Farmas-Griffith at a rest stop during a safari across the Namib Desert.

Westchester resident prepares for upcoming Mongol Derby

By Alex Hutton

If you think a short horse race like the Kentucky Derby is grueling, try racing horses for an additional 600 miles or so.

That’s what Westchester resident Bianca Farmas-Griffith will be doing when she competes in the Mongol Derby, an annual endurance race across the Mongolian wilderness sometimes referred to as the most difficult horse race in the world. The trek is approximately 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) and Farmas-Griffith is scheduled to participate in August 2021.

Fascinated by horses and equestrianism for most of her life, Farmas-Griffith began riding horses during a childhood vacation to Poland.

“When I came home, I didn’t want to stop,” she recalled. “And the rest is history.”

Farmas-Griffith has been riding ever since. She has developed close relationships with the horses she owns, but the Mongol Derby is completely different. It’s run on wild horses that the racers don’t know and thus requires a specific kind of training with horses that are conditioned for endurance. To prepare, Farmas-Griffith works with a trainer who has run the Mongol Derby herself.

“She has these weekend boot camps where you pay a flat fee and you can go up there and go camping essentially, and they provide you with meals, horses and training,” Farmas-Griffith said. “It’s been my gateway into endurance.”

Farmas-Griffith was drawn to the Mongol Derby because it combined her passions of equestrianism and travel. She has taken a number of safari trips to Africa where the travel is done on horseback. It was there where she first learned about the race and became intrigued after meeting a woman who had participated twice. Farmas-Griffith began learning more about the competition through social media and eventually connected with race organizers.

At first she found it fascinating, but her conversations with the woman made her deeply uncertain about competing.

“The description of her experience just turned me off completely,” Farmas-Griffith said. “I didn’t understand why people wanted to be in pain voluntarily. So I had just kind of followed it.”
However, Farmas-Griffith became more adventurous as she got older, and she slowly but surely changed her mind. As she approached her 30th birthday, she decided to go for it.
The application process is rigorous and selective — hundreds of people apply, but only 40 are selected each year. The steps to apply include an online questionnaire, video and photo submissions, and a face-to-face interview.

“I got in and, you know, you have second thoughts,” Farmas-Griffith explained. “But I’m definitely going to do it.”

In addition to the training for a difficult endurance race, Farmas-Griffith has also had to deal with a changing schedule. She was originally slated to compete in the 2020 Mongol Derby, which was postponed due to the pandemic. This edition of the race was rescheduled to July 2021, which would be one of two Derbies that year, along with the regularly planned version held every year in August.

The July race was then canceled, with riders given the option to race in August or in 2022. Having been training since late 2018 and eager to participate, Farmas-Griffith chose the quicker route. That training has consisted of several stages. Early on, she worked out by herself before working with trainers. During the pandemic, she has returned to working out alone.
Farmas-Griffith has also worked to maintain her mental fortitude, which she thinks will be one of the biggest keys to a successful race. Her mental health took a hit when the 2020 Derby was delayed.

“We all had a pretty good idea that the inevitable news was coming, but I think just hearing it out loud really devastated me,” she said. “I do think I’m in a better place now.”
Farmas-Griffith is excited for the challenge ahead, a race where less than half of the participants even cross the finish line.

“To finish is to win,” Farmas-Griffith said.

The Mongol Derby combines so many things that Farmas-Griffith loves — horses, nature, adventure and adrenaline — and she is looking forward to all of it.

“Being able to do something like that will really prove to myself how much I can endure and what I am capable of, and it just allows you to grow and become more wise and in tune with your life,” Farmas-Griffith said. “I’m ready for the adventure of a lifetime. I’m ready to be alone with horses, wind and sun.”