There are certain people you meet in life with whom you have an instant connection. It can’t be explained and can barely be ignored, but there are individuals floating in this wild world who simply see you in a way that most people don’t.
One of the biggest impacts of the Mongol Derby were the people I met along the way. You have to be a certain type of person to land in the middle of Mongolia for a 1,000-kilometer endurance race, and this isn’t limited to the racers. There are 500 crew members, from organizers to translators to medics to vets, who decide to fly in and have this as a life event as well.
From the first breakfast at the hotel in Ulaanbaatar, I was drawn to certain people. Their life stories, the variety of backgrounds, the crazy tales of the lead up—it’s captivating. While I had absolutely nothing in common with some, we were all there because we are the type of people who desire a life that is unpredictable and immeasurable and testing.
A common question on the steppe is, “What made you do the derby?” I didn’t have a great answer. In short: I yearned.
Life has a way of breaking and taming us. The child who wanted to follow a passion and conquer the world becomes the parent working a steady job and finding joy in the small moments. It’s a natural evolution, and I love small moments, but I began to feel like my life was testing me in all the wrong ways. I began to lose touch with the depths of myself and wasn’t sure what was left under all the roles I had taken on. I was objectively very successful at my endeavors, but the thing with success is that often there isn’t much sitting under it. To be successful and to be fulfilled are two very different things, and I didn’t know how to experience the latter. I wanted to know if it is possible for me to still feel bliss, or if that gets lost as life moves forward and crushes us underfoot.
I yearned for bliss. I yearned for the absolute total exhaustion that comes from finding your physical limits and going further. I yearned for the open night sky that reminds us how infinitely small we are in space and time. I yearned to be alone, and worn down, and to see what would be left.
So that’s what made me do the derby. The beauty of it—and what I didn’t expect—was to find people searching for answers to the same questions. To search for bliss can be lonely and isolating, as most people simply don’t understand what you’re looking for, or why, or how.
There are people who dream of the “one days,” and then there are those who sign on the line and buy the plane ticket and show up for whatever is in store. The derby is full of the latter.
I went to the derby to learn about myself, and it exposes a lot about the human condition. You quickly learn that everyone has a different stress response. Over the days you find yourself riding alone or with those who have a similar stress response to you, and what a gift that was. I got to see Ashton mount up as she was crying so hard in pain that she couldn’t speak, but she turned down my offer to take a break and just got on the horse. Granted, she couldn’t steer as she had pulled a groin muscle, so I had to herd her back to the roads if he ran sideways, and we spent 30 minutes largely in silence punctuated by her whimpers. Her one comment? “One day this will be funny.” My kind of girl.
On Day 9 I got to ride all day with Bianca, who is this gorgeous human inside and out. A beautiful rider and a beautiful soul, but she spent the first leg battling how disappointed she was in herself. I don’t know what the bar of achievement is for each person, but I told her I was certain she reached it as she surpassed 500 miles in Mongolia. I realized we all battle insecurities, even those who seem to have the most going for them. We got to laughing, had some absolutely epic gallops, and she saved me at the end of the day when I needed an SOS call. I wish she could see herself as I see her.
There was Diego the vet who was always an absolute joy to see. My vet stations with him were full of laughter and encouragement. There was Andrei the medic, who was a total professional when I was a near-naked, overheated, mess of a human who needed an IV until 1 a.m. He took the time to make sure I knew I could finish this race, and I wouldn’t have been able to without his help. There was Allison who got injured earlier in the race, but when I was at a station, hot and exhausted and planning to go for a fourth leg, she refilled my water and stuffed dumplings in my hands as I mounted up. Her investment in my race in that moment meant so much to me.
Did I find what I was looking for in this derby? Yes. I got the limitless nights, and the exhaustion that is beyond exhaustion, and the bliss that fills you at the most unexpected moments. But what I didn’t know I needed, and what has settled my soul, was meeting those people in the world with whom you have an instant connection that defies the limited time you have known them. For me, that was meeting people who understood the yearning I have for this life and the finite moments in it. There are so few of these people in life, for me at least, and to leave the derby with a few added to the list made it all worthwhile.
Go do hard things. You’ll find out a lot about yourself, but you’ll also meet people who you will think about for the rest of your life. For now, it’s back to the small moments, but I can’t wait for more laughs and tears and limitless night skies. They are there—go find them.
Kristin Carpenter is an eventer and adventure endurance rider. She came 16th in the 2022 Mongol Derby, is headed to Patagonia in January 2023 for the Gaucho Academy, and is planning a thru-ride of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2023 or 2024. She is Head of School for The Linder Academy and mother of two boys (Aubry and Wesley) and three horses. Kristin grew up in Louisiana and produced her OTTB Trance to the CCI3* level of eventing. You can follow her on Instagram at fleetingandfinite.