Idaho’s Bob Long oldest to win Mongol Derby
While Robert Long celebrates a victory the 70-year-old has yet to realize the vast audience that closely tracked his progress in the United States. Long is the oldest man to win the Mongol Derby. The Wyomingite, who now resides in Idaho, finished the 1,000 km race, which is a nod to Genghis Khan’s horse messenger system, with the statement “My horse just won the Mongol Derby. It’s nothing, you just ride 650 miles on a death march. There’s nothing to it.”
The semi-feral Mongolian steppe horses are swapped out every 35 to 40 km and are vetted at each horse station. Long began a slow race, so much so that his partner Stephanie Nelson said they hadn’t really taken any photos of him (other than one of his involuntary dismount day one), so when he made his move and neared the front of the pack, the race organizers were scrambling for photos.
“They loved his demographic,” she said. “They thought he would ride two legs and fall off.”
The second-place rider South African Weisman Nel encountered a vet delay early in the race but managed to sneak up from behind to finish two hours after Long. Some of the 42 other riders are still making the trek to the finish line.
“Bob isn’t just the oldest, he has ridden better and stronger, camping out more than anyone else,” said Tom Morgan, founder of The Adventurists, the race organizers. “We opened up the course this year to make navigation a key skill again, and Bob absolutely nailed it. The man is tougher than a box of concrete.”
Part of his win is due largely to his tough nature, but part is also owed to his clever thinking and proper planning. Long threw himself into the details and strategy, and while he made a few small missteps along the way, Nelson said, he diligently executed his plan.
“I had an email blog going for some friends that allowed me to explain what he was doing,” she said. “It was a great way for me to experience the race. I spent 10 months training with him, and I knew his strategy, so it was so much fun to see him go out and do it.”
Long’s extensive training began in Arizona, where he sought the help and horses of endurance riders to allow him to complete 60-mile rides four days each week. Upon returning home to Idaho, he frequented a friend’s ranch in Cambridge, riding colts in need of miles and wet saddle blankets.
“It’s a more modest training program,” Nelson said.
He also picked the brain of the 2016 Mongol Derby winner Marcia Hefker, who tied for first with two other racers.
“She was brilliant and really mentored him, and he paid attention,” Nelson said. “It was another compelling factor in his success.”
Before the training, however, came the desire. The Mongol Derby wasn’t always on the radar for Long, who has previously competed in extreme mountain trail competitions and ranch horse versatility. During a summer evening barbeque in Boise, a friend of Long and Nelson’s was telling them about a film she had seen called “All the Wild Horses.” The couple listened but didn’t pay much heed until Nelson decided to rent it a few weeks later.
“I could just see the wheels turning,” she said of her partner as he watched the documentary about the Mongol Derby.
While Long may deserve his win due to his sheer diligence in training and research, Nelson can be credited with helping throughout his preparation, including being responsible for the famed blue ribbons that Long affixed to the horses who brought him into first at each horse station. The ribbons were Nelson’s from some competitions a few years back, and she encouraged him to take them after discovering that blue has a deep meaning of honor in the Mongolian culture.
“At the beginning, I kept thinking that was something he had gotten rid of, lightened the load,” she said. “There was no way he was using them, but, boy, did I get that wrong. That was one of the most significant things he was carrying.”
Long had skirted around a town at one point, but when a family had begged him to come back into town, he did so obligingly. The people owned the horse he was riding, which he discovered and offered them a blue ribbon. They parted ways once more, Long on their horse and the family driving off with the blue ribbon dangling from their rear view mirror.
Nelson also helped Long navigate the task of asking nomadic families for their best horse by using what’s called pointy talkies, a laminated sheet that translates between the rider’s language and Mongolian. The pair used the Naadam Festival, which feature Mongolian wrestling, horse racing, and archery, to exemplify the type of horse Long hoped to ride.
“Start by saying I hear you have a wonderful horse that won at Naadam; I’m interested in one like that,” she told Long. “Then he was giving them ribbons every time he came first in the station, and the herders just went nuts over that.”
Long stayed in a horse station only once during his seven-day trek; the remainder of his nights were spent with herder families. When it was time to rest, Long let the rivers lead him to a ger to spend the night completely engulfed in the culture.
“He made it his full time job to figure out what protein powders to use, what items to bring in his kit, what gifts he needed to take for herder families,” Nelson said. “There was a lot of thought and activity surrounding that. He didn’t leave anything unturned.”
Long got his start with horses during his early years living outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming. He would take in bum calves, feed, and sell them, then shifted to doing the same with sale horses as well. He would buy a colt, ride it for a month or so, then bring it back to the sale barn to make a few bucks.
“Bob doesn’t do things by half,” Nelson said. “The race was an opportunity for him to take a lifetime of being good at things, because he wants to and works at it, and put it to use. This old fart might have been more physically challenged, but he outsmarted them.”