as in rodeo, each animal has a unique and untamed spirit. The goal is to ride four horses roughly 100 miles per day, all on the equivalent of U.S. Forest Service roads in country resembling Montana – sans ranches, towns and trophy homes. Mongolian herders appear along the way on horseback or motorcycle to help chase away wild dogs.
Some riders sleep at check stations, where mutton and boiled water await. Others continue in hopes of reaching a yurt, or ger, where they are routinely welcomed by herders after announcing their presence by yelling, “hold your dogs!”
And just how DO you say “hold your dogs!” in Mongolian?
“I don’t know,” Hale said. “There’s no Rosetta Stone for Mongolian.”
Once the language barrier is overcome, with the help of phrase books, they hope, riders are toasted with airag – "You've got to have your liver in shape," Hale said – and served mutton, often with a side of blow-torched marmot.
“Just a different way of barbecuing, I guess,” Griffis quipped, adding: “If I knock on a family ger and they take me in and serve blow-torched marmot, I will eat it with a smile. How lucky am I to experience a part of the world like this that's not developed?”
A third option is sleeping under the stars, hoping those wild dogs or marauders are elsewhere (Griffis plans to bring a knife custom-made by her husband). Mongolia also has wolves and a grizzly subspecies called the Gobi bear, but to Griffis and Hale, dysentery and “naughty” horses are more worrisome -- and the possibility of their mount escaping its hobbles in the night.
“We know for a fact the horses are not that broken,” Hale said. “They are very, very spooky. You can get bucked off just putting your hand in your rain jacket.”
Speaking of gear, each rider can add 11 pounds above the basic 187, which includes a special small saddle plus GPS and spot tracker for safety. At a compound near Belgrade where she rides under the watchful eye of contemporary “horse whisperer” Jon Ensign, Griffis spreads her sparse assortment on the ground.
To wit: a 19-ounce sleeping bag, down pants, down vest, down shirt, rain jacket, pair of underwear, pair of socks, Therma-rest, blow-up pillow, pills to emulate iodine tablets and disease-fighting drugs, a bandanna, sanitary wipes, some protein bars, lithium and standard batteries, and a seven-ounce pack of jerky that renders her five ounces overweight. She still hasn’t figured out how to make room for a camera.
Hale, who has dog-sledding in the Norwegian Arctic on his adventure resume, said he'll take fewer clothes. But what he will have – and as a dentist this makes him blanch – is a “special sauce” of Skoal he says will deaden his appetite and, thus, reduce exposure to a gastrointestinal disaster.
“One thing I’ve learned is the less you take the better off you are,” he said. “You’re going to stink. Get used to it. My biggest worry is getting some kind of intestinal thing where I get so sick I just can't go. They say I need to practice throwing up on a horse, but I hate to throw up so I don't know. It certainly adds to the misery factor.”
Neither has a sense of where they’ll rank among the 43 riders, though both have a quiet confidence based on their horse savvy and experiences.
Each has a unique training regimen. Hale runs and Griffis is boxing as part of a solemn promise she made to her mother to be fit as possible for this ordeal.
Hale will be joined in Mongolia by Tracey, one of 10 people signed up for a related tour. Kelly explains they both have dreadful cases of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), and so Tracey, who once ran an ultra-marathon in the Sahara Desert, will be in the vicinity, albeit nowhere in sight of Kelly until the end, which her itinerary reveals is near Lake Khovsgol National Park in northwest Mongolia.
“I think my biggest worry is him getting hurt when he’s in the middle of nowhere,” Tracey said. “If he loses a couple pounds in the process, he’s not going to die. He can go without a meal and be fine. And I think generally people around the world are good. But getting hurt ... if I have any concern, it’s that.”
Griffis is going solo, though neither Kurt, who owns Griffis Dry Wall in Belgrade, nor Ensign, who is working her on unfamiliar horses, are too worried.
“She’s probably got more guts than I do,” said Ensign, who learned horsemanship under Buck Brannaman, consultant for the film The Horse Whisperer. “She’s going to be in Mongolia alone and people waiting – waiting to take your mail, just like in the Pony Express days. That’s a little scary. But, on the other hand, she can handle it. I guarantee you she’ll be the toughest person on the whole deal.”
And so it’ll begin, in a little more than a month: The specter of dehydration, hypothermia, dysentery, marauders, wild dogs, untamed horses and, of course, blow-torched marmot for supper.
“I’m anticipating that it’s going to be hard,” Griffis said. “There are going to be situations and things I find out about myself I didn’t know were there. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I do anticipate I will work through it and come home a better person. I have no idea how I’ll do.”
Said Hale: “There are moments where I’ve thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?’. But for me it always comes back to: my happiest place is on the back of a horse.”