Horsepower Marathon

Where: Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales

The sight of a man sprinting towards a finishing line with his opponents, a horse and rider, racing beside him may appear like a slightly one-sided contest. Even the most powerful sprinters would find it hard to match a four-legged gallop, especially over a 22-mile course. Yet throw in some steep hills, forest paths, streams, and fences and the apparent mismatch evens out a little. This annual cross country race attracts 500 runners and more than 50 horses. They huff and puff across a rugged and beautiful landscape and though a human has only won the race twice in its 29-year history, among the runner-ups there are many cases of men and women beating off the stallions and mares.

It all began with a bet. Pub landlord Gordon Green overheard two customers discussing the merits of running as opposed to galloping while enjoying a drink in his quaint country pub at the Neuadd Arms Hotel in the tiny Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells 65 miles (165km) north of Cardiff. Green agreed with one bookee that a man can beat a horse in the right conditions and went about proving it. The first race took place in 1980 and since then numerous runners and riders have braved wind, rain, and scorching heat to settle the matter. Every June they all gather in the town square of this old Victorian spa town (population 600) with its handsome white gables and multi-colored streets.

Llanwrtyd Wells sits amongst rolling green hills, its low grey slate roofs huddled along the river Irton with an old stone bridge crossing the lively stream. This part of mid Wales attracts its fair share of nature lovers as it has excellent hiking trails and valley walks. The sweeping Brecon Beacons mountain range is nearby and further north you'll find a lovely collection of 12th century castles such as the handsome red gritstone Powys Castle on the English border and the desolate and eery Aberystwyth Castle overlooking the Irish sea.

Runners get a 15-minute head start on the horses so as to avoid getting trampled. The time difference is adjusted at the end so any neigh sayers cannot accuse the race of being fixed. Within 8 minutes the horses catch up with the humans and for the next two to three hours a cat and mouse game ensues as man and horse cross paths, get stuck in mud holes, gingerly descend steep hills, and wade through waist deep streams. The final sprint and gallop takes place back at the village and normally the hooves win hands down by an average margin of 5 minutes. That was until 2004 when a young Welsh soldier called Huw Lobb became the first man in history to officially beat a horse. He ran the course in 2 hours and 5 minutes, beating his nearest equine foe by 2 minutes. The winner walked away with prize money of $40,000 and bookmakers had to make handsome payouts.


When to Go: June 2010

Getting There: Cardiff Airport

Where to Stay: The Lake Country House Hotel & Spa, Llangammarch Wells, Powys, LD4 4BS (tel. 44/1591/620202; The Neuadd Arms Hotel, The Square, Llanwrtyd Wells, Powys LD5 4RB (tel. 44/1591/610236;