Man vs Horse

Wet ford


Humans have always loved, and often harnessed, the speed and strength of the horse, and the stories of our species are intertwined – indeed, barring a few isolated groups, horses have been an entirely domesticated species for nearly five thousand years.

In 1980, in the mid-Wales town of Llanwrtyd Wells, an argument broke out in the pub concerning an age-old matter.  “Yes, we all know that horses can sprint fast,” one man declared, “but, over a real distance, man is its equal.”  The pub was the Neuadd Arms and the speaker was the landlord, Gordon Green.  To resolve the dispute, Green suggested a full public test: a race.  A £1000 prize was put up to attract competitors willing the attempt the feat, and the Man vs Horse Marathon has been staged every year since.

Unwittingly, the event has revived memories of a great Welsh historic precedent.  In the early years of the 18th Century, Guto Nyth Bran’s exploits as a runner stretched to near mythological proportions, such as catching hares and birds and going undefeated over a twenty year period.  Not least amongst these achievements was the occasion on which he was challenged to race against a horse, coming home the winner over a distance of 12 miles, but collapsing and dying at the moment of triumph.


Still organised by creator Gordon Green, the Man vs Horse Marathon is run over a rough, cross-country course of 22 miles, and has become the largest horse race in Britain, attracting more riders in recent years than the forty competitors in a Grand National.  Numbers of entrants on the side of the runners now usually reach over two hundred and fifty, and are also increasing.  Horses have had the upper hand on runners in all bar two of the races to date.


The race is run in a loop in the countryside around Llanwrtyd Wells, with the runners starting 15 minutes before the horses.  This protects against the front-runners clashing on the narrow paths along which much of the race is run.  The course is specially chosen to provide a close contest between man and beast.

Every year, a £1000 prize is put up as bait for aspiring runners – there is no reward bar satisfaction for the riders – and every year that it remains unclaimed, it rolls over to the next.  So it was that the first successful man to win the race – marathon runner Hugh Lobb in 2004 – received twenty-five years’ worth of prize money.  When Florian Holginger emulated the feat in 2007, there was only £3000 in the kitty.
Side by side


For a period between 1985 and 1993, cyclists were allowed to compete in the race.  This included the first victory of man over horse when cyclist Tim Gould won in 1989.  However, since mountain bikes are presently not permitted to race on bridleways, this accommodation has had to cease.

Until his death in 1999, Screaming Lord Sutch, founder and leader of the Monster Raving Loony Party, was the official race starter and a staunch supporter of the event.

Llanwrtyd Wells is quite a centre of excellence in the field of quirky sports and traditions.  In addition to Man vs Horse, it hosts a variety of competitions and events, including the Bog-Snorkelling World Championships, the Drovers Walk, Mountain Bike Chariot Racing and a celebration of the Roman festival of Saturnalia.


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