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It's a rough ride to fitness
 
   

For a career rancher, cowboy, endurance racer and steeplejack like Virl Norton, the question of how to stay fit has never come up.

''You're never going to find me inside, sitting in a chair," says the popular 71-year-old Almaden Valley cowboy. "I generally work a 12-hour day. I've been retired for five years, and I've never been busier."
When Norton, thin, tough and wiry, says he's "retired," it merely means that he's stopped climbing, painting and repairing flagpoles, smoke stacks and water towers -- his line of work for 35 years.

Now his days are consumed by passions that, if anything, are more strenuous. Norton says proudly that he's a horseman, as was his father before him and is his 26-year-old son, Pierce. He keeps, trains and rides 18 Arabian horses on 14 acres of Almaden Valley pasture near his Harry Road mobile home -- and he spends his weekends riding them in endurance races.

''I've run horses for 56 years," he says. "I've probably run more endurance races than anyone else alive. I've run 25 since (last) November 8 and I've finished in the top 10 in all but one."

Norton hasn't necessarily slowed down. The one horse race in which he failed to finish in the top 10 was the Tevis Cup, a 100-mile race in August over rough terrain from the Squaw Valley to Auburn. It was sponsored by the Western States Trail Foundation -- Norton is a member of its board of governors -- and is said to be the toughest 100-mile race in the world. "It took me 23 hours and 40 minutes," Norton says sadly. "I had a hernia the whole way.

''My doctor says I'm crazy," he adds with a smile.

His doctor doesn't know the half of it. In April, Virl Norton bought three zebras at an exotic-animal auction in Missouri -- and though their former owner said that zebras are wild, impossible-to-train animals, Norton is determined to ride one of them in an endurance race.

Even as he nonchalantly discusses such ambitious, impossible-sounding plans, Norton begins showing the bruises and welts on his arms, sustained while simply trying to rope and get a bridle on Zorba, the smallest of the three zebras.

''I don't ever to expect to get them gentled down," he says of the zebras trotting around a fenced-in corral behind his home. "I'm not healed up from the last time I hooked them up. But I don't mind. It's interesting."

And no, age has not slowed this cowboy down in the least. If anything, it's had the opposite effect when he's running an endurance race.

''I'm too old to ride slow," he says. "I don't want to sit in the saddle for 24 hours. I want to get it over, because it's hard work."

Dave O'Brian, Mercury News Staff Writer
October 21, 1987

Copyright 1987 San Jose Mercury News All rights reserved. Reproduced with
permission of the Mercury News. Any unauthorized reproduction is strictly
prohibited.

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