Horse Sense

Ever wanted to try horse racing - well now's your chance. But the horse always wins


Posted: 4 September 2003
by Andy Blackford

I strongly recommend Man v Horse. You’ll enjoy every moment – the long sweeps along remote forestry tracks between stands of dark and silent pine; the soaring leaps across sucking bogs; the exhilarating scrambles down steep, broken ground into the enfolding arms of valleys, impossibly green after the stony austerity of the moor.

This is assuming you’re a horse, of course. Humans should avoid it like a plague of Dale Wintons.

However, as a born-again-and-again Buddhist, I know that pain is merely a passing illusion, and that my athletic ability is constrained only by my habitual expectations of myself. So last Saturday, I ran the race.

On Monday I had to get a stairlift installed. In 22 gruelling miles of potholes, vertical descents and bottomless marshes, the only muscles I didn’t pull were the ones I pushed.

Man v Horse is run annually in Powys, Mid-Wales. It starts in the rain at Llanwrtyd Wells and finishes a mile away in the rain at Victoria Wells after a bracing wade through a thigh-high torrent. This washes just enough mud off the runners to render them identifiable to the coroner.

A little history: the race came about as the result of a bet between an 18th century Welshman called Guto Nyth-Bran and a piebald cob called Drummer. Both had consumed large amounts of the fiery local coal spirit known as Llwdyffch, when an argument arose over which was faster over open country – man or horse.

The argument was overheard by Gordon Green, 18th century landlord of the Neuadd Arms, who organised the first race in 1979.

Horses, having twice as many legs as people, invariably win – despite compulsory vet inspections. This is just as well for sponsors William Hill, because they’re offering £20,000 to any runner who beats the horses to the finish line.

Last weekend’s race (the 20th) was, I felt, undersubscribed, with only 250 solo runners. Each peat bog would accommodate at least four grown men, standing on each other’s heads. And the raging meltwater cataracts could happily sweep away a score of runners at a time, thus opening up the trail for yet more enthusiastic, gullible chumps.

The horses had more sense. Only seven of them were sufficiently misinformed or stupid enough to show up, and one of those had the good sense to pack it in halfway round.

As tradition demanded, the official starter was Monster Raving Loony Party icon Screaming Lord Sutch. His impromptu rock ’n’ roll medley at the post-race party turned out to be his last public performance: he was found dead at his London home a couple of days later. Lord Sutch was a national treasure, and Man v Horse – not to mention the next election – will be a duller event without him.

I’m sure he would have approved of the Numbskulls, Britain’s most exclusive running club. Back in 1984, two-thirds of the membership entered Man v Horse – ie Rob Wright and myself.

Rob went off fast, slicing through the field like a Stanley knife through a Millwall supporter. At mile 20 he was swaying dangerously from one side of the track to the other. Summoning my last erg of energy, I trotted past him, waving gaily, only reverting to my leaden-footed slouch once I was safely round the next bend.

It was half an hour before he staggered over the line, ashen-faced and wall-eyed. ‘Get us a pint in!’ he croaked.

I bought the beer, watched it go flat, and finally drank it before going in search of Rob. I found him stark naked in the freezing chicken coop behind the Neuadd Arms that passes for a shower. He seemed quite unconcerned as he introduced me to the stark naked female mountain biker with whom he was engaged in conversation. “Andy, meet Rita!”

Yet be warned: the ordeal of Man v Horse is seldom alleviated by such entertaining diversions. It’s a tough run, and if you’re seriously thinking of following in the footsteps of a bodhisattva like myself, you should start training early.

Start with something more modest – say, Man v Guinea Pig – then work your way up through the animal kingdom.

Good luck. Or ddiddorol o drefytedaeth gwrthdaro, as we say in Wales.


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finishline, Man v Horse
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