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When three's not a crowd

An endurance race called Ride & Tie tests runners and riders -- and their faith in each other.

August 31, 2004|Bonnie Obremski | Times Staff Writer

Fort Bragg, Calif. — Celina BRUN hides her hands inside her sweatshirt sleeves at the edge of the campfire. She's 17, wears $10 running shoes and has never been to a Ride & Tie. She skirts the crowd, apprehensive about the hours and miles she will spend in oddly disjointed teamwork with a gray-haired man and a horse she has never met.

Kathy Broaddus already knows her human partner, Lani Newcomb, but now the two are nervous about meeting their other, arguably more important teammate -- the horse.

Combine two people, one horse, 34 miles of trail and you've got yourself a race. A Ride & Tie. Through open fields and hilly forests, one person rides the horse while the other takes off on foot. They switch places along the way: The rider ties up the horse, and the runner catches up, unties, and hops into the saddle. They repeat this leapfrog routine until the finish

Some horse and rider trinities have worked together for years. Some competitors come to a race seeking a partner or partners -- a human, a horse or both. But it's the dynamic between human and horse that's most important. A horse can do interesting things to long-standing relationships, let alone a twosome thrown together solely by a mutual affection for this peculiar event.

Brun is still fretting when Dave VanWicklin pulls onto the camping field from Foresthill, Calif., towing a double horse trailer behind an aquamarine pickup also hauling his wife and daughter. He takes off his cowboy hat to sleep, shower and run. He can jog 100 miles, and his horse, Jazz, was born to Ride & Tie. As for Brun, his new partner, VanWicklin, smiles in a way that says, "We'll see."

Defining fun

Ask anyone why they have trucked their tack from as far as Australia and Germany to this Ride & Tie World Championship in Fort Bragg, and the answer is always "because it's fun."

Parcheesi is fun. This is Ride & Tie.

Bud Johns invented this sport in 1971 as a promo for Levi Strauss: The first team to cross the finish line won $1,000 and another grand if they wore the company's trademark jeans. Levi Strauss bowed out of the event in the late 1980s, and with it went the prize money. Now, winners get cowboy boots, belt buckles or a couple bottles of wine.

Veterinarians Broaddus and Newcomb of Purcelville, Va., have raced in more than 70 Ride & Ties. Broaddus moseys around in muscle tees. Newcomb, less chiseled, ambles in Hawaiian print button downs.

They had hoped to lease a 20-year-old nag for the championship. Instead, behind an aluminum port-o-corral, they shell out $750 to ride Victory, a surly, teenage Arabian. Broaddus mounts and grips the reins. They know chance is part of the game. "You ride horses," says Newcomb, "and it's not a matter of if you get thrown, it's when."

Veteran racer VanWicklin knows his horse well. "He's scared o' white," says VanWicklin, gesturing to Jazz, a name short for Jasuur Al Baraq, which means "at one with lightning" in Arabic. "Like that white, plastic bag over there."

On the championship course, white sandwich boards loom at trail intersections. White paper plates are tacked at trailheads. A white trough stands at the veterinary checkpoint, and the path is marked every few feet with white, plastic ribbons.

When Brun returned from a practice ride, her arms were limp from wrestling the reins. In her dude-ranch days, she'd never met one as strong and high-strung as Jazz. She was dirty and shaken but was, says VanWicklin, "a finish-line gal."

At 9 a.m. Saturday, Johns starts the race by lifting what looks like an Amish hat off his head and pulling it to his knees. Thirty-two horses file to the road, and a herd of runners follows.

Brun, wearing a pair of borrowed tights, starts Loop 1, which begins uphill on a trail barely wide enough for a horse to put one hoof in front of the other. The route levels off in tall grass, where runners huff behind their steeds, breathing dust and brine and fresh-cut hay.

At the summit, anyone with time to look can watch the Pacific add to the sands of Ten Mile Beach. But even a glance away from the pitted path could cost ankle injuries, or worse. The loop, which spins through redwoods and Douglas fir, is a little more than 16 miles; the second and third are nine miles each.

Broaddus pounds out the first mile. In her head, some song is stuck on repeat. Later she won't even remember what it was, just that it drowned out the static of other runners' thuds.

Around a tree, a rope hangs chest-high where Newcomb knotted it. Victory is waiting. "He's not a touchy-feely horse," Newcomb had said earlier. "He doesn't like to be all 'oogie, oogie, oogie.' "

Broaddus inches toward the horse clutching a handful of grass and extends the offering. Victory accepts. Broaddus sticks her left foot into the stirrup and swings her right leg over the horse. A rush of relief. "Oh, you're golden," she says.

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