L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

15 June 2009 Blog Home : June 2009 : Permalink

Man vs Horse Race 2009

We were participants in the 30th Man vs Horse Race which was run on June 13th around Llanwrtyd Wells in scenic mid Wales. The race pits runners aganst riders to see who wins. The rider usually does but two or three times a runner has won. However many runners (including yours truly and She Who Must Be Obeyed) beat a number of horses.

Man vs Horse Race 2009 Man vs Horse Race 2009
Man vs Horse Race 2009 Man vs Horse Race 2009

The weather was beautiful but the rain that had fallen over the previous week or two meant that the course was very wet in parts. If you click on the images you'll see they go to a flickr set of all the photos I took during this umm "unique" and very British event. As the official website explains:

The Man v Horse Marathon began in June 1980 following a chat over a pint in the Neuadd Arms Hotel. The then Landlord, Gordon Green overheard two men discussing the relative merits of men and horses. The enterprising Gordon, never one to miss an opportunity to promote Llanwrtyd Wells and improve business at his hotel, decided to put it to the test. And so began Green Events and its first, longest standing and now internationally acclaimed event, The Man versus Horse Marathon.

The course was changed in 1982 to provide a more even match between the man and the horse resulting year on year in very close finishes - sometimes with the horse winning by only a few seconds. It took 25 years before a man finally beat a horse, Huw Lobb won in 2hrs and 5mins beating the fastest horse by 2 minutes.

The race starts in the Town Square and is run over a 22 mile course through some of the finest scenery in Mid Wales using a mixture of farm tracks, footpaths, forestry roads and open moorland. There are a few short distances over tarmac. It is very hilly with a total ascent of 3000ft. [...]

Relay teams run 3 almost equal stages. Horses are required to pass a vet check at the mid-way point.

One suspects that "chat over a pint" is a slightly sanitized version of the true course of events which probably involved considerably more than one pint and some vocierous acohol inspired arguing. One of the attractions of the race for me is that the Neuadd Arms is a microbrewery that makes some very excellent beers so I can quite understand how it could happen that drinkers in the pub might get a little carried away under their influence.

This year there were about 250 individual runners, 100 relay teams and 49 horses (and riders). The number of horses involved makes this one of the biggest horse races in the UK if not the world in terms of numbers of participants and it is also of course one of the longer ones too. Up until a few years back the race was sponsored by William Hill the betting company and during that period there was a prize only awarded if the man beat the horse. The value went up each year until in 2005 or so a man won it and collected a serious amount of cash in doing so. When the sun is shining, as it was this year the event is really a pleasure to take part in, although if we do it again we'll be sure to bring some food with us on the course as none was provided at any of the water stops. The countryside is beautiful and I think I saw at least one, if not two, red kites

Man vs Horse Race 2009However the "chat" which sparked the race is as based on a very interesting question for people interested in history and related fields such as (medieval) fantasy. Namely the question of how far and how fast could people travel in the days before cars, trains or even perhaps roads. Elizabeth Moon talks about this with regards to her "Paksenarrion" books in this blog post, and it is something that any number of authors have struggled with over time. Of course there are plenty of authors who have written tales where the horses are effectively like cars only with 4 legs who can gallop for days at at time and so on, but a good author will try to be realistic even if he (or she) does not always succeed. This doesn't necessarily mean that one should automatically discount those writers who seem to be a bit overoptimistic; one can question some of Tolkein's marches in the Lord of the Rings, such as the Uruk-hai trek across Rohan for example, but that need not invalidate the whole tale. Especially when, as in the Lord of the Rings, much of the tale is very much based on real speeds and realistic choices such as the decisions to take boats when possible.

The Man vs Horse race provides a fairly good indicator of what humans can do, and what horses can do, at the top end of the range on mixed terrain. The man on foot can beat a horse if he's fit and smart and the rider doesn't want to ruin his animal. The 22 miles and 3000 foot of ascent (and just under 3000 foot of descent) took the best rider 2 hours and nine minutes. The faster runner did it in much the same time (2h15) which works out at some 6% slower. Both of these times equate to around 10 mph. Some other numbers: the fastest woman took (IIRC) a shade under 3 hours to finish (2h50 ish). I took about 3 hours and 22 minutes. I'm not sure precisely how many horses were slower than me but I'd guess that between 15-20 were behind me. I also believe I was comfortably in the top 25% or so of runners (ignoring the relay teams). I think even the slowest competitors had finished in under 6 hours.

