Nearly 700 runners and 60 horses will converge on Britain’s smallest town today (June 10) for an unusual 24-mile race.
The annual Man vs Horse marathon sees humans battling equines over the Welsh hills in a test of speed and endurance.
The event was conceived when Llanwrtyd Wells landlord Gordon Green overheard a discussion between two men in his pub, the Neuadd Arms. One suggested that a man would be as fast as a horse over a significant distance.
He decided to test the hypothesis, and organised the first event in 1980. The theory seemed to be swiftly disproved when rider Glyn Joes on Solomon beat fastest runner Dic Evans by 43 minutes.
Since then, however, a human has managed to triumph in the race on two occasions — Huw Lobb in 2004 and German runner Florian Holzinger in 2007.
The marathon begins in the centre of the former Victorian spa town — which is also home to the annual bog snorkelling championships — before setting out over a testing 4,683ft climb incorporating forestry tracks and bridleways.
“It’s quite a test to get round it and it’s not easy for the runners or the horses. There’s a lot of climb and descent. Where the horses might have an advantage going up, they don’t like it so much coming down, as their weight is in the wrong place,” said organiser Bob Greenough.
Bob revealed that there are several theories as to why the two-legged competitors have sometimes managed to beat the four-legged ones.
“One theory says that if it’s hot, it will favour runners as the horses can’t sweat as easily and overheat quicker. That stands up until it’s a really hot day and a horse wins!
“Sometimes it just depends on the calibre of runner and the quality of horse who are entered. The year the first runner won, the prize money [which rolls over every year a human doesn’t win] was standing at £25,000, which attracted a British marathon runner who beat the horse by 1min.”
The race draws in a lot of endurance riders, with the first finishers usually coming home within 2hrs. Unlike the runners, horses have to undergo three vet checks — before, during and after the ride — to monitor their soundness and heart rate.
Endurance competitor Sue Loveridge will be competing in the race this year for the 15th and final time.
“You wonder why people keep coming back but it’s such an adrenalin-junkie ride. Once I’d done it, I couldn’t get it out of my mind,” said Sue, who will be riding her 11-year-old pure-bred Arab Bright Dawn. “I’m only stopping because I’m a pensioner now and I can’t keep riding round the mountain.”
Sue, whose highest-placed finish was second, describes the challenge as “tough” and “fraught” but with a lot of camaraderie between competitors.
“After every hill there’s another one,” she said. “It’s not just the slopes up and down, it’s slippery slate and bog and there are also three rivers to cross, which can get quite deep. It’s tricky but incredibly good fun.”
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Sue will also be competing against her vet Mike Daly, who started to run the marathon around 13 years ago.
“I’ll bet him a pound or two which one of us will beat the other one!” she added.