She was less than a day into a 10-day, 1,000-kilometer horse race, but Lara Prior-Palmer was already in trouble.
She’d been in high spirits when she set off from the start line with her 29 fellow competitors that morning, but now the 19-year-old British teen was all alone in the middle of the Mongolian steppe, the landscape stretching out before her. Her fellow riders had all left her in the dust, and she couldn’t figure out how to work her GPS. The small gray horse she’d been given to ride was lame, so she’d gotten off him and been walking alongside him for hours in the heat and humidity, both of them thirsty for water they didn’t have.
“The first day was the hardest. [I] was very lonely, wondering why on earth I thought this looked like fun,” Prior-Palmer told The Post.
In June 2013, at the last minute and on something of a lark, Prior-Palmer had signed up for the Mongol Derby, an endurance horse race held every August, getting a steep discount on the $6,000 entry fee. She was on her gap year between high school and university and had just been fired from her job as an au pair for an Austrian family.
“Deep down, it was an urge for freedom, and somehow the race symbolized that,” she said.
Prior-Palmer chronicles her experiences in her new book “Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race” (Catapult), out now.
It tells of how she went from last place on Day 1 to ultimately winning the derby, which was started in 2009 and seeks to recreate the horse-messenger system developed by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. Riders saddle up 25 different horses in the course of the race, stopping at a checkpoint every 40 kilometers to select a new horse from a local’s herd. At a given point each night, competitors must stop riding and get some rest, relying on the hospitality of nomadic families.
“There’s no way to prepare,” said Prior-Palmer, who only had a few months to ready herself for the race though most take at least a year. “No one could ride 14 hours a day on different horses.”
The gutsy young equestrian, who’d ridden for years but typically only on the weekends, would often ask herders to give her their fastest mounts, but the steeds she ended up riding were a mixed bag. One chestnut horse she rode was so stubborn that he would barely walk, until a local boy helped by revving his motorcycle right behind the horse’s bottom for a half a kilometer to encourage him to trot. Another she calls “The Lion” is the opposite.
“When I mounted him … lots of people had to hold him because he was so wild. Then, to stop him from completely bolting out of the station, the herder held on to his bridle and cantered out with me [on another horse] and we rode together into the steppe,” she recalled. “Then he just released us, and this creature stepped up six gears … like there was some god of storms guiding him. And he just galloped and galloped … He didn’t seem to tire, even when we got to a mountain pass … he was otherworldly.”
Riding all day long was especially hard for the first few days, Prior-Palmer said. Her ankles and knees swelled, and sores lined the inside of her calves. It was like “fatigue showering down from your brain all over your body,” she recalled. “People underestimate how athletic riding a bolting pony is, how much it requires of a body.”
But the biggest physical toll, she said, was getting a horrible stomach flu at the end of the race. She was up all night with severe nausea.
“The next morning, I remember getting out of the tent and my arms feeling like tent pegs,” she recalled. “I just couldn’t pack my bag really, it was so much effort.”
But she managed to get on her final horse and win the race, finishing in six days and eight hours to win. She was the first woman, as well as the youngest person ever, to claim such a victory. But rather than feeling joy at her accomplishment, she said she felt sad it was all was over.
“I was very upset that the race wasn’t happening anymore, that I wasn’t going to gallop out again. I loved galloping away from people,” she said. “It was almost like the race was life, and you don’t want life to end.”
In the years since the race, Prior-Palmer has gotten a degree in conceptual history from Stanford University and also fought a winning battle against Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She said completing the race — and writing about it — changed her, but it’s hard to say just how.
“It’s changed other people’s ideas about me,” said Prior-Palmer, who is currently based in the United Kingdom and figuring out what she’ll do next. “People have some kind of weird faith in me [now]. And maybe I do, too.”
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