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Is it true that there have been human runners who have outran horses (over the course of a long period of time)? I have even heard people say that some runners can beat riders who change their horses repeatedly. But I have never seen evidence for this.

Have you heard of any cases that show a human runner to be able to beat a horse, or even a rider who changes horses?

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    There's the Man vs Horse marathon 2004 & 2007. On a more serious note, I'm sure there would be types of terrain where the human "runner" could or would have an advantage. – Steve Bird Mar 29 '17 at 6:25
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    Indeed. That marathon exists and sometimes the man wins. Usually a man can win if the weather is quite hot, because the human has a better temperature control than the horse and several other animals. – Santiago Mar 29 '17 at 12:57
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    Elijah in the Bible ran faster than King Ahab's chariot once. (1 Kings 18:46 ISV) – A Child of God Mar 29 '17 at 14:26
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    The Incas used runners in mountainous terrain. Of course, they didn't have horses. – Steven Burnap Mar 29 '17 at 19:44
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    Thanks for the comments, guys. @AChildofGod Yes, but he was noted to have had the spirit of God come upon him before he did that. – Johnny Mar 31 '17 at 6:29
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I looked into this some more, and I'll share my findings here.

100 Miles Record

In the FEI Endurance Riding Competition senior level, horses travel about 100 miles in one day. The world record for a human going 100 miles was recently achieved by Zach Bitter, who went the distance over a track field in 11:47:21.

The world record for 100 miles by a horse, appears to be set by Yousuf Ahmad Al Beloushi with 11-year-old grey gelding Jayhal Shazal, at 5:45:44. The previous record holder completed the course at 6:21:12, which is approximately the time of several others. I'm not aware of the conditions the race took place, but it may well have been across a desert as many of the FEI Endurance Races are.

Man vs Horse

I have looked into the man vs. horse marathon. I compiled a spreadsheet organized from fastest to slowest time: https://docs.zoho.com/sheet/published.do?rid=20ske6e0ff973f37949dc925b043e33986264

Out of the 34 champion horses and champion humans, the top 24 horses were faster than 32 of the humans. The fastest horse was almost 40 minutes ahead of the fastest human.

Weather has been considered the main factor in the performance of the horses. I'm not sure if the evidences demonstrates that. Llinos Mair Jones on Sly Dai performed the race in 2:07:04 in "Hot" weather, which is still better than 26 of the 34 human champions' times. The weather likely does affect the horses' performance, but it seems to depend largely on the individual dedication and ability of horse and rider.

Having seen some events, I understand the involved horses to mostly be older ones with the riders not being interested in pressing them for victory. Comparing this event to the FEI races, which can go up to 100 miles instead of 22, the horse and rider seemed more reserved (I maybe mistaken). This would explain the gap of 1:11 between the slowest horse (Geoffrey Allen on Lucy (2:31:26)) and the fastest (William Jones on Solitaire (1:20)).

Marathon

Philippides of Marathon is probably the most famous example of a runner as a messenger, instead of a horse (as well as the famous charge in the battle). It is quite possible he would've been a much better candidate for running the message than any horse the Greeks could have supplied (I would have to leave this to an expert of the field). Philippides is estimated to have run approximately 26 miles in approximately 3 hours, which implies an overall speed of 8.667 MPH, over unknown terrain (which may've lengthened the distance and made the going hard). Philippides also famously died after his run.

While impressive, this famous act does not seem to compete with the feats we know horses can perform, unless we assume the terrain difficulties would greatly impair the horses. It's possible there is a more impressive example of running in history which we are neglecting.

Multiple Day Marathons

Over 100 miles, it seems a horse will win. But what about a longer distance that takes days, or even weeks to cross? There have even been no-sleep marathons where runners keep walking for long periods of time. Could a longer distance and period of time allow a human runner to beat a horse?

Yiannis Kouros ran 473.495 km in a 48 hour period, that's close to 300 miles. A similar feat was accomplished in the 1893 ride to Chicago, where John Berry of Chadron travelled the last 150 miles within a 24 hour period. Notably, riders were allowed two or more horses in that race, but the race did total something close to 1,000 miles over 13 days.

So, in the end? Hard to determine. We'd need a more similar comparison than I can find.

Conclusion

While humans can and have outrun some horses, particularly over distance, it seems that a well picked and trained horse with a good rider consistently wins over human runners in a one-day run of 100 miles or less. It is uncertain if this holds true over multiple day marathons due to lack of a proper comparison, though both contenders perform strongly.

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    A good answer, but huge caveat about directly comparing men and horses: with horses you can use a post system where the rider switches horses along the journey. A man on horseback doing that is could manage a couple hundred miles a day on decent roads for many days. For message delivery, that's the more valid comparison. – Steven Burnap Mar 29 '17 at 19:47
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    I'm aware of this, but didn't see the need to cover it. If a human can't outrun one horse, they surely cannot outrun a succession of horses. – Johnny Mar 31 '17 at 6:31
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    About Phideippides: before running from Marathon to Athens (the 26 miles) to announce the victory, he had run (a few days earlier before the battle) from Athens to Sparta (around 153 miles) to seek help for the imminent war against the invaders Persians. There is an event every year that revives this run: Spartathlon. – ypercubeᵀᴹ Oct 1 '17 at 12:53
  • This year's winner (this Friday) did it in 22 hours and 4 minutes. – ypercubeᵀᴹ Oct 1 '17 at 12:58
  • The reason for the 100 mile race length is that at not much longer distances than that, perhaps 125 to 150 miles, a rider with a single horse will consistently lose to even average long distance human runners. The length of 100 miles is the nearest round number to the estimated cross-over point – Pieter Geerkens Oct 2 '17 at 0:04
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The one thing that humans are physiologically superior to over any other creature on the planet is long distance running. Sweating, rather than panting, loss of fur, organ and skeletal changes to support distance running, etc. Our bodies are essentially what happens when Nature takes a primate and completely redesigns it for persistence hunting. Wolves and dogs (also persistence hunters) can compete with us, but likely only in colder areas where our theromoregulation advantages aren't as great.

