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Running with the horses: Man v Horse 2014

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?’

‘Black mamba?’

‘Coyote?’

‘Galapagos tortoise?’

‘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.

Results here.

@MuirJonny

Start

Started

Horse

Jonny Rick

Re-visiting Great Rhos (and an explanation to Summits on the Air)

Day 28 of Heights of Madness was spent on Great Rhos, the 660-metre high point of the mid-Welsh county of Radnorshire. On the summit, I spoke to an aficionado – Tupperware man, I called him – of a group called Summits on the Air. I mention this now as I can see from this discussion that Tupperware man has been traced. Tupperware man is Peter. In hindsight, I was harsh on Peter, harsher on Summits on the Air. Your pursuit is no more odd than a man cycling and walking between the highest points of the UK’s 92 counties. The contents of the conversation Peter and I had were accurate. My poetic licence may have ran away a little. And I regret using the word ‘drool’. Here is what I wrote:

Rising three miles to the northwest of the tenth-century village of New Radnor is Great Rhos, the green dome summit of Radnorshire. A multitude of signs warn the walker about a great swathe of land on the mountain’s southern slopes, which is used as an ammunition testing area. Walkers must not stray onto the land when red flags are hoisted, the signs instruct. Today, the red flags were flying, but presumably the hundreds of sheep grazing in the ‘danger area’ were not at risk of being struck by a flying bullet. Still, I wasn’t going to take the chance and followed a grassy track that led around the perimeter of the firing zone.

On the Black Mountain look-a-like summit, I came across a middle-aged man in a flat cap and raincoat, who was in the process of lowering an aerial and packing up radio equipment. Each item was carefully ordered into individual Tupperware containers before he put them all into one large Tupperware box. Then he pulled out yet another item of Tupperware containing what resembled a beetroot sandwich. As he didn’t look like he was going to tell me what he was up to, I asked.

‘I thought you’d want to know,’ Tupperware man laughed smugly. ‘People always do.’

I instantly wished I had not let curiosity get the better of me.

‘I use the radio to talk to people on other mountains. It’s called Summits on the Air,’ he explained. ‘You must have heard of it?’

‘Um… no.’

Summits on the Air sounds like it could be the next extreme-sport craze. In reality, it involves a group of walkers who communicate with one another from specific high points across the globe. ‘It combines my two interests,’ he said, ‘walking and radios.’

Each qualifying mountain is designated a score. Ben Nevis, for instance, earns ten because of its height, while the lower Aran Fawddwy gets eight and Great Rhos just four. However, the scoring system appears somewhat biased in the favour of British hills and mountains. While a walker can earn ten points for climbing Scafell Pike or Ben Nevis, ten points in Switzerland is harder to come by. You have to climb the 3,970-metre Eiger to earn that. Why does this matter you ask? Well, there are prestigious prizes on offer. Top mountain chasers are presented with the Mountain Goat award and the losers get the Shack Sloth plaque.

Tupperware man said he’d been on the summit for 90 minutes and in that time had spoken to Ben Nevis. ‘I mean someone on Ben Nevis,’ he quickly corrected himself.

I wondered what they could possibly talk about.

‘Hello, Great Rhos here, anybody there?’

‘This is Ben Nevis. What’s the view like?’

‘Wonderful. Yours?’

‘Great.’

‘What’s the weather like?’

‘Windy.’

‘Windy here too.’

‘Better go – I’ve got the Matterhorn on the other line.’

‘I’m doing the county tops,’ I said.

‘Oh right,’ Tupperware man acknowledged without a shred of excitement.

‘On my own, continuous journey, just cycling and walking – in 92 days.’

‘I think I’ll head over to Gwaunceste Hill. Only three points though.’

Having failed to impress Tupperware man, I left him alone on the summit to drool over his next hill and descended to New Radnor.

Heights map

10 inspirational places to run in Britain

Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

A mountain amid a city, a volcanic plug, a tourist honeypot. Run over grassy ramparts, slip beneath the towering Salisbury Crags, try not to stop running on a steep, winding, unending staircase, scramble the final steps to the rocky, breezy summit of Arthur’s Seat. While you are unlikely to be alone, you ran here, with every uphill step heightening the sumptuous glimpse of Edinburgh, the Firth of Forth, Fife and the Pentlands. There are few places where the possibilities of running and living seem so powerful.

