Her Own Finish Line

Jess Mencer Peláez ’05 spent months preparing for a grueling ride across Mongolia. Was it worth the risk?

by Jane Falla

Read the first part of Jess Mencer Peláez ’05's story, "Grabbing Life By the Reins."
Dusk was descending on day two of a 1,000-kilometer horse race across the isolated steppes and mountains of Mongolia just as Jess Mencer Peláez ’05 and two riders neared the fifth urtuu, one of twenty-five stations strung across the landscape like Genghis Khan’s legendary postal system.Jess Mencer Pelaez
The trio was among thirty-four riders competing in the annual Mongol Derby, the world’s longest and most challenging horse race. That day they advanced 120 kilometers (75 miles) despite a host of setbacks. As darkness fell, Peláez rode ahead of her companions to scope out the proximity of the urtuu. She crested a hill and dismounted her feisty black horse, Anthracite.
A local man on a motorbike rode up to Peláez in the dark. What she initially thought was a friendly greeting turned into lewd gestures requiring no translation. As she led Anthracite away, the man circled her on his bike, threatening.
“You have that initial sensation of self-preservation and the fight or flight instinct—but when you can’t fight and you can’t run, you have to go to another plan,” says Peláez. “You have to let your brain take over and do what it does best, which is figure problems out.”
Her riding companions were nowhere to be seen. She pushed the help button on her GPS, reached for her knife, and moved off-road. She extinguished her headlamp, trying to blend into the amplified darkness. Another bike appeared with two passengers. They turned off their headlight as they approached. That’s when Peláez knew she had to get back on her horse.
Derby racehorses weigh roughly 1,000 pounds. They’re semiwild and nearly impossible to mount without help. Anthracite bolted twice, leaving Peláez “hanging on for dear life.” Strung along behind the saddle, she managed to stop the horse a third time—a feat she attributes to twenty-two years of riding experience. “I put everything I had to getting in the saddle, because that was the most important thing in my world at that moment.”
Peláez arrived at the urtuu physically unharmed and took the next day to recover. On day four she returned to the saddle, but the ride was marred by lightning, thunderstorms, and freezing rain. The challenges had piled up, leaving her numb. “We were riding through a valley bordered on both sides by a low alpine environment. We saw a wild stallion with an incredible flowing mane and tail herding his mares and foals up a mountain slope through a field of wildflowers—it was gorgeous.” Still, Peláez was unmoved.
“I realized I wasn’t appreciating this . . . and it wasn’t worth it to be doing something so, so risky without getting anything out of it.” Only eighteen riders completed the ten-day race, and Peláez wasn’t among them.
After forty-eight hours of soul-searching, she decided to drop out. Despite the months of training, the $10,000 to participate, and her teammates’ efforts to convince her to stay, she wanted nothing more than to go home to Australia to be with her husband, Carlos, and her pets.
“When you make a difficult decision, you don’t have to justify it, but you have to be able to rationalize it,” she says. “You just have to be able to say, ‘Here are my reasons.’ And if they’re not good reasons, then you don’t make that decision.”
Peláez knows to trust her instincts. She has scaled mountains, stood atop volcanoes, and travels extensively. She expects more opportunities ahead, and she’ll retain the practice that she encourages others to follow.
“When you are given an unusual opportunity, even if you’re worried about the outcome, always say yes and see where it takes you,” she says, “and make sure that your whole heart and whole mind are with you saying ‘yes.’”
Jane Falla is assistant editor, alumnae communications
SAQ Winter 2012-13