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Man v Horse 14th June 2014

This is a race I've wanted a go at for at least the past 10 years but it has always fallen wrongly for the rest of my diary for one reason or another (or I've forgotten about it until it was too late).  That's kind of a pity because like the (admittedly somewhat tougher!) Barkley Marathons it's got longer and harder ever since.

It's been going a lot longer than that though - 35 years now - and what started out as a drunken (surely?) discussion in the local (the Neuadd Arms, Llanwrtyd Wells) about whether an old lag or an old nag would prevail in a race resulted in Man V Horse; now an institution and one of those events you just have to do.  There's no connection beyond perhaps there's something in the water round here but it feels like a sister event to Race the Train which is similarly eccentric and also has to be done!

The clue is in the title - the object is to beat, ideally all, of the 60-odd horses that give the field of around 550 a 15-minute head start over a fell/mountain/trail course of around 24 miles in the Black Mountains, starting from the centre of the smallest town in Britain - population v horse first relay handover

While it sounds like a bit of fun, this is not for the faint-hearted as it's all gradients, bogs, streams from within a mile of the start.  Only twice has man prevailed over horse; the first time was Huw Lobb, a 2:14 marathon runner at the time!  He won a staggering £25,000 for his trouble - the prize pot is a more modest £500-a-year accumulator now.  I'm told that year someone else also beat the horses, finishing just 8 seconds behind Huw!  Or, as he probably thought of it ever since, about £3K a second.

There's a relay version of the race simultaneously for teams of 3 and it was an enormous pleasure to pass the weekend in the company of @starterfour10, @spontaneousplan and @carl_ara who consisted team #neighbother. We met up at the pasta party, chucked in for the price of the entry fee, on the Friday night at the Neuadd which had a large number of own-brewed real ales and an eclectic set of regulars several of whom looked like they rarely venture beyond a few metres of the bar.

Whole Earth sponsored the race and were extremely generous with their peanut butter samples - I've come away with kilos of the stuff and have been steadily working through it ever since.

I'd put away 4 pints before boring old common sense stepped in and revoked my pass but NeighBother did themselves proud and carried on long after the pub! Apparently to that point in a drinking session where you've polished off all the standard drink and have to resort to the more ill-advised and deleterious end of the spectrum - in this case via vodka and Amaretto.  Good work!

But despite all that we all turned up in time for the 11am start and briefing!  Having put away one last peanut butter cupcake from the sponsors, Carl (leg 1 for the team) and I were counted down from 10 and we belted off down the (very short) High Street and into the countryside.

Any doubts that this was going to be a tough course they were dispelled right there with a steep hill up into the mountain trails.  I overheard someone behind me say the horses had been set off and it felt as though they couldn't fail to catch up within seconds as I dragged myself uphill at barely above walking pace.

man v horse course elevation profile

As it was I lasted until about 6 miles in, approaching the first relay handover before I heard the approaching hooves..  It's quite an experience to have a large horse thunder past you at full gallop on a narrow trail but I'd get used to it.  Throughout the race from then on horses overtook preceded by the shaking of the ground and an impending sense of doom.  They didn't always stay ahead though as there were vet checks and they were inclined to stop abruptly for a drink from a puddle without warning.

The scenery is really spectacular and despite the large amounts of vertical there are also stretches of traverse and open grassland where you can enjoy it.  Several times I found myself expressing my appreciation of the view out loud.  You have to watch where you're placing your feet though as the first section particularly is quite technical and there's a lot of run-off water and swampy paths to contend with.  There's also a lot of bramble, gorse and sharp pine needles which will get stuck into you given half a chance.
man v horse running with the horses
Each relay handover point is positioned by a stream which despite featuring a perfectly serviceable bridge, forms part of the route.  I was feeling fine by the first of them and going at a reasonable clip despite Comrades from 2 weeks back.  By the second I was less convinced I'd got away with it and the legs were starting to feel pretty heavy.  I'd fallen over a couple of times in quick succession into the bog by then which didn't help.

Worse, I'd barely read the instructions.  Even the bits I did read it turned out I'd read incorrectly as I was sure they said there would be some sort of peanut butter-related food out on the course.  In actual fact there was just water and I made the schoolboy error of not carrying anything at all.  By the second relay handover I was feeling pretty empty and within a few miles of that suffered a full on crash into the Wall the like of which I've never experienced.

I've only ever hit the wall once before, at the Munich marathon a few years back when my hands had been too cold to get at the pocket containing the gels and I didn't want to stop running to fish one out.  At least then I did actually have the stuff!  This time I got so strung out I was actually wondering if any of the plantlife was edible! Thank god I didn't risk a random mushroom. 
man v horse finish photo
I'm eternally grateful to someone who selflessly gave me half a gel without which I don't think I'd have made it!  I stooped even lower than cadging other, better organised, people's lunch too - someone ahead of me dropped a gel wrapper and I am embarrassed to say I rescued it from the mud and polished off the remaining few molecules of the stuff!  We really are just a couple of square meals away from fishing for scraps in the gutter it seems.

The last few miles were a real struggle; I was shedding places and really thought I was risking being unable to finish.  You can hear the muffled sounds of the PA with a mile or so to go and there's a road descent down to the finish area which cruelly goes past it and sends you through yet another stream.  I'd enjoyed the others as they were shallow and with the day being very warm they were a welcome relief but the last was faster-flowing and deeper at I picked my way across it gingerly over the slimy rocks that formed its bed while dryer spectators hurled encouragement from the bridge.  It seemed to take about 5 minutes to cross but it sure cleaned the mud off the shoes. 

I had absolutely no energy left at all by this stage and with just 600 metres to go couldn't sustain a run.  I managed to break into one for the home stretch and having crossed the line in just under 4 hours devoured a tuna sandwich basically in one mouthful which provided the fuel to make it to the food tent where I shovelled in as much as I could grab.

The finish area is like a village fete and has a great buzz to it.  There's loads of free food on offer for the runners which I understand was provided by volunteers.

Chrissie Wellington has won the women's trophy in 3:07 and I would have probably gone over and said hello but had absolutely no capacity to do anything but eat at that stage.  She looked ridiculously fresh, as if she'd turned up for a book signing rather than running.

What a great event.  I'll certainly be back to have another go at it with fresher legs and a packed lunch next time. 

I loved the fact that the whole town gets involved and chatting to several locals afterwards it was obvious they felt it had really put the place on the map (as well as the even crazier World Alternative Games!) . The town was also extremely welcoming and I loved the Neuadd Arms - a proper, authentic pub with fantastic beer.  There's not a lot of accommodation but camping was very cheap and easy - of course had it been chucking it down I wouldn't be so keen on that.

In all a fantastic weekend!

Race website
GPS Trace and Data on Movescount

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