Courtesy of Becky Pearman Photography

Kelsey Eliot, a program assistant in the Department of City and Regional Planning, will be participating in the competitive Mongol Derby next summer.

October 18, 2018

‘To Finish is To Win’: AAP Employee to Compete in World’s Longest Horse Race

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When asked what her goals were for next summer, when Cornell employee Kelsey Eliot will spend 10 days racing across mountains, rivers and rough terrain on the back of a semi-wild horse in the 600-mile Mongol Derby, her reply was simple: “To live.”

Eliot, a program assistant in the Department of City and Regional Planning, is one of 40 applicants selected from a pool of hundreds for the competition, which pits riders against each other, the elements and the very horses they’re riding.

“Mongolia horses are jackhammers. I’m trying to build my leg strength so I can withstand that,” Eliot told The Sun.

“It’s scary because a lot of [the horses] probably want to kill me,” she continued.

As they navigate the rugged Mongolian terrain — riddled with marmot holes and crisscrossed with rivers — competitors are likely to slip off their horses, which are often already skittish from the unfamiliar riders.

As a 2014 National Geographic article reported, about 50 percent of racers each year are not expected to cross the finish line, due to dysentery, broken bones and other complications.

“The mantra of endurance racing is that to finish is to win,” Eliot said. “I want to do well but doing well doesn’t mean coming in first. I want to ride all 1,000 kilometers and I want to do it in one piece.”

The petite AAP administrator, with her big smile and clear laugh, is perhaps not the image that comes to mind with the words “feral horse racer.” And yet, in eight months’ time, Eliot will travel across the globe to compete in the 2019 Derby.

Eliot has been trail riding since she was eight, but the equestrian’s participation in the race wasn’t entirely planned. She applied to be one of the year’s forty riders “on a whim” in August, after hearing about the Derby from a friend.

A few weeks later, when the call that she was accepted came to Eliot’s Cornell office, she said she started crying, only managing a stunned “Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit” to the race organizer who phoned.

“What do you say when someone tells you [that] you’re about to go do the stupidest, coolest thing you’ve ever done in your life?” Eliot said.

Since then, Eliot has been hard at work training for the competition. The day she got the call, Eliot downloaded the fitness app Couch to 5K and picked up running to boost her endurance — as competitors only receive breaks every 25 miles, prolonged physical strength is key.

“I know it is going to be a test of my mental toughness more than it is of my physical toughness,” she added.

Eliot has also launched a GoFundMe last month to fund her race. The Derby costs $14,000 to participate, which covers horse and human healthcare but not travel expenses. As of Thursday evening, Eliot has raised over $1,000 of her $15,000 goal.