I ran an obstacle race last weekend. I know…I’ve said I would never run a Tough Mudder/Warrior Dash, but this one was a little different. I ran 50 rugged miles through the mountains, all while dodging a real life obstacle, horse poop.

Man Against Horse Race
Tyler and Chris Clemens

The Man Against Horse 50 Mile Race in Prescott, Arizona was kind of like training for cross country back in Berne, Indiana where we ran the country roads constantly on the lookout for road apples (horse droppings) from the Amish buggies. Well, it was kinda like that…except here it was on rocky trails with 6,000 feet of elevation climb, all while running with the horses, passing and getting passed the entire way.

The Man Against Horse 50 Mile Race is an iconic ultra event that was started in 1983 after a barroom bet on Whiskey Row. One guy bet his buddy that a man could beat a horse in a 50 mile race. The gauntlet was thrown, and the race was created.

Over the past 31 years the race hasn’t changed much. To register you have to print out a form, fill it in with a pencil, write an actual check, put a stamp on it and send it in via USPS.  No online registration.  The race director doesn’t even have an email address listed, just his phone number.  Wild wild west for sure.

In 1995 Paul Bonnett became the first man to finish before any of the horses. Nineteen years later, his son James Bonnett was registered for the event with his eyes set on doing the same. I, on the other hand, was registered for the event, with my eyes set on:

A) Finishing before the 12 hour cut off
B) Finishing with the least amount of horse poop on my shoes as possible, and
C) Trying to finish before at least one of the horses

We all arrived in Prescott on Friday and headed out to the base camp. The place was abuzz with horses, runners, vets, and crew members. The pre race meeting went like this:

Runners, the start is at 6:30 AM, follow the pink ribbons, and you have 12 hours to finish.

Riders, this ride is a sanctioned AERC event and will follow all AERC rules.  The start is at 6:30 AM, your horse must be presented for a pre-ride vet check.  Your horse will have 3 vet checks during the race, you will have to dismount and stop for 30 minutes and later for 45 minutes. You must finish the race with your horses’ pulse below 65 beats per minute. If it is over 65 beats per minute, even though you are at the finish, your race will not be complete until the BPM is down to 65. The vets on the course will be examining your horse at each checkpoint, if they say you are done, you are done….

Whoa, I’m glad I’m a runner, this is a lot easier!

After the pre-race meeting we headed into Prescott Valley for dinner at Lonesome Valley Brewing with Tyler, Cat, Tim Hackett, Amy Scheer English and her daughters, Erica Smith, and Dad and Kathy. We enjoyed some good brews and food before heading back out to the base camp for lights out and a good night’s rest before the race.

Man Against Horse - 02
Sunset from the Man Against Horse Base Camp

Man Against Horse Race

Early on Saturday the camp started to stir. This was a little different than most races I’ve been to (and a lot different than Born to Run…no shotgun and loud mariachi music). Not only were runners preparing their gear, but equestrians were loading their horses and riding over for the pre-race check.

Man Against Horse - Tyler and a Horse
Tyler and a Horse

At 6:30 AM sharp horses and runners toed (or hoofed) the starting line and the race director said good luck and “GO!” It was a mad dash across a shallow wash to a narrow dirt road. Horses and runners jockeyed for position (no pun intended), with runners mostly giving way to the horses. We were running behind a group of riders when one horse started bucking sideways and a rider called out “Be careful…she’s ready to kick!” This was definitely going to be an interesting race!

Tyler, Tim, and I ran together for the first few miles, searching for packed dirt in the sandy wash. The morning was beautiful and I started pushing a little harder and moved ahead of them. I was worried about the 12 hour cutoff, and recently a friend told me “I never have to compete with cutoffs because I charge hard from the start, eventually blow up, and then just try to hold on for dear life until the finish”. I figured that sounded good, so I pushed my body a little more than normal and started making good time.

After running several miles across the rolling hills we entered the “Grapevine”, a narrow canyon that started climbing up toward Mingus Mountain. The morning was heating up and the trail exposed. Several horses passed me, but I didn’t see any runners for about 15 miles.

After the climb out of the canyon the trail dropped onto a dirt road and crested a ridge to offer panoramic views of the Verde Valley below. It was beautiful. No pictures, no words, no music could ever explain the raw beauty of the vista, a perfect place to run a race.

Even with the beautiful views, the trail was starting to take its toll. The road was long, rolling, and exposed. It was also rocky. The horses were quick on nicely manicured trails, but I started passing them in the rocky sections, only to be passed back when the road leveled out. I had 3 horses trotting directly behind me for a mile, pacing off me and pushing me to keep moving.