However, horses beat us over medium-longish distances (if it isn't too hot), so a sensible human with a pre-arranged route will go even faster by planting fresh horses at intervals such that one horse never has to go further than that medium distance.

Note: Although IMHO most of the answers there have issues, there is a related question on skeptics

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    Strange that you mention humans sweat all over but don't mention that horses do too. It's something unique to both animals, and isn't too relevant when comparing the two. – congusbongus Mar 30 '17 at 2:22
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    Horses are the result of thousands of years of breeding for human purposes, and one of the prime purposes is carrying riders over long distances. The horse as we know it is not a creation of nature alone. – Steven Burnap Mar 31 '17 at 15:44
  • Not entirely true that humans are superior to any other creatures. Sled dogs (and many other breeds, as well as wolves) are far superior, as long as temperatures are reasonably cool. Horses also sweat. – jamesqf Oct 1 '17 at 17:05
  • Worth also noting that horses must spend several hours a day eating, while a human can easily consume a days calories in 20 minutes. This is due to the very low caloric density of grasses, and the dangers to a horse of over-indulging in high caloric foods such as oats. (Their stomachs are susceptible to exploding when over-fed oats.) – Pieter Geerkens Oct 2 '17 at 0:10
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The most famous example is probably Philippides in the Battle of Marathon. Humans can run longer distances than horses, and is a key hunting tactic employed by hunter and gatherer societies when they are chasing four-legged prey. Knowing this, we have the reason why Philippides was sent on foot instead of on a horse.

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    The Wikipedia page on Pheidippides suggests that the story might be a "romantic invention". – Steve Bird Mar 29 '17 at 13:58
  • I disagree with this answer, basically because on that time in Greece the cavalry didn't exist, so it was normal for greeks to use humans to carry messages. – Santiago Mar 29 '17 at 14:12
  • @SteveBird - It indeed might be. However, its certainly not an entirely implausible story, not really hurting anything, and its a good story so we are generally willing to accept it anyway. Robert Whul's Liberty Valence Principle applies here. – T.E.D. Mar 29 '17 at 15:35
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    I will mention that persistence hunting is a bit misleading. It is generally performed in teams, who (partially) encircle the animal and drive it towards other hunters. I've yet to find a case of the romantic notion of persistence hunting, involving one hunter following for hours or days after an animal. -- Compared to the strategy of working with a group, both costing less energy and having less chance of losing an animal's trail or running into a predator, I don't imagine it will be easy to find such a case. – Johnny Apr 3 '17 at 5:02
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It staggers belief that the Athenians wouldn't have used horse messengers in the Darian invasion, for several reasons:

1) The apparently apocryphal nature of the story about the runners given a lack of clear historical anecdote, 2) The hard to believe situation in which rational Athenians faced with an invasion of vengeful Persians a few miles away would have sent a human runner to travel 150 (or three hundred miles??) to Sparta and relied on this guy for their possible very survival--doesn't sound likely. 3) The Greeks had and used horses for a long time. Their artwork and their literature, such as the Iliad, (the Trojan Horse?) are shot through with horse references.

I am struck, as a formally educated historian and art historian, by how often historical questions of this sort forget the role of good old common sense (or 'horse-sense'?) in our distant ancestors and their ability to act in a way that we moderns would consider rational. The Greeks were not idiots.

Also, is it really unreasonable to suppose that there were established trading routes/highways/pathways between Sparta and Athens that could accomodate horsemen? The messengers would not have been trammeling raw wilderness. Established routes of travel and communication would have been established in the area for perhaps millennia in lower Greece prior to the invasion. Certainly of little difficulty for experienced Greek horsemen. And everybody knew the way to Sparta. There may even been an established posting system (!) already in place for the messenger (or traveling salesmen or merchants) to avail themselves of in their journeys..

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    You raise an interesting point without really answering the question. Sources would also help. – Lars Bosteen Oct 1 '17 at 2:43
  • Hi Lars! My answer to the question is: The question asked makes no sense in the context of the historical discussion. Simply establishing that a human runner is possibly capable of beating a horse in a running contest as a scientific or statistical matter as relatable to addressing a desperate military situation over a 150 mile stretch is not an answer to the historical circumstances. The people involved were not scientific philosophers but were desperate, sharp, and combat experienced people. Of course, I can't be as certain of actual circumstances as an eye-witness account would provide. – Scott Zema Oct 1 '17 at 5:30
  • The only situation I can think of where humans could outrun horses would be across terrain which is, essentially, impassable for horses (e.g. mountains, swamps). Maybe the Athenian 'runner' used a horse part of the way but had to run other bits (I don't know enough about Greek geography though...). – Lars Bosteen Oct 1 '17 at 9:02
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    It is easy to imagine someone in our time describing a trip and not bothering to mention using an automobile because everyone would just assume one was used. – Steven Burnap Oct 1 '17 at 16:14

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