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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."