Tom Johnson is worth precisely $120, his value assigned by a weather-beaten cowpoke who nods his bid with a dip of his battered Stetson. The rest of the dozen or so wagerers seated in the summer shade near Taylorsville, Calif., shift uncomfortably. They know that if ever there was a good bet to win the running and riding event here at the Ride and Tie World Championship, Johnson is the one. Yep. He can run and he can ride. No doubt about that. But still, no one's ready to bid more than $120.
That's because there's no accounting for the vagaries of running and riding endurance races. In these contests, two contestants share one horse, and they alternately run or ride for as many as nine hours at a pop—a sort of Le Mans in running shoes and saddle. Well, in such a competition there's just no telling what might happen. One of the animals, human or equine, could pull a muscle. Johnson's horse could go lame. His partner could get bucked. Even Johnson himself, a consummate rider, could get tossed. It has happened before. Happened to him once in the parking lot before the race even started.
And this isn't Churchill Downs. We're talking about 35 miles of Sierra Nevada rubble trail, with nosebleed descents along the way and a cavalry troop's worth of excitable animals. Anything can happen. Usually does.
The bid hangs in the air. Going once, going twice. No one nods. Sold for $120.
October 20, 1991
Had Johnson chosen more conventional sporting pursuits, it's likely he would be worth more than a few sacks of groceries. But he didn't; he chose endurance riding. And so this star of the ride and tie world took two vacation days from his job as an engineering consultant, borrowed a pickup truck and drove three hours from his Sacramento home to this campground near Taylorsville, lugging with him a jumble of buckets and feed, a stack of coolers full of beer and ice, and a horse named Harry. Here in the Sierra Nevadas, Johnson and his partner, Brad Hawthorne, 35, a data base analyst from Oakland, will vie for a title that bestows on its winner all the recognition accorded to last week's meat loaf. It will yield scant financial reward-perhaps $300. The only one who might make a buck is the grizzled cowpoke who bid $120. If Johnson and Hawthorne prevail, he'll pick up a healthy chunk of the $3,000 betting pool.
Johnson bends to shovel up a healthy pile of droppings—travel hasn't adversely affected Harry's constitution.
"Prize money?" Johnson says, tossing the shovel's contents over the fence ringing the campground. "You've got to worry about the things in life that are important. You can't do everything for money and recognition."
That's a fortunate outlook, because Johnson, 32, has little of either.
What Johnson has is easy to count but hard to measure. He has titles. He has won a host of events, including the prestigious Western States 100 (endurance run), which he won twice in a row, in 1990 and '91. He has a reputation for being the most versatile athlete ever to grace endurance running and riding. He has a busier schedule than Jay Leno. He has black toenails from so much running. He has a backyard fence falling into disrepair. "Can't get to it," shrugs Johnson, shoveling up the last of Harry's offerings. "I don't have a free weekend."
For Johnson this weekend's ride and tie championship is the second stop in a whirlwind summer that will see him compete in three endurance events in four weeks—235 miles of running and riding over heart-stopping terrain. Johnson is chasing more than hypoxia and horses' rumps, he's chasing the fulfillment of his potential. He came into this year's endurance season riding a wave of momentum. In 1990 he won the Western States, finished sixth in the world championship and narrowly missed a high finish at the Tevis Cup in California. He was third in that race, with 20 miles left in the 100-mile trail ride from Truckee to Auburn, when he had to drop out. His horse—not Harry in this instance—pulled a muscle in its left hip. Had Johnson placed in the top 10 at ail three races, he would have achieved an unprecedented hat trick. Each event has so many obstacles that simply finishing all three of them would be an accomplishment. Finishing high in all three would be a bit like balancing a piece of straw on the end of a needle in a windstorm.
Several years back, a group of endurance aficionados offered $1,000 to anyone who could finish in the top 10 in each event in the competitor's lifetime. They offered $10,000 to anyone who could do it in a single year. "Everybody figured it was an impossibility," says Steve Shaw, the endurance rider and runner who came up with the idea of an endurance Triple Crown. "No one had ever done it, and we figured no one ever would."
No one ever won the cash, and all bets have since been called off. That's perhaps a fortunate thing for those who were bankrolling the bonus, because Johnson appears to be the man who could have collected their money. He runs like Pheidippides, rides like the Lone Ranger and approaches these disciplines, especially his running, with the work ethic of a Japanese industrialist.
"Tom, been doing much riding?" a competitor asks in camp, the night before the Ride and Tie Championship.
"Nah, don't need to."
"Expect to do well?"
"Well, now, we'll have to wait and see."
Snatches of truth hunker in Johnson's responses.
Doesn't need to ride much? Certainly not as much as the others do. As a boy he spent weekends and summers chasing cows on the family cattle ranch in Salinas, Calif. As a collegian he played polo as a member of the University of California at Davis teams that won two national championships. He can stick to a horse like lint on Velcro.
A fair bit of running? When Johnson isn't working, he's running. During the summer he logs up to 150 miles a week. He takes 10-hour, 50-mile training runs in the Sierra Nevadas.
Expect to do well tomorrow? Johnson is not one to lie, mind you, but he isn't a blowhard either. The wise man plays his cards close to his sleeve. Out of earshot, he sets the record straight. "I know we're the fastest team here," he says. "Unless we screw up, we'll win."
Race morning dawns warm and clear. An hour before the 8 a.m. start, Johnson swallows a breakfast of coffee and energy bars and then brushes Harry, being especially careful to clean away all grit so Harry won't be chafed by the saddle. Around the campground the other horses, aware something is afoot, are whinnying. Harry stands quietly. Harry is a stoic. His original owner rescued him from a slaughterhouse. It's hard to get excited about much of anything after you have almost ended up in a can.
