Feature

The Limits of the Eternal Blue Sky

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In the world's toughest equestrian race, Solana Perez confronts the wilderness of the steppe and its horses in the Mongol Derby, and emerges with an even greater journey ahead of her.

Photography by

Bayarsaihan Ochiroo, Shari Thompson, and Kathy Gabriel for the Mongol Derby 2023

(Provided by Solana Perez)


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“It is easy to conquer the world from the back of a horse.”

Genghis Khan was reputed to have said this and it must carry some water if the Mongols rode across half the world: an Asian empire in the thirteenth century, that spans from Hungary to Korea and from Siberia to Tibet, won by horseback.

Diminutive, fearless, and unbelievably tough, the Mongol horse has remained largely unchanged over the centuries. The Mongol Derby is an annual equestrian endurance race that emulates Khan's multi-horse messenger system from 1224. The race spans a thousand kilometers across the Mongolian steppe, changing horses at 25 designated stations called morin urtuu, spaced 40 kilometers apart along the ten-day course.

Solana Perez trained for three and a half years for the Mongol Derby. She applied in 2019 but the race was postponed during the pandemic. Choosing to defer in 2022, by August 2023, she was ready to finish what she had started.

The Loneliest Race

Sol is the first Filipino to take on the Mongol Derby, the weight of that statement belies its loneliness. There was no one to coach her through physical training, horsemanship, and logistics. Even studying past derby statistics and the preparations of previous riders offered little guidance. Coming from first-world countries, they were worlds apart as to what resources and opportunities Sol had access to at home.

Despite this, Sol remains hopeful that she will be the first Filipino to do the Mongol Derby and not the last. “If someone else decided that they were going to do [the derby], I hope I did it in a way that they feel like it's possible, too.”

Upon getting accepted into the race in 2019, she turned to crowdfunding and raised half of the $15,500 entrance fee within a few months. The support had come pouring in, partly to do with being the first to do something no one in the country had ever attempted, but Filipinos had messaged her sharing about the times they spent in Baguio as children and the summers they looked forward to most were spent riding with the pony boys. They showed their belief in Sol through tangible forms of support as if reliving their childhood vicariously through her.

Being associated with the pony boys reminded people that this side of Baguio was still around and worth something despite the decline in government assistance, losing to commercial development and budget cuts. In the Panagbenga in Baguio, the gymkhana the pony boys would stage dwindled smaller and smaller without enough spaces that accept horses. Sol hoped that participating in the derby would bring recognition to the horse culture of Baguio once more.

She initially planned to fundraise the entire entrance fee and travel expenses, but with the pandemic, it had felt too much to ask for continuous support given the state of the country. But as family, friends, OFWs, and customers of the pony boys all rallied behind Sol to see her through the race, it had been a magical start to the next couple of years.

“I like to think that [Mongolia] made me more Filipino in a sense. [Bayanihan isn't] something we have to strive to be, like some ideal. It’s something that we have in us already. We have the language for it, we have the attitude for it.”

The Mongol Derby

The derby riders are of a special breed: Only the most fearless and crazy would dare to take it on, so while it is a race, the sense of competition is almost lacking. What tension there was, especially from those overtaking each other, is lost to the euphoria of the adventure. More people have conquered Mount Everest than entered the Mongol Derby, they are tied by the call of the great outdoors that few else have answered.

On August 2, the start line is the only time the riders are packed tightly together in the race. As riders spread out along the grasslands, you can go days before seeing the others. When you are consumed by the race, past riders have said, so apart from everyone else, the toughest horse race in the world becomes the loneliest.

How do you find your way back to life as it once was before days were punctuated with strategies and training? It was hard to come down from an unfinished dream—even now, the derby is hard to talk about, the depth of emotion and everything it took.

Despite the overwhelming isolation, Sol, accustomed to solitude since riding in her angsty teenage years, goes off on her own. While riding in tandem affords a collective focus on getting to the next urtuu as fast as possible, the risk of accidents and accountability weighs heavy. Sol felt much safer choosing another route from the others—cut to the core of communicating with her horse and making decisions for herself. Her strategy was to take enough time as she left each station to understand the temperament of her horse, rather than argue for the entire leg. Trusting their instincts, the horses paced themselves and Sol urged them on when they took to it.

On Day 1, Sol set out, riding further than the second urtuu within the 12-hour riding period. As curfew neared, she was left to camp outdoors but struggled to find water in the green desert as stipulated by the rules. She was moved due to the unsuitable campsite and it would cost her first time penalty the next day.

Reality sinks in by Day 2, still miles to go. The morning had been tense with the late start, only for Sol to face another setback at Station 4 with a two-hour vet penalty. The race requires that a horse’s heart rate settle down to 56bpm within 30 upon entering the urtuu before riders could switch out horses.

