Races come in all shapes, sizes and forms. To some the word conjures up Usain Bolt or Dina Asher-Smith, others may think of Mo Farah, whilst others may instantly imagine F1 greats like Lewis Hamilton. Of course, horse racing is a huge sport in the UK too, with contests like the Grand National, Epsom Derby and Cheltenham Gold Cup all making front- and back-page news.
However, if ‘normal’ races are struggling to capture your imagination then how about exploring something completely different. For now, you can set aside everything you know about professional racing as here we will be diving exclusively into the world of the weird and the wonderful. There is a chance you may have come across some of these races before but others may leave you questioning if they are even real.
Rest assured though that everything to feature in our list is indeed a real race and many, should you desire, are ones you can compete in. Fame and fortune will probably not be unlocked by performing well in any of these races but they will provide you with a unique story to tell your friends, a fun day out … and possibly some injuries!
Man Versus Horse Marathon
You are probably thinking man versus horse is very much a mismatch. Even a sluggish horse past its prime would have no problems breezing past man (or woman) across any sprinting distance (although gambling great, Amarillo Slim, did once beat a horse over 100 yards) or in any middle distance race like the 10km. But while man may lack the top speed a horse possess, his stamina is something very few animals can match. Indeed, it has been said before that humans are the best runners on the planet for this very reason.
This claim was ultimately what inspired the man versus horse challenge. Welsh pub landlord, Gordon Green, was listening to two men chatting when one said that over a significant cross-country distance, man was capable of matching any horse. Intrigued by the claim, Green decided to put it to the test by organising the first ever man versus horse race in 1980. It should be noted that the course does not take runners a full marathon of 26 miles, but a slightly shorter 22 miles. It is just as tough though given that runners face rougher terrain than a marathon would typically offer.
Having absolutely crushed man during the inaugural 1980 run, the course was modified to try and create a more even balance. Horse won again the following year but “only” by 22 minutes, down from 43 minutes. Going on to lose five in a row, it was decided that man could compete with the aid of a bicycle. Four years later and British cyclist Tim Gould became the first to finally best a horse. It was not until 2004 though when a man on foot finally managed to win this race. Registering a two-minute victory was Huw Lobb, who claimed a £25,000 prize as a very tidy bonus (£1k had been added every year).
The original man versus horse marathon still takes place in Wales to this day but it has inspired similar events in the likes of Scotland, New Zealand and America. Think you can beat a horse?
With a population of just a few thousands, you are unlikely to have heard of the Finnish municipality of Sonkajärvi before. This quiet location, however, was the birthplace of wife carrying. The clue is very much in the name with these races literally requiring men to carry their wives to the finishing line. Although initially just a very localised Finnish tradition, its popularity has seen it spread worldwide.
While Finnish races abide by the rules set out by the International Wife Carrying Competition Rules Committee, other wife carrying events over the globe run things their own way. In the UK for instance, the length of the course is 380m (with a 15m ascent) as opposed to the Finnish 253.5m. Whatever the regional variations though, there are several aspects most wife carrying races have in common. First of all, the person being carried does not necessarily need to be your wife, it can simply be a good friend or even a light-weight acquaintance looking for a good time or their chance to win a race whilst doing absolutely nothing!
Similarly, there has been an effort to move away from the traditional gender roles. Finland now has a separate ‘wives’ races in which a woman can carry a man or a woman. In the UK version, men or women are free to run with anyone they choose, all in the same race. All combinations have been tried before and all are welcome. If are looking to get yourself into the Guinness world record books for wife carrying, the fastest time recorded for the 253.3m race is 56.9 seconds. Pick a very light “wife” has surely got to be the top tip here.
We owe China thanks for the invention of the wok but it is Germany we must credit for wok racing, specifically TV host and entertainer Stefan Raab. Started in 2003, it was the creator Raab himself that took gold during the first ever race. Over the years it has typically attracted a range of B-list celebrities but occasionally it has drawn winter sports professionals, such as the Jamaican bobsleigh team.
Wok racing is without doubt the most terrifyingly weird race to feature on our list. It is not, as you might imagine, some sort of variation on a pancake race, where entrants carry a standard wok. Oh no. It involves sitting in a modified wok (bottom enforced with an epoxy filling) and going down an Olympic bobsleigh track. Do not think that a wok is unable to pick up some serious speed either, because the professional contestants still reach speeds of up to 60mph by themselves, while the four-person races can see speeds of up to 70mph. Sadly, this fantastic spectacle has not featured since 2015 but we are hoping that it will return in future, whether it be in Germany or elsewhere.
Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling & Wake
The cheese rolling competitions set on Cooper’s Hill, Gloucester, are perhaps the most famous of the strange races on our list and are not for the feint hearted. Twisted ankles, bruised buttocks and broken bones are an incredibly common sight in this extremely dangerous sport, whilst more serious injuries do occur from time to time. It is precisely because of its injury-rate why cheese rolling has become such a famous sport worldwide. Today, people come from far and wide in the hope of being the one who reaches the cheese first.
For those of you unaware of this famous ankle-breaking event, let us give you a quick rundown. All contestants start at the very top of an incredibly steep and uneven grass hill, around 200 yards in length. When everyone is ready, a large round of (imitation) Gloucestershire cheese is then rolled down the hill. A second later, runners are allowed to chase after said cheese but they will only catch up with it when it stops at the bottom as the cheese can reach a speed of up to 70 mph. Real cheese used to be rolled down but its weight made it too much of a safety hazard for the spectators down below.
Rather than just having one race, there are now a number of separate events depending on age and sex. Small children can even take part on the day but their event involves running up the hill rather than down it. This is far more taxing on the lungs but much less so on the bones and joints! Winners of their race can proudly take home a wheel of cheese and this is something the fearless Chris Anderson has done a record-breaking 22 times. A true master of the sport, he always takes quite some beating.
Kinetic Sculpture Race
If you like both sports and art, then the kinetic sculpture race should be right up your street. In such events, participants ride in works of art across a variety of different terrains. Not only must vehicles be aesthetically pleasing but they must also be extremely versatile as they face a cross-country course featuring mud, hills and bodies of water. This last element requires all vehicles to be amphibious but designing a vehicle that performs both well on land and on water (and looks good) is no easy task.
Durability of both competitor and vehicle is a key aspect in many races too because some contests can be arduous affairs to say the least. The Kinetic Grand Championship in Humboldt County, California for instance is effectively a three-day triathlon with 42 miles of tricky distance to cover. This is far from the only places where such a race takes place though as you can find them all across the USA whether it be Florida, Baltimore or Philadelphia.
Krispy Kreme Challenge
We do not usually associate racing with binge eating junk food but this is what makes the Kripsy Kreme Challenge so unique. Established in 2004, it quickly managed to attract a large following with more recent editions of the race attracting between 5,000 and 8,000 runners. Somewhat surprisingly, the race is not affiliated with Krispy Kreme the company, rather it was the brainchild of some college students looking to have a fun time. From its tiny origins as a mere dare, it has spiralled into something much more major.
With corporate profits not the driving force behind this annual race, it instead acts as a notable charity fundraiser. Since its foundation it has raised more than $1.8m dollars for the UNC Children’s Hospital in North Carolina. The annual charity event involves running 2.5 miles to a designated Krispy Kreme store, eating 12 donuts, then running back, making it a real gastrointestinal challenge. Contestants have an hour in which to finish the course and indeed their 12 original glazed doughnuts. Unlike most races, it is one that will see you take in more calories than you lose. A typical person could expect to burn around 600 calories running the race, which is just a fraction of the 2,400 calories they will consume.
Even those of you that have never squeezed into a pair of stilettos can safely assume they are far from the easiest shoe to run in. It would personally be one of our very last choices of footwear for any sort of race, second only to ski boots. Knowing people love a challenge though, various stiletto races have popped up across the world in places such as the USA, Sweden, Poland and Germany. Its true origins however, are in the Netherlands, where locals refer to them as ‘hoge hakken’ races.
Rules have varied over time and by location but there is always a requirement that the heel must be of a certain height and thinness. Initially in the Netherlands, shoes required a 7cm lift and could be no wider than 1.5cm at the base. The shoe choice is the only thing you need to worry about though as the race itself is uncomplicated – a straight line dash to the finish. Races are typically very short, meaning pure speed rather than endurance is the focus. What constitutes a ‘good time’ is hard to say but for reference, know that a Danish woman named Majken Sichlau managed to travel 100m in just 13.557 seconds when wearing high heels. Check out the video below!
Pack Burro Racing
We have already had a race featuring horses but so far absolutely nothing that involves donkeys, a terrible oversight on our part for sure. While many of us associate donkeys with being a slow, plodding creature, often seen being led across British beaches, they are actually quite willing runners. Pack burro racing has deep roots in the history of Colorado which was formerly a mining area. Back in the day, workers would take their burro (Spanish word for donkey) through the mountains, walking side by side with them while they carried their equipment.
To commemorate these miners, for decades Colorado locals have held donkey races in a sport which has since being recognised as a summer heritage sport. During the races, riding your donkey is strictly prohibited but you are allowed to pick them up if they are tiring. Good luck with that though given that even a small donkey will weigh at least 80kg. Due to this, normally what happens is the person-donkey pair will jog/walk side-by-side connected by a rope 4.6m in length. To keep an authentic feel to the race, burros will carry 15kg of traditional mining gear.
There are a variety of races that take place across Colorado but the so called ‘Triple Crown’ involves a 29-mile ultra-marathon, a 22-mile contest in Leadville and a much shorter 12 miler in Buena Vista, usually the following week.
Marathon du Medoc
To complete our list of wacky and wonderful races, our attention moves across to France, home of the Marathon du Medoc. It should not be considered a truly ‘competitive’ event though due to all the stoppages it features. Instead of arduously jogging for 26 miles straight until reaching the finish line, think of this as being an extremely long tourist experience. And, like the Krispy Kreme challenge, there is a high chance you will consume more calories than you burn, even over 26.2 miles! During your self-led tour, you will make many stop-offs in the vineyards of Medoc to take part in a range of activities.
Truly a race that pleases both the ears and taste buds, not only is the course littered with orchestras but there are 23 wine-tasting posts plus extras for trying out the likes of ice cream, oysters, foie gras and steak. To add to the uniqueness of the event, the vast majority of runners race in costumes, many of which are less than forgiving under the French sun. With all the stoppages, distractions and alcohol consumption, times clocked here are much slower than for a normal marathon. There is a time limit of six-and-a-half hours imposed though, so you do need to be a semi-decent runner to really make the most of the experience. That time is actually pretty impressive given quite how much wine many of the entrants will imbibe.