Humans have been running for centuries, devising a variety of odd and generally painful forms of leg-moving activity to keep us active and amused. When running was no longer a necessity for survival, it became a sport. Cross country evolved. We started to run around tracks. On roads. Up mountains. Over fells. Along trails. We got bored. We needed a new challenge. Obstacle racing? Don’t be daft. That’ll never catch on. Let’s race animals! Our Stone Age forefathers chased and hunted animals. Let’s conquer them again – only this time we will outrun them. But what animal? Had this conversation been happening in June 2014 and not June 1980, the landlord of the Neuadd Arms Hotel in Llanwrytd Wells would have pulled out his iPhone, checked he had 3G, and found the Speed of Animals website.
He would have scrolled down the alphabetical list.
‘African bush elephant?’
‘Anything that we’re likely to find in mid-Wales, landlord?’
‘How about a horse? Plenty of those knocking about. Top speed of 54.7mph. Let’s see a runner beat Dobbin. It’s that or sheep…’
And then they all had a good laugh and ordered another round. Yet what could have been a we-were-so-drunk-last-night-we-talked-about-humans-racing-horses drinking story became the birth of the Man v Horse race.
(Or that’s the way I like to think it might have happened).
Fast forward 35 years and the 35th annual running of Man V Horse, the horses should have been quaking in their hooves. The top-end of the running race was strong. There was the great Huw Lobb, one of only two men to beat the horse in the 35 years of Man v Horse. Next to him was John Macfarlane, a runner who was around 30 seconds from beating the winning horse in 2008. Further back stood Jon Albon, the UK’s foremost obstacle racer who was fresh from winning the Welsh 1000m Peaks Race. And then there was probably the most famous athlete to grace the streets of this little Welsh town: four times Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington.
The runners departed first; the horses some 15 minutes later. Events were entirely predictable: Lobb led the way, Macfarlane was in pursuit, Albon was working his way through the pack. Wellington had probably been hoping she could have warmed up with a swim and a 100-mile bicycle ride. The course was a marvel, alternating between moorland trods and sweeping forestry tracks, but always going up or down. It demanded the poise of a fell runner, the speed of a road racer and the endurance of a marathoner. I was happily running in about seventh place (including relay runners, presumably), having overtaken Macfarlane, and was chasing down an athlete in a Blackheath and Bromley vest. (The race was awash with London-based club runners). It was not until about nine miles into the run, high on the moors, that a horse swept past, then another a couple of minutes later.
For miles I saw no other competitor. I had left the Blackheath vest behind. No horses came by. No other runners. I ran as hard as I could, revelling in the blissful tunnel vision that comes with racing. My race burst into life again at 16 miles. Looking up, at the top of a winding track, were two runners, the first I’d seen in an hour. One wore blue; one wore black and white. Behind me were two horses, the same two that had already passed and had presumably been held up by vets. The horses would catch me long before I would catch the runners. We congregated on a steep section of rough forestry track. I passed the runner in the black and white Pontypridd vest first; he had started to walk. Seconds later, I drifted by the runner in blue. I glanced to my left. It was Huw Lobb. The last time Lobb and I had been in the same race, unbeknown to both of us, he had beaten me by five minutes in a 10k road race.
I did not hang around to chat or dwell on this turn of events. Working hard to the top of the hill, then flying down a smoother section of track, I gazed back to see I had already taken out at least 300 metres on Lobb. Running is not a sport you can fluke. Events within a race may transpire to be fortunate, but a runner is not lucky. The best will out. That is why only a runner will appreciate the significance of overtaking Lobb – or someone like Lobb – and the burden it then carries. I am a good club runner who was having a good race; I am not Huw Lobb with a marathon best of 2.14.
The race thereafter resumed its oddly lonely feel. No-one in front. No-one behind. No horses. This wasn’t a bad thing. It was not until mile 22 – when the route awfully climbs through a sloping field of long grass – that any further horses would overtake. I saw runners too, but they were stick men several minutes back. The objective now was to break three hours – albeit not a marathon three hours, but a 23.6 miles three hours. Once back on road, I assumed I’d stay on road, only to be directed down a track to another river crossing, the widest and deepest of the race. I was touching the far bank when I slipped backwards into the water, and then laboured, dripping wet, up a rise to meet the road again. I could hear the finish, smell the finish, but I could not see it. At last, with seconds fading and legs flailing, I was directed onto a field and very quickly across a grassy finish line, half a minute better than three hours.
Horse power had won for the 33rd time in 35 years, with Jeff Allen’s Leo (2.23) overcoming Jon Albon’s legs (2.42). It wasn’t even close. The results take some puzzling over. I was 14th. Remove nine horses and one relay team, and I was fourth, ahead of 30 horses. Even so, the combined efforts of Albon, Lobb (whose shoe fell apart some miles from the finish to add to his misery), Macfarlane, Wellington (who finished in 3.07) and the rest of us could not vanquish the best of the horses. If I can be profound after my earlier sarcasm, I would venture that it will not hurt for humans to be put in their place and reminded – in the literal and metaphorical form of the horse – of the raw power wielded by nature. We are meant to lose.