When the world’s wildest, longest horse race begins a world away on Wednesday, Prairieville will be represented at the starting line.
And, if Heather "Flash" Accardo isn’t first across the finish line several days from now, it won’t be for lack of trying.
Accardo, a dental hygienist by day, horsewoman by weekend, is one of 40 competitors in the 2018 Mongol Derby, which sets a route through Mongolia’s rugged, lightly populated terrain. The Asian country's terrain, organizers say, is likely to include mountain passes, valleys, wooded hills, river crossings, wetlands, sandy semiarid dunes, rolling hills, dry riverbeds and open steppes or grassy plains.
The 1,000-kilometer course (roughly 621 miles), which was kept secret from riders until days ago, is strenuous enough that just completing it is considered an accomplishment; riders have nine days to complete it. But Accardo is aiming higher.
“We’re planning to give 100 percent every day,” said Accardo, 37. “We’re going to ride as hard and fast as we can.”
For the race, Accardo has teamed up with Michael Gascon, a 28-year-old rider from Poplarville, Mississippi. Teamwork can come in handy since there are many unknowns along the way, including their mounts. Riders will be aboard unfamiliar Mongolian horses that Accardo describes as semi-feral. Gascon, she added, trains horses for a living.
“I think between the two of us we have a chance of being very competitive,” she said. “With his background of dealing with wild horses and my background of endurance racing, I know how to get these horses through these vet checks. If you don’t pass the vet check, you get time penalties. So, I think we both have knowledge that’s going to help us work together really well.”
Rather than a single trail, the Mongol Derby gives the riders checkpoints about 25 miles apart where they must stop and get new horses. They can navigate as they choose between the checkpoints, which also provide food, refreshment and, if desired, a place to spend the night. To protect the horses, they can only be ridden between 7 a.m. and 8:30 p.m., so riders must stop no matter where they are on the course, and a GPS device ensures compliance.
“We don’t plan on sleeping at the checkpoints,” Accardo said. “If we have an extra hour to ride, we plan to ride as long and as far as possible to the very last minute we have to stop. If we can’t find a Mongolian family to stay with, we’re going to be camping out under the stars. … You just have to be prepared for anything, basically.”
Her progress and that of other riders can be followed on a live tracker at the race website theadventurists.com/mongol-derby. There also will be a Twitter feed twitter.com/mongolderbylive. Mongolia is 13 hours ahead of Louisiana.