Johnson is equally loose. Not so Hawthorne. He will start the race riding Harry. A strong runner, Hawthorne is not nearly as comfortable in the saddle. The start of a ride and tie is the closest thing on earth to an equine riot, and Hawthorne's face is a ghastly shade of gray. Johnson, who will be running among those same horses, looks as if he's preparing for a day of pinochle. Saddling up Harry, he sings softly: "An-ti-ci-pay-ay-shun."
"If you're nervous, there's a problem," he says. "If you're well prepared, you generally aren't nervous. I don't get nervous much anymore."
This has not always been the case. Johnson remembers the tension he experienced the night before his first Western States endurance run (no riding) in 1987. Knowing that with the sun, he faced 100 miles of hellish trail from Squaw Valley to Auburn, Calif., he became seriously agitated. But he did well, finishing in just under 22 hours to rank 26th in a field of 350. He learned that first time that endurance running doesn't end at the finish line. All during the following week he was jolted awake at night by powerful leg cramps and equally strong hunger pangs. "You wake up starving" says Johnson, who even under normal circumstances is a trencherman of prodigious proportions.
Johnson did that first run just to see what he was made of. He came away with two distinct impressions. "I was amazed I could do it," he says. "I also realized 100 miles is a long way." Johnson learned another thing: that at six-foot, 150 pounds, and possessing both the body-fat content and the resiliency of bamboo, he was particularly well suited for extreme events. "Right size, right weight, good back, good knees, no major structural problems," Johnson says, an engineer ticking off his anatomical advantages.
Johnson started riding competitively that same summer. At his first ride and tie, his team's horse charged through the first 15 miles and then ran out of gas. Johnson and his partner ended up walking the horse the last 14 miles.
Johnson won his first Western States title in 1990. The day was hot; temperatures in the canyons soared above 100°. More than half the runners failed to finish within the 30-hour cutoff. Johnson rolled patiently along, mowing down the early leaders as they lurched through the heat and dust that was being kicked up. He moved into the lead for good at 65 miles and finished in 16 hours, 38 minutes. He won the same event in '91 with much the same tactics, passing leader Eric Clifton at an aid station 30 miles from the finish. Johnson, who isn't given to theatrics, shared a quick Coke with Clifton and then nodded affably. Well, got to be movin' on. See you down the trail.
This sort of seemingly casual exchange in the heat of competition might seem odd, but as Johnson points out, "In a 16-hour race, you've got all day. There's no big hurry." There's some psychology at work, too. "You want to look as good as you can when you pass someone," explains Johnson. "The better you look, the more it demoralizes them."
Johnson looked marvelous. He won easily, and his time of 15 hours, 54 minutes was 30 minutes better than the course record.
Now then, what is the attraction of this rough, tough recreation? Johnson sees it simply. In today's microwave age there are few challenges left to be met. "America's a pretty easy society to live in," he says. "Nobody really has to push his limits. It's amazing when you find out what you can do."
"Tom's attitude is, Why not?" says his friend Marcia Smith, who is also an endurance runner and rider. "He can run 100 miles, so he does. It's a personal challenge. Not everybody can do it."
Smith is also quick to admit that not everyone wants to. "We have friends who understand what we do, and we have other friends who think we're totally crazed," she says. "A lot of people think it's very bizarre, and for good reason."
Johnson, for his part, doesn't offer explanations. He shrugs and says, "Nobody can really relate."
The championship has commenced, and Johnson, Hawthorne and Harry have jumped to an early lead. But as the race progresses, Gary Polhill and Jon Root, two other veterans, close the gap. The two teams arrive at the race aid stations separated by minutes at first, then seconds. At each station, crews work frantically to cool the horses, dousing them with ice water or standing them in front of fans. Then vets check the animals to make sure that they are fit to continue.
Johnson arrives at each aid station like an executive late to an important meeting. He catches his breath, swigs water, monitors Harry and issues concise orders to his crew as they tend to the horse. At one station Johnson's assistants include his parents, Marvin and Rosemarie. Johnson is all business, and he's not ornery—he minds his manners. This pleases his mom. "Some people are so crabby and demanding, but not Tom," says Rosemarie, watching proudly as Tom moves through the aid station with efficiency. "Tom is always a gentleman."
The Johnsons are pleasant folk. Marvin is a soft-spoken land developer, Rosemarie a docent at the Sacramento Zoo. Both parents have supported their son in all his athletic endeavors, though Rosemarie pines for Tom's polo-playing days, when she would sit and sip wine in the shade of a parasol, watching her son charge smartly about a tidy field. "I don't particularly enjoy all this tromping through the dust," she says. But like most moms she will follow her son to the ends of the earth, which unfortunately describes where most endurance events are held.
Hawthorne and Johnson exit the last aid station with a two-minute lead over Polhill and Root. Each team still must negotiate a steep climb and then descend five miles to the finish in a meadow.
Their crews, having leapfrogged ahead, stand in the meadow and wait, looking up toward the hilltop. Insects drone. A soft breeze bumps the finish banner. A runner appears at the far end of the meadow. Hawthorne. Polhill, also on the run, is 20 yards back. Everyone strains to see behind these two. Whether Hawthorne or Polhill finishes first is immaterial. The race isn't won until all three team members cross the line.
Hawthorne crosses the finish. Polhill stops short. He sits on a log and stares out across the field. A minute passes, then another. A horse thunders into view. Polhill squints, then drops his gaze. Harry and Johnson. Horse and rider cross the line at high noon. Back in Taylorsville, a cow-poke has won himself some money.
Ken McAlpine is a free-lance writer based in Ventura, Calif.