Meet Lara Prior-Palmer…
In 2013 Lara Prior-Palmer decided to enter the Mongol Derby on a whim. Described by Prior-Palmer as “a perfect hotchpotch of Snakes and Ladders and the Tour de France on unknown bicycles”, the race is usually defined as “the world’s longest and toughest horse race”. An annual competition of endurance and skill, the derby is a 1,000km race across the Mongolian grasslands which sees competitors from around the world ride 25 wild ponies each – a new horse for each of the 40k stages so the endurance falls on the humans, not horses. Most of the 35-odd racers don’t make it across the finish line.
Driven by her own restlessness, stubbornness and a lifelong love of horses, Prior-Palmer raced for seven days through extreme heat and life-threatening storms, catching a few hours of sleep here and there at the homes of nomadic families across the plains. Battling spells of illness, dehydration and exhaustion, she found she had nothing to lose. In one of the derby’s most surprising results, she went on to become the youngest-ever champion and the first woman to win the race.
Learning about the derby is fascinating…
Riders often spend years preparing to compete in the Mongol Derby, a course that recreates the horse messenger system developed by Genghis Khan. Carefree Prior-Palmer was utterly unprepared for what awaited her: she had no formal training, ate all her emergency snacks out of boredom before the race even began and had only one outfit to wear for the entirety of the seven-day event. At the start of the book, we witness her lack of knowledge about what lies ahead through the bemused reactions of her follow competitors, in particular a fellow 19-year-old named Devan Horn, a bolshy Texan who spends most of the race well ahead of the pack, pushing her horses beyond the extreme.
And so, we, the readers, learn about Mongolian ways of life and the structure of the competition as Prior-Palmer does at each stage of her escapade. Each dawn we witness her ride out again on a fresh horse – at first with others, later alone – scrambling up mountains, swimming through rivers, crossing woodlands and wetlands, arid dunes and the open steppe, as American television crews chase her in their jeeps, documenting her every stumble, wrong turn and moment of uncertainty. Until the race’s closing days, she does all this with a massive smile.
Notes on her childhood and fascinating snippets of Mongolian history are weaved thoughtfully through the narrative. “Horses have always been siblings to me, pressing their noses against my back and breathing out winter breath, slowly trusting,” she reveals. She also explains how in Mongolia there are, apparently, more love songs about horses than women. This is demonstrated by the willingness with which the nomadic families take Prior-Palmer and her horses in for the night. These passages offer some of the book’s most human interactions, one where language is no barrier. “I was not there long enough to be fundamentally changed,” Prior-Palmer tells SheerLuxe. “But I came back with new ideas about the friendliness of houses and people, and whether, in the rural British countryside, we would be as open about having strangers to stay as the people I'd met on the Mongolian steppe.”
This book isn’t just for sports fans…
For someone who takes great pains to recount how unacademic she was at school and demonstrate how ill-prepared she was for the challenge, Prior-Palmer is an astonishingly astute storyteller. Across the pages, it really feels like you’re racing alongside her as the narrative canters between her inner thoughts and beautiful descriptions of the vistas around her. “The journey was complicated — struggle and joy together — with all these whisperings beneath it,” Prior-Palmer tells us. “Writing it down helped me to access those layers, and also to reinhabit the whole thing — I seem incapable of letting go.” Unsurprisingly, she hasn’t forgotten the fleeting hours with the 25 horses she rode, who she always describes with warmth – even her slow, unwilling accomplices.
Despite an having an attitude she describes as “delusional”, no experience of the GPS provided for the race and her last-place position on day one, Prior-Palmer went on to win the whole thing. We won’t reveal how, but we will say this: if you’re after a first-person account which tackles endurance against the odds – packaged up poetically – Rough Magic is the summer read for you.
Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer is available to buy now.