RENO, Nev. -- The runner puffed down the steep mountain incline and glanced behind him to see if his racing partners were in sight.
Just cresting the hill came the other two-thirds of his team -- a horse and rider.
The rider urged his mount to a fast trot, quickly overtook the runner and headed for the check station at the end of the race leg. There, he tied the horse to a tree and continued the next portion on foot. When the first runner arrived at the tree, he became the rider for the next leg.
This strange kind of racing is called 'Ride and Tie,' a 40-mile marathon rooted in the Old West practice of two people sharing one horse to travel long distances. It's still a new brand of competition to many, but its popularity is growing. Nearly 175 teams competed in the 1981 Levi's Ride and Tie, held in the Sierra Nevada west of Reno.
Roy C. Johns, vice president of Levi Strauss, made it a form of competition in 1971 and the company has sponsored it annually since. The 1981 winners were Jim Howard of Sacramento, Dave Poston of Loomis, Calif., and Novalo, an Arabian horse. It took them four hours, two minutes and 26 seconds to cover the course.
Levi officials say Ride and Tie has become so popular during the last 11 years that nearly 200 other races are being held each year in the United States, England, Germany and Canada.
Some people don't like the idea because they believe the horses are overworked. But Jim Dale of the Nevada Humane Society says it doesn't have many complaints. He pointed out that, like human marathon runners, the horses used don't have much excess fat, so they look like they're underfed.
'But they're not neglected,' he said.
Like marathon runners, most of the horses are lean and small. Arabians are most popular for endurance races because of their ability to recover quickly from a long run. Veterinarians also say smaller animals tend to recover more quickly.
And, like their human partners, the horses train for a race, running in the neighborhood of 100 miles each week.
'These horses are in good shape,' said Reno veterinarian John Freeman, who competed in the 1981 race.
To make sure the horses aren't being pushed beyond their limits, there are five veterinarian checks during the race. A horse must pass three to continue. Its heartbeat must slow to 72 per minute and respiration rate must drop to 40 a minute. Thus, some of the runners are able to pass some of the horses.
'They get more medical inspections than any human who ever lived,' says horseman Dean Hubbard.
The rules also say riders must switch places at least six times during the race.
Blacksmith Cliff Lewis says the race makes for 'strange bedfellows,' bringing runners and horsemen together. Most contestants have done either a lot of marathon running or endurance riding. Very few are familiar with both.
But Lewis and other horsemen say teaching a runner to ride is harder than teaching riders to run. Sometimes, they say, runners are afraid of horses.
There have been numerous cases of runners running right on by their horses without seeing or recognizing them. Lewis made his mount more difficult to miss by spraying its white tail flourescent orange.
There have been many times when a mount bolted away from the runner who wasn't familiar enough with horses to keep control.
But the sport is growing more popular every year. Competitors are getting more and more proficient, runners becoming better horsemen and horsemen becoming better runners.
'It's different and it's fun. That's why it's catching on,' Hubbard said.