Then, it got real…the hardest section of the race, a 2,000 foot 2 mile climb to the top of Mingus Mountain at 7,700 feet. I had been in Santa Barbara for several weeks, toes in the sand, running at 0 feet above sea level.  I knew this part would hurt. I was looking forward to the climb because I think one of my strengths is power hiking, but quickly my power hiking turned into survival hiking. It was hot, the sun was beating down on me, and I was battling a cold that along with the elevation was making my head pound and my vision blur. I had to stop numerous times to regain my composure and 2 runners passed me before I reached the top.

Destroyed at Mile 32
Destroyed at Mile 32

I crested the mountain in total destruction. Our crew was there, Dad and Kathy, Aunt Karen and Uncle Jim, Cat Bradley, and Grandpa. I grabbed a Prescott Brewing Company IPA from Jim and sat down in a chair to scarf down some ramen noodles that Cat made. She also gave me half and avocado and I finished my beer before putting my pack on and moving ahead. As I tried to jog out on a sloshing stomach I was thankful that our crew had been there. Before I saw them I was questioning if I’d be able to finish the race at all. Now I was hopped up on a pain killing IPA and full of good food, I was getting a second wind.

The next section was flat trails winding through pine trees down the side of the mountain. I had plugged in my headphones to get motivation from some tunes. Outro by M83 was playing, and as the song crescendoed I closed my eyes, felt the earth moving beneath me, my shoes landing on the soft pillow of pine needles, and the breeze blowing past my face. This was what it’s all about. It was an incredibly emotional moment. I had considered quitting the race just a few miles before, now I felt like I was on top of the world, all by myself, alone in nature, and loving it. Tears came to my eyes as I stretched out my hands to feel the pine branches passing by. It was magical. And then I kicked a rock, fell forward, and almost face-planted. Enough of that emotional crap, it was time to get back to work!

I was close behind another runner, keeping him within reach as we bombed down the hill. Then, suddenly, from out of nowhere, my dad was taking a picture of me. What the heck? I looked ahead and saw another aid station with our crew waiting.

I stopped for water and food and headed up the dirt road. We ran through more single track, then more dirt road, and to the second to last aid station. The crew was there too, and as I refilled my water Cat shoved a bagel in my pack and told me to eat it before the end of the race, or else. I realized that I was 8 hours 45 minutes into the event and I had 7 miles to go…if I ran hard, I could come in under 10 hours. Sweet! Oh, crap…I’m 43 miles in, and NOW I have to run hard? Great…

I left the aid station and the crew waited for Tyler to arrive. The next 2 miles were straight downhill. I pushed play on my running playlist and blasted down the mountain. My quads were pretty trashed from the earlier downhills, but I was on a mission. I felt like I was sprinting, but really I was just trying to keep up with the inertia of my body reacting to gravity. Luckily my feet stayed under my torso.

The trail flattened out and I knew I needed to run around the side of the mountain and back to the base camp to the finish. I was pretty destroyed and didn’t want to run, but the most important thing I’ve learned this year is to run, even if I don’t want to. If I do that, I end up finishing pretty well.

So, since I didn’t want to run, I ran. I pushed hard, passed another runner, and turned a corner to see a few volunteers. “You have 1.5 miles to the final aid station, and then 1.5 miles to the finish”. With just 3 miles left I still had 45 minutes to finish in under 10 hours.

I pushed harder and in no time I was at the final aid station. I chugged two cups of Gatorade and moved out. I almost got lost in the last mile of the race, but I stopped, looked around, and found the pink ribbons. I ran across the flat land, my legs screaming, but my mind pushing ahead. I crossed the finish line to find a very surprised Dad and Kathy, “We almost missed you finish!” Karen, Jim, Grandpa, and Cat did miss me finish, they had not yet arrived from the final aid station.

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Finishing Man Against Horse – Photo by Jim Clemens

I finished in 9 hours and 45 minutes, in 6th place, and I even finished before several of the horses. I grabbed a cold beer and sat down. Tyler came in a little later, and unfortunately Tim got lost on the course and got a ride back to the base camp.

We stuck around until the end of the event a the rest of the horses and runners made their way in. James Bonnett finished first, in front of all of the horses, doing exactly what his father did almost twenty years ago.  Everyone was treated to a BBQ picnic and the awards ceremony celebrated everyone’s accomplishments as all participants got a Man Against Horse coffee mug. The 50 mile run finishers also got a belt buckle.

The race was an amazing experience. I had never run against horses before and the riders were nice and helpful. Everyone was great with trail courtesy, not to mention that the course was gorgeous. If you are looking for a unique ultra experience, and one heck of a challenging trail, put the Man Against Horse 50 Mile Race on your ultra bucket list!

Man Against Horse Finishers Awards
Man Against Horse Finishers Awards

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