Can a human being beat a horse in a 35K race?

This Saturday, man is pitted against beast in a race of endurance through the Welsh countryside.

When it comes to long distance running, are four legs better than two?

That is the question that Welsh pub owner Gordon Green posed to a local huntsman back in 1980. There was talk of the limits of human endurance, and of the waining speed over long distances on the part of a horse. There was even discussion of the legend of 18th century Welsh runner Guto Nyth Bran, who allegedly beat a horse in over a long distance course, finishing with a gruelling sprint up a hill, only to die in the arms of his sweetheart upon crossing the finish line, victorious against the beast, of course.

The pub proprietor and the huntsman entered into a wager, and that friendly bet has evolved over the last 32 years into the annual Man Vs. Horse Marathon.

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There is a long history of human beings attempting to beat out an equine foe, seemingly at every imaginable distance. 1936 Olympic star Jesse Owens used to race horses while on a post Olympic carnivalesque tour. His trick was to get a good jump on a riled horse after the gun would frighten the thoroughbred. Nevertheless, Owens was seldom successful over a 100m dash, even when gifted with a head start.

More recently, disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson raced a workhorse, a harness racer horse and a stock car in 1998 in a charity event on Prince Edward Island. Johnson beat the car (which struggled on the muddy track), but lost to both horses, even with a staggered start that favoured the sprinter.

This weekend in the Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells hundreds of humans and a handful of local horses will compete over an extremely technical 35K course. The route features bogs, river crossings, muddy county roads and the demanding hills of the Welsh countryside. The race challenges the moxie of both runner and rider alike.

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Only two men have bested a horse since the competition began, and in both instances the human prevailed in a heat scorched race of attrition more than a test of sheer speed and endurance.

A cursory glance at the historical results of the race would indicate that an elite runner might have a shot at beating a horse regardless of conditions, with the horses typically winning in a time around two hours.

In 2008, the race began allowing four human relay teams in a bid to even the playing field. That year the Kenyans even sent a team that included an elite cross-country runner. That team and a team of local elite runners did best the winning horse, but not by much.

Last year’s human winner was Charlie Pearson in 2:25:45. The overall winner, local horse Sly Dai, finished comfortably ahead in 2:08:37.

Will man triumph over beast in 2012? The Man Vs. Horse Marathon takes place Saturday, June 9 in Wales.