To answer that, a clarifying question is needed- over what distance? Ok, let’s day Melbourne Cup distance- two miles. The race record for the Melbourne Cup is held by Kingston Rule (a horse) at 3min 16.3sec run in 1993. This equates to an average pace of 58.7km/h, or quite fast.
The world record over this distance for humans is 7 min 58.61sec held by Kenyan Daniel Koman since 1997 for the men, and 8min 58.58sec for women, a record held by Ethiopian Meseret Defar since 2007. These times equate to an average pace of 24.1 and 21.4km/h for Daniel and Meseret respectively. In a slow year the best humans in the world over this distance will only be about halfway done when the winning jockey is chatting to Johnny Letts about their victory.
OK, but what if we recruited our fastest human, Usain Bolt, and lined him up? Usain’s average pace for his world record 100m of 9.58sec is 37.58km/h with a top speed recorded at 44.7km/h. If he were able to maintain his best average speed over 3200 metres, he would still take a glacial 5min 7 sec to cover the journey- and unfortunately sprinting flat-out for 5 minutes is physiologically impossible for a human.
So compared to a horse, we suck at running fast.
But what if the distance increased? Others have asked this question, and then taken the next logical step and organised races over marathon distances and beyond to find out. Such events occur in Owens Peak in California, Mingus Mountain in Prescott, Arizona and Llanwrtyd Wells in Wales. These events are often tightly run affairs, with humans and horses frequently swapping the crown from year to year. So how do we as a species close the gap so dramatically when ultra-endurance is the challenge?
One of the main reasons is that we can cool ourselves effectively through sweating. We do not have to pant to cool our core temperature. Furry land-based animals that do pant are required to slow their pace dramatically or stop altogether to bring the temperature gauge down. This means that a race between a human and horse, or other fur-covered quadruped is a bit like the tortoise and hare race, with us being like a sweaty tortoise! Interestingly the Lanwrtyd Wells race in Wales has only been won by humans twice, in 2004 and 2007 when conditions were considered ‘hot’. The ability to sweat and hence cool ourselves whilst moving is one fantastic trait that humans have that leads to our tremendous endurance potential. Being upright on two feet is also advantageous as during the hottest part of the day, less our our body’s surface area is exposed to the sun, pretty clever hey?!
This Melbourne Cup there will be a few well-lubricated punters at Flemington who may think they can outrun the horses. They can’t. At least not over the two miles. Get them to continue on for another 20 or so laps of the track and they may be in with a shot. Our runners would just have to ditch the suit and expose their sweaty skin to the elements to really exploit our advantage. Actually, I think a few probably do at the end of race day!