The third day, at Station 6, Sol found a reminder of home in Mongolia. She had trained how to tell if a horse was an athlete from their build, how to pick a horse she could understand by studying the lineup. However, the race introduced a lottery system to level the playing field. She lost the advantage, but the lottery alleviated the pressure in taking away some control and leaving it up to arbitrariness.

Sol usually asked the handler whether her horse was strong or difficult. But from the way his owner said goodbye, Sol had already known he was his prized horse. He said to her, ‘If you just let this horse go, he'll fly for you.’ As soon as she got on, he took off at top speed for a whole hour. It was as if she was back in Baguio, riding her horse Rain, "This build and this movement is home to me."

“The fact I kept pulling [calm horses] from the lottery, and everyone else was getting wild horses that would throw them off— What are the odds?”

Her horse deftly made each turn and navigated the hillsides in a grounded flight, finishing ten kilometers away from the next station. Between two hills, each crowned with a ger, her horse trotted up the hill with a herd of sheep peacefully grazing. Sol was put even more at ease when the woman of the house and her children greeted them. With her translated phrases prepared, she had only asked for some water for her horse, but the mother gestured her to dismount while her daughter took off the saddle so he could breathe easier.

It was hard to take in all that grace, the depth of care for even a stranger's animal. When an interpreter came by to explain the derby and how Sol needed a place to stay, Nadmib said, 'Don't worry, we understand her completely. I’m happy to have another daughter for a night.’ She tucked Sol in bed that evening, stroking her hair until she fell asleep.

The lives of the Mongol herdsmen are inseparable from their animals. Their homes are mobile to meet their animals' grazing needs throughout the seasons. It's part of their culture, Sol explains, as nomads to welcome strangers and to look out for one another. You might expect them to be harder and harsher people to match their environment, instead, they are affectionate and generous. When you travel from place to place, you can only hope that if you find yourself in trouble, there will be someone to offer a hand.

To find such a lucky horse and a loving family amid the grueling race would be Sol's most treasured memory. She left the next morning in tears, parting ways with a gift: a beautiful red deel made of silk. On Day 4, she reached Station 9.

During our interview, I would interrupt Sol to keep track of the days she was narrating. But time flattens in the rolling monotony of the steppe. Each horse she rode marked the days passing, the only measure in the land of the eternal blue sky. But she remembered the racehorse she had drawn at her second urtuu of Day 5, the one that was most special of them all.

“In Baguio, we don’t even have the space to find out if a horse can do that because we’re in the mountains. When your body syncs into keeping up with this horse and letting them run, it does something to you.”

It felt like fate, like they were meant to ride together. Sol was overcome with the invincibility of that of Khan's mounted army. Winning wasn't everything, but that desire found its way back to Sol as they were running from horizon to horizon. Reaching Station 12 in under two hours, hope almost felt certain.

But the next morning on Day 6 brought a damning call: Sol faced elimination if she didn't reach Station 16 by day's end. She had known she was at the tail of the pack since Day 3, the dread she had been pushing down became a looming alarm. Then her hydration bag failed before the next urtuu, a mockery of industrial technology in a historical race. Frantically repairing with duct tape and ziplock where the plastic had chafed cost her a precious hour in Station 14, Sol was running out of time.

A mountainous terrain lay ahead but she had drawn yet another docile horse. As the afternoon reached temperatures of 35°C, her hydration bag once again gave out. The exhausted horse could not go on. He stopped at a standstill.

In that moment, an elimination over her head, under the searing sun, Sol reached her breaking point. Alone in the mountains, she had to stop herself from taking her anger out on the poor animal that she could not ask any more from, “When I realized what I was doing—I didn't come here to do this, I didn't come here to beat up horses just so that I could get somewhere. That was when I had the very conscious moment of, ‘This is it. I'm done. I'm out of the race.’" She walked her horse to the next urtuu in defeat.

That last day, she had reached six kilometers shy of Station 14. But it had not been enough, Sol bowed out of the Mongol Derby at ~554 kilometers, just over halfway through.

Her undoing was a coalescence of merciless weather and terrain, a piece of plastic, and a horse that didn’t quite have what it took. Sol had so much more left in her, still felt like her body had more to give. If she had taken more risks, if she had pushed herself and her horses harder, if she had not held up her time to be with the Mongolians—regret oscillated between what she could have done and what ultimately was.

That long build-up to the derby, all the anticipation and preparation, left her with a biting disappointment in the way things ended. She could hardly imagine what the version of her—the Sol that trained for years to win, the mounting pressure she put on herself to the point of injury and sleepless nights—would have done if she found out she hadn’t finished the whole thousand kilometers.

