I learned a valuable lesson this weekend. Whenever an event is pitched as “Man Vs Something”, there’s a fair chance the man is going to get his ass kicked. That shouldn't really come as a surprise, when those “somethings” are Mountains, Trains and Horses - common sense tells you not to mess with any of them.
Like many great ideas, Man Vs Horse started as a discussion over a pint (or several). The landlord of the Neuadd Arms in central Wales argued with a local huntsmen about who would win in a long distance cross country race. In 1980 they put it to the test for the first time with a race that started outside the pub and set off around the surrounding hills. Predictably the horses won and have done for all but two of the years since.
This weekend I travelled to Llanwrtyd Wells to give it a bash myself. Of course I had no chance of beating a horse, I've never even run as far as 23.6 miles before, but I knew a man who stood a little more chance. Thankfully Team inov-8 OCR’s Mudstacle League Champion, Jonathan Albon, was keen to have a go. Even facing the calibre of human runners entered into Man Vs Horse would be a challenge for Jon, let alone the horses, but I figured if anyone’s capable of pulling a magical result out of the bag it’s him.
Here's a bit of footage from my headcam:
Approaching 11am on Saturday morning, Jon and I stood in amongst the crowd in a unique and exciting starting area outside the Neuadd Arms. A stream of horses marched past us, to rapturous applause. They would be setting off 15 minutes behind us and their procession felt a little like an intimidation tactic. I’m not sure if that was their intention but it certainly had that effect - highlighting how puny us humans were in comparison to them.
As we set off through the quaint streets of Llanwrtyd Wells, there were onlookers cheering encouragement all around. I paid little attention to my surroundings though, my eyes were fixed on Jon, watching him trying to weave his way through the runners to get to the front of the pack. I found it a little frustrating and wished that I’d have just pushed him through to the front before we set off, even though I know that’s not his style.
Before long Jon was gone for good and I became more and more aware of the increasing gradient of the road, as we headed out of the village and towards the green hills that surround. I'm well accustomed to the kind of terrain that we started to face - steep hills, dirt tracks and bogland. I was holding my own quite well and my energy levels felt comfortable. The distance was always going to be the biggest worry for me. I would say I'm fairly comfortable running anything up to half marathon distance (20km ish) but this was going to be 23.6 miles (38km). I tried to hold my pace back a little in the hope that it might conserve energy but my legs were keen to push on.
After about 45 minutes I found myself striding along a wide gravel track, happily working away in my zone, when I heard a growing rumble behind me along with a few shouts and commotion. I looked around to see a horse galloping along the road at full pelt. Strangely it came as a complete surprise, I had almost forgotten that we were racing horses. The rider gave me a quick nod as he went past and was away on the horizon within seconds. How the hell were we going to compete with that? At that pace, he’d be on Jon’s heals in a matter of minutes. Things became a little clearer when we turned the corner onto some boggy moorland and I watched the horse slow down considerably as it struggled for footing on the squelchy ground. At that moment there was more commotion behind me and, as I began to turn my head to look, a horse zipped past a few inches from my left shoulder. This one was a huge beast that appeared to have lost its rider! Thankfully another horse and rider were chasing it down, trying to get it under control. This was all kinds of crazy, but I liked it!
The scenery and variety of terrain from that point onwards was stunning. Wales really is a wonderful part of the world at times and makes for trail running perfection. Several more horses passed me by and I was amazed by the power with which they could thunder up the hills that had reduced most of us to a laboured walk. I started to learn that downhill and soft terrain was their weakness and even found myself overtaking them on a couple of occasions, all be it temporarily.
Some of the runners were taking part in a team relay, each with three members. So there were two transition areas in the course where the runners would change over. I really enjoyed running through those areas, partly because there was a great atmosphere, where crowds would cheer us through, but also because it divided the course nicely into three. I started to feel fairly tired before I reached the second transition, the constant hills and uneven ground had really got through to my ankles, calves, thighs and every stabilising muscle in between. I knew that it would be a huge boost when I made it through that final transition though because the end would practically be in reach… how wrong I was.
I trotted through the applause of the transition area and stopped at the water station to refill a plastic bottle that I’d been clinging onto since the first stop. A fellow runner asked a marshal how long was left and the reply was “around 9.8 miles”... 9.8 miles! I’d been doing a lot of maths in my head over the last couple of hours and I was pretty sure that 24 miles divided by three was 8 miles at most. That doesn't sound like a huge difference but I felt like I was only just clinging on as it was. I tried to not let it get to me and started to trot up a gravel track.
