June 21, 2024

Llanwrtyd Wells, in mid-Wales, is known as Britain’s smallest town. In the centre, just off the main road, is a Victorian pub, the Neuadd Arms. As well as being a hotel and a brewery, it’s the official HQ of Green Events, a volunteer organisation manned by a loose collective of greying locals, mainly retirees, who gather there to plot and plan hare-brained schemes to keep Llanwrtyd Wells alive. They’ve been doing so since the 1980s, when Gordon Green, the pub’s former landlord, decided the time to think big had arrived.

The town, which had a population of about 600 back then, certainly needed a boost. Before Green showed up, the last person to put it on the map was the Reverend Theophilus Evans, in 1732. He encountered a healthy-looking frog in a local well with a sulphurous stench and thought, “I’ll have what he’s having.” When Evans reported that drinking and bathing in the water had cured his scurvy, the news went viral, “in an 18th-century sort of way”, as the curator of the local heritage museum put it to me. A spa-town destination was born. Fifty shops on the high street. Bars where you could glug the stuff. Four thousand visitors a day during the 1800s, all thanks to the “stinking well”.

By the 1930s, Llanwrtyd Wells’ glory years were fading. Then the NHS was born and, instead of “taking the water”, people went to the doctor. Cheaper travel to the continent dealt the killer blow; holidaymakers wanted their water warm, not pungent. From the mid-20th century onwards, the town was in steady decline.

Green landed there in 1975 after a career working in ice-cream factories and leaping out of aeroplanes for the territorial army. He was born in Lancashire but met his wife-to-be Diana, a Welsh nurse, in London. After having three children, they decided to move back to Wales for a different pace of life. But running a rural hotel in a past-its-prime holiday destination didn’t exactly prove easy. Llanwrtyd Wells is situated in the Cambrian Mountains, a sparse region sometimes referred to as the “green desert”. The surrounding area is known for its lack of roads and being the hide-out for one of the world’s biggest LSD manufacturing rings (and the bizarre mid-1970s undercover police operation, Operation Julie, that eventually busted it). The town itself is on the A483, but the trick has always been getting people to actually stop. When a riding school that served the hotel closed, Green badly needed more customers.

A window table in the Neuadd Arms pub in Llanwrtyd Wells. Through the window we see a crowd of runners gathering for the Man v Horse marathon
The view from a window table at the Neuadd Arms as runners gather for this year’s Man vs Horse marathon © Sebastián Bruno

One night at the Neuadd, Green found himself debating with Glyn Jones, a local huntsman, over the question of whether a man could beat a horse in a race. Jones was adamantly “team horse” but Green felt that, over a long distance with lots of climbs and descents, two legs stood a chance. Things escalated and the men agreed to put it to the test. The idea of a spectacle excited Green. Nearly two decades earlier he’d visited Pamplona, in Spain, and run with the bulls through its cobbled streets. He’d seen the throngs of people watching this centuries-old tradition, felt the electricity in the atmosphere. Perhaps, he thought, a novelty race was the answer to reviving Llanwrtyd Wells.

The first man vs horse marathon took place on a rainy day in 1980. On the starting line were 50 runners and eight horses, after Green persuaded a dozen Gurkhas from the local military base to take part to boost turnout. Jones, who knew the area well, shot around the 22-mile course on his horse, Solomon, in 1h 26 minutes, nearly an hour ahead of the fastest human. As Green recalls, only one of the Gurkhas finished. After Merched y Wawr (like a Welsh Women’s Institute) provided tea and sandwiches at the finish, Jones’s name was the first to be etched in gold on a board hung in the Neuadd.

Word about the race spread gradually. It picked up sponsorship from Bulmers Cider then William Hill, the bookmakers, which offered £1,000 to the first runner to beat the horses, promising to add to the prize pot each year until someone won it. Screaming Lord Sutch, a musician who founded the Official Monster Raving Loony party and ran for parliament nearly 40 times, was invited to attend as newspapers caught on to the “loony marathon”. Buoyed by the enthusiasm, Green and his friends at the Neuadd conjured more events for the town calendar. In 1986, the first bog-snorkelling championship took place. To win, you have to swim as fast as you can through a 60-yard trench cut into a local bog. Often lauded as the world’s weirdest sporting event, it has brought this “tiny hamlet”, as Sports Illustrated described it, to the attention of global media. Like the man vs horse marathon, it attracts competitors from around the world.

