Man Against Horse race report
For over two centuries, apparently people have debated whether humans could beat horses on foot, the argument being that over a long enough distance, humans should be able to outrun horses after the latter become too fatigued to continue. In trying to prove this point, events billed as “Man vs. Horse” were competed as early as 1879. And they continue to this day. In fact, I write this after having just participated in one almost exactly a week ago. While the question of interspecies competition was certainly not the impetus for having done so, I can confidently say that humans can outrun horses over long enough distances — especially with enough technical terrain thrown into the mix. So we can go ahead and nip that conversation in the bud.
I received a text from our pro athlete (and now dear friend) Michael Versteeg about two and a half weeks out from the race, asking if I wanted to fly into Prescott to run something called “Man Against Horse 50mi” with him on October 9th. Over the last eight months, I have only really had the (dis)pleasure of running with Mike in the context of spontaneous and very unplanned pacing duties, both during the Cocodona 250 and Colorado Trail FKT attempt. Furthermore, these usually occurred at some ungodly hour of the night (or morning, depending on what kind of person you are) and after he’d already put down some incomprehensible amount of mileage. Needless to say, while I certainly appreciate all those moments in retrospect, they weren’t fun. So even though I wasn’t feeling “fit enough” to race an ultra, I liked the idea of doing something truly for fun together with no pressure or expectations. When I asked him what the race was like, he told me it was one of the last cool old school events out there and the only man horse race that still has runners competing against horses together. (Full disclosure: I haven’t validated this statement, so if we’re wrong, sincerest apologies.) Given my fear of horses, a recent recovery from injury, and my total lack of consistent training, it was a no-brainer. I told him I’d be there.
In the time leading up to it, I closed out two of my strongest weeks of running in over a year. While there isn’t really an exact science to it, typically it’s ideal to close out big volume weeks two weeks out from a race to give your body adequate time to absorb and recover (or so I’ve heard). But I needed the confidence booster after not running a full volume week in over a year due to injury. And since I had no other goals than just to enjoy myself and hang out with Mike, it certainly gave me the confidence that I needed to help me believe in the fact I would be able to finish the distance. Plus, the aforementioned Cocodona and Colorado experiences were a training of some kind that I now had under my belt.
Moe and I rendezvoused in Phoenix on the 6th, picked up a Jeep super out of the way in Mesa, and drove to Prescott to connect with Mike. Even though Moe was technically there for “work” — capturing images of this Man Horse Race — having him around added to that dimension of fun. Through doing these ridiculously strenuous adventures together (Cocodona, Colorado), we have become very close.
The days leading up to the race were remarkably unremarkable. We just hung out, had food and drink, and barely spoke about anything pertaining to running. It was perfect. Even the night before and the morning of the race, it never really registered with me that I was about to “race” — I even actually got like 6 hours of sleep the night before (anyone who has raced an ultra, with the super early wakeup times, knows this is crazy).
The night before, I spent some time deciding what I was going to wear, attaching my bib to my shorts, and making sure I had everything I needed by way of nutrition. I microwaved the most wholesome frozen meal I could find at Sprouts, took some THC tincture, and knocked out. Moe and I woke up at 4am, made some coffee from a sachet, packed our shit into the Jeep, and linked with Mike at the start around 6:15am. I hurried to try and see if my morning poop would come (spoiler alert: it didn’t) and Mike hurried to eat the most amount of mushrooms he’d ever consumed. The race director yelled for runners to gather together and, at 6:30am, gave us the OK to start.
Ultra-distance events are always so interesting — though it’s warned countless numbers of times not to go out too hard, there never fails to be a group that does exactly that. So in the beginning, a good chunk of runners stayed ahead of Mike and myself. As time passed and we began passing those runners, Mike noted how the mushrooms made him sensitive to their energy, as though he could see it. From my own experiences with psychedelics, and especially with mushrooms, I knew exactly what he was referring to, and laughed in agreeance. I also laughed in realizing he was properly tripping balls. Though I briefly contemplated joining him on that journey, I figured the day would be psychedelic enough in and of itself for me.
About two hours in at roughly mile 12, we rolled into the second aid station together. Mike was clearly in a different space and element and pushed quickly onward. I took a minute or so to fill up my handheld flasks — one with liquid calories and one with pure water — and let him run ahead without me. Still so early on, I wanted to take some time to myself and take stock of where I was at. Even going through the aid stations, I think what really struck me was how I felt zero sense of traditional competition. At my first ultra years ago, I remember whenever I was in a group of runners, a sense of competitiveness would wash over me. It wasn’t a feeling I enjoyed. But what is competition anyway? Is it dominance and subordination? Is it really about beating others around you? Is that why people go out so hard in the beginning? Because there is that brief but tangibly perceptible moment of the remote possibility of achieving that? Or is it something else?
A friend of mine told me a story about an experience he had coaching his son’s basketball team. One day they showed up to practice, did the same old drills they had done countless numbers of times before, dribbling around cones and following through with a shot. So he asked the kids, “Why are we here? Why are we doing this?” And his son replied, “So everyone looks like cones!” Bruce Lee once said (supposedly), “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” So what is competition? To me, it is mastery of a self-concept —and that’s what I realize felt different in this race. It is self mastery as experiencing the contest as one between incarnations of the self, a previous versus present self. Already at this point in the race, everyone looked like cones.
