Inside the Tiny Welsh Town Where Men Can Run As Fast As Horses
In a tiny town in mid-Wales, just north of the Brecon Beacons, there takes place one of the most peculiar events in the endurance race calendar: the Man Vs Horse Marathon. MH travels to Powys to find out whether two legs can ever match four.
It is 45 minutes into the race when the front-runners first hear the rumble of horses’ hooves behind them. A woman’s voice rises above the tumult – “Coming through! Woah, girl, woah!” – followed by a high-pitched whinny. The men at the back of the column turn to find a horse rearing above them, legs prancing and nostrils flared. As the nearest runners dive off the path into a nearby bog, the rider falls to the ground, landing on her shoulder and rolling away.
For a second, runners and riders alike hold their breaths. When horses and people collide, the results can be fatal. But moments later, the apparently unharmed rider leaps to her feet, grabs the reins and expertly brings her steed under control. “Sorry about that, everyone OK?” she smiles. “Lovely day. See you at the finish line!” And with that, she remounts and gallops off through the stream, disappearing over the crest of a hill.
The scene is Llanwrtyd Wells, a small town in mid-Wales on the River Irfon. With a population of just 850, it is officially the second smallest town in the UK. Historically known as a spa town, today it’s perhaps more renowned for two of Britain’s most unorthodox sporting events: the World Bog Snorkeling Championship and the annual Whole Earth Man Vs Horse Marathon. While both events hold a certain oddball intrigue, it is the latter MH has come to observe. The event – which at 22 miles long is technically not quite a marathon – starts in the town centre before looping through hilly farm tracks, worn footpaths, free-flowing brooks, emerald dales and open moorland. It is against this arcadian backdrop that humans pit their wits against horses, and sometimes – against all odds – finish the victors.
UP AND OVER
Vying man against beast is as old as sport itself. Roman gladiators fought lions. Matadors take on bulls. The American sprinter Jesse Owens once raced a horse over 100m (and won). Today’s event seeks to keep the eccentric tradition alive. The idea came about late one November night in 1979, at The Neuadd Arms, when landlord Gordon Green found himself in an argument with a local champion huntsman. “I contended a man would win over a long-enough distance,” Green recalls. “But the other chap wasn’t having any of it. So I said to him, ‘Well, there’s only one way to settle this: a race!’” The first contest took place seven months later.
How can a man outrun a horse? Well, horses may be larger, stronger and faster in a sprint, but it turns out humans are not as inferior as you might think. “We are the tortoises, not the hares, of the animal kingdom,” says Dan Lieberman, professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard University. “We have all kinds of evolutionary adaptations, from our heads to our toes, that make us superlative runners – abilities our ancestors developed two million years ago through persistence hunting when they chased animals down until they dropped dead.”
Indeed, our propensity for longdistance running has given us our springy Achilles tendons, short toes, arched feet and a nuchal ligament at the back of our necks (to keep our heads still as we run). Then there’s the way we keep cool. “Millions of years ago, we swapped our fur for sweat glands, allowing us to dump heat while we run,” Lieberman says. “Horses can’t do that. They need to pant to cool down, which is impossible to do at a gallop.” This is why race officials insist on a 15-minute ‘vet break’ 11 miles into the race to make sure the horses’ body temperatures stay within safe levels.
It also means hot weather favours the runners. Accordingly, it was sweltering when Huw Lobb became the first human to win the race in 2004, and again when German Florian Holzinger became the second to do so in 2007. But so far, that’s it. As of 2015, 34 out of a total 36 races had been won by horse power.
In Llanwrtyd Wells this race is serious business. But preparation differs markedly across the field of competitors. Geoff Allen, 64, has won the race four times, twice on his Egyptian Arab stallion, Leo. He prepares the night before competitions with a few pints of cider. “I don’t have to do any work,” he muses in the local pub, “just hold on tight and tell the horse where to go. It’s the runners that do the hard graft. And some of them are pretty quick.”