A brown horse with a white nose – presumably a competitor in the Man v Horse marathon –munching grass
© Sebastián Bruno

Green is 88 now and recently moved with Diana to Penarth, just outside Cardiff. They live in a ground-floor apartment in an art deco complex that used to be a hospital. Along the open plan living space, large windows look over a communal lawn and, beyond that, the sea. There’s a painting on the wall of a red kite, similar to one hanging in the Neuadd. Classical music floats through the air. I’m served tea and cake. Green is dressed in shades of blue, Diana in violet, but both have the same white hair and mischievous aquamarine eyes. They look like grandparents plucked from a Hallmark movie.

Green is a stickler for facts. He hands me a printed-out copy of his collected memories and I learn that when he was a child, he nearly burnt down a factory (by mistake). At Diana’s encouragement, he proudly shows me his array of awards: a slate trophy from the Wales Tourism board for outstanding achievement and his MBE. Green Events has played a role in attracting more people to visit Wales but never got much outside help with its endeavours at the time, says Green. “We were just doing it for survival.”

It took 25 years for a man to finally beat the horse, Green adds, referring to when 27-year-old runner Huw Lobb completed the race in 2h 5m 19s (two minutes faster than the first rider). By then, the number of competitors had swelled to 556 runners and 47 horses. Lobb collected a £25,000 cheque from Cynthia Payne — that’s Madame Payne, who ran a famous brothel in Streatham during the 1970s, where she took payment in Luncheon Vouchers. Three years later it happened again, when Florian Holzinger beat the horse, earning £3,000. Or as Green puts it, the time “a bloody German came and won”.

“Shh!” Diana swats a hand at her husband.

In the years that followed, the horses reclaimed their mantle and Green didn’t stop coming up with events. When he realised that Wales wasn’t getting much out of the London 2012 Olympics, he arranged the World Alternative Games.

An elderly couple – Gordon Green, who came up with the idea of the race, and his wife Diana – stand outside the Neuadd Arms on the evening of the race
Gordon Green, who created the race, with his wife Diana, outside the pub: ‘It’s the best day of the year’ © Sebastián Bruno

It includes contests such as ditch-racing, wife-carrying and husband-dragging. Though he’s now stepped back from the anarchy, ideas still fizz forth. He’s determined to organise a full-tilt horse race through the town. He’s stubborn, Diana tells me, likes getting things done and has a knack for persuasion, even if it’s harder than it used to be to get things off the ground.

Green walks with a stick and has a knee operation coming up. When it is time for me to leave, I ask if he and Diana expect to make it to this year’s race.

“It’s the best day of the year,” says Diana, yelling down the hallway. “We’ll be there, by hook or by crook!”

One grey day in April I travel to Llanwrtyd Wells to meet the Green Events team as they prepare for a new season. My train from Swansea consists of a single carriage and at certain stations only stops on request. At the entrance of the Neuadd I’m greeted by Bob Greenough, 78, a director of Green Events, who used to work in airport logistics.

He leads me inside, past a plaque and metal top hat mounted in honour of Lord Sutch, who performed with his band at the Neuadd a few days before his suicide in 1999. The Monster Raving Loony party still holds its annual conference at the pub. The bar walls are lined with winners’ boards for the man vs horse marathon, including the times for mountain-bike riders, who the organisers briefly added to the mix before they realised it wasn’t legal.

In a side room, the man vs horse committee is gathered. Lindsay Ketteringham, the chairman, is there, sporting a technicolour shirt, head topped with a floppy mullet. He adopted the role when he and his wife Catherine took over the running of the Neuadd Arms 21 years ago. (She’s the treasurer.) Then there’s Mike Thomas, 72, race director, who wears the stony look of a man who has seen too many organisational disasters. What does he do? “As little as possible, I hope.” There’s the horse secretary in charge of, “trying to keep the horses under control”. Also present is Eifon Lloyd, a Welsh-speaking local with the arduous job of preparing the route, sweet-talking landowners, and clearing roots and other hazards. Countless volunteers help with the smooth running of the day. “It’s the lifeblood of the place, really,” says Ketteringham.

