The Wildest Kind of Trail Running You’ve Never Heard Of – Trail Runner Magazine

The Wildest Kind of Trail Running You’ve Never Heard Of  Trail Runner Magazine

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The morning sun blazed over “Fair Hill,” a 5,000-acre fox-hunting estate built by Delaware’s famous du Pont family. The estate’s pristine wooded trails, open meadows, bubbling creeks, and 17 horse barns offered an ideal venue for last fall’s Chesapeake Endurance Ride. 

On the morning of September 17, 2022, the barn was abuzz with riders and horses dodging between rows of chrome horse trailers in search of curry combs, electrolytes, and the rest of the pre-race checklist. Anxious horses whinnied across the meadow. 

I arrived the night before with neither a horse nor a trailer, just a belly of nerves and a pup tent I pitched between beefy pickup trucks. I was a trail runner who, earlier that summer, barely survived my first “Ride ‘n’ Tie,” a topsy-turvy trail race where two runners share one horse and switch back and forth between riding and running. But like a moth to a flame, I kept coming back. When Chris lost his partner to COVID-19 and asked me to fill in at the last minute, I couldn’t say no. As soon as I hopped on our trusty steed, Ray, Chris went AWOL and Ray caught on that the woman in his saddle had no idea what she was doing.

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The Rise of Ride ‘N’ Tie

In my 28 years of trail running, I’d heard stories of the legendary “Ride n’ Tie” and its connection to the birth of 100-mile runs for people 50 years ago in California. I learned it’s no coincidence that the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run (WSER) began in California shortly after Ride n’ Tie” was invented there in 1971. 

The first Ride ‘n’ Tie was dreamed up by Bud Johns, a young California marketer at Levi Strauss & Co, to promote the American denim company’s rough-and-ready cowboy image. The race begins with one team member running. The other rides the horse a short distance (typically 5-10 minutes) before dismounting, tying the horse to a tree, and setting off on foot. The trailing runner reaches the horse, unties it, and rides in pursuit of the leading runner, eventually passing them and tying the horse to another tree. Rinse and repeat for 20-100 miles. 

“If you took the Kentucky Derby and the Boston Marathon to Outward Bound, you’d have yourself a Ride & Tie.” 

An observer in Bud Johns’s book, What Is This Madness?, remarked, “If you took the Kentucky Derby and the Boston Marathon to Outward Bound, you’d have yourself a Ride & Tie.” 

Teammates decide for themselves where to tie the horse, and it takes years for a team to perfect their timing, making the sport just as much chess as masochism. 

RELATED: Mo Livermore, a founder of the Western States Endurance Run, shares her experience of organizing and running the race in its early years

Gordy Ainsleigh had the rare skill combination of marathon running, endurance riding, and youthful gumption to try his hand at Bud Johns’s early Ride ‘n’ Ties.  When Ainsleigh’s horse went lame before the 100-mile Tevis Cup horse ride, which is the oldest modern-day endurance horse race, organizers offered a crazy suggestion: If anyone could get off their horse and run the 100-mile course on foot from Olympic Park to Auburn (the same as the WSER course), it was a Ride ‘n’ Tier like Ainsleigh. 

Ainsleigh suffered mightily as he ran behind the horses through valleys with scorching, 107-degree heat. But horse veterinarians checked his vitals at every race medical stop and assured him that he could safely continue. If he wanted to. He finished the course in under 24 hours, inspiring others to join him the next year. WSER became an official race in 1977, as 16 runners lined up adjacent to the horses, and a stand-alone race followed the next year. Over time, runners dwarfed the horse race and WSER launched into one of the biggest running events in the world. The child ate the parent.

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Trial by Fire

I scanned the vacant rolling meadow all the way to the horizon, puzzled by the absence of Chris. The math didn’t add up. Chris was supposed to be ahead of me on foot. He was a fast runner, but not faster than the horse. I should have caught him by now, or at least been able to spot him running ahead in the open meadow. I glanced down at my watch again, re-checking my math. Ray, the horse, flicked his ears and swished his tail, signaling his agreement that something wasn’t right. 

Ray spotted them before I did, and rolled into a canter in pursuit. A group of women endurance riders was visible on the far hillside, gossiping and laughing and having a grand time as the race’s caboose. The endurance ride started ten minutes before Ride ‘n’ Tie, and I was surprised to catch any of them so quickly. I noticed their classy riding gloves, britches, and boots, which made me feel sheepish and disheveled in my muddy trail running shoes, torn running tights, and bike helmet. Riding is all about style, but mine got sacrificed in an effort to protect my body on the horse while preserving some comfort on the run. 

