Continuing his mantra of saying yes to just about everything, Will Renwick finds himself in the wet hills of mid Wales for the legendary Whole Earth Foods Man v Horse race. There, he quickly realises that the horses are the last of his concerns
“They’re coming!” someone shouts from behind me.
I hear the galloping hooves before I can spot the horse and its rider. Then they emerge around a bend and charge up behind the group of runners I’m with. The rider, with his coat flailing behind in the wind, gives us a wave and a grin as he passes, and then after kicking up mud in our faces disappears down the hill. It’s to be the first of many horses to overtake me. I never had a chance.
Llanwrtyd Wells’s Man v Horse has to be one the craziest races in the British Isles. Hundreds of runners gather every year to attempt to cover a 23-mile course through the mid Wales hills faster than around 50 people on horseback.
As with most barmy ideas, it all began in a pub – the Neuadd Arms in Llanwrtyd Wells to be precise. Perhaps after a few too many pints of Felin Foel, one man suggested that a person could potentially cover a significant distance through the challenging surrounding landscape faster than a horse. A public spectacle was held to test out the theory and, unsurprisingly to many, the horse won. But it didn’t win as convincingly as the naysayers would have thought and so the race was to be held again the following year, and the one after that, and the one after that.
It took until 2004 for the first human to beat the horse, with Huw Lobb completing the course around only 2 minutes faster than the leading horse. Two years later another runner triumphed again, but the horse has reigned supreme since.
At the start of the race I had set off from Llanwrtyd Wells with the front end of the 1,000 runners, mixing in amongst the brightly coloured vests marked with the names of running clubs from all around the country. I knew from the moment I signed up that I wasn’t going to be winning the battle of Man v Horse and I also knew I was going to be beaten by a fair few two-legged beasts as well. But it was only when the first big hill arrived and my pace had suddenly turned to a slow jog that I first realised that the biggest battle I was facing could simply be getting to the finish line.
Hill climb had followed hill climb. Sometimes I had been able to charge downhill, but more often than not any pace was quickly cut by a swollen river or a gigantic bog that swallowed the legs up to the knee. I’d underestimated the nature of the course – I guess the novelty of a race against horses had distracted me from the landscape I would be needing to fight my way through. My first few miles had not gone well.
I’m now 8 miles in, the front runners have long left me behind, and since the first and fastest horses had charged past the rest are now passing in a steady stream. As each one turns up behind me I can’t help feeling like I’m being hunted, as if they’re Cherokee Indians and I was tonight’s dinner.
I hit 15 miles and the steep switchback hills and the cold drizzle really start to break me. My head drops and I watch the rainwater drip from my brow down to my slowed feet as they attempt to get purchase on the mud coated slopes. I had told myself that I’d try to run the whole course but by now I’ve realised that the people who were walking up the steep inclines are still keeping up with me – some are even overtaking me. I begin adopting this tactic for myself, trudging up the hills and then flinging myself down them with my legs wobbling and arms flailing.
“Not long now,” says one of the volunteer marshals, his eye glinting from under his umbrella as I pass by. “It’s all downhill from here.” The line of runners zig-zagging slowly up the hill in the far distance suggests otherwise. Good old Welsh humour.
Llanwrtyd Wells? Was that really the town and the finish there below me in the break between the clouds? The distant sound of a megaphone at the finish eventually comes into earshot and confirms that the end is indeed near. The sound gets louder and louder as I let myself fall down the mountain with my knees just about holding me up and water squelching in my shoes. Eventually I’m running past a cheering crowd and there’s the finish line.
I run straight into a foil blanket and follow my nose straight to the Whole Earth Foods tent to eat what could potentially be a whole jar of peanut butter. From the shelter of the tent, I’m happy to see I had come in below 4 hours (only by a minute) and I’m even happier when I notice a horse crossing the finish behind me. Man hadn’t beaten horse this year overall in the race with the fastest person at 2:50 and the fastest horse at 2:23, but this man had beaten a horse and I’ll be making sure that goes on both my CV and my gravestone.
Images by James Carnegie