Lindsay Ketteringham, the landlord of the Neuadd Arms at his desk in the pub’s office. Ketteringham is wearing a flowery shirt and is sitting at a computer
Lindsay Ketteringham, the current landlord of the Neuadd Arms, at his desk © Sebastián Bruno

Bob Greenough, the director of Green Events, at the Victoria Hall, just before riders and runners arrive for registration. He is wearing a white V-necked jumper and trousers
Green Events director Bob Greenough in Victoria Hall, preparing for registration © Sebastián Bruno

Llanwrtyd Wells (current population 794) may not technically be Britain’s smallest town. At least not any more. Fordwich, near Canterbury (population 400) holds the title. “We’re still waiting for the next census,” says Greenough, somewhat evasively, when I inquire. But it no longer matters. The past 40 years have seen its identity swell, its name whispered among travellers, thrill-seekers and professional athletes with a taste for a madcap competition. The local commitment to weirdness runs deep. The town once held a birthday party for a set of temporary traffic lights that had been left up for an entire year.

The high street is minuscule, but there has been a flourishing of B&Bs and guest houses to cater to the year-long calendar of events. New people keep moving to the area, too. I speak to many who did so post-pandemic. Locals describe it to me as “a dream place” and “heaven”. Among other changes is the absence of a wooden statue of a bear just outside town on the A483, removed five years ago after it caused a woman to crash her car. “I don’t understand why the lady driving thought the bear was going to attack her car,” a mystified councillor told the BBC at the time. When the bear was relocated to the town park, there was a celebration for “the return of the bear”.

For all the new activities in the town — bog triathlon, anyone? — the biggest event remains the one that sends humans and horses up into the hills to see who manages to make it back fastest. You used to be able to just turn up; now, places sell out in a matter of hours. This year’s race is the biggest ever. Over 1,000 runners and 64 horses. The organisers like to boast that it’s the biggest horse race in Europe. The Grand National only has 40. 

Something about the race seems to capture people’s imagination; the challenge, the absurdity, the simplicity. It was conceived at the end of the 1970s but feels as if it has been around for ever. I mumble this thought out loud and Ketteringham nods, his face locked in a serious expression: “It’s medieval.”

Britain is bountiful with contests that hark from pagan times to the present, both whimsical and extreme. There is snail-racing, river football, stone-skimming, nettle-eating and gurning. Conker-smashing, clog-cobbling, shin-kicking, egg-throwing, pea-shooting and worm-charming. In Ashbourne, Derbyshire, Shrove Tuesday is marked by a 12th-century tradition in which hundreds of players embark on what mostly resembles an eight-hour riot, with the shops all boarded up beforehand. In Gloucester, hundreds more people chase a cheese down a hill. Green attended one year. “I was intrigued by how they got away with it,” he says, remembering how one heat of cheese chasers had to wait until the ambulances finished shuttling the casualties from the previous race. “The only way was because it was a few hundred years old.”

A crowd of runners seen from above, gathering for the race in the sunshine. They are all wearing their race numbers and running gear
Runners wait at the start of the race as the temperature — forecast to hit 24C — rises © Sebastián Bruno

A grey-and-white horse drinking water out of a plastic bucket while his rider pours another bucket of water over his back
A horse drinks to cool off while his rider pours a bucket of cold water over his back © Sebastián Bruno

The popularity of these “sports” speaks to many attributes of Britishness; from our raucous, muddy past — all peasants and, well, bogs — to the very Victorian urge to quantify, measure and test. There’s also something of the dented but defiant pride of a nation that invented global sports like football and tennis but rarely wins at them. After all, if you can’t triumph at something conventional, you can always come up with something no one has tried before and win that, particularly if it involves drinking alcohol. When I asked Green and Diana what they felt gave these strange activities so much appeal, that was sort of where they landed. “It’s not often you get to be world champion,” says Diana. “Yes,” Green adds, “You tell ’em, ‘You’ll be invited to open up supermarkets.’”

