"Who would win in a race between a man and a horse?" is an age-old question that might liven up an otherwise dead chat in the pub after a few pints. Bolshy contrarians insisting that, on a good day, on dry ground, they could make a decent go of it. Part-time equine enthusiasts weighing in on the unpredictability of the animal and the myriad factors – weather, temperament, atmosphere, form – that could determine their success.
The thing is, you're not meant to follow through on these conversations. The hypothetical is often so much more interesting than the reality, especially when the reality involves physically pitting yourself against a beast that could end your life with a single kick. However, one of these conversations happened in a pub in Llanwrtyd Wells, mid-Wales, and the participants thought they would test it out for real.
That's why I'm at the 39th annual staging of Man vs Horse, a 21-mile cross country race between 1,000+ runners and a maximum of 65 horses. In terms of numbers, this is the biggest horse race in the UK. Bigger than the Grand National, with the added bonus of no horses being shot in front of a baying crowd.
Man, so far, has won twice. Let's just get that out of the way. The first was Huw Lobb in 2004, beating the horse by a clean couple of minutes, and then Florian Holzinger in 2007, who reportedly announced after finishing the race: "I am the German who is faster than a horse!"
The common denominator on both days, apart from the fact both were professional athletes, was heat – and today, it is hot. That odd, hazy, heavy heat that sits in the hills and is impossible to shrug off. The sky thick with clouds keeping everything in. Either it storms or it burns. Today, the conditions are slightly in favour of man.
It's 10AM when runners begin to gather outside The Neuadd Arms Hotel in the centre of town, the site of the starting line. The Neuadd is the spiritual home of the race. Former owner, Gordon Green, started the event, having been one of the men who had that aforementioned conversation, and deciding a race would be a good way to drum up tourism to the town after the decline of the pony trekking industry in the 1970s.
Inside, on one of the walls, there are a couple of varnished plaques that list the winners of the race since it began – both the fastest horses, and the fastest men, names painted in pristine gold. Glyn Jones riding Solomon. Heather Evans riding Royal Mikado. Beti Gordon riding Next In Line Grangeway. Horses usually win by around 20 minutes.
Talking to people outside, most are hopeful they can finish in under three hours, and in one piece. The track traverses rivers, uneven terrain and thick, deep bogs. The uphills are steep and exhausting, and the downhills are even more treacherous. That said, the race’s history is absent of a huge injury list, the knowledge that they're running alongside a horse seemingly putting people on high alert.
Dominic can’t run today. Originally from 13 miles down the road, in Builth Wells, he planned to, but he's injured, so he’s here to spectate and cycle around the route. In previous years he’s come sixth, and last year he may have won had he not veered off course, adding four miles to his journey (occasionally the track is just marked out with arrows spray-painted on the ground, or hammered up on trees).
As the runners and riders ascend into the hills up around Llanwrtyd and nearby Abergwesyn, which are full of wash pools and trickling streams, it becomes tight. It’s not uncommon, Dominic tells me, to be running down a narrow stretch of the route only to hear a heavy gallop and a shout of "horse!" from behind you – your cue to get out of the way sharpish. He says you feel them, a heavy gust that whips against your body.
More runners trickle in, coming from everywhere across the UK, Europe, Canada and the USA. A man on his own silently stretches up against a wall. He picks his legs up, one by one, and turns them sideways, inward, like he’s forming a capital P. Another, Pete, has travelled from Worthing with his wife Dawn. He’s been coming since 1991. Racing is a bit beyond him now, he tells me. He’s approaching 60, but he looks good. Lithe and lean. Runners look different to other athletes, like they have carefully trimmed away at themselves over time.
Another man, Nick, bounds over to us like a coiled spring, asking for advice. It’s his first time and he’s here by himself – he only found out he was doing the race a couple of months prior, having been on a reserve list initially. He casually slips in the mention of a mid-life crisis when I ask him why he’s here. Everyone has their own journey to the starting line, he says, and that seems to have motivated his. When the runners set off, he hides himself away at the back of the pack.
Pete and Dawn’s reasons for coming have changed over time. These days it's less about competition and athletic endeavour, more about seeing friends and enjoying the race. For the more focused runners, the eccentricity of the race is impossible to ignore, but compared to other endurance events like Tough Mudder or Iron Man, it's more akin to fell running than a full-on obstacle course. One runner – who outwardly seems a picture of steely-eyed determination – genuinely mentions the scenery as one of the reasons he’s decided to take part.
The horses' entry to the race is staggered. They start 15 minutes later and have vet checks and water breaks, with their times equalised at the finish line. They trot around the town from early in the day, like the Swiss team from Cool Runnings – all sharp edges and toned physiques. They gather early, with their riders, at the train station for first checks. Some have to pull out then, not allowed to compete unless they’re absolutely equipped for the task at hand.
