Standing at the finish line, 70-year-old Bob Long took a moment to reflect on what he’d just achieved.
Behind him lay more than 600 miles of Mongolian steppe, a vast expanse of wild grassland which stretches endlessly into nearby China.
Not only had the American just navigated this unforgiving terrain riding semi-wild horses, along with its extreme weather and raging winds, but he also did so faster than anyone else.
As a result, he not only became the oldest person to complete in the world’s longest horse race – the Mongol Derby – he became the oldest person to ever win it.
“I’d been pushing so hard to get to the end,” Long told CNN Sport, from his home in Idaho, US, where he was recovering from his seven-and-a-half-day adventure.
“I had to stop for a minute and try to think back through all of the excitement and stressful instances of the trip.”
’I was really ready’
Having ridden horses all his life, Long was inspired to take on this challenge after watching “All the Wild Horses,” a film based on the grueling event.
He “hated the thought” that he wouldn’t be able to complete such a feat so set about preparing his mind and body for the “hardest, toughest, most demanding thing you can do on a horse.”
“Preparation trumps youth,” Long proudly stated, as he adapted back to normal life.
“I was really, really ready for this event when I finally got there and some of the other riders were a little bit less prepared.”
The annual 1,000-kilometer race (620 miles), officially recognized by the Guinness Book of Records in 2011 as the world’s lengthiest, takes its inspiration from the Mongol Empire’s pioneering postal service.
Genghis Khan, leader of the Mongols between 1162 and 1227, established and expanded the “Ortoo” – a messenger system that saw riders travel on horseback between outposts, stopping to either rest, swap horses or pass the message onto another rider.
After traveling from the capital Ulaanbaatar to the start camp on the steppe, the 40 riders – each of whom has paid about $13,000 to enter – are provided with their own semi-wild Mongolian horse on which to head out into the wilderness.
Twenty-five horse stations, or “urtuus” to use the Mongolian name, now line the route with the riders changing mounts every 20 miles to prevent the horses from burning out.
Despite years of experience in the saddle, the mammoth nature and unpredictability of the task forced Long to dig deep and rely solely on his own volition.
Despite having an extensive support system that would monitor racers from afar, the physical strain of riding such long distances naturally took its toll.
Leg soreness plagued the trip, to a point where squatting down to sit became an unbearable experience.
However, it was the mental test that proved the most difficult to conquer.