These events do have the potential to help an ailing local economy, or at least boost the village coffers for a weekend. The Bognor Birdman contest, which was founded in 1971 as the seaside resort went into decline, brings in £2.5mn to the region, and attracts 30,000 visitors each summer. On the weekend of the man vs horse marathon, Llanwrtyd Wells’ three pubs enjoy a month’s worth of takings.

Wales struggled economically during the 1980s and ’90s, largely due to the closure of factories and coal mines (and generally lags behind the rest of the UK). While cities and the south-east of England have boomed, many rural communities continue to be neglected and lack infrastructure. “We never bothered to ask the council to do anything because they didn’t have any money, and they didn’t seem to want to get involved in tourism,” says Green. “So, we tended to do everything ourselves.”

Even as the list of offbeat events in the town grew — and with it, the complications of coordinating and sustaining a team of volunteers — Green’s clarity of purpose never wavered. “The whole idea was to improve the economy of Llanwrtyd Wells,” he says. “We always said that every event had to have that as its objective.”

For all the opportunities for mud, sweat and tears, it takes a certain event to really stick. You can’t chuck anything down a hill and expect people to chase it. Despite the volume of Instagrammable sponsored runs, Tough Mudders and “unique travel adventures” on offer now, only a few develop a deep sense of community around them. Fewer still become what you could call tradition.

On Friday June 9, the day before the big race, I return to Llanwrtyd Wells. This time the sun is beaming, the sky blue and the train from Swansea isn’t running at all. Instead, it’s replaced by a minivan driven enthusiastically by a sturdy bloke with a tattoo of a dog etched on his calf. Thanks to him, I arrive ahead of schedule and wander up to the town, past the grand detached Victorian houses that evoke the glorious spa days, to the community hall where registration is taking place.

A runner in a bright headscarf runs through a wooded area with a horse close behind him
A runner in a wooded area keeps up the pace. The hotter the weather, the less favourable a race is for a horse © Sebastián Bruno

At the entrance I find Greenough shuffling about in a V-neck cricket jumper and a marshal’s jacket. The hall is filling up with participants collecting their race numbers, T-shirts and free jelly babies from bowls set out on the trestle tables. Red Dragon and Union Jack bunting hangs across the ceiling. On the wall is handwritten information for the relay racers, who run in teams of three. Tea towels are on sale, printed with dramatic photos of runners and horses side-by-side in the fray. It’s like a village fête for adrenaline junkies. I ask Greenough how he’s feeling. “Like you’ve just about had enough, and you want to go home,” he replies, eyes darting around the room.

Greenough has the air of a man perpetually on the brink. (When I asked if he’d tried bog-snorkelling he told me he had “negative buoyancy”.) As he scurries off to fetch some veteran runners he wants me to meet, I make small talk with the volunteers: “So are you from the village?” “Town!” snaps back a woman with cropped grey hair, waving a ruler at me. Like all the volunteers, she’s sporting a T-shirt that says “I must be nuts.” The race is sponsored by Whole Earth peanut butter this year. 

Greenough returns with the lean, grinning and moustachioed Andy Staveley, 62, who is about to embark on his 20th race. (He is only running relay this year due to a recent hip — and knee — replacement, he notes.) He’s joined by Peter Wirtzfeld, 64, who has run it every year since 1991, and partner Dawn Cobbett, 64, now on her 14th go. They saunter over carrying pint glasses.

The race draws newcomers too, reflecting the growing appetite for endurance running and extreme sporting activities. As fell-running and ultras go mainstream, these days the London Marathon seems almost vanilla. I meet one young woman from Bristol who only started running 12 months ago and has been training intensively since reading about the marathon in a book. Then there’s serious runners from afar, like Carnie Cullen, 58, from Pretoria, who has forsaken a place in the Comrades Ultramarathon in South Africa for the chance to join the madness in Llanwrtyd. Googling top 10 iconic races, she stumbled across this one.

As the evening draws in, I head to the Neuadd, where the pre-race “pasta party” is in full flow. In the back room, surrounded by family, Green and Diana have pride of place beneath the winners’ boards. This year, their daughter is running the race, so they’re babysitting the grandchildren. Green leans in: “I used to have to cook all the pasta myself. Try doing spaghetti properly for a few thousand people.” Diana bats him on the arm and tuts, “Not a few thousand!”

