Most runners are probably familiar with the idea that running over very long distances is the one thing humans seem to be better at than other members of the animal kingdom. Yet travelling long distances on foot is not considered to be fun by many people, and, for sure, it is not the most efficient way, and often not even viable. That is why thousands of years of the history of humans have seen the evolution of different means of transport, the most ancient of which is, most certainly, travelling on horseback. The question remains though: Is travelling on horseback really faster than running? In other words, can a human outrun a horse?
Apparently this was exactly the subject of a discussion in a Welsh pub back in 1980, overheard by Gordon Green, a local land owner. Green, having a good sense of business, picked up on the idea, and devised a challenge in the shape of a race taking runners and riders though cross country terrain. This is how the Man versus Horse Marathon, held in the Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells, was born.
Over thirty years later, an Auckland runner called Steve is credited with the idea of organizing a similar event in the remote hilly country terrain of New Zealand’s Pukeohaku District, located about 30 kms to the east of Taihape. The Great PukeokaHu Man v Horse Race is organized by the community for the community, with the aim of raising funds for the local school, which is attended by a mere handful of boys and girls.
We heard of this unique event from our friends in the Wellington Running Meetup Group (WoRM). Heard is probably an understatement here, as everyone who participated the first edition in 2015 was overly enthusiastic and seemed to take it as their personal mission to talk any running-capable biped into entering the race.
On our part, we weren’t entirely convinced whether we wanted to chase horses through the hills. First of all, we were told that the course was quite tough, about 42 kms with over 2000 m elevation gain through paddocks that are notoriously uneven underfoot and hard to run on. A good indicator of the difficulty of the race was that the speedy runner of the group, Stu, who had been the first human to cross the finish line last year had completed the course in over 4h 30min. Besides, truth be told, we had been quite a bit on the lazy side ever since the Tarawera Ultramarathon when it comes to participating in events, so no thank you – we thought. In addition, I hadn’t really been able to do a proper run in the last two months due to my mysterious foot injury. Despite all, eventually we decided to sign up for the relay option, mostly for the sake of doing something fun in the weekend.
We set out for the longish drive on Friday afternoon, to arrive just in time for registration and dinner. You could tell local families really put their hearts into this event as we were treated to a warm welcome and a delicious home-cooked meal in the community hall. After we managed to pitch our borrowed tent in the dark at the runners’ campsite located in the local schoolyard, we had a warm cup of tea with the rest of the WoRMers. Their recruitment clearly went well, as it seemed at least 80% of all runners had come all the way from Wellington. We talked some “race strategy”, not devoid of horse jokes – I’m sure a few runner jokes were flying around in the riders’ camp across the road.
We had a rather chilly night’s rest prior to race day. To everyone’s amusement a thin layer of ice was covering the tents by the morning. After some time spent defrosting in the sun and munching on our breakfasts, we got “race-ready”. As Chan and I signed up in the last moment, we didn’t manage to find a third member for our relay team. So I was going to run the first relay leg, which was supposed to be the longest of the three with the most elevation gain, and Chan had to complete the rest of the course. While I was somewhat concerned about how my foot would hold up, it was nice to face an event with no expectations whatsoever, other than finishing the distance.
Runners were to have a 15 minute head start on the horses – this was later compensated for as finishing times were calculated -, so we lined up at the gate representing the finish line, and off we went. May the best beast win! I got into a comfortable rhythm as we started on a slight downhill before we came to the first climb, which turned out to be THE CLIMB, right up to Pukeohaku Hill. I had no idea of the course, so I just ran/power walked as I saw fit. Soon I found myself jogging next to another girl – running the entire course – with whom we stuck together for most of my leg.
Near what I suspect would have been the 5 km mark, just towards the end of the big climb, the first two horses caught up with us. I guess it’s not such a bad idea to have four legs after all. I was too worried about my foot to fully enjoy the long downhill that came once we reached the top – and it was a good downhill! -, but I found that the terrain was definitely not as bad underfoot as I had expected. I suspect much of the reputation of the race came from the bad weather and the muddy course in last year’s event.
As I trotted along, at some point two more horses caught up, and we were passing each other there and back for a while through the undulating terrain. Four legs are fine when you are climbing, but not as good when you are trying to go steep down, even a misbehaving foot is better at that than four legs. Then the horses galloped past on a flattish stretch. There was no point chasing them. By now I was enjoying the ride, up and down, through the wide open land. Nobody could have asked for a more perfect day. The sun was shining brightly above us, but the air was still quite cool, so it was not too hot to run.
Just as I was getting slightly concerned regarding how much further I had to run (we didn’t have a very clear idea of the course, as I’ve said), I saw the changeover point a few hundred meters downhill. Chan was eager to take on the blue rubber bracelet-baton and to go chase after the horses.
I spent the rest of the race cheering, sipping warm tea, eating toast sandwiches and clicking away on Chan’s camera – while he was doing the hard work, of course. Big smiles were the constant theme as more and more runners were returning from the second relay change over point to join us in expecting the best beast – whoever it would be.
Eventually, the first to cross the finish line was – probably to nobody’s surprise – a horse and its rider: Maureen Davie with the magnificent Makahiwi Phoenix, who trotted through the course in 3:32:02. The first human across the finish was our acclaimed Stu Milne, with 4:00:04. The first individual female runner was Kelly Sutherland with 5:05:28. Our humble two-man relay didn’t do too bad after all, we came in as third relay team with 4:46:41. Chan seemed happy and claimed that next year he would run the full course. I think I’ll take his word on this one!
But the day did not just end with the smiling faces though the finish. After we all had a well-deserved warm shower and got into our best camping attire, we headed to the prize-giving ceremony. All the while in the event head quarters – i.e. the community hall kitchen – a group of lovely locals was busy aiming to outperform the Friday evening meal. A bit later the barbecue was set up outside, and suddenly it dawned on us just how tired and hungry we were. While others took more photos, some of us lingered at the entrance, clutching our teacups or beer bottles, ready to jump at the first sight of food on the table. Maybe not the best, but clearly beasts.
The feast was a perfectly glorious conclusion of the long day. After gathering some big pieces of meat and patties and lumping a bit of as many different sides as we could on our plates, we were content to dive in. Runners and riders were retelling their adventures, assessing their performance, while our hosts looked at least equally tired but unwinding at last, now that they could conclude the day had been an overwhelming success. Amongst all of us, the only ones who seemed not to be lacking energy were the local kids, cheerfully enjoying their night out. Before we retreated to our tents, somebody remarked “and this is all about them”.