Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Anthropology Of Man-On-Horse

That oughta drive up the hit counter.

When a man races a horse in what is essentially a drag race, the horse is going to win. The human might "win", as Chad Johnson or Ochocinco or whatever did in 2007, but he had a 100-meter head start. As all humans do in these races. Why? Because otherwise the horse is guaranteed to kick their ass.

But that's a drag race.

In 1980, a pub conversation in Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales got around to asking whether a man, over a long enough distance and over twisting, uneven terrain, could take the horse. Cue the Man versus Horse Marathon, a 22-mile race through the hills of Wales. As it turns out, it took 25 attempts, but a human did win the race, Huw Lobb, in 2004. Three years later, a second human, Florian Holzinger, managed it. But normally, the horses have the edge.

Llanwrtyd Wells, by the way, is a haven of insane sports.

But hey, the humans snagged a win or two. What if we made the track even longer? Say, 50 miles over Mingus Mountain in Prescott, Arizona? That's the aim of the Man Against Horse Race, and though the horses are currently on a three-race win streak, the humans are routine victors; the horse's win streak immediately follows an eight-race win streak for the humans.

Why is this? There has to be some sort of reason.

And there is: endurance is what humans were bred for. The ability to sweat- and thus cool down- plus the fact that we run on two legs instead of four sees to this.

Our current state as humans- a state where a 26-mile marathon is a great personal achievement- is really pretty weak for us as a species. Most of us, for all our advances as a species, would get smacked around in a marathon by our hunter-gatherer selves.

Running long distances was a key way for us to eat, and, as you'll see in the upcoming clip, still is for some tribes. Faster prey will get the early jump on us, but Mother Nature doesn't stick a finish line 100 meters away from the start of a chase. Predator and prey run until the predator either gives up or catches the prey. The early lead by the prey doesn't mean the chase is over. As the chase goes on, and the yards and miles pile up, the prey, running frantically to stay ahead, will slowly start to run low on energy, slow, stagger, and finally stop, while the human behind will slowly but steadily keep coming, like a life-or-death Pepe le Pew cartoon. It's called persistence hunting.

In Mexico's Copper Canyons, you'll find one tribe that has pushed this trait to its limit, the Tarahumara Indians (or as they call themselves, the Raramuri, meaning 'foot runner'). Almost any marathoner- or ultramarathoner- that you care to name will pale in comparison to a tribe that can easily rack up mile counts in the triple digits in a single sitting, and consider a 50-80 mile run a daily commute. And they do it while smoking and drinking. A lot. Smoking is part of the training regimen. Drinking is done so often that the linked article estimates that an average Tarahumara spends 100 days out of every year recovering from hangovers.

A horse wouldn't stand a chance.

Nothing coming tomorrow; Labor Day.

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