Green pulls over Ken Jones, 74, a farmer who was party to the notorious 1980 bar side debate. Jones’s daughter won as a rider in 2010. “I’m the only person who’s bred the winning horse and the rider,” he says, proudly. “No one else has done that in 43 years.” Everyone here has a legend of their own.

The beauty of the man vs horse marathon is that although it seems like a clear win for the quadrupeds, it can be a much more even match. Around the time Green was embarking on his first race, the academic consensus was that humans were inferior runners on account of their poor sprinting ability, relative to other animals. Then, in 1984, a graduate student named David Carrier published a paper arguing that, over long distances, in the heat, humans could outrun mammals such as antelopes — a phenomenon known as “persistence hunting”. The Harvard academic Daniel Lieberman, along with biologist Dennis Bramble, pursued this theory. They gathered evidence to illustrate how — and why — humans have evolved to perform so well in endurance running. As Lieberman points out in his 2020 book Exercised, few animals will run more than a 100 yards without being forced to, while “millions of run-of-the-mill people like my mother lace on shoes and jog five miles a day, several days a week”. 

A group of runners from the waist down – legs, shorts and running shoes – as they gather at the start of the race
© Sebastián Bruno

Horses will always outperform a human in a sprint or gallop, but they can only sustain this for a short distance. At an endurance pace — for horses, a trot — Lieberman points out that even “some middle-aged professors” can run a marathon well above the speed of a thoroughbred. One physical adaptation that aids humans is our relatively long legs and tendons. When running, these act like springs, returning energy back into the body, catapulting us forward. We can balance well when we run too, thanks to our large glutes and the way we pump our arms and rotate our trunk as we move. A horse has to slow down on hills or uneven terrain. More nimble, humans can maintain their pace.

Then there’s our ability to sweat profusely and all over the surface of our body, evaporating heat that builds during exertion. Horses also sweat, but they have a far greater body mass to cool down. Like other mammals, when horses get really hot they depend on panting, and evaporate saliva from their mouths in order to cool the blood. Here’s the clincher; a horse can’t gallop and pant simultaneously. The hotter the weather, the less favourable a race is for a horse.

Still, for 15 years after Holzinger’s victory in 2007, the best time always went to a horse. Then, last year, Ricky Lightfoot (yes, that’s his real name) beat the horse by two minutes with a time of 2:22:23. I was hoping to see a repeat this year, but a few days before the race I hear Lightfoot is dropping out due to injury. “It will throw things wide open,” says Greenough. I check the weather forecast: 24C, no clouds. It’s going to be a hot one.

It’s 10am on race day. Running shoes patter around the town; horse dung steams on the street. The colour of Greenough’s V-neck stripe has gone from green to blue. “Going to plan?” I ask. “Errr no,” comes the reply. Mike Thomas, the race director, has a distant look in his eyes. Green, however, is enjoying himself. He’s settled in outside the Neuadd with his family, chatting away as runners fill the courtyard. It’s the morning, but drinks are spilling.

A short walk away, the horses and riders are prepping in a field. The gorpcore fell-running aesthetic gives way to helmets and jods, support teams with polo shirts printed with “Sh*t shoveller” and “Hot to trot”. To avoid a stampede in the town centre, the runners get a 15-20 minute head start on the horses. This allows the humans to reach a wider stretch of track before horses can overtake them, and the head start is then deducted from their finishing time to determine the winner. The horses also have to pass a number of vet inspections at the start, middle and end of the race. They’re checked for lameness, hydration and their heart rate, which needs to fall below 60 before they can continue. 

The winner of this year’s race, Daniel Connolly, smiling, hot but happy, into the camera
Winner Daniel Connolly, 27, who finished in 2:24:38 without encountering a single horse © Sebastián Bruno

Runners gathering in the town’s tiny high street before the start of the race
Another year, another race: ‘It’s the lifeblood of the place, really,’ says Ketteringham © Sebastián Bruno

There are seasoned endurance riders, some of whom drop out of more serious competitions to take part. Others are just here to enjoy the scenery, “and not run over any runners”, as Celina Carlile, 32, puts it. She’s with her horse, Nala, husband, Adam, and daughter, Harriet, six, who has a tie-dye T-shirt with a horse’s face on the front.

