By Dino de Zorzi
I had a race against a horse in sunny Wales this weekend. Actually I raced about 60 horses plus riders, and about 700 odd human runners. Surprisingly, I managed to beat a few of the horses, and several of the humans too.
This completely bonkers event is called Man versus Horse (despite its name, they very decently allow women to compete as well). The premise is quite simple, human runners race against horses across 22 miles of stunning, but challenging welsh cross country terrain.
There is an ever increasing pot of prize money for the victorious runner, and in its 38 year history, the reward has been claimed only 2 times. In 2004 the first ever winner, took home a cool 25 grand. A runner won again, three years later, for the second and last time. Which means, the purse has remained unclaimed and growing, year by year for more than a decade.
This years dry conditions (which favoured the 2 legged athletes) was the closest in ages, with the first runner coming in just 25 seconds after the winning horse. I reckon, one of our super Starcers (Paul Maskell?) should get out there and kick some welsh pony ass, and bring the dosh back to Cornwall.
The race starts in Llanwrtyd Wells town centre. There was a happy country fair atmosphere, mixed with some celebrity sparkle, due to the participation of BBC news reader Sophie Raworth and 400 meter Olympic runner Iwan Thomas, who posed for selfies and talked to the local press.
I started to doubt this was the ideal event for me as for most of my life, I have somewhat disliked distance running and also have always had a fear of large hoofed animals (Gemma Pateman and Claire Todd have seen me in a field with a rampaging cow). So I was relieved to hear that our four legged foes would start 15 minutes after us.
The race started, as all good races do, with a slow steady climb out of town. Tarmac turned to stoney track, and then onto muddy trails. It wasn’t until about 45 minutes in, that the first horse trotted by us, the rider gave us a friendly “well done”, someone behind responded, with his own cheerful “well done to you”. I thought to myself, well done for what? They are just sitting, whilst the animal does all the hard work. When I am out running, I am very similar to an infant, I get grumpy when I’m tired.
As the miles ticked by, I wrestled with my love-hate relationship with long distance races, I also pondered the wisdom of drinking two pints of Guinness the night before.
The race route took us through beautiful welsh countryside and some brutal terrain, crossing streams, long gravel tracks, and lung busting climbs, the like of which I HAVE NEVER experienced in Cornwall. I tried to settle into a pattern of walking up the hills, running on the flats and downhills, and was surprised to find out, that on steep descents, and some of the more uneven ascents, I was able to overtake some of the horses. It appears that gee-gees, just like people have differing Vo2 max levels. There are fast ones, fit ones, lazy and fat ones. Horses sometimes stop in their tracks for no reason, refuse to budge, eat grass or unexpectedly produce manure, right in front of you.
And that’s the catch, a horse can obviously run faster than a man (or a woman) on the flat, but when you throw in all the ups and downs, plus rugged terrain, it evens out a bit, and gives the runner a fighting chance.
Over the hours, my legs grew heavier, and I started to go through a negative Dino phase. The sun in Wales felt hotter, than its Cornish counterpart, the climbs seem to be never ending and because of the dry weather there were loads of annoying horse flies buzzing around. I felt that this year’s event should have been called MAN VERSUS HORSE FLY. And I spotted plenty of wax-white welsh flesh dotted with itchy red welts. Perversely, seeing their pain made me forget about my own and lifted my spirits slightly. It was always reassuring to know that there would be a drinks station every 5 miles or so (only water is provided and hardly any nutrition, so athletes must be prepared to bring their own). The drinks stop was also a good opportunity for me to check out the form of my 2 legged rivals. To see if the person I’d been tussled with, for the previous few miles, was a runner doing the whole thing or “just” a relay runner.
Also, for a man who gets lost on a parkrun, it was reassuring for me to see so many fantastic marshals, encouraging and guiding us through the course
I cracked on, and at around mile 19 I felt my long awaited second wind, kicking in. I sucked down my last energy gel, and was spurred on by the feeling that the end was not far off.
Like all good races, they threw in a last cheeky hill to be conquered, half way up it, two sweaty horses clip-clopped past me, one of them swished my face with its damp tail. Then there was a long bumpy downhill trot leading into the large finishing field. Two chunky riders galloped past me. The cheering crowd added a spring to my step and all of a sudden, I was reluctantly caught up in a sprinting match with another middle-aged bloke for the last 50 meters. After throwing myself through the finishing line, I was handed a bottle of water, just about heard the announcer pronounce my name incorrectly and then had the all important finishers medal draped around my neck. Gasping for breath, I looked across and saw my lovely wife Angie, who asked “Why have you got all those bugs stuck to your forehead?” I’d be going for 4 hours and 37 minutes and had not quite caught my breath back yet “Did you enjoy it?” Was her next question “Yeah, I LOVED it!” I wheezed back.