Man Against Horse Race

For the second Saturday in a row I made my way out of the Valley heat to venture north for a long training run. This time my destination was the 50 mile “Man Against Horse Race” near Prescott, Arizona in the Mingus Mountains.

This race is a throw back to the very beginning of ultra trail running when a lone runner, Gordy Ainsleigh, attempted to complete the Western States Trail Ride on foot instead of horseback. Since then the sport has grown to a point that many races have become too big and impersonal. But not Man Against Horse Race. Before I write any more I want to say right up front this was the best organized and the most fun I’ve had at any race, regardless of distance. In my humble opinion Man Against Horse is what ultra trail running is all about and I hope it never changes.

Leaving home it was 88° at 3:50 a.m., when I pulled off the highway into a 1,000+ acre cow pasture outside Prescott Valley my truck thermometer read 52°. If I hadn’t been following a fellow runner I would’ve missed the driveway into the pasture that required opening a farm gate to enter. More than half a mile into the pasture I went over a rise in the pasture to see 50-75 horse trailers stretched out in a low area below. This was race “headquarters”, along with the horse trailers there were several motorhomes set up as race support and a “cook shack”. There was also a command center set up by the local county sheriffs department. All this in the middle of cattle roaming free nearby.

After checking in with race officials I had 45 minutes before the start to visit with many runners I know and to get all my stuff together. Stuff like pinning on my race number, readying my handheld bottle, checking that I had everything I needed in my Camelbak, sucking down a last minute GU gel and drinking a quick 12 ounces of EFS electrolyte fuel.

As the 50 mile race started out (there would also be 25 and 13 mile races that started later in the morning) nearly 50 runners and numerous horses spread out across the pasture then dropping into a dry creek bed for the first 5 miles of downhill running. Having been in this situation enough times now I stayed toward the back of the pack checking my pace while running at a faster pace than I wanted, even as most everyone pulled away from me. I knew several runners ahead of me in those first 5 miles would end up behind me at the end of the day and I needed to run my race and stay patient. When I run my goal is never to beat anyone or come in a certain place in the standings, my goal is always against the course itself and with myself to stay within my own abilities and not let other runners influence how I run.

After 8 miles I was running by myself with several minutes between me and the runners both immediately ahead and behind me. By mile 12 when the trail headed into more technical running in low scrub pine and the elevation started to climb I started picking off runners that had been way ahead of me from the start. Between miles 12 and 20 I passed 11 runners and caught another runner that ran near me for a few miles before pulling ahead for good again. I don’t say this because I was running great, I was just running steady and those runners all came back to me because they started out too fast and were paying for it dearly with 30 very hard miles still to run. Near mile 23 a young woman caught me on the forest road as we climbed to the base of Mingus Mountain. After leapfrogging back and forth we settled in to run together for a couple miles and visit. I had felt bad for this woman earlier in the day because as I was trying to slow my pace early and not start too fast she was settled in way behind me. I thought at the time “if you’re not ahead of me at this point, when everyone else is going out so fast you’re in big trouble later”. You probably already guessed where this sub story is going, she ended up running away from me around mile 25-26 and Magi Redlich ended up finishing as the 1st woman and 4th runner overall in her first ultra marathon and trail run. I felt good when I was running with Magi but she looked really strong and like she was just starting to get warmed up when she pulled away from me. I love these little stories within the story that occur while out on the trail for so many hours.

As I moved into the aide station near mile 28 I was feeling good. I had planned before the start to change shoes at this point to test my new Pearl Izumi Peak II trail shoes over the last 20 miles (as I mentioned before this was a long training run for me so I was trying different things to see how they would work for Javelina Jundred on November 12th). Sitting on the tailgate of a truck I grabbed my drop bag, changed socks and shoes before refilling my water bottle and Camelbak and grabbing a handful of grapes for the trail. As I moved up the steep trail 4 horses passed me in the lower elevation. I’d run almost 29 miles and there were still 4 horses behind me? Wow!

The trail between aide stations at miles 28 and 30.8 climbed from an altitude of 5,898’ to 7,621’. During this climb (which was almost all hiking and not running) I caught up with 3 of the horses that had passed me earlier after the aide station. For over a mile I walked behind the last rider visiting about the day, past runs for me and past rides for her. At this point I had been on the trail for 6 hours and 45 minutes, the early afternoon sun was beating down on me and there were times I had serious doubts if I was making it to the crest of Mingus Mountain or not. There were points that I would hike 10-15’ and stop to catch my breath, then go another 10-15’ and stop again. Finally I could start to hear voices through the trees to my right, as I made my way up a few more switchbacks the voices grew louder and I came upon two people waiting for their runner who told me the top was just around the corner. There is a point in every race I wonder why I do this, today this was that point. The aide station at the edge of the trail was set up in a parking lot for the trailhead and lookout area. The view behind me was spectacular but the view of the aide station in front looked like an Army triage center. Manned by the county sheriff’s posse, the uniforms, pop up canopy, sound of handheld radios and a larger than normal group of runners and onlookers made this a busy place. There were several runners at the top when I arrived, after not seeing any runners for a few miles this was a surprise as I thought there was no one close to me and if they were it wasn’t ahead of me since I felt so slow over the last 2+ miles climbing the steep side of Mingus Mountain.