It only took another five or ten minutes before I started to realise I was in trouble. The track had a constant and relentless uphill gradient and my pace had dropped back to laboured trot, with short periods of walking every minute or so. A steady flow of runners started to pass me, each of them with sparkling clean legs. They had all just been tagged in as the final members in their relay, so this hill was nothing to them and their fresh legs. I know it shouldn't have affected me but my motivation really started to plummet along with my energy levels. I tried to break through the ever-growing wall, but my body just wasn't ready for it. I was slipping deeper into the place that no runner ever wants to be.
Thinking back to that hill is a bit of a blur. I know it went on for ever, maybe even half an hour, but I have no recollection of when it ended. I think I started running again for a while but the next recollection I have was when the countryside opened up. I was following a wide gravel track that traversed around a huge bowl in a hillside. It continued to wind off into the distance, where the runners following it looked to be the size of ants. I couldn't run any more and decided to walk briskly. I zoned out, staring at my feet. A few minutes later I glanced to my left to find that I was being overtaken by walkers… yes… overtaken by WALKERS! What was going on? I tried to match my pace to theirs but I couldn’t, I had no energy and my stomach felt like it was digesting itself. I had dropped deeper into a dark place that I couldn't see a way out of.
The next person to pass was a very nice lady who shouted “come on, this is downhill, you should be jogging, keep those legs moving, it’s the best thing for you”. It was a stern instruction but I know that she had my best interests at heart. I broke into a laboured trot but, like a car with engine trouble, I soon spluttered to a halt again.
Within a minutes another couple of guys passed me, again trying to get me going: “Come on, run with us!”
I needed a slap around the face and I told them as much. Apparently one of them had been in a similar place as me before his new companion had dragged him along. Hearing that was the motivation I needed and I managed to break into a constant trot.
Then I was the one passing a walker. I stopped to chat to a guy who was stumbling along at a snail’s pace. I encouraged him to get going but he was in an even darker place than I had been. In summary, he told me that he was having a terrible time, he should never have entered and that he wanted to get out of it now. He even asked me if I knew of a short cut but I had no idea. I was sad to hear how low he was and I tried my hardest to perk him up but eventually I knew I had to move on and, when I did, I knew that things could have been a lot worse. (In case you're worried - I saw him cross the line not long after me. Like me, he must have snapped himself out of it eventually).
The above “dark period” probable only took place over one kilometre, but it felt like an eternity. I slipped into some bad periods for the remaining miles, but nothing quite as deep as that. I carried on plodding, becoming more and more conscious of how hungry I was. I had set out with only four energy gels, which definitely wasn't enough. I think I could have done with a bar or some blocks to get something more substantial in my stomach. On the plus side, this event was sponsored by Whole Earth, so I hoped there would be peanut butter sandwiches waiting at the finish line - I spent a lot of time thinking about that in that final third.
I spoke to every marshal, asking how long was left. When I heard “two miles” I definitely perked up… but the first of those miles was a long slog uphill. The punishment just kept on coming!
Eventually I could hear the event village but those final few minutes that it took to make my way down to it dragged. Like many races, I had been visualising the moment when I would collapse over the line. Often I perk up when I cross the threshold but I had no doubt that I’d be falling over this one. When it came to it, I managed to stay on my feet but I doubled over for a moment before composing myself and walked through to collect my medal.
Jon came up to me, full of the joys of spring, looking like he’d barely broken a sweat all day. I was over the moon to hear that he was the fastest human on the day, but sadly he was beaten by a few of the horses.
My efforts definitely proved that you should train properly for events. On saying that, although the final third was fairly miserable for me, I'm already looking back on it fondly and I can absolutely guarantee I’ll be back for more. Now that the results are out, I'm really pleased to see that I positioned in the top half of the field and I even managed to beat a few of the horses… which by my reckoning means that I am officially faster than a horse! Hurah!
Until next year, thanks very much to Man Vs Horse for a totally new experience and to Whole Earth for having me as part of their team - and for the awesome peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that awaited me on the other side of the finish line! 🙂
Check out www.green-events.co.uk for future Man Vs Horse events, as well as the Bogsnorkelling World Championships, if that's your thing.