What happened when I tried to outrun a four-legged foe
The Whole Earth Man v Horse event takes place annually, but is it possible to beat a steed over 22 miles? Jack Hardy finds out
The first time I heard a horse closing in on me during the UK's most eccentric endurance event, I thought it was a particularly heavy-footed human.
I was roughly a mile into my leg of the relay at the Whole Earth Man v Horse race near Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales and - with cheery naivety - had already forgotten that my equine nemesis was also competing.
Few things compare to the horror of realising it's not a hairy trail runner from Powys about to plough into the back of you, but a thickly-muscled stallion. Squealing with panic, I sprang to the safety of some nearby moss as the horse (called Alaw Mai, I later discovered) trotted by - the first of many. Each year, hundreds of runners and dozens of horses and riders compete over a treacherous 22-mile route, climbing roughly 4,175ft and hurtling down 4,090ft in a mission to assert themselves as the superior species.
I'd taken on the far-fetched challenge largely out of curiosity and the vague promise of free peanut butter, but left astonished the annual feat has remained such a well-kept secret.
What is the race?
The Man v Horse race was apparently devised as a result of a conversation a landlord overheard between two men at his pub, as they argued about whether man or mare would prevail across the challenging Welsh hillsides. Speculation became reality in June 1980 when the first event was held, stretching across 22 miles of countryside.
Now, after 39 annual races across routes of varying length, there are more competitors in the mad dash than actual residents of the village which hosts it. Llanwrtyd Wells has a population of around 850, compared this year to approximately 1,100 runners and 41 horses.
Has man ever won?
Shockingly, yes. Twice. First person to beat the winning horse was Huw Lobb, who won in a jaw-dropping two hours, five minutes in 2004 - outrunning his four-legged foe by two minutes. Florien Holtinger repeated the feat in 2007.
There's a £2,000 cash prize for anyone who can beat the first horse to cross the line, and you don't have to attempt the whole 22 miles yourself (but many do). I joined forces with two other intrepid reporters to undertake the race as a team, splitting the distance into roughly equal chunks.
For start line safety reasons, the runners are given a 15-minute head start on the horses. Our starting runner, Sam, would take on the first seven or so miles, I'd take over for the middle section and David would bring it home.
What happened when we tried it?
As a runner from largely flat (and tarmacked) London, I realised quickly I was ill-equipped for the challenge and needed to ditch my battered road trainers for something sturdier.
I opted for a pair of Salomon trail shoes which provided stability on a course that lurches from moss to slate to dusty paths without warning.
My first sense of what lay ahead came when red-faced Sam thundered into view at my relay point. His exact words as we exchanged the disgusting sweatband used for a baton, are not fit for publication, but it was generally in the spirit of: "It's jolly hilly out there."
He was not wrong. I enjoyed the ferocious downhill descent before a grassy two-mile hill climb yawned out in front of me, leaving little choice but to dutifully wheeze my way up.
One of the particularly charmless aspects of racing a hoofed rival is the need for runners to regularly dodge large patches of manure - a rare problem at London 10ks.
It was only five minutes before horse Alaw Mai had chased me down. The terror of that heart-stopping first overtake quickly melted away when rider Karen Mason merrily pipped "Well done" as she trotted past and into the distance. Such encounters, I soon realised, are the race's real selling point.
The thrill of chasing a horse does wane after a while - they do, after all, regularly stop for water breaks and vet checks. But this is compensated for by the joviality of everyone taking part - particularly pronounced when you hear from behind the feared cry: "Horse!"
This initial ripple of panic soon dissipated into mild amusement as us feeble humans obediently moved right so the horse could bound past.
When I handed over the now-even-mankier sweatband to my colleague David, I had pulled off the unlikely achievement of beating every horse on my stretch as, it turns out, they struggle to do the sharp downhills at any speed.
How did it end?
Ahead of us, at around 2.35pm all eyes were fixed on a clock that had begun a 15-minute countdown after the first human, Joe Dale, crossed the line in an impressive two hours, 34 minutes and 12 seconds.
The drama, relayed to me via three texts from my girlfriend (I was in the back of a minivan heading from my relay point to the finish line), went as follows: "One minute left!"
"Oh no", "Horse!"
Sure enough, with just 23 seconds on the clock, Ronnie the horse thwarted Joe's ambitions of claiming the prize.
Although horse ultimately vanquished man, we ended the day as the 15th male relay team, finishing in three hours and 31 minutes and, I'm pleased to say, also beating the odd mare.
Given the ridiculous concept and mixture of challenge, fun and awe-inspiring scenery, it is surprising the Whole Earth Man v Horse challenge isn't a place of pilgrimage for any avid runner in the UK.
As it stands, details are scant on the web and the route is shrouded in secrecy to stop trail runners using the private fields along it for practice.
You may not have heard of the event until now, but if you're brave enough to compete, you will be hearing the clatter of approaching hooves ringing in your ears for life.
For more information, visit wholeearthfoods.com/man-v-horse-competition