The sight of a man sprinting toward a finishing line with his opponents, a horse and rider, racing beside him may appear like a slightly one-sided contest. Even the most powerful sprinters would find it hard to match a four-legged gallop, especially over a 35km (22-mile) course. Yet throw in some steep hills, forest paths, streams, and fences, and the apparent mismatch evens out a little. A human athlete can run through an oak woodland much faster than a horse, for example, and the wild moors and bogs of the Welsh countryside will test the endurance of even the strongest thoroughbred and skilled rider. This annual cross-country race attracts 500 runners and more than 50 horses. They huff and puff across a rugged and beautiful landscape and though a human has won the race only twice in its 29-year history, among the runners-up there are many cases of men and women beating off the stallions and mares.
It all began with a bet. Pub landlord Gordon Green overheard two customers discussing the merits of running as opposed to galloping while enjoying a drink in his quaint country pub at the Neuadd Arms Hotel in the tiny Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells, 165km (65 miles) north of Cardiff. Green agreed with one bookie that a man can beat a horse in the right conditions and went about proving it. The first race took place in 1980 and since then numerous runners and riders have braved wind, rain, and scorching heat to settle the matter. Every June they all gather in the town square of this old Victorian spa town (pop. 600) with its handsome white gables and multi-colored streets.
Llanwrtyd Wells sits amongst rolling green hills, its low grey slate roofs huddled along the river Irton with an old stone bridge crossing the lively stream. This part of mid-Wales attracts its fair share of nature lovers as it has excellent hiking trails and valley walks. The sweeping Brecon Beacons mountain range is nearby and farther north you’ll find a lovely collection of 12th-century castles such as the handsome red gritstone Powys Castle on the English border and the desolate and eerie Aberystwyth Castle overlooking the Irish sea.
Runners get a 15-minute head start on the horses to avoid getting trampled. The time difference is adjusted at the end so any naysayers cannot accuse the race of being fixed.
Within 8 minutes, the horses catch up with the humans and for the next 2 to 3 hours a cat-and-mouse game ensues as man and horse cross paths, get stuck in mud holes, gingerly descend steep hills, and wade through waist-deep streams. Water stations are set up at intervals where men and women drink hungrily from cups and the horses from buckets.
The event attracts thousands of spectators who cheer on the contestants at different vantage points throughout the course. The final sprint and gallop takes place back at the village and normally the hooves win hands down by an average margin of 5 minutes. That was until 2004, when a young Welsh soldier called Huw Lobb became the first man in history to officially beat a horse. He ran the course in 2 hours and 5 minutes, beating his nearest equine foe by 2 minutes. The winner walked away with prize money of $40,000 and bookmakers had to make handsome payouts as they had calculated that a man beating a horse was simply a daft proposal. —CO’M
When to go: June 2010.
$$$ The Lake Country House Hotel & Spa, Llangammarch Wells, Powys, LD4 4BS ( 44/1591/620202; www.lakecountryhouse.co.uk). $$ The Neuadd Arms Hotel, The Square, Llanwrtyd Wells, Powys LD5 4RB ( 44/1591/610236; www.neuaddarmshotel.co.uk).