The Mongol Derby is officially the World’s Longest Horse Race, which takes place across 1000kms of pristine Mongolia steppe every August
The remoteness of the location, with virtually no cellular coverage, and the sophistication of the back up system, with veterinary and medical support required all the way up the course, places a huge premium on reliable satellite communication. In addition, the race enjoys a very loyal and enthusiastic following, placing a high demand on the organisers, The Adventurists, to deliver updates and media from the field.
The event combines ancient and modern in a truly unique and highly challenging fashion. Whilst herders scan the horizons for their horses, and our riders on their backs, and keep up a well-practised ‘bush telegraph’ of who is where and how they are doing, the race itself, and all of the sophisticated back up involved to set it up and keep it running, relies very heavily indeed on satellite technology. All riders and crew carry trackers, and co-ordinating that location data in the office is Katy Willings, the Race Director since 2011.
We caught up with her to see how the equipment had performed and contributed to the event.
“Seamless event management across 100s of kilometres thanks to the Iridium satellite phones”
“AST and the Mongol Derby AST have been the communications partner for the Mongol Derby since 2011, providing both equipment and consultancy on how best to meet the needs of this unique event. This year AST provided the following equipment to the Adventurists on a sponsored basis:
- 1x BGAN EXPLORER 500
- 2x Iridium 9555
- 2x Iridium 9575
I act as the nerve centre for the safe(ish) and fair running of the Mongol Derby. All of the location data for the crews and the riders is channelled through our operations room in Ulaanbaatar, and all of the communications from the field are routed via our office too. To the extent that mastery over the field is possible, I am the all-seeing eye out there. My vision is augmented significantly thanks to the equipment we have from AST.
Ordinary race administration - for example, telling vets how many riders are approaching their station so that they can have horses ready, or moving them to their next post for duty - can mean hundreds of messages per day, relaying incoming and outgoing riders and times.
The horse welfare on the event is absolutely paramount, and at times we have urgent and nuanced conversations with the referees and the vets on the field about certain riders, for example if they are travelling very fast, or their horses are repeatedly coming into the horse stations fatigued. We have a penalty system in place to incentive respectful riding, and where we have data that suggests this is being tested, we need to get eyes on the rider and horse in question, immediately. So, we need a clear, quality line of communication - to relay speed data, discuss any penalty situations, evidence from other riders or herders.
The race can be won and lost on penalties, and so we really do owe it to the riders, and all of the stakeholders of the event, to have frank and detailed discussions before issuing them.
This is all done under enormous time pressure; one rider can cover one leg in 90 minutes to 2 hours on a fast horse. If it takes us 30 minutes to gather possible ‘red flag’ behaviour from the tracking data, we have just an hour to relay this to the nearest referee, or vet, and get them in position to see what is going on. Where the field can spread hundreds of kilometres, and horses can sometimes be faster than Landcruisers, we need to get a good line out, first time.
The external antenna supplied with the Iridium handsets make this possible; I can be discussing the penalty situation with the expert in the field, whilst they are travelling to the location, since the comms work perfectly from inside the vehicles. This is a God send - if our referees and vets could not talk and travel simultaneously the event would collapse very quickly.
After a single day’s racing the field spread over 80kms, and at its peak there was some 400km between the front runner and the rear guard. This presents a huge challenge to the team directing the race, as the back up crews of vets and medics must be deployed at intervals behind, among and in front of the riders, both for ordinary race duties such as health checking the horses, and for emergency response.
The 9575 and the 9555 are extremely user- friendly for first time sat phone users, as most of my vets and event staff are. This is important because it allows the teams in the field to focus on their jobs, and not hesitate when contact with HQ is needed.
When people are under pressure I believe communications is the first thing to suffer, and to have reliable, user-friendly equipment goes a long way to alleviating this tendency. On an event like the Derby, where crews may not see each other from the launch right through to the end (if they are deployed at opposite ends of the field, for example), feeling ‘in touch’, even without personal contact, is vital.
AST’s support of the Derby, which extends to great value voice bundles, means we do not have to count the cost of these communications so keenly, and can go the extra mile in HQ to make the field teams really feel like a team, with general status updates and stories from the field, as well as specific instructions to individual crews. Often, crews must rescue each other, and defer and support to each other even if they are inheriting a difficult situation from another team. Being part of a very solid communications network underpins this.
Every year I admit new crew members to the Derby family. It’s natural for them to check the rules and protocols, and find their feet over the first few days of the event. Most are experts in their field, but very few will have experience in the field in Mongolia. Again, having a simple and pain free way to check with the Chief in HQ give them the reassurance they need to assimilate quickly and confidently to their respective roles.