Early next morning, 600 runners and 50 horses and riders mill about outside the same pub, where the race traditionally starts. Like their two-legged competitors, the horses come in myriad shapes and sizes. Some are elegant and thin like Leo; others look like they might be better-suited to pulling a cart in a Constable painting. Most of the runners are experienced amateurs or semi-pros for whom Man Vs Horse is just another race in their summer schedule.
Welshman Hywel Davies is a 41-year-old running coach, Iron Man triathlete and one of the favourites to win on two feet. “I’ve just got back from two weeks in the Alps where I did a lot of fatigued off-road running,” he says. “That’s key for an event like this because the downhills are what really kill you. I’ve also been running a lot of steep alpine cols so my legs don’t give in at the bottom.”
Davies loves the “purity” of Man Vs Horse. “It’s not like other marathons with water stations every two miles and people throwing gels at you. You don’t need any of that. I ate a quarter of a jar of peanut butter and a banana this morning. That’s it. A high-fat diet fuels you to run at an even pace for a long time. And if I need a drink, I’ll stop at a stream.”
Brothers Gary and Ashley Buckle have taken part in Man Vs Horse every year for the last 19. Experience has taught them that training is not as vital as luck. “This is pure sport,” Gary contends, running through his warm-up lunges. “For one thing, the terrain is scary. It can be wet, hot, muddy. You can slip, slide, fall down a hill, not to mention get trampled by a horse.”
“I nearly got swept away in a river once,” his brother Ashley cheerily affirms. “We do it for the kick,” Gary adds. “By which I mean the adrenaline, of course, not a boot from a horse.” In actual fact, over the race’s 37-year history, apart from the odd broken collarbone endured by fallen runners, there have been miraculously few injuries.
The runners set off to a cheer at 11am, spectators lining the course. The horses set off 15 minutes later – a tactic to avoid scaring the animals in a melee of humans jostling to take an early lead. The runners will have 15 minutes subtracted from their time at the finish to make up for this additional quarter of an hour’s toil.
At the eight-mile mark, the first horses have begun to overtake the runners on a fell. Hooves pound the muddy grass as legs wobble and people stumble. Bewildered sheep scatter as horses and runners pass in an amorphous, muddled mass. Davies passes along with a Buckle brother. But there’s still no sign of Allen, or his mount, Leo.
Finally, man and horse reappear, Allen shouting to his waiting son, “I took a wrong turn, didn’t I? I had my head down galloping and suddenly sheep started scrambling away from me. I thought, ‘This isn’t right’ and looked back to see nobody there. I can’t believe it.” As Allen Jr spurs his father on, one suspects that pre-race inebriation might not have been the wisest tactic.
A horse named Deliva Crianza, ridden by Lindsey Walters, ultimately wins the race in two hours 17 minutes (Allen and Leo will come 10th). Twenty minutes later, the fastest man crosses the line. It isn’t race-favourite Hywel Davies – who will finish in 11th place – but 28 year-old Londoner, Ross Macdonald, who incidentally works at an anti-doping agency. A regular triathlete and sub-10 hour Ironman athlete, Macdonald has long dreamed of besting a horse in a square go, until he found himself one of the unlucky runners to be almost trampled some two hours earlier.
“I actually caught that rider up on a more technical section later on, which is the first time I’ve ever overtaken a horse,” he laughs. “I repeated ‘Lovely day. See you at the finish!’ back to the rider, a bit full of myself, but she sped past me five minutes later!”
“It’s funny when they catch you,” he continues, his breath just about regained. “Your instinct is to run faster, but I was stupid to think I could ever outrun a horse.” Yet, in coming sixth overall, Ross has indeed managed to beat 45 out of 50 horses. “It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?” he reflects. “I run faster than horses. Well, some,” he says shaking his head as though the reality of what he’s just achieved doesn’t yet compute.
Despite Macdonald’s efforts, today marks yet another equestrian win. But with just five horses standing in the way of a third human victory, next year could very well be a different story.
In rural mid-Wales, the competitive balance between man and beast will continue for some time yet.