As the sign says, Llanwrtyd Wells is the smallest town in Britain. I had travelled by train on the Friday from my family in Carmarthen and had to change at Llanelli. The scenery from the train window was incredible. Massive hills, tall trees and low flying birds of prey when we got to Llandovery. When I had reached my destination, I really did feel like I was in the middle of nowhere. I was the only person to get off the train and there was no-one on the platform either. The song "ghost town" came into mind. It wasn't long until I saw life though as I followed the signs into the town centre. All the people were smiling and super friendly but I couldn't stop thinking about the Simon Pegg film "Hot Fuzz".
So, Man V horse is a race I read a bit about but didn't really know a lot. I knew It was a weird town with a population of just over 600 people. I knew they held strange events like the "World bog snorkelling championships" and was home to the "World alternative games". This includes bizarre events like "Gravy wrestling", "Worm charming championships", "space hopper racing" and "wife carrying" plus many, many more crazy things. In the nature of things, Man v horse sounded just as insane!
To me it sounded like they were calling it a marathon even though it was just under 24 miles. You would be racing horses and running through streams and a bit of mud. That's what I knew...
I booked in to my room at the Neuadd arms hotel. I managed to get a last minute cancellation thanks to Bob the race director who emailed me to tell me so. What a lovely guy he is. Obviously being the smallest town in Britain, I guess news travels fast there! There is also a free pasta party at the hotel for the runners. Didn't matter if you were staying the hotel or not. Free food is always good. Went to collect my number from the hall on the Friday evening and asked for directions. I couldn't have asked a nicer guy either. His name is Melvin and he was so friendly and welcoming. We walked down to race collection together with a few others from his running club (Collingwood). Everyone was joking and laughing. This was great and exactly what I needed as I was here on my own, getting nervous about the race and being trampled by horses. Melvin asked me if I was a virgin and I said yes, so he filled me in with lots of course details and gave me some very useful advice which I would remember on the way around. He also told me about the time he was lost and had to be rescued. Like I wasn't worried enough already..lol.
There was a list of running clubs in the hotel foyer that said people had travelled from all over the world for the race. I was pleased to see my club Lordshill Road Runners on that list.
There were a lot of relay running teams too as well as 60 horse riders who had entered. A last minute look at the course profile made me wonder if I should have done the relay. Was I mad to do this solo? What I had thought is that it's only 24 miles but I had later realised that the elevation was in units of 500 feet and not 100 feet! Some big hills then. I would soon find this out anyway.
All runners start at 11am and the horse riders/horses start at 11.15. We had to get a move on before we got trampled, the start was quite congested but we had chip timing for the first time on this race. I managed to run my first mile in just under 8 minutes. This race wasn't so bad afterall! :)
Not long after the first mile, hills like the above one started to appear. That sub 8 minute mile was to be my only one. What makes it even tougher is that it is mostly off road trails with mud, streams and the occasional track, but all hilly. It was either up or down but I seem to remember a lot of up.
The thing that annoyed me a little bit was that you couldn't tell the difference between a solo runner and a relay runner. I think different colour numbers would be a good idea.
A bit later on in the race I could tell the difference as the solo runners were covered in mud and flies and the relay runners had shiny clean legs and lots of energy. Even so, it was not nice watching little girls fly past you and wondering if they were doing the solo run.
So where are these horses then? After 3 miles I could hear one approaching and approaching at lightning speed. I looked around and there were 2 of them. I said the mantra back to myself which I had read in the manual. "Runners to the right, Horses to the left". Now these 2 horses were running side by side. One of them had a rider and the other i'm guessing had lost it's rider so it was just a crazy horse galloping towards me. I really hadn't expected them to run with such speed as I have never seen a horse racing before. I must admit I was a little bit scared. I just stopped running and stood back and prayed a little bit and this seemed to work as they flew past me.
Later up the hill I was using my ultra skills to walk up the bigger hills. Then I got chatting to this girl from Brecon, so we slowly ran up the hill together while we talked about races, life etc.. She was a lot fitter than me and obviously did a bit of training as she later left me at a water station but I didn't cry.
After only 9 miles, my legs were feeling trashed already. This hills were ridiculous. I had never seen anything like them. I was beginning to think that maybe Snowdonia marathon was pretty flat now. I also thinking that I might not finish this race, I was less than halfway and really struggling. I was already having to dig deep within my soul and push myself.
