When guest columnist Katrin Silva wrote about her ultra running experiences in this column, she mentioned the Western States 100 trail. It covers the same path run by horses in the famous Tevis Cup race.
Her column renewed our interest in the Horse versus Human debate. Here’s what main stream media considers of the contest:
“At the Vermont 100, I ran with the same group of horses from Mile 20 to the finish. They passed me on the uphills, I passed them back on the downhills, over and over, for 80 miles. I love thinking that endurance is something we share with horses.”
We put the question to the test in a pair of contests a few years ago, when we were living in Iowa. Maddy Butcher and her son, Cormick Gaughran, took to the trails with spirit.
Maddy Butcher writes in Part I:
Late summer is a time of peak performance. For us trail riders, we have several dozen good rides under our belts. The horses are fit and partnerships are firing on all cylinders.
For serious school athletes, workouts are getting banked like so many study hours before final exams. Preseason double sessions and homecoming games loom right around the corner.
What a perfect time to revisit the Horse versus Human experiment!
We wrote about these contests last year. Sometimes, the horse and rider pair wins. Sometimes, the runner wins. Read more.
Why not try it ourselves?
The Human: My 18-year old son, Cormick, an avid runner and soccer player at Brunswick High School.
The Horse: Comet, 10-year old rescued paint. A long, lean lover of trail rides and not coincidentally, our fittest horse. Or, so I thought.
The Rider: Yours Truly. A rider with average skills, weighing 130 pounds.
We headed to Iowa’s Pleasant Creek State Recreation Area, where a big loop roughly traces the perimeter of this public land. It’s a wonderful trail with a constantly changing topography of fields, woods, meadow, then more fields and woods. There are gullies with two narrow bridges to cross. The footing ranges from dirt to sand to grass – easy-going for horses and humans alike.
We pulled into the empty parking lot late in the afternoon. Cormick took a few more sips of water and dribbled a soccer ball as I tacked up. Comet napped, unfazed by the trash talk.
Nobly giving the runner a few minutes head start, I checked the cinch and mounted up.
We walked out of the parking lot and eased into a trot. Comet was more easily spooked and hesitant than she typically is when riding with a companion. It took nudges and reassurances to maintain our pace.
Where was Cormick?
We trotted more. As the trail ascended, I thought again of the missing breast collar. As the path dipped, I struggled to trot comfortably, leaning back slightly and using my legs as shock absorbers.
At this point, with more than a mile behind us, we’d usually pause, walk, smell the roses.
But where was Cormick?
He’d taken the lead and added to it. I barely spotted him, a fleeting speck on the far side of a grassy field. I gently pulled Comet from her quick clover snack and we moved into a gallop. With much effort, we caught him as the trail got hilly again.
But the runner didn’t stop. Together, the three of us arrived at a scenic overlook, where we usually pause for drinks, snacks, appreciation, and conversation.
Part II: Lessons and Second Winds
Comet and I watched wearily as our competitor ignored the panoramic vista. We’d just completed this first leg twice as fast as our last visit, riding about four miles in 30 minutes. And even that slower ride was no walk in the park.
Why not pause, Dear Cormick, to sip some water, enjoy the view, and appreciate our good health on such a serene summer day?
I pulled Comet gently from her grass snack, muttered my apologies, and returned to the path. Cormick was running 30 yards ahead of us. I considered the route’s second leg:
Rolling hills winding through meadows, fields, and timber.
Wide paths with good footing, except for some small areas of mud.
Five miles or more with two rickety, narrow bridges to cross.
Some shade, but mostly sunny exposure on this 80-degree day.
It might have been meager, but the pause nonetheless had given us a second wind. Combined with the next miles’ uphills, we were able to pull ahead by 40 yards and maintained our lead for another mile. But the bridges and descents hindered our pace and helped the runner.
I continued to struggle with comfort and form while moving fast downhill and then I wasn’t willing to push Comet over the bridges at anything faster than a cautious walk. With about two miles to go, Cormick passed us.
Then something cool happened:
Comet got cowy. After nearly an hour of indifference, she looked ahead at Cormick and actively pursued him with a quickened pace. She tracked him around the bend and down into the woods.
The Runner managed to pull ahead slightly, but Comet kept her eye on him. As we pulled into the meadow near the parking lot, she gave an extra spurt towards the finish.
Ok, so the Runner won.
But it should be noted that none of the competitors really pushed to anywhere near exhaustion. Comet and Cormick were breathing hard at the finish, yes. But a few minutes later, they weren’t at all.
It was great fun. We completed about nine miles in just over an hour.
Here’s my To Do list for the Rematch:
Anticipate that it’ll be more challenging without another horse.
Use the ascents to gain ground (Running uphill seems to be easier for the horse than the human.)
Practice your downhill riding.