At around 10.30AM, we see them for the first time. Paraded down from the station and through the town centre, it is less like watching your competitors – assuming most in the crowd are hoping for man to win – and more a celebration of the animals. A pair wearing bright orange blinders catch my eye immediately. Another has a luminous pink bridle, which it seems to take issue with, stopping and bucking as it rounds the bend before its rider steadies her. There is a lot of this. Riders reassuring horses. Riders talking to horses. Riders petting or stroking or otherwise showing affection. Often in horse racing it feels that the animals are taken advantage of – put in danger so that the rider, or indeed the trainer, may profit. There is no such pressure here.
I am – and always have been – slightly terrified of horses. They're like the sea: big and beautiful and dramatic and rich in poetry, but could also fuck you up at any moment. Moving through the narrow roads of the town, they seem even bigger here than usual. As the first horses gallop across the starting line at around 11.15AM, their riders look tiny.
The UK is full of small towns that seem to define themselves with events like this. Cheese rolling in Gloucester. Dwile flonking in East Anglia. Something called the Dunmow Flitch Trials in Essex, where married couples compete to win some bacon every four years. Llanwrtyd has loads. Bog snorkelling. Stone skimming. The World Alternative Games. Man vs Horse was the first of them, but since then they’ve diversified their offering.
Yes, there is sponsorship – pictures of peanut butter jars are everywhere. Not the kind of peanut butter you eat from the jar with a spoon when you’re Very Sad, the kind that health freaks roll into balls and take to the gym. And yes, The One Show are here – Welsh Olympian Iwan Thomas is taking selfies with people, doing his pick-ups at the starting line. But it all feels incidental. It’s not really about the peanut butter.
A man stands at the first crossing with his daughter and a friendly Border Collie, waiting for his partner to come past on her horse. The daughter is too young to ride herself, but she plans to in a few years. The first runner who comes down is flying – shirt: off, chest: ripped, muscles: bursting out of his legs. More follow. Horse and man beside each other. Horse flying past man.
There’s an advert the Welsh Tourist Board made that I remember from being a kid. It goes like this: a man is on a fishing boat with his son. He’s handsome. Welsh handsome, like George North or Leigh Halfpenny. He brings a tourist back to shore, and as the tourist gets off the boat, the son notices the tourist’s book: Coping With Stress. "What’s stress?" the kid asks, full Valleys twang. The man on the fishing boat looks around. "Don’t know, son."
I think about this advert all the time, and particularly as we explore the track further. On a day like this, Wales is more beautiful that you could possibly imagine. It is every shade of green at once, rolling and tumbling upon itself. The silence in the air is interrupted only by runners' feet, horses' hooves and applause from spectators who’ve also tried to keep up with the course.
The fastest runners usually come in around two hours and 20 minutes, so by 1PM the finish line is pretty full. There’s a tent of free sandwiches and cakes for the runners, all made by local old ladies and farmers' wives. A small marquee sells cheeseburgers and hot dogs for three quid, and they are all better than the thirst trap monstrosities you get at any London Street Food festival.
The atmosphere is already buzzing, and then the shirtless man from before comes thundering over the line. He’s called Joe, comes from Hackney, and as he collapses into a heap on the ground is, in his own words, "fucked". After that, the countdown is on. If a horse doesn’t come in the next 14 minutes, man has won.
The voice on the tannoy begins counting us down. He’s had word the first horses have gone past their final water stop, about 15 minutes away. It is going to be tight. Horses are obviously faster over flat surfaces, and they do alright uphill, but it’s downhill where man can win it. Horses aren’t built for going downhill. They kind of gently hack their way down, like kids descending a steep bank.
The One Show are interviewing Joe. A man from the peanut butter company puts him on the podium and promises him all the peanut butter he could possibly want. Five minutes. Four. Three. Two minutes to go, then something appears in the distance.
Two horses are galloping down the final hill, and the crowd pushes up towards the barriers to get a good look. There’s what seems to be the beginning of a chorus of boos, but it doesn’t go anywhere. One minute thirty. The horses come down the final stretch, and then the crowd gasps. One of the horses throws its rider and gallops over towards a totally different field, where four other horses are just having a pleasant time completely unrelated to the race. One minute. The other horse pulls up and turns to check on the rider who’s been thrown – Beti, a previous winner who afterwards introduces us to her horse, Pele (like the footballer), not at all bothered that he just sent her flying. Forty-five seconds, someone has gone to wrangle Pele back onto the track. Thirty seconds. Beti gets back on. Twenty seconds. It is, by some margin, the most tense I’ve ever been at a live sporting event. Horse wins.
The horses are trotted over to a corner of the field. They are stroked and fussed over and doused with buckets of water, their chestnut coloured fur immediately turning shades darker, like brushing suede back and forth. Away from the town centre, they look less imposing, gentler. They take grass from the hands of kids and sniff around at people, blinking their big doleful eyes and whipping midges away from them with their tails. In the background, the other horses just gallop. Back and forth, across the field, like dogs in a park. The thud of their hooves on the ground still just about audible. Horse wins. All things considered, it’s the best result.