It's just after dawn here in the arid, semi-desert region outside Sacramento where a group of extreme athletes have gathered for a 22-mile foot race.
Some of the runners are former nationally ranked contenders in elite events like the Boston Marathon or 100-mile ultra marathoners. Others are, well ... horses.
Along the starting line, Nikes and horseshoes kick up a cloud of dust and an air of excitement. This is no Fox reality special that pits man against beast; it's a little-known sport called "ride and tie" that teams humans and horses for long-distance, backcountry races.
It works like this: Two humans and one horse constitute a team. The race starts with one person running and the other riding. At least six times during the competition, the rider – who has gone well ahead of the runner – must get off the horse; tie it to a tree, bush, or whatever he or she can find; and begin a leg of running. The first runner catches up to the horse, mounts it, rides past his running teammate, ties the horse, and starts running again.
"It's basically a leap frog where you're going run, ride, run, ride, run, ride with one partner and one horse for anywhere from four miles to 100 miles," says Carol Ruprecht, who volunteers as the Ride and Tie Association's public relations director and is also an avid participant.
Though ride and tie – created as a sport in 1971 – has never held what anyone would consider mass appeal (it's even a mystery to most equestrians), it was arguably one of the first "extreme sports." Some triathletes credit it with helping to inspire the modern triathlon, says T.J. Murphy, editor of Triathlete Magazine.
Bob Babbitt, an Ironman Hall of Fame triathlete, is uncertain of equine sport's role in inspiring the triathlon, but after competing in a ride and tie race in the early 1980s, Mr. Babbitt says he thought, "This is a really cool thing, if we could lose the horse." So he created a version with bikes instead of horses, now popular among triathletes.
Unlike the sporting events of the X Games, seemingly dominated by unbreakable 20-somethings, the average age in ride and tie is over 40, with some competitors in their 70s and 80s. Good strategy and skill allows the elderly to beat much younger teams. Despite competition among all age levels, the sport is almost never cutthroat.
"It's based on a historic means of transportation," says Bud Johns, the sport's creator. "When two people had a long distance to go and only one horse between them, how did [they] maximize the fact that [they had] a horse? The horse can't carry both people very far, and if one person is riding, then the other person's not benefiting."
Travelers in this predicament often alternated between walking and riding, allowing them to travel greater distances.
Noted 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson and actor David Garrick are the first known ride and tiers. In 1737, the virtually pence-less pair decided to try their fortune in London, 120 miles from their home in Edial. With only enough money for one horse, the two rode and tied all the way. Henry Fielding, who described their journey five years later, said the unlikely ride and tiers' method of travel was long popular among their "prudent ancestors," meaning it presumably existed well before Dr. Johnson and Mr. Garrick.
It was a decidedly grittier context in which Mr. Johns first discovered the concept. While researching the history of Pine Valley, Calif., to promote it for real estate development, he happened upon the story of Charles Emery and his father, William, who in 1873 used ride and tie to catch a band of horse thieves. The rustlers had taken 14 of the Emerys' horses, but made the mistake of leaving one behind. The father-son "team" took off after the bandits – ride and tie style – traveling 40 miles a day until they reached Mexico, tracked down the criminals, reclaimed at least seven of their horses, and watched the Mexican Army execute the desperados.
"I just thought this was a great concept for a race," says Johns. Years later, in 1971, while working at Levi Strauss & Co., Johns remembers that the organization wanted "a distinctive sports event [to sponsor] and I said 'I've got the thing right here.' " The jeans firm bit and, that year, 60 teams competed in the first 28-mile race in California's Mayacamas Mountains.
The sport, popular predominantly on the West Coast, has evolved, with roughly 25 races a year between April and October. There's even a world championship race, which is usually about 35 miles long.
The night before the race in Cool, many of the competitors pitch tents and camp near the starting line. Though it's easy to pick out most of the slender participants downing pasta and carbs before the race, their age range is surprising.
Frank Lieberman first discovered the sport 12 years ago when he was 55. "I thought that in order to do the sport you had to be an elite athlete," says Mr. Lieberman, a retired psychologist. So he contented himself with participating in ride and tie's sister sport, endurance riding, where competitors race horses from 25 to 100 miles without getting off to run.
But at a mixed ride and tie and endurance event, Lieberman found himself camped next to a group of ride and tiers. "These guys looked older, not like young, athletic types," he says. They talked him into competing and he's never stopped.
What allows people who've qualified for AARP membership for years to be serious contenders in such a grueling sport is largely the switching strategy. Though teammates must swap places at least six times, they can do so whenever and as often as they want. So a team can have the strongest runner spend the majority of the race on foot, or they can alternate every few miles.
"As I get older and slower, I find younger and faster partners," laughs John Osterweis, who has been at it since 1983 and is now in his mid-60s. "It's still competitive."
His partner today is Dennis Rinde, who placed in the top 10 in the Boston Marathon twice in the 1980s. Here in Cool he runs 70 to 80 percent of the 22-mile race. They manage to place third out of 13 teams here, despite falling behind due to a broken bridle. They might have fallen further behind if fellow competitor, Mrs. Ruprecht, hadn't stopped – losing time for her own team – to help them.
Behavior like Ruprecht's is not uncommon. Warren Hellman's team also gave up several places here when he spotted a horse who'd broken loose and become tangled in barbed wire.
"There was no question that we'd stop and go back to see if we could help," says Mr. Hellman. A nearly 25-year veteran of the sport now in his 70s, he says that ride and tiers often make sacrifices like this. "You're not only dependent on your partner and your horse, but on the others in the race if you get into trouble," he explains.
If someone becomes overly competitive, vet checks safeguard horses from being overridden. In races 20 miles or longer, horses pass through at least one vet check during the race and afterwards they must be declared fit to continue or the team gets disqualified.
The camaraderie is fitting for a sport where contestants tow horses in trailers for hours, or days, to events, and pay $100 race fees – all for the glory of winning a horse blanket or water bottle. The only cash prizes are for the world championship, where the top prize is $1,000.
"People will say you're crazy," says Lieberman. "But they use it, I think, in a positive way.... Not that you're just off, but that you're doing something very special that most people are unable to do."