“That was my last day in the race. I think what led me to relief was knowing that I was out there on my own and that I made the right choice. That gave me a lot of conviction—even if other people were disappointed. With the way it happened, I felt terrible, but there's still no regret there. A lot of factors came into play that I could not do anything about, and when it boiled down to the ethical question, I know I picked the right way.”

Of the 49 riders, only 32 would make it across the finish line and officially place on the leaderboard. The others, unable to chase after the pack and taking a fall too many, rode the blood wagon: a van filled with injured and retired riders, all running on raw emotions. But when the race ended earlier for them than everyone else, it allowed them to take the place of spectators. They took turns airing out their dark moments and crises, and it gave way to finding comfort in experiencing Mongolia outside of the competition.

It was the most lighthearted blood wagon in the recent derby's. Amid so much loss, an interpreter said to Sol to tell people back home to enter the race, our sunny Filipino disposition and good company would always find a place in the derby. Sol hopes the next Filipino to do the Mongol Derby would recognize the kindred spirit we share with Mongolians, the warm welcome they extend to guests, and that locals sense the same kind of capability from us as well.

As a country, we pride ourselves in our hospitality, this sense of being a community is encapsulated by bayanihan. Sol had tried to explain the concept to the interpreters, but she admits, that bayanihan nowadays has been diluted into a form of observing the practice rather than meaning it, only heard in times of calamity—entangled with politics, obligation, and the guilt of privilege in a developing country.

More than winning, “I hope the next Filipino has that unique experience of connecting with another amazing culture and bringing that back. I think our diaspora can relate to this, but in a way, having this experience of going to Mongolia [...] I like to think that it made me more Filipino in a sense. I don't want to say that this, [bayanihan], is something we have to strive to be, like some ideal. It’s something that we have in us already. We have the language for it, we have the attitude for it.”

Trojan Horse

Three weeks before she left for Mongolia, Sol found out she was pregnant.

Her doctor called her delusional for asking her to clear an expecting mother for a horse race. But when her ultrasound revealed Sol was already two months along, she conceded. "'If your body's conditioned to do that, to the point you didn't realize that you were expecting—' I didn't feel anything, I thought that it was stress, that's why I wasn't getting my period, why once in a while I would feel really tired. When I explained to her that I'd been [preparing] for more than three years, my doctor said, 'Okay, then there's a possibility you'll make it.'"

“It is easy to conquer the world from the back of a horse.”

With a child on the way, Sol knew life after the Mongol Derby would never be the same, who knew when else she'd have the chance to do this? Her partner, a pony boy (Of course, who else would understand?), had complete faith in her. Undeterred, she carried on and kept her pregnancy a secret from her insurance provider, organizers, and everyone else.

Through the difficult legs of the race, when the rush of adrenaline had long worn off, she would find herself asking herself and her baby, 'What am I doing?' It was the thought of getting through the race without injury that kept her from giving up, it would be enough of a win. This was more than a competition for Sol, the stakes were even higher.

That year, other riders lost their gear (twice, even) to a runaway horse, a horse tripping resulted in a broken collarbone and punctured lung—yet Sol went without a single fall. “The fact I kept pulling calm and slow horses from the lottery, and everyone else was getting wild horses that would throw them off— What are the odds?"

Sol had every intention to ride the wildest horses that Mongolia had to offer and put her training to use, but all the horses had been gentle with her. "Maybe my sweat smells different, or, I mean people say that horses can hear a human heartbeat from four feet away—and that's an adult human heartbeat. Part of me wonders, maybe they could hear something.”

Maybe it had nothing to do with luck, maybe the horses had known. Her pregnancy had been grounding: It gentled the wildness in her and all the horses, shaped her every decision, and made her connections with the riders and families all the more rich.

Sol finished her first trimester during the race. They both returned home safe.

How do you find your way back to life as it once was, with errands and groceries, before days were punctuated with strategies and training? It was hard to come down from an unfinished dream—even now, the derby is hard to talk about, the depth of emotion and everything it took. “It does creep up on me now and then, ‘Well, fuck, I didn’t finish.’ But when I think about it, no, there was no other way I could've done it.”

Rather than reside in the past, Sol turns to the future. “I think if I wasn't looking forward to having a baby and this really, hard line of the next chapter, it would be so much harder for me to move on from everything. But this way, there's a continuation because now it's not just my story.” And what a story to tell your kid: Growing inside of her during the toughest horse race in the world, they could only be so proud to be of the same blood, as strong ("And as crazy," Sol sighs) as their mother.

She presumed the Mongol Derby would be a one-time event, to do it and then, move on. In the aftermath, she can see herself coming back to that start line. In the same vein of all marathons and endurance sports, the feeling of pushing your body to asymptotic limits compels her, even from the depths of motherhood.

Under the limits of the eternal blue sky, Sol’s love for horses, for her growing family—she loves to the point of reinvention. Sol could be a mom and a horsewoman, forever and ever.

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