Johnson looked marvelous. He won easily, and his time of 15 hours, 54 minutes was 30 minutes better than the course record.
Now then, what is the attraction of this rough, tough recreation? Johnson sees it simply. In today's microwave age there are few challenges left to be met. "America's a pretty easy society to live in," he says. "Nobody really has to push his limits. It's amazing when you find out what you can do."
"Tom's attitude is, Why not?" says his friend Marcia Smith, who is also an endurance runner and rider. "He can run 100 miles, so he does. It's a personal challenge. Not everybody can do it."
Smith is also quick to admit that not everyone wants to. "We have friends who understand what we do, and we have other friends who think we're totally crazed," she says. "A lot of people think it's very bizarre, and for good reason."
Johnson, for his part, doesn't offer explanations. He shrugs and says, "Nobody can really relate."
The championship has commenced, and Johnson, Hawthorne and Harry have jumped to an early lead. But as the race progresses, Gary Polhill and Jon Root, two other veterans, close the gap. The two teams arrive at the race aid stations separated by minutes at first, then seconds. At each station, crews work frantically to cool the horses, dousing them with ice water or standing them in front of fans. Then vets check the animals to make sure that they are fit to continue.
Johnson arrives at each aid station like an executive late to an important meeting. He catches his breath, swigs water, monitors Harry and issues concise orders to his crew as they tend to the horse. At one station Johnson's assistants include his parents, Marvin and Rosemarie. Johnson is all business, and he's not ornery—he minds his manners. This pleases his mom. "Some people are so crabby and demanding, but not Tom," says Rosemarie, watching proudly as Tom moves through the aid station with efficiency. "Tom is always a gentleman."
The Johnsons are pleasant folk. Marvin is a soft-spoken land developer, Rosemarie a docent at the Sacramento Zoo. Both parents have supported their son in all his athletic endeavors, though Rosemarie pines for Tom's polo-playing days, when she would sit and sip wine in the shade of a parasol, watching her son charge smartly about a tidy field. "I don't particularly enjoy all this tromping through the dust," she says. But like most moms she will follow her son to the ends of the earth, which unfortunately describes where most endurance events are held.
Hawthorne and Johnson exit the last aid station with a two-minute lead over Polhill and Root. Each team still must negotiate a steep climb and then descend five miles to the finish in a meadow.
Their crews, having leapfrogged ahead, stand in the meadow and wait, looking up toward the hilltop. Insects drone. A soft breeze bumps the finish banner. A runner appears at the far end of the meadow. Hawthorne. Polhill, also on the run, is 20 yards back. Everyone strains to see behind these two. Whether Hawthorne or Polhill finishes first is immaterial. The race isn't won until all three team members cross the line.