A gangly runner jogs past doing a warm-up lap of the field, prompting eye-rolls from the riders. Twenty-two miles on horseback is tough going, but I get the feeling that they think the runners are the bonkers ones.

Back at the Neuadd, the courtyard is full. Spectators line the streets as the start time looms. Then, after a countdown, they’re off. The runners pour over the starting line. About 20 minutes later, the horses canter past to whoops and cheers and disappear up the road behind them. It’s a tough route, starting with a big hill. Many of the runners describe the surreal feeling of hearing the thunder of hooves coming up behind them. For Eros Adamides, 38, a blind runner who is racing for a second time with guide Sarah Tizzard, 50, the race has an added intensity. “You can hear the fitness of the horses,” he tells me. “Some are breathing smoothly, some are panting.”

I hop in a car with a couple of marshals to go to a monitoring point. With me is Roshan — “just Roshan, there’s only one of me in the town” — who’s clutching a vape in one hand and a handbag in the other. She’s been volunteering with Green Events for years. “To be honest, very few people in the town actually get through it without doing anything,” she says. We park near a dirt track, which leads up to an old barn, water station and a changeover point for the relay teams.

Along the track, relay runners and spectators gaze over fields and hedgerows for signs of life. Then, at about 12.30, Daniel Connolly, one of the solo runners, comes streaming down the track. There’s not a horse in sight. 

At the finish line, beer is drunk, ice creams melt and the commentator informs the 1,000-odd spectators lounging in a sunny field that the leader is two miles away. There’s a digital clock set to 22:11 — the head start time given to the runners. Barely 10 minutes later Connolly crosses the line: 2:24:38. That’s fast. Another countdown starts. Still no horses. 

A couple of other runners cross the line, the clock runs down, and: “5,4,3,2,1 . . . that’s it! Man beats horse!”

I find Connolly, a 27-year-old running coach from Shropshire, who is sponsored by Salomon, grinning. He has a slightly wild look in his eyes and laughs between sentences. “I was running like a fox,” he says. To a runner of his calibre, the novelty of the race is almost irrelevant — he didn’t encounter a single horse.

Another 10 minutes pass before the first horses arrive, three of them galloping head-to-head to the finish. First by a nose is Kate Atkinson on DNS Ronaldo. Atkinson, as well as Beth Langley and Tissy, who finish second, are Team GB endurance competitors. They’re used to 100-milers, so this is relatively lightweight. But it shows how much the horses are limited by the heat. Langley says today was one of the toughest races she’s run. 

More runners reach the finish including, to my surprise, Tim Davie, director-general of the BBC (and a committed ultra-marathon runner), who charges across the line yelling with exertion while the commentator asks if he can have a free TV licence.

Then more horses, charging home dramatically alongside runners, and the field is starting to bustle. One man is carried over by the line by two medics. Another saunters about smoking a cigar. Competitors swarm around the Merched y Wawr marquee for their free tea and pick from a range of sandwiches that includes cheese and jam. I find Peter Wirtzfeld and Dawn Cobbett. He’s wondering if that will be the last time he runs it; she ended up head-to-head with a horse that decided, with the finish in sight, simply to shove its front legs out and stop running. “The course definitely got harder,” she says. “We’re 30 years older than when we first started, but still . . . ”

The number who come back, again and again, stands out. All over the field old friends mingle, an extended family for the smallest of towns. Someone comments that they doubt an event like this would get organised today, and I think of what Green said about the cheese-rolling. Just then, Green is hauled over by the commentator for a chat, and the legend that started this whole thing is recounted for the umpteenth time.

“So, this all started from a drunken conversation?” the commentator begins.

“No,” says Green, determined to keep the record straight. “I was not drunk at the time.”

“OK, so this all started from a conversation around a bar?”

“Yes,” says Green, leaning on his stick. It’s well-rehearsed, but he doesn’t tire of the story. “More people should be going to bars and having conversations.”

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