After a few minutes refilling my hydration systems I was back on the trail. It felt good to be able to actually run again but if there was a camera on me I’m sure it would’ve most likely looked like a shuffle for the first mile out of aide station number 7. The aide stations all along the course were very good, well stocked with food, water and Gatorade (as well as water for the horses) and mostly manned by local sheriff posse members. Along with the 11 runner (and rider) aide stations there were 3 vet aide stations for the horses.

I was now on the downhill side of the course in more ways than one. From this point forward the course mostly dropped in elevation to the finish line. But it was also past the 30 mile mark where I could mentally start clicking off the miles as I neared the finish. Getting to a point where I can start the count down is a big mental boost for me. The trail was now getting technical with large rocks sprinkled on the trail and running through this part of the Ponderosa pine forest alone and fast downhill was a lot of fun. I might have slowed down if I’d given thought to the fact I still had close to 20 miles until I finished but I’m not good at thinking after being on the trail for 7 plus hours.

Coming out of the aide station at mile 38 Jon Roig caught me, I hadn’t seen Jon since mile 3 and being such a strong runner I was surprised it was him and that he hadn’t caught me several miles before that. Jon and I stayed together for nearly 5 miles visiting about past races, running and common acquaintances. Jon is an accomplished ultra runner who has finished Javelina Jundred, Western States 100, all 3 of the Arizona 50 mile races and the Boston Marathon in recent years. Jon doesn’t know it but I also read on his blog a few months ago that one day he got off work in the Valley, drove straight to the Grand Canyon, got out of his car and immediately ran Rim to Rim to Rim that night then got back in his car and drove home. Did I mention that Jon is an accomplished ultra runner? I thought so. At mile 43 I stopped to get something out of my shoe (which actually turned out to be a blister and not a rock or piece of wood as I thought) and left Jon to run ahead of me and finish strong on his own.

From that point on I didn’t see another runner but leapfrogged a horse and rider several times before pulling away from the horse on a long downhill section with 5 miles to the finish. With just a few miles to the finish the trail flattened out and eventually turned onto a gravel/hard clay packed country road. The horse and rider came up behind me in this stretch and the rider yelled, “Man…you’re amazing. I told my horse we’d catch you a long time ago. You’re running awesome”. After 9.5 hours of running I wasn’t running that fast but it was very nice of him to say that and it gave me a huge boost for several hundred yards before I reached my senses and got back to running my normal pace.

The last 1.5 miles into the finish were downhill through the pasture and with the finish line in sight the entire time it felt like it would never get there. Finally I crossed the finish line, 10 hours and 9 minutes after starting, good enough for 18th place. It felt like the entire town was there to cheer as I crossed the line. I have a picture of me reaching the finish, it looks like there were actually about 4 people there. Not how I remember it but I’m going to relish my memory anyway. And the answer to the big question everyone is asking me…yes, I did beat a horse. In fact when I came across the line and they checked me in they told me there were 11 horses that still hadn’t finished and they were waiting for them to come in. That’s amazing to me. I don’t know exactly how many horses started and know some of them beat me and there were 17 runners that finished ahead of me too, but thinking about having the ability to out run those 11 horses over a 50 mile mountain course still has me shaking my head in amazement (and smiling!).

After the finish I immediately start getting nauseous, then a while later the dizziness started and before long other problems. It took an hour and a half before I felt comfortable driving home. Once home I showered quick and visited with my family before going to bed, then woke up at 10:30 p.m. with flu like symptoms of chills, dizziness and sweat pouring off me. I was up all night. On Sunday morning I had a small bowl of granola at 10 a.m. The first solid food I’d eaten since 3 a.m. the day before.

Amazingly I had no muscle soreness at all after the race. My Achilles that had been bothering me a lot no longer hurt and I was in really good shape. Sunday afternoon I went to the gym and rode the spin bike for 30 minutes then stretched for 30 minutes. Monday I did a heavy weight lifting session for my legs and stretched some more then today (Tuesday) I ran a fast 6 miles on easy trails to test my legs and get my mind back in training mode. I have less than 6 weeks before Javelina Jundred.

Photos (photos by Lauren Wilke, Megan Powers and Burke Painter)

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One Response to Man Against Horse Race

  1. How Awesome is this!! Congrats John, 11 horses that is incredible. From reading your thoughts during the race, it sounds like you are really ready for the Javelina both physically and mentally. I look forward to meeting you at the Midnight Madness run. I should be pretty easy to spot; I’ll be the guy with a big fuzzy white dog, a smaller dog and a baby.

    Over the weekend, I was telling my in-laws about this crazy race you were running in Prescott, called “Man against Horse”. I told them a little about the history of ultra running in the U.S. and Gordy Ainsleigh.

    They looked at me in disbelief. It was hard for them to fathom that a person could beat a horse in a race. I insisted it was entirely possible but I also conceded I hadn’t actually met or talked to anyone who had done it (well technically I still haven’t :). Needless to say, I am excited to share your story with them. My wife is also excited as she loves to ride and she has jokingly challenged me to next year’s Man vs. Horse.

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