As I ran, I can’t really tell you exactly what I was thinking about. However, I can say that my overall affect was one of immense joy and gratitude. To me, ultramarathons are amazing, not because you have an opportunity to run against other people (or horses, in this case — although that was pretty sweet), but because you have the opportunity to be truly with yourself for a prolonged period of time without distraction. My perspective was such that the event felt more like being able to enjoy a long run with kind people sprinkled every 6 or so miles stocked with water and snacks than it did a race. The low or dark points of races occur I think when you’re taken out of both yourself and the present moment. But having spent that last hour alone, I was able to separate myself from past or future and tap into a truly present flow state. So when I rolled into aid station 3 at mile 17.6 and saw Moe for the first time, I was beaming.
In the frequency of aid stations, I found rhythm both in running and intake. With two 500ml handhelds, one with calories and one just water, I made it a point to consume both before arriving at each subsequent aid station. At this point, the course had departed from the fields we started in and was entering the mountains. After some time in the trees, by mile 22 it became a jeep road overlooking a beautiful stretch of green, desert and beautifully red-striated stone. I would every so often break out of my tunnel vision to soak it in, in a state of mechanical and visual intoxication—blissed out.
This lovely 8ish-mile stretch ended at an aid station at the base of a 3-mile, 2,000 foot climb up Mingus Mountain. Though this part was less fun, I was amazed when I eventually came upon some of the horses making the same climb. Before coming up on them, I wondered to myself if there was an alternate route here for the horses or something. It seemed impossible to me that these large animals would be making the climb on a trail that often felt narrow even for me. Yet there they were. I passed three or four horses on the latter half of my ascent. (Side note: I also learned that horses cannot do downhills very efficiently. I guess since they carry most of their weight in the forward half of their body, plus having a human on your back, downhills prove quite challenging and require the rider to hop off and walk with them.) When I got to the top, I was surprised to see Mike and Moe. I replenished my stash of Maurten powder and ate half a Snickers bar. We spent a little time figuring out logistics for Moe to check on Mike’s dog Dio and then Mike and I took off together. At some indeterminable point, he lagged behind and I was on my own again. As much as I love running with Mike, I realized I was finding myself most in my element when I was running alone. Especially since I’m not a very experienced ultrarunner, I it was important to me for learning something about myself, I guess.
I got to the next aid station which was where the course—kind of like a figure 8, essentially—intersected back with itself. They told me I was in 4th place, which came as a surprise to me, and that the 3rd place runner was about 20 minutes ahead of me. I suppose this last bit of information was for if I wanted to try and catch him or something, which I felt no motivation to do. I refilled my handhelds and kept onward. About a mile later, Mike caught back up to me with a smile, trying to surprise me. I noticed he was still wearing his sandals—which was completely insane to me. He said it was for sure the furthest he’d run in sandals. When I asked why he didn’t change into the shoes he brought, he said that in his mushroom-fueled state the idea of putting on shoes seemed “insane.” We ran together until we reached the next aid station. Where earlier he took off and I took a longer moment to refill my flasks, here I took off while he took a little longer. See you in a little bit, I told him.
The rest of the course from here on out was essentially all descent. The downhills had been feeling really strong for me all day, so I took this as an opportunity to push harder on this long goat trail down the other side of Mingus. I went at the fastest clip I’d gone all day down the entirety of the mountain until it dumped out onto an undulating dirt road. About a mile and a half up and off through a cattle gate, I arrived at the next aid station. My watch said I’d run 44ish miles. But the sign there said this was the last aid. Thinking I had 4.something miles left, I asked the volunteers how far from the finish I was. When they told me one and a half, the shift in perspective was so great that I quite actually took off “sprinting” (what felt like sprinting after running 46.5 miles, anyway). I was back in the fields we started on, running through dirt, rock, deep sand in a wash, and then back up onto dirt before the finish banner came into sight.
When I crossed the finish, I was so overcome with emotion and relief that I fell to the ground on my back. I was quickly brought back up to my feet when an adorable puppy less adorably stepped on my balls. At the last ultra I did, I aggressively bonked about halfway through, had a breakdown at an aid station for 30 minutes, and had to be convinced into continuing by my crew. This time, however, I managed to make it through the entire distance without once feeling even the remotest notion of quitting. All on my own. And finishing 4th place, while never important to me or a goal of mine, felt rewarding too. Shit, I guess I was genuinely proud of myself—something I rarely experience. After Moe and I shared hugs and laughter, we waited for Mike, who showed up shortly after, all smiles, laughter, hair and sandals. It was an indescribable joy to be there together and know that we’d truly done the damn thing (and that there was no more mileage required for him).
Where before the motivation to continue running ultras and long distances stemmed from viewing it as a medium through which I could vanquish demons and traumas, I finished this race with a paradigm shift. Running constructs a selfish and selfless space. Somehow, through the intense repetitive rhythms of the activity, our minds let go of themselves and we become truly present. During long slow distances, layers of armor and facade are stripped away until some nugget of Being is left bare; the boundaries have dissolved and you feel both at one with and absolved of time and space—that state is constantly flickering but any sustained duration of its luminance is worth the patience. Even if that means when you stop the chemistry wears off, certain parts of your body spasm and twitch, you’re shivering, your piss is amber, you should eat but have no appetite, both standing and sitting cause suffering in different ways—you want to do it all over again. (But not like, in a couple hours all over again, like Cocodona or Colorado.)
Words by Adam Voidoid
Photography by Moe Lauchert