Some lessons. One key point here is that there is no sexual equality when it comes to athletic speed. Women can do the same distances but they cannot generally do them as fast. This is something that authors often forget but that anyone who competes in distance races knows. Now it is true that the peasant girl is likely to outrun the town bravo and the young womaner beat the older man but in a like-for-like comparison the female will almost certainly be slower. On horseback, however, this is not the case. The fastest rider was male, the second and third both female and there was quite a variety in ages in the 49. Afoot the faster runners were mostly under forty and in a rural low tech environment where people work much harder than they do in today's urban world the drop off with age would be even faster (and for women again the impact of childbirth is likely to worsen that drop off). A handful of grizzled centurions of 45 are quite plausible, entire armies of such are not.

However that last point brings us back again to the dangers of statistics. On average does not mean the same as every. On average a 40 year old man will be slightly slower than a 30 year old woman who will be a lot slower than a 20 year old man but with a plausible story any one particular woman or older man could be far faster than many young men. But the chances that many such exist becomes progressively less plausible the more you need.

Another lesson. HiMan vs Horse Race 2009lls are a killer. Horses seem to manage to walk up hills faster than humans can but neither can maintain the speeds that they can do on the flat. I ran most of the course at an average pace of about 5min30/km = 9min/mile = 11km/h = 7 mph. But on a number of ascents my speed was less than half that - i.e. I was going at a speed of 11min/km or worse. My best downhill speed on the other hand was no more than 16km/h (3m45/km = 10 mph = 6min/mile). On normal predominantly flat road or track I can maintain a pace of better 5min/km (12km/h) for at least 50km. So as Elizabeth Moon notes, contours really slow you down.

Steep descents are also potentially tricky. You don't want to twist (or break) ankles knees etc. There is a lot of technique involved in fast descents and this is not something that is learned in a single lesson. Any fictional character who ends up in the mountains and tries running down them at full tillf for the first time had better either twist an ankle, trip, take a tumble or similar. If he does trip he'll at best scrape knees and hands, and quite likely break an arm, rib or collarbone. I've done this. You can keep going if its only a crack but it wil impede your mobilty for a month or more. If you (for example) crack an upper arm bone you won't be able to lift your arm above the shoulder or hold any weight on it for two or threee weeks AND no matter what bone you break, you'll probably end up sleeping poorly because no matter how you start off at ome point you'll roll over into a bad position. Now having said that someone who has grown up in the hills probably will be able to go down them like a bat out of hell.

It isn't just humans. Horses also really slow down on steep downhills or uphills where the going is tricky because they cannot jump and dodge the way experienced humans can. They also have the problem of greater mass and hence greater momentum. If a horse puts a hoof wrong there's a lot more mass to leverage that error. Idiotic nobles with more money than sense or the emperor's messengers may choose to charge down a slope but the chances of them falling off the horse or it being temporarily or permenantly injured means that the average horseowner isn't going to risk it.

Man vs Horse Race 2009Another lesson. 22 miles without food in the hot sun is a recipe for cramping. I got a cramp in the last couple of miles. So did a number of other competitors - such as the gentleman in the stream. SWMBO didn't cramp but did run out of energy to the extent that she started feeling chills despite the heat. I suspect others did similarly. And it must be noted that we drank plenty and had (well SWMBO and I had) a hearty breakfast before as well as lots of food the night before. Your average medieval person will not have had such a good meal before and so will slow down earlier. Cramps can be walked off - but it hurts and still slows you down significantly. A cramp can also cause a nasty tumble. I was lucky in that no one was around me to trip over me and I was able to tumble into grass but in the wrong place a cramp could easily lead to serious injuries such as broken bones. Fortunately for our putative medieval traveller his travel food is likely to be bread and salted stuff so he ought not to get cramp that much unless he hasn't got any food. But without food he'll probaly cramp on a hot day after three hours in the sun unless the effort ends up causing him to collapse from exhaustion.

If he doesn't drink either then the good news is he won't cramp, the bad news is he'll simply collapse with heatstroke if he pushes too hard. You can figure that two or three hours of hard exercise in the sun will cause a person to sweat a litre or two (2-4 pints) of water so it's a really good idea to drink from streams and take waterskins/bottles as getting this dehydrated is extremely dangerous. I don't know enough about horses but I'm pretty sure they sweat just as much - seeing two of them sucking the water out of one of the streams we crossed made that clear...
Man vs Horse Race 2009