1 Arthur's Seat

The Seven Sisters and Beachy Head, Sussex

Once Cuckmere Haven has been escaped, the Seven Sisters emerge suddenly – a violently undulating carpet of grass ending in sheer white cliffs. This is the view that faces runners in the annual Beachy Head Marathon having already negotiated close to 20 miles. Beachy Head and the finish line in Eastbourne appear a lifetime away. Count the Sisters off. Try not to succumb to walking. Hard? Yes. Inspiring? Undoubtedly. You could be plodding along concrete; instead, you are running the finest final six miles of a marathon a runner could wish for.

2 Beachy Head

Worcestershire Beacon, Malvern Hills

‘The most beautiful silhouette in the world.’ Who are we to argue with Stanley Baldwin? Best viewed from the east, the Malverns rise shockingly from the Vale of Evesham, a British Himalaya. There are few finer expeditions than the challenging, rolling run across the backbone of the hills, with a well-trodden path leaping over top after top, to reach Worcestershire Beacon at its northern end, from where – on a fine day – the onlooker can glimpse 13 counties and the cathedrals of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester.

3 Worcestershire Beacon

Craig Dunain, Inverness

A crowd of Inverness Harriers’ athletes had been running for several miles on forestry tracks around Craig Dunain when a vision of loveliness in the evening haze appeared before us: the vast sprawl of a glistening Loch Ness. Tourists travel thousands of miles to glimpse this; we had jogged here from the outskirts of Inverness on our regular Tuesday night run. ‘What’s that?’ I was asked. ‘Lock Ness,’ I fired back. We ran on, the Highlanders sniggering at the poorly enunciating Sassanach.

4 Craig Dunain

St Annes on Sea, Lancashire

When the sea ebbs at St Annes, it all but vanishes into the haze of a far-off horizon. Running towards that horizon provokes a queer sensation. Where are the obstacles? The buildings? The mountaintops? The junctions? There is nothing but soaking sand stretching into oblivion. Run and run and run, and turn. You have run away from civilisation. The pier and seafront houses are inconsequential dots. The loneliness is overwhelming, filling the runner with fear. The sky is impossibly large, the ground endless, and you imagine the sea could suck you away at any moment.

5 St Annes on Sea

Harris, Rum

Home to no more than two dozen people and an aggressive midge population, Rum is the largest of the Small Isles, pitched off the west coast of Scotland. Running west on a track from Kinloch, then turning south over a col before plunging to the ocean at Harris, the runner will encounter – if they are lucky – no-one. Harris is no more, an abandoned township circled by shuddering mountains. Turning your back to the ghostly remains is a wild Atlantic surf breaking on a deserted, rocky beach.

6 Rum

Skiddaw, Lake District

It is 2.15am. It is very dark. The twinkling lights of Keswick have vanished into mist. The beam of the head torch is thrown back in my face. Following an hour of gradually moving uphill, the land flattens. The 933-metre summit. Another world. A black, godforsaken world, jumbled with rock, smashed by a tremendous wind. I scramble across the confusion, seeking out the triangulation pillar. It is found – joyously – and murmuring a little prayer in my thoughts, I flee, running frantic zig-zags downhill to escape that other world.

7 Skiddaw

Tooting Bec Common, London

Familiarity breeds contempt, the saying goes, but familiarity also breeds fondness. Humans need constancy and Tooting Bec Common is my constant. The seasons change, motivation and running spirits fluctuate, but the common endures. Flat as a Frisbee, split by railway tracks and home to the second largest lido in Europe, there is no gloss to Tooting Common. Battersea Park or Hyde Park, it is not. The thousands of people – from shufflers to sprinters, from beginners to serial marathoners – who are drawn to Tooting Bec are grateful for that.

8 Tooting Bec Common

Kynance Cove, Cornwall

Like a vision from the Caribbean, Kynance Cove is the marvel of the Lizard peninsula. Azure seas, golden sand, rocky outcrops, and – for the runner – a rollercoaster coastal footpath that showcases the charms of the cove. From here, perhaps after feeding and watering at the beach café, the runner can climb steeply on an undulating path above cliffs before arriving at Lizard Point, the modest southern-reach of the British mainland, a world away from the commercialism of that other great Cornish full stop, Land’s End.

