Pursuit. If I had to sum up what made this last weekend's race so amazing in one word, pursuit would be it. I suppose it means different things to different people, at different times too - sometimes the metaphorical pursuit of an ideal or goal is a great thing, sometimes the pursuit of the runner in front of you can drive you on.
Sometimes, being chased by a horse is exactly what you need on a blazing Saturday afternoon.
Last weekend, I went with Clare (my girlfriend) and our friend Lee to compete in the annual, original Man V Horse race in Llanwrtyd Wells, in Wales. The race originally stemmed from a bet between two locals as to whether it would be one's horse or the other's feet that would carry them fastest over a nearby hill - now in its 35th year, it's gained a couple of slightly larger sponsors and is structured around runners staying through the long weekend, but in the UK's smallest town (the population literally more than doubles when MVH rolls around), it's still got a really nice local feel, with around 10% of the town turning out to marshal and run stalls (and the bar).
Ugh, I've just realised how much that last paragraph started to sound like a press release for them, so pressing on:
We showed up on the Friday night, pitched our tent in a nearby field and headed to the central pub in the town, where we indulged in the complimentary pasta party and met up with a few other guys that we know from the local running scene. With our responsible-adult heads on, though (boo), we called it a pretty early night and headed back to the tent.
The next morning came and was possibly the most scorching hot day we've had this year. Without a cloud in the sky, we were up pretty early to get to registration and even at that time of morning, we were all feeling pretty uncomfortable. Lee was especially nervous as this was going to be his first time racing, ever - I think he'd call it fair to say his genetics make him a pretty good, spry runner as it is, but he doesn't exactly put in a lot of additional training. However good a runner he is in spite of this lack of conscious effort, he was still feeling like he should have done more to get ready. It was a nice experience to be able to see us together: me, the apparent 'Runner', Clare, the newbie who is just at the point of owning a dedicated pair of running shoes and has a handful of races under her belt, and Lee, the absolute neophyte who was experiencing all of the same nerves that we both had at some point.
The race itself is, for the runners, divided into three sections and can be run as either an individual effort, or as a three-person team. We were set to do the latter, with me taking the first leg, Clare the second and Lee the finishing section - we figured it would be nice for him to be the one to actually cross the line. It runs a total of around 24 miles of very rugged cross-country terrain, divided up into sections of 7, 7 and 10 miles (we only found out afterwards that we'd set Lee up with the longest section!).
The name of the race suggests, though, that this isn't quite all there is to it - the 600-or so runners share the course with around 50-60 horses and riders, all competing together. Watch this video here and tell me if, when the horses show up, it looks like any of them are giving any quarter whatsoever. The riders are just as much in it to win it as the runners and it makes for a very, very cool race indeed.
I really, really want to write another blog post at some point talking about how utterly awesome human beings are at running when compared to other animals, but I'll try and restrain myself and keep it short here: although one might automatically think that the horse would have a ridiculous advantage, both their inability to navigate rough terrain very quickly and their inability to keep themselves cool (hence my occasional race mantra of 'if you can sweat, you don't need a vet) even the odds pretty much right up.
It's kind of interesting to think about these kind of things before the race - now fast forward to when I'm running down a muddy hill, breathing my lungs up and hopping the biggest virtual logs I've ever hopped (over the biggest real clumps of grass stones that I've ever hurdled) with mud caked up to my waist and sweat burning my eyes while still mustering the energy to practically scream at the bloke in front of me to pick up his pace because there's a freaking horse coming right at my shoulder! The feeling of having a chance against a horse as I consciously use my little human pin-legs to navigate some particularly horse-worrying terrain that cuts of the corner where a pair of the beasts are having to cautiously navigate a more suitable path. The dream-like adrenaline of running as hard as I can, only to be overtaken by an unstoppable horse-and-rider team. That is the kind of pursuit I'm talking about. The kind that sets your blood running and awakens the primal place inside you. The place that says 'I remember - this is what you're a runner for!'.
My seven miles were, apart from very nearly turning my ankle quite badly towards the end (but who cares about that?), very tough, to say the least - around five and a half miles of steady uphill followed by a mile or so of ridiculous, steep, off-camber descent across slippery fields. Before I knew it, I was at the relay changeover to give my wristband to Clare, then descended into a world of friendly camaraderie with the other first-leggers on our coach-ride back to the finish line.
After wolfing down fistfuls of the generously-provided provisions from the elder local ladies of the town (and maybe sinking one or two cold ciders), Clare arrived beaming and very happy with her performance, telling similar tales to what I'd experienced; of mud, effort and horsing around.
We'd planned for Lee to take between one and two hours to complete his section, depending on how lucky he got with the terrain and how he coped with the race environment... I've never been more proud of one of my friends as when he came hurtling across the finishing section of field, very much on the earlier side. His red cheeks appeared to be permanently inflated as he was forcing himself through a handful of last-minute overtakes to cross the line.
He was beaming from ear to ear as we met him at the line and as he revelled in racer's babbling about how much he'd enjoyed himself and how awesome it'd been, I was pleased that his first race experience had been a positive one!
It turned out that, out of the relay teams, we'd come 71st out of 229 - this in itself was a result we were most definitely proud of, but the best part was that we beat a fair few horses into the bargain!
We rewarded ourselves with another cider or two before heading back into the town for a very cool barbecue with good friends at our tent, followed by the unofficial race after-party at the local pub. It was an amazing weekend and it made me think to at least suggest something here:
I think there are plenty of you here who would love it and I'm totally serious about at least suggesting maybe some kind of unofficial Cool Impossible meet-up next year.
If you're in the UK, just be there. Done. I'm not really going to try and persuade you guys too hard; just watch the video again and trust me, you'll love it.
If you're anywhere else in the world, come and visit us. I mean it. It's a year away, so there's a bit of time to plan it all. If you're an experienced traveller-for-races, then this is definitely a god one to add on to the list. If you've never travelled for a race before, then find my earlier blog post about running the Nice semi-marathon or about running up mountains in Iceland, or about learning to run in the heat of the Bahamas to maybe get some inspiration for how great a running trip can be. Lastly, if you're new to running, or have found inspiration through Eric's book, then maybe this could be a goal to aim for.
I would humbly suggest that this would make a good cool impossible for a lot of people.
I've just noticed how long I've rambled on for - I won't be able to find adequate words to describe it properly in a hurry, so I'm not going to butcher the description any more. It was a great experience and I really hope we can maybe make something work for next time.
Argh ok, I'm done waffling. How are you guys?