We had a new medical partner this year, Iqarus, who delivered an outstanding level of support and emergency response on the field this summer.
Andrei Gavrilut is the Head of International Training for Iqarus and was our fast response paramedic on the field during the Derby. “It is easy to underestimate the remoteness of Mongolia, and the challenges of emergency handling, medical or otherwise, in such an environment. In 2017 we answered 36 separate emergency incidents during the Mongol Derby - if a rider calls for help, it is always assumed to be medical, until we know otherwise, so the closest medic is always one of two crews deployed to an emergency. Hence the medics are some of the most mobile, and busiest, crews on the field, with no fixed position. We need to be deployed, and stood down, at very short notice. We need to constantly make plans for the spread of the field and any riders we know to be deteriorating, as well as be ready to respond to an emergency. This relies entirely on reliable satellite comms; taking a latitude and longitude, acknowledging all messages relating to the incident, making, revising and relaying plans with HQ and the whole medical team. We got cell reception only every couple of days, when we would need to get fuel in the towns. All of our emergency race duties were brokered and managed using the Iridium satellite phones. These were robust and fit for purpose. We were proud to wear AST’s branding on the crew shirts. They are an integral and indispensable part of every crew on the field.”
“Non-emergency updates are just as important for the event. Enter the newshounds”
When comms are difficult, they naturally tail off. The equipment provided by AST to the Mongol Derby 2017 made news correspondents out of all of the field crews, which adds so much to the event.
Whilst horse and rider safety can be managed with relatively streamlined communications, in order to really know what is going on out there in the race, who is flourishing, who is flagging, the dramas, the great recoveries, the unlikely alliances and break aways , we need commentary from the crews who are out there in sight of the riders.
The crews became invaluable commentators, allowing me in the office in HQ to give followers of the Derby round the world genuine updates and interesting commentary on the adventure as it unfolded. I am convinced that without the equipment to make this newsfeed a manageable, enjoyable exercise, it would not have happened. As it was I was able to publish on our Twitter feed, @mongolderbylive, almost live updates texted or called in by the crews, and the extra interest this generated among the public has been priceless. Non- essential communications like these are a luxury, but one which makes enormous business sense for The Adventurists; following the Derby in real time is the best possible marketing for future editions, and this year’s armchair followers are frequently next year’s riders.
During the Derby our Twitter following increased by 35% in 2017; as with all social media, the more frequent, engaging and relevant your posts, the more your audience with gather and engage, and so it proved. With almost constant commentary from HQ, and more nuanced and detailed reports gathered by our in-house reporter Michelle Tanaka, we were able to satisfy, educate and entertain a highly demanding, specialised and seasonal audience.
The fodder for this newsfeed was the snippets delivered hot and fresh from the field, all via the Iridium sat phones. And the photos delivered by Julian Herbert using the BGAN.
"World class photo updates shared daily thanks to the BGAN EXPLORER 500. They say a picture is worth 1000 words."
The photos we were able to broadcast were indeed of a very high value, attracting a huge amount of interaction on social media, and helping bring to life this most private and enigmatic of experiences to a global audience. Our roving photographer and BGAN user was Julian Herbert, a highly experienced and decorated correspondent and sports photographer.“The BGAN was brilliant; very easy to set up and use. We had no problems sending over images, uplinks were almost instant and data speeds were very good, so all in all it was invaluable”.
Having reliable equipment allowed him to focus on the task in hand and document this amazing adventure for the riders, The Adventurists, and the wider world. We are already seeing the commercial benefits, as entries flood in for the 2018 edition. From a sales perspective, having these images to illustrate the event as it happens is absolutely vital. We could run a logistically perfect event, and give the riders the experience of their lives,and still be a commercial failure, without the BGAN. The Derby is extremely expensive to stage, and to take part in, and the ability to truly showcase it, show what riders are paying for, has a direct and very noticeable impact on our level of interest for the following edition. This BGAN really is our marketing spend for the following year. If we can only show the event off, it sells itself. I’d describe the BGAN as priceless, but really the price is around half of the revenues for any one edition.
In short, I cannot recommend the hardware, and the good solid advice that comes with it from the team at AST systems, highly enough. They work hard to make costs manageable for us as a small business and occasional user of the technology, they are always quick to suggest new solutions which may suit our needs. The technology they provide to The Mongol Derby underpins the entire event; the Derby is already a miracle of logistics, but it would be inconceivable without the communications systems supplied to us by AST.”
Katy Willings, Mongol Derby Chief 2017