“Seen a guy running in a bike helmet?” I shouted as I approached. The women shook their heads and my chin dropped in despair. “Ride with us!” the women chorused. That seemed smarter than wandering alone in unfamiliar forests and fields in search of a man I barely knew, while riding a strange horse who ignored me (and rightfully so, since the last time I rode consistently was years ago, in childhood). But if Chris hadn’t passed the endurance riders, he’d strayed off course and was probably behind me. I wheeled Ray back towards the forest, over his objections. It could be worse, I reminded myself as I turned Ray around.

RELATED: Gordy Ainsleigh, Runnin’ Rebel

Earlier that summer I’d learned why the sport is dubbed “Ride ‘n’ Die.” My maiden race was Virginia’s Old Dominion 20-mile Ride n’ Tie, I survived the most terrifying minute of my life when the horse broke into a high-speed gallop down a dirt road in pursuit of a rival mare. My last-ditch effort managed to turn the animal around and jammed him into a steep hillside alongside the road. My mount stopped short, and I flew up his neck, grabbing its mane to avoid flying off. “I’ve had enough of this nonsense,” I declared as I shimmied down my steed’s side. Hoots of lighthearted laughter burst from the other rider as he tied his horse next to mine, affirming that I passed my trial-by-fire. 

The sun slid behind the mountains and I rode the final miles by headlamp, entrusting myself to the horse’s night vision as we picked our way over loose stones in the pitch dark. The horse was as exhausted as I; his stumble down a rocky hill nearly took us both down. But the melodies of the forest came alive under the stars. Whippoorwills echoed eerily through the darkness and barred owls caterwauled. I slipped into a dreamlike trance, wondering how I could ever convince my trail-running friends to try this magical mayhem.

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In Search of Lost Ties

I must have learned something from my first Ride ‘n’ Tie, because at Chesapeake, I guessed right. Chris had missed a turn in the forest maze and was chasing me from behind, wondering if I’d ever turn around, or if he’d need to run the entire course on foot, like Gordy Ainsleigh.  

We were jubilant when we finally found each other. I would have hugged him had I not been on top of a horse. Ray must have thought Chris and I were idiots because we kept missing turns in Chesapeake’s forest maze, which leads to problems bigger than losing time, when a horse is involved. Once, Ray and I went careening off-course into a hunting area where two bowhunters stood with camouflage paint smeared on their faces and arrows slung behind their backs. Ray reared up in fright and my heart stopped. Ray eventually decided that the hunters were harmless and moved on, but something came loose in the process, and Ray began limping like a car with a flat tire. 

I hollered for Chris and hopped off so he could suss out the problem. I bit my lip while he lifted Ray’s hooves to inspect for damage. I feared nothing more than harm coming to a horse in my care. 

“Yes!” Chris cried. Ray wobbled, thrown off balance by the horseshoe he’d hurled. Chris pulled a rubber boot from the saddle bag and wrapped it around Ray’s shoeless hoof. We were back in action. 

Running was supposed to be my strength, and I worried more about saddle sores than overheating when I got dressed that morning. When every running lubricant in my kit failed to protect a saddle sore that got infected and wouldn’t fully heal on my left calf, I wrapped my upper shin in duct tape and layered a soccer sock and pants over top. I feared excessive sweating on a hot September day might unravel the bandage and make the friction worse, but the tape held. I thought dressing for swim-bike-run triathlons was tricky, but at least those events have transition zones to swap into outfits specialized for each event. Ride ‘n’ Tie transitions are too fast and too frequent to change stirrup length, let alone pants.

I’ll never lose the scar from my calf’s gangrene saddle sore, but I’ll also never forget the patience and kindness of everyone who took a rookie under their wing and forgave all my blunders.

There is no right way to dress for a Ride ‘n’ Tie. Just different degrees of wrong. I made an uncomfortable situation worse by not carrying a bottle because I thought designated water stops were for runners and horses. Chris laughed at me when I told him I was stopping for a drink. I never came so close to drinking from a horse trough. 

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Ray braved one last rickety bridge over screaming trucks and trotted across the finish line. He passed his final vet check, and Chris and I high-fived in celebration. I officially survived my first summer of ride ‘n’ tie. I’ll never lose the scar from my calf’s gangrene saddle sore, but I’ll also never forget the patience and kindness of everyone who took a rookie under their wing and forgave all my blunders. I thought decades of east coast (“Beast Coast”) trail running prepared me for anything, but it takes a new level of crazy to bring a horse into a trail race. I’ve never feared for my life in a trail race, but I’ve also never had so much fun or excitement, either. 

I’ll still be the rookiest rider when the 50th Ride ‘N’ Tie World Championship kicks off on September 22-24, 2023 at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. Don’t be fooled by the posh venue. If no one gets helicoptered out, it will be a win. 

Year after year, WSER runners retrace Gordy Ainsleigh’s steps from Olympic Valley to Auburn in honor of his venture into the unknown. But if they truly want to follow in his pioneering footsteps, it’s time to saddle up.