9 Kynance Cove

Ladhar Bheinn, Knoydart

Knoydart is the ‘Land of the Giants’, a Scottish west coast peninsula suffused in the mythology of the outdoors. To stand on the summit of Ladhar Bheinn – a 1020-metre Munro – after several hours of the roughest, toughest, wildest hill running in the British Isles is to be spectacularly isolated. The consequences of a trip or twist here are alarming and potentially fatal. Danger is juxtaposed with supreme beauty: to the west is an astonishing window into a world of ocean, island and mountain.

10 Ladhar Bheinn

A version of this article is published on the SportPursuit blog.

@MuirJonny

Heights of Madness: mapped, for the first time

I never got round to creating a map illustrating the route I travelled for Heights of Madness. The publisher didn’t require one; nor did I fancy the daunting task. Besides, I am no artist. Six years on, someone has done it for me. It is a work of art, I think. The yellow clouds are the summits. The red, wiggly line – the arrows showing direction – is my convuluted route. That line crosses twice: once in Gloucestershire, once in Ross and Cromarty. Even my overnight stops have been recorded. My old geography teacher used to regularly repeat that a picture (or a map) paints a thousand words; this picture paints the 77,000-odd words of Heights of Madness. I hope it might even inspire others who are keen to pursue a similar venture.

A mini-Welsh adventure

The first thing – and it really is the very, very first thing – you notice when you return to London from cycling pretty much anywhere in the UK that is not a city or large town, are traffic lights. Hideous, everywhere-you-turn, always-on-red traffic lights. I once counted 60 sets of traffic lights on an eight-mile journey between Streatham and Euston; I’d have had to spend another week pedalling through Wales to tot up that many. Still, there is one consolation to being back in London. Every male cyclist will empathise. No cattle grids.

So, three days in Wales, cycling from Swansea to Chester via Aberystwyth, 170 miles in all. It rained only slightly on day one, a day I’ll remember for a formidably tough climb north of Trefilan. On the evening of day two – after a visit to the Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth, we found ourselves thundering along dark, windy roads (in a car, mercifully) to attend a two-hour public meeting about wind turbines in Newtown. These are the perils of travelling with an environmentalist. We returned to a hostel dormitory full of hot air and, later, the detestable, infuriating sound of snoring.

Rolling north from Corris on a crisp, almost wintry start to day three, Cadair Idris loomed ahead. The mountain was shouting to be climbed. It was a straightforward affair along the Minffordd path. Ascents of the Nuttalls, Craig Cwm Amarch (791m) and Mynydd Moel (863m), sandwiched the real business of the day, the Penygadair summit of Cadair Idris (893m). What a lovely view from this top, the blue and yellow glow of the Barmouth estuary and the striking outline of the Lleyn peninsula in particular. Llyn Cau was a pane of glass. The summit hut was a surprise too; I didn’t know it was there. A welcome retreat on bad days.

I broke into a trot off Myndd Moel as I contemplated the hours it would yet take me to cycle to Chester. I was fine until I hit midway point on the ever-rising Dolgellau-Bala road. I had avoided Dolgellau to shave off miles, but was paying with the bonk. Then a gear cable snapped, leaving a bonking man with just three gears in his armoury. I ate to excess in Bala, then again in Rug 10 miles up the road. A food-induced recovery did not transpire, however, and I spent 15 or 20 miles of up and down feeling sorry for myself. I can’t remember exactly where – shortly after Rhydtalog perhaps – the view ahead altered very suddenly. Ahead and below were the seething tentacles of civilisation – houses, cities, factories, shopping centres. No hills, no lakes, no sheep, no cattle grids. And then, also quite suddenly, there was a long, gradual (and, as it turned out, extremely welcome) escape route to England.

 Preparing to depart Brechfa

 Aberystwyth beach

 Llyn Cau

 Craig Cwm Amarch

 Llyn Cau from Craig Cwm Amarch

 Looking east from Cadair Idris