"Team Juskia" re-enact their 'Man from Snowy River' fantasies and swoop down a valley for a glorious finish
Eight days into the majestic Mongol Derby, US rider Justin Nelzen has crossed the finish line to claim victory from Saskia van Heeren of South Africa. After 1,000kms riding together the margin was narrow, just a few lengths, and both were jubilant after a final sprint for the line on a fine pair of horses.
Justin was hardly out of breath. Having initially made an assault on the finish line last night and been forced to turn back in a downpour of biblical proportions, they had a great run in for the final leg this morning. Said Justin, "We were out in front last night, decided to take it easy this morning, no need to push the horses, we could afford to just look after them. About 300m out, Saskia gave me the nod and we 'turned the horses loose' to see what they had, and raced to the end. The horses were great, they look great, Saskia and I feel great, the Mongolian people have been great!”
He was full of praise for his team-mate, a Derby veteran from the inaugural race in 2009. "It was a team effort, two horses travel faster than one. Saskia deserves this victory as much as I do, she's been with me the whole time. We've been riding 8 days and we've had a lot of fun. When times were tough we motivated each other- and told each other to 'suck it up' a few times! You have to be tough waking up with aches and pains and facing another 12 or 14 hours in the saddle. But it couldn't have been a better experience."
Justin found much to admire on his journey; "The scenery is absolutely beautiful. And the people- they take such good care of you. To get to know them- such gracious people, such wonderful horses- was the highlight."
When asked what his immediate plans were, he didn't hesitate; "I'll be taking a hot shower if I can find one!"
Saskia was still buzzing from her final Derby dash, and in fact still mounted, when she spoke to us. A glutton for punishment, this is her second Mongol Derby, and she insists it will be her last: "Another Derby and my knees will give out permanently!
"We had a wonderful gallop down the hill to the finish, one arm in the air for balance, it felt like "Man from Snowy River. I was half scared we would trip up on the final stretch, or spook at the finish line entourage- “please do not throw me off in front of all of these flags and cameras!
"It was a great finish! I have a beer in my hand, I'm sat on a horse, and it's 8am! Justin and I both agreed it was a big bonus to ride with someone else; it was give and take, you need someone else to help balance the highs and lows. In retrospect the things that were lows at the time become highs when you have endured them and completed the race. We rode in violent hail storms, nearly got struck by lightning, and rode in forty degree heat. I have two swollen knees and my back is in spasm. I am physically broken, but mentally absolutely high. You feel like you have achieved something very grand. The landscape is humbling, but also makes you feel proud. Proud in spite of looking very uncivilised, with our split lips."
When asked about her experience of surviving on the steppe, she said "Mongolian people are the nicest on the planet- so friendly and so giving. They made a huge effort for us, and it's an honour to be with them and stay with them, and a privilege that they lend their magnificent horses for us. Danger aside, you feel very safe out here with the Mongolians. It is a wonderful life out here on the steppe- you have to deal with being alone, with no barriers. Unrestricted by social/political constraints, you learn who you are. This is an experience everyone should go through! There is no room for bullshit, silly social worries. It's pure survival."
We will be speaking to more riders as they complete their epic 1,000km ride in the coming days. A support vehicle loaded with photographs is also on its way back to Derby HQ in Ulaanbaatar, and we look forward to some eloquent images to do justice to Team Juskia'a eloquent words at the finish line.
The remaining riders can all be tracked online via their GPS Spot trackers, visit the Tracking Page to see who is winning.
Each Rider is raising at least £1000 for the official charities, Mercy Corps and AVSF so that the Mongol Derby makes a genuinely positive impact over and above the benefits of the race itself.
The Mongol Derby is organised by The Adventurists in partnership with Tengri Group in Mongolia.
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