Pasco man prepares to defend world championship title in unusual sport

If you live in west Pasco, you may have seen a man in running shorts either on horseback or jogging alongside his 19-year-old part-Arabian horse.

“People will say, ‘What are you running for? Get up and ride that thing.’ ” Ben Volk said.

Volk, 48, is training to defend his title in a national competition. About three times a week, he takes his horse on a 10-mile round trip run along the irrigation canal near his home on Road 64.

He was part of the team that won the 2012 World Championship Ride & Tie in Prineville, Ore.

A race in the sport, which has about 500 participants across the country, starts out with one team member on foot and a partner on horseback.

The person on horseback races ahead at the start of the contest, while the other runs behind. Eventually, the rider will get off the horse, tie the animal to a tree and start running ahead. Then the other team member will catch up to the horse, get on and eventually pass the runner.

The process repeats itself for up to 35 miles, which the teammates usually split riding and running.“You just take turns leapfrogging ahead of each other,” Volk said.

Volk grew up around horses in Montana. When he got older, he started entering triathlons, where competitors have to run a full marathon along with completing a 2.4-mile swim and 110-mile bicycle ride.

Volk decided to combine his interests in running and horses about seven years ago, when he got Superman, a retired endurance horse. He said endurance horses can run races between 25 and 100 miles.

He calls the horse Clark, for his mild-mannered demeanor, when they aren’t racing.

“You get ‘em out racing and we call him Superman,” Volk said. “He just flies.”

Not only is Volk a top competitor in Ride & Tie, he also is president of the national organization that puts on the events. That involves handing memberships, putting out a newsletter and publicizing and organizing the championship.

He said the sport once had more prize money available when it had a sponsorship deal with Levi-Strauss. Then, winners could make up to $5,000. But now he said they mainly compete for championship belt buckles, similar to what a rodeo cowboy would take home.

Volk is preparing to defend his title at the 2012 world championships, which will be Aug. 24 in Fort Bragg, Calif. He doesn’t have a regular partner for the events, so he found his partner for this race on a “find a teammate” page on the Ride & Tie website.

He saw that one of the posters, Heather Huggins of Monrovia, Calif., recently ran a marathon time of about three hours.

“I said that’s the gal I want on my team,” Volk recalled.

Huggins has competed in two Ride & Tie events in the past, both world championships. But she hadn’t done so since 2008, before she had two children.

She said Volk came highly recommended.

“My last partner, who’s now retired, said, ‘If I’m not going to compete anymore, I want you to run with somebody faster,’ ” Huggins said. “ ‘That Ben Volk guy would be a good partner for you.’ ”

Between 40 and 50 teams are expected for the 25-mile world championship, which is down from more than 200 in the days of sponsorship, Volk said.

While the world championships usually are in Northern California or Southern Oregon, some of the smaller events are in Washington. A popular 25-mile race is held at Trout Lake at Mount Adams, while Sunrise Canyon near Kennewick holds 11-and 22-mile races.

Participants in Ride & Tie come from across the county, though the majority live on the West Coast, Volk said.

They also come from a variety of age groups. Olivia Hankel, 15, of Hermiston, will be Volk’s partner in another upcoming event.

Olivia said she loves Ride & Tie because it combines her of two favorite activities, riding horses and running, but it can be tough to explain to her classmates.

“None of them have ever heard of it,” she said. “It’s kind of fun getting to explain it to them.

For some events, Volk, who competes in four or five Ride & Tie events a year, will have family members as teammates. Daughters

Libby, 19, and Regan, 16, have competed.

“I’m not as big into running as my dad, but I especially enjoy it when you have a fun partner, and you can do it with a group of people,” said Regan, a senior at Delta High School.

Volk, whose day job is at JUB Engineers, admits that Ride & Tie isn’t for everyone.

“It’s kind of a tough sport,” he said. “You’ve got to have a horse. You’ve got to be a runner and you’ve got to be able to ride.”

But Huggins, 39, said it can be rewarding.

“It’s just about the best event I’ve ever done,” she said. “It’s also very welcoming to new people.”

w Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsomℸ