In A Nutshell
Over a long enough distance, human beings can outrun any creature on earth, even horses. What we lack in breakaway speed, we more than make up for in endurance, capable of covering vast distances after other animals become winded and unable to continue.
The Whole Bushel
Anyone who has ever tuned in to the Kentucky Derby can attest that the horse is extraordinarily fleet-footed. Usain Bolt may be the fastest man on the planet, but he would be dusted by a thoroughbred racehorse like Seabiscuit or Secretariat. Except . . . not so fast.
Horses have superior endurance to many animals, but their speed evolved as a defense mechanism against predators, staying half a step in front of the wolf. These pursuits are typically very brief, thus the emergence of breeds like the American Quarter Horse, which can reach speeds of up to 88 kph (55 mph) over short spans. So while it may prove impossible for a human to compete with a horse over a quarter mile, men can beat horses in marathons.
Humans possess a remarkable inheritance from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In the many millennia before guns (or even arrows), humans pursued their quarry over vast distances. We have powerful slow-twitch leg muscles, with bones, tendons, and ligaments designed for endurance. However, the truly integral part of the human physiology that makes us capable of covering many miles is our ability to regulate our body temperature through perspiration. Predators like wolves can only pant to keep from overheating, rendering them incapable of traveling at high rates of speed for more than a few minutes. The same goes for lions and tigers, who must stalk and ambush their prey, with little hope of winning a long-distance footrace. Even cheetahs, the world’s fastest land animal, which can attain speeds of 120 kph (75 mph), rarely give chase for more than a minute at a time.
The triumphant endurance of mankind can perhaps best be seen in the UK, where Wales has hosted an annual Man versus Horse race since 1980. Horses have dominated the 22-mile course over the years, but men have won twice, once in 2004 (bookies had to pay out against painful 16-1 odds on that one), and again in 2007. Sometimes, slow and steady does win the race.