The Winners 2014 Under 26 Runner-up

"This way!" I say.
"I don't think so," he replies, glowering menacingly and charging off in the wrong direction.
"That"s the bog of Battsengal soum. You"ll drown us both."
"Good. I ain"t stoppin". I"ve got mates this way."
I hold on as the ground whips past. We are heading south. Station 15, our next stop, is north. This is not a holiday at all. Where are the cocktails and cheap thrillers? I offer a suggestion to the lion beneath me.
"Shall we go slightly left? Crunchy grass."
"I don"t eat. I go."
"Right. Well, we"re currently in second position, so let"s go in the direction of the girl who's winning."
No chance; the Lion rules, and earns his name. It is Day Five of the 1000 kilometre Mongol Derby. This is not a holiday because it is a race; a cocktail of very expensive, painful thrills, and spills. I am lonely. Horses and marmots alike have begun talking to me. Of the 14 wild Mongolian ponies I have ridden so far, the Lion is the fittest and the feistiest.

Between 7:53AM and 8:11AM, we argue as we head down the incorrect valley. We are going to miss the high pass over the mountain. The Lion tows on at the gallop across marmot-hole infested scrub. We are going to Kyrgyzstan. "Are we going to Kyrgyzstan?"
I try once more to turn him. He responds with a buck and a silence. I turn to the marmots instead. They are beneath the ground, but I can pretend to myself that I have their support. After 20 minutes the Lion's bolting eases. I subtly edge him northwards round the valley corner.

Ahead is nothing but one pink dot hovering amongst the hazy sage. As I move to drink water, the Lion steps up a gear. Once more I am strapped to a releasing missile, this time in the right direction.

I haven"t seen another competitor for a while. My wit is wafer thin. These days, yaks are funny. Mongolian gerbils are funny. I am funny; and this whole thing is ridiculous. What on earth am I doing in second place? Nobody had expected me to make it to Ulan Bataar"s Chinggis Khan airport, let alone onto and off of the backs of 14 different ponies. By now I have discovered why this has been dubbed the world"s "toughest" horse race. Exhaustion and pain rule each day, dulled only by the occasional moment of ecstasy.

By the time the pink dot is in the foreground, I have a semblance of control. The Lion canters steadily against my grip, huge black mane rippling like a torrential river beneath me. Focussing my eyes on this pink clad figure, I realise this is not a pink Mongolian sheep or a herder overflowing with ancient wisdom. It is the leader. Well hullo there, Devan Horn of Texas, in your Gore-Tex pink rain jacket, lime green and pink boots. She is striding across the steppe without a pony, back towards Station 14 where I have just come from. I attempt to pull up the Lion as I shout through the wind.
"Wow, are you alright?"
"Yea I"m fine.." she replies.
The Lion shoots off. Devan shouts back at me.
"I"ll catch up with you in a second!"

A myriad of excited thoughts queue at the entrance of my brain"s processing unit. Devan has parted ways with her horse. Chloe and I had never believed this would happen. Oh yikes: I"m in the lead, riding alone. We riders are mere bottles on a wall. I am lucky enough to be a bottle at the end of the song: I haven"t fallen off yet. My fate must be inevitable; my line is coming.
"And there was one green bottle, sitting on the wall...etc. etc. ACCIDENTALLY FALLS."

Such is the delay in information from the Steppe to the City, that it will be four hours before the statement is released to the world.
"We have a new leader."
When I say "the world", I mean my mad friend Miranda and my Polish godfather George. Nobody else was particularly interested in the progress of this remote race in Mongolia.

I am consumed by the joy the Lion oozes as we gallop towards the mountains. I look behind me regularly, checking to see if Devan has found a pony and caught up. The Lion is still bitter about the change in direction. These are the dregs of our family holiday argument. I am going to the airport; he wants to go to the beach for a mojito. Thankfully he is now mad enough to bolt in any direction despite his strong compass.

After 90 minutes of riding we reach the foot of the mountain pass. We have not yet walked. The Lion insists on trotting up the steep, stony pass. Yet, even his majesty is dwarfed by the vast Mongolian landscape. We are together one mouse, scrambling up an elephant"s back onto its ears.

The Devan paranoia, meanwhile, is like grandmother"s footsteps. She is the latest, greatest shark in the swimming pool, headed for me above all the other swimmers. I have to dart out of her sight.

I am winning. Not that exciting. Nothing actually matters. This is all insignificant. It is time for me to project some more of my feelings onto the animal beneath me. The Lion is deep in thought, and is now speaking. "Lara, we"re winning."
"Yes, extremely exciting."
"All thanks to me. Bring me some fermented mare"s milk on a silver platter."
"In fact, it"s all thanks to one of your "mates" for depositing Devan on the floor."
I think back to the innocence of start camp. Other competitors had lent me their kit, appalled at how badly equipped I was. They had given me their advice, shocked at how naive I was. Now, armed with their knowledge, I am beating them. Pangs of guilt wriggle into my head.

The northern side of the mountain has a different ecosystem. The grass is bright green. If I were a grass eater, I would begin dining on such stuff immediately. But the Lion is as mad as I have become. He is not of the species his appearance implies. He has no interest in my attempts to coax Michelin-starred grass down his long throat. Nor does he desire water. He marches on down the mountain through the long green, insisting on a canter. We are going to fail the hydration test at the next station.

Half an hour later we stand on a separate hill descent observing the valley below. A river moves through the land like an electric snake. The sun trumpets down onto the flat plains, the distant mountains shrinking under his music. The Lion leaps off the hillside and canters me down into Station 15, where he passes the vet within five minutes.

The most talented invariably come with a difficult attitude. Despite his early divergence, the Lion recorded the fastest time for that leg of the race.

Where is the argumentative Lion now? He roams the mountains and plains of the Mongolian steppe, anonymous, and so do the 24 other horses I rode. Each is unaware of the human constructed race in which we competed. This was the humbling thought when I crossed the finish line.