I had read about a fabled event where men pit themselves against horses in a near marathon distance race across the hills of Wales. Little did I know that one day I would actually be taking part: in a turn of events about a week before the 35th running of the Man v Horse Marathon I got a call from Pete Rees asking if I wanted to give it a go. Of course I couldn’t resist the temptation.
The Man v Horse Marathon began in 1980 following an argument between two locals discussing the relative merits of men and horses running over mountainous terrain… and essentially who would win in a race. The first running of the race was shortly after, with the horses winning easily.
The course was changed in 1982 to provide a more even match resulting year on year in very close finishes – sometimes with the horse winning by only a few seconds. It took 25 years before Huw Lobb became the first man to beat all the horses. I am told the course has changed further still since then but at least we could start our running of the race with the knowledge that it could be done.
Pondering how anyone could ever beat a horse and on asking a few previous competitors I learnt that the horses speed is matched by a runners ability to run on rough terrain. Pete also noticed during the race that horses are a bit useless running downhill… something I had plenty of practice in from running the Welsh 1000m Peaks Race the week before. The horses would also have to take a mile detour around some especially uneven ground and stop for a vet check at the half way mark. Thinking the runners have got it in the bag? With a top speed of a horse at 54.7mph I certainly didn’t think so!
I decided not to think about the horses and just concentrate on the runners. And I was told some good runners were there, including the legendary Huw Lobb and two other past winners of the event. So as we got started I was pleased that I could hold the pace of the leading two up the first long climb. As we reached the first technical section of running the pace dropped and I felt comfortable. We ran as a three until the first big downhill, I let my legs go and enjoyed the felling of bounding down the soft grassy slope at full speed. At the bottom I looked back to see I had built something like a 100m lead on the descent. I hadn’t planned to be in the lead, especially not this early but I wasn’t going to wait so I ploughed on through the first relay changeover point in first place.
The hills were nothing compared to what faced me a week before in Snowdonia but did put a serious dent in my km times. Trying to manage my effort levels I worked cautiously up the hills and let fly down them. My lead grew and I started to flirt with the idea I might actually win this historic event.
Through the halfway point and the vet check (for the horses) I was still going strong but a niggle of a thought had just lodged in my brain…I needed the toilet. As I ran I thought I could hear the thunder of hooves in the hills, this made me keep checking over my shoulder, often expecting to see a 4 legged beast come charging by. I now definitely needed the toilet and didn’t want to get caught by a horse with my pants down. I quickly took care of business a couple of meters from the track and was thankful for the fact this wasn’t the London Marathon and that there was a nice handful of moss within easy reach. Back out running, still in the lead and feeling a bit lighter I dug in for the second half.
Still feeling strong, working the up-hills and enjoying the downs, through the second relay changeover point I was still leading but always nervous as to where my competitors were. The horses start 15 minutes behind the runners for safety reasons but I was still expecting to get over taken at some point. As I ran a small road section someone in a car shouted there was someone “20 yards behind and closing”. Swearing at myself I couldn’t believe I had let myself think I could actually win. I dug in and upped my pace a little, after a km and a straighter section of track I looked behind only to find no one in sight… the word gullible sprung to mind.
The following section was a wide gravel road through a forest. I zoned out and managed to take a wrong turn coming to a dead end… shit! I doubled back, again swearing at myself. After 400m uphill I came to the turn I should of made but in my confusion took another wrong turn and started running the wrong way round the course, after 200m I met another competitor coming towards me. After a short conversation I made a U turn and was back on track. The guy I had met was in a relay team and informed me I was still winning.
The scare had shook me up, but with under 12km to go I could afford to up the pace and slowly start to empty the tanks. It was at this point the first horse overtook me. It was a sight to behold as the horse, seemingly effortlessly, charged up a hill that had reduced me to my lowest gear. To add insult to injury the rider jokingly offered me a lift.
I was sure now one horse had caught me I would have a steady stream of horses come flying by. As I negotiated the final tracks, paths and fields none did. I finished something like 5 minutes behind the horse which meant he had beasted me by about 20 minutes. Three other horses ended with a faster time than myself, giving me a final position of 5th…but 1st human (without a horse). Happy is an understatement, I had only been thinking of it as a race against the other runners, so as far as I was concerned I had won.
Drinking a litre of chocolate milk and getting myself a ‘Horseplay’ ale to recover I set about waiting for Pete to come in. The race was just shy of a marathon distance but was far more difficult due to the terrain. Pete had never ran this far but did amazingly well to finish strong after visiting what he described as “some very dark places”. I think he learnt too many gels or food is better than too little.
Another race completed and I’m still on the countdown to the 10 Peaks Challenge at the end of June. I’m definitely feeling strong for it with two weeks to go and might even make another trip down to Wales next weekend for Dirty Dozen Obstacle Race in Usk. Whole Earth Foods was the sponsor of the Man v Horse. I spoke to the guys on the day, especially about their peanut butter. I first tried peanut butter for when running after my sister gave me a sachet from her army ration pack. Apparently it’s really good, especially for recovery with protein. It’s organic and a natural source of slow-burning energy so I might take some on my10 peaks challenge next weekend which has a course record of over 13.5 hours! Check it out http://wholeearthfoods.com/