The most stupidest thing of all was that I didn't bring anything with me. There were water stations aplenty but that was it. I didn't bring any gels, food or energy drinks. Well I thought it's only 24 miles, i'll be fine. The miles were passing by slowly and by mile 12 I was offering out the promise of free beer to anyone who had an energy gel I could have. No-one seemed to have any until I got to my 15 or 16. I asked this guy who looked like he was off to Butlins for a week. Turns out he had loads and was more than willing to give me a gel and even offered me a second one. I just took the one and said i'd buy him a drink tonight if he could find me. He was a fell runner, so this wasn't really that hilly to him, just kind of the norm. I was meeting some really interesting people now and that's the great thing about distance running.
There was quite a bit of mud in places and the horses that passed had obviously made the mud even worse. About 15 horses or more had passed me by the time I had reached mile 16. There was probably more.
How the course works is that there is a runner's route and a horse's route but they both overlap and join up at certain times. Some of our course through the narrow woodland downhill would have been impossible for them. Slate was slipping from underfoot as I ran. It was hard enough for us.
I think I may have been close to getting trampled twice. Once was about mile 7 on a flat and rare bit of road where I decided to pick up my pace while the surface was good to firm. I am running where I think is probably leg 2 of the relay and I look behind me and there is a horse literally about to run into me and going really fast. I managed to dart to the right and let them pass. The lady said sorry afterwards. The second one was on a narrow wooded area and the path had only a bush and about a 6 foot drop. I had to jump into the bush and luckily I didn't fall down the drop. I was really annoyed with this rider as most riders would normally slow down a bit or shout when they are coming. Most riders were friendly and cheery but a couple were not so nice. A lot of the times though if I saw a horse coming I would simply shout "Horse" to the runners in front and many others did this too.
About mile 18 I was getting cramp in my right hamstring, so I did some stretches and ate a couple of jelly babies that a kind marshal offered me. I was walking more and more now as the hills got bigger and bigger. At one point I was running at 1600 feet and was watching the Red kytes hovering and cycling above the trees below me. What an amazing and breathtaking sight that was. I pointed this out to some other runners as well. No matter where you were on this course, there always seemed to be someone around which was weird but there were a lot of runners in the relay I guess.
I battled on and found the cramp fading away the more I ran. I was now running with an iron man dude. He loved it. He was such a calm and relaxed man. He told me about his next iron man and also told me about this 100 mile bike ride the day after this race and there was me wishing I had booked the Monday off for recovery! We ran for a few miles together but he said he was gonna wait back for a friend for a while. I pressed on, just wanting to finish. The water from the stations were mostly being poured over my head now, just to cool me down. It was hot but we were lucky that it wasn't too sunny. I had put on suntan lotion but instead of a tan, all I got were dead flies covering both arms.
I didn't see anymore horses for a while until I got to mile 22. Then 2 passed me at once. I remember being proud earlier in the race where I actually passed a horse running downhill but managed to kick a rock really hard with my big toe as I was descending... But I passed a horse.
At mile 21 I was chatting to another guy when I routinely said "Just one more parkrun to go!".
He laughed and then we compared times. My marathon time sub 3.30, his marathon time 4hrs. Yes! My parkrun time 19.44, his parkrun time 19.04. Bastard!
It was then time for the deeper stream near the end that my new mate Melvin had told me about. He wasn't wrong, it was thigh deep and even deeper if you had managed to slip and smash you knee on a rock. It loved it though. The water was nice and cooling. The marshal asked if I was okay. I made some stupid joke and grinned as I ran on. My knee had a cut with blood seeping out, I was 23 miles into a race and I was racing horses. I couldn't have felt any more manlier! This was bloody hard but I was glad to be doing it and finishing it. Despite all my conversations, I can honestly say that I ran as hard as I could and even had stitch for nearly 2 miles at the end.
It was still bloody uphill even when I got near the end but as I was told there only 300 metres to go I picked up the pace and the crowd cheered as I ran onto the grassy area and over the loud speaker I heard " And here comes number 659. Dean Jones of Lordshill road runners". The crowd cheered even more and the hairs stood up on the back on my neck. I felt euphoric. I knew there was a reason for running this race.
I collected my medal and queued for free sandwiches and a drink. Who wants a goody bag with a load of crappy flyers and a two year old mars bar when you can have ladies making you fresh sandwiches there and then. Although after running 24 miles it's tough to make decisions. Cheese, ham or egg?
Check out that elevation! Official chip time of 4 hours 20 minutes and 56 seconds.
I also beat at least 10 horses. Anyone fancy the relay next year? 3 people, roughly 8 miles each.
I think this race was only about £20-£25 to enter as well. A weird and wonderful event and they have already bribed me back next year by giving me 3 free jars of peanut butter, Hope to see you next June for another crazy day with some awesome and inspiring people.