Can a Very Fit Human Run 25 Miles Faster Than a Horse?

GQ wellness columnist Joe Holder competed in the Man Against Horse race in Prescott, Arizona to find out.
Sunglasses by Joggy x Vada. Shirt sneakers backpack and arm sleeve by Nike . Socks by OffWhite. Bracelet by Louis...
Sunglasses by Joggy x Vada. Shirt, sneakers, backpack, and arm sleeve by Nike (his own). Socks by Off-White. Bracelet by Louis Vuitton. Watch by Apple.Jessica Foley

“Do you think I could beat a horse in a race?”

It sounded like a joke whenever I asked. Almost everyone I talked to would laugh or do a double take. Then they would pause and think: Over what distance? How many horses? Where? How is this a thing? What’s wrong with you?

I consider myself a bit of a health and wellness anthropologist. I’m fascinated by the cultures that spring up around self-improvement and the events that exist to push the concepts of what humans can endure. We hear about the latest longevity trends, electronic gadgets, medical spas, workout classes, and so on, but there’s so much more to wellness culture than that.

So when I stumbled upon Man Against Horse, I knew I had to do it. It’s a race that has been going on since 1983 in Prescott, Arizona, in which runners try to beat horses (and their riders) over routes of 25 or 50 miles of strenuous trail through the tall pine trees on Mingus Mountain. Legend has it that the event was originally based upon a bar bet.

So, yes, it’s a funny concept for a race, but there’s also a deeper idea here. Many runners—and plenty of other people—have heard of the concept that humans were “born to run.” This idea was thrust into pop culture by the book of the same name by Christopher McDougall—and is the reason you saw those polarizing barefoot and minimalist shoes become a fad in the 2010s. While the debate about the form and function of those shoes rages on (I personally think they are an abomination) there’s less argument about the central thesis of the book: humans are uniquely suited to run great distances.

Jessica Foley

Our form of locomotion, two foot running, is quite distinct in the broader animal kingdom. And, as one of my favorite books, Exercised, describes at length, we’ve evolved to be good at it: We have millions of sweat glands that keep us cool. Our posture and hair allow us to deflect the rays of the sun better than animals on all fours. A structure at the base of the skull, the nuchal ligament, stabilizes the head to make running easier. The structure of our feet and Achilles tendon helps us use energy and keep that spring in our step. And don’t forget the butt: Our big, glorious rear ends are unique—they help us traverse longer distances at a slower pace while still giving us that power and sprinting ability. To run is to be human, and this is why I believe running is such a gift, one that we should all enjoy if we can.

So there was an actual, scientific case that I could beat the horses. At least, this is what I told myself as I packed up and flew to Arizona. I wanted to arrive at least a day early and spend some time with the animals—to get to know my competition a little better, but honestly also to alleviate the slight nervousness I had around horses as a lifelong East Coast urbanite.

Jeans by Ralph Lauren. Shirt by Fruit of the Loom. Belt, his own. His own watch, by Rolex. Bracelet by Louis Vuitton. Shoes by Burberry.

Vivian Kim

My pre-race scouting reminded me that horses are incredibly strong. They are exceedingly fast sprinters. If we were racing around Churchill Downs, I’d be toast. Lucky for me, this wasn’t a sprint. I was contending the 25 mile course, which was set up to try to even the odds for the human. In addition to the distance, which made it a true endurance event, there was the mountainous terrain we had to traverse, with more than 2,000 feet of elevation gain. Horses don’t like that. So I lined up alongside 20 or so other runners and 40 horses just after dawn, and we set off down the trail.

It turns out that there’s something about chasing horses—and being chased by them—as you try to maintain your footing on sand and rocks that provides moments of lucidity. Here are some things that flashed through my mind.

Facts over feelings.

Beating a horse in a footrace seemed impossible, but when I did my research, I began to believe I could actually win. Many times we place self-imposed limits on what we can do. Not because we can’t but because we actually don’t know we have the capacity to do it beforehand. So if people laugh at your idea but you’ve done the research that shows it’s even possible to be successful, don’t be afraid to go test your chances.

Experience the action.

It’s easy for me just to do things so I complete them instead of actually experiencing them. Running has helped me shift to be present, especially when I run without music and simply monitor things as they are happening. In one of my last conversations with Virgil Abloh before he passed, he remarked to me he had been spending more time to stop and smell the roses. I’ve been applying that same attitude with everything, but especially running, ever since.

You don’t have to do the most.

When I do runs like this I get worried that people think if you can’t run a marathon (or race a horse) there’s no point in running at all. Far from the truth. Research has shown that just 5-10 minutes of leisurely jogging can reduce risk of death and cardiovascular diseases. So lace up the shoes.

We all need companionship to thrive.

Horses are herd animals and tend to have worse health outcomes when by themselves because they never fully relax—which sounds similar to humans, right? During the race, it felt as if one of the horses knew I was racing it and stayed along with me for a bit. Its rider even remarked that the horse wanted to be my friend. This may have been the oxygen deficit talking, but in an age with increased digital immersion and fraying social connection, I found myself thinking that humans are also herd animals, and would be happier and healthier if we spend a little bit more time with each other.

Vivian Kim
Trail running is very, very different from the roads I am used to.

I’m a greenhorn when it comes to running on dirt, but as a former football player, there was something special about racing a course that pushed back: it evoked memories of having to be reactive on the field. Unlike road racing, where it’s just really you against the clock, the course is an actual opponent as well. The rocks. The inclines. Barreling down switchbacks and hills doing your best not to fall (or get hit by a horse). Strategy becomes crucial as you have to understand how to navigate and use the changes in terrain to your advantage. I absolutely loved it, and I can’t wait to sign up for another trail race soon, but post-race was absolutely the most sore from running I’ve ever been.

Stay Weird.

I loved the pure oddball energy of the event. It really felt like a backyard cookout. Even though I was the only Black person participating, there was no energy of otherness at all. People treated me with such kindness.This is often rare, but it shouldn’t be. Running is what makes us uniquely human, and thus we must make it inviting and open to all. It was a good reminder as long as what you’re doing isn’t hurting anyone, it’s healthy to embrace your idiosyncrasies and find a tribe that does the same.

As with my silent retreat from earlier this year, the real value was not on the result but what I learned along the way. Still, I set out to discover whether I could beat a horse in a race. The answer? I beat 39 out of 40 horses—while also being bested by one human. So I came in third, in a way. Not bad for my first trail race.