Fort Sumner’s tombstone races create more legends

Clovis’ Devin Sweet of Clovis placed second in the men’s open division of the tombstone races. (DeBaca County News photo: Scot Stinnett)

By Eric Butler: CNJ correspondent

FORT SUMNER — There’s legends, and then there’s legends so big that they beget even more legends.

The Billy the Kid tombstone races at Old Fort Days are all about an offshoot activity at the legendary outlaw’s gravesite. And it makes for an athletic event that certainly is unique by any standards.

On Saturday, 35 contestants tried their hand at jumping over two barriers — one 4-foot high and the other 5-foot high — picking up marble slabs, bringing them back to the starting line and then carrying the pieces back to their original spot. All in all, the participants in one race jumped over the barriers eight times and threw the slabs, weighing 80 pounds for the men and 20 pounds for the women, four times each.

The event is meant to parody the odd occurrences surrounding a footstone at Billy the Kid’s grave — one that has been stolen three times, but has always found its way back. The pirates, in the past, managed to get over fences guarding the premises before townspeople finally fully enclosed the grave.

“It’s been stolen three times, one time for 27 years. It emulates that in the fact that the first barrier is like the outside fence to the cemetary, the second barrier is getting in there, they steal it (the footstone) and get it out,” said Buddy Cortese, who came up with the idea. “But they always bring it back.”

By the end of a race, an 80-pound slab of marble can feel much heavier than that.

“That’s the thing. It doesn’t feel like 80 pounds — it feels like 200,” said Clovis’ Coby Greenwalt, 28, who was trying to defend his 2005 championship.

Greenwalt, well ahead in his opening heat, disqualified himself when he threw his slab too hard and it rolled out of his lane.

Instead, the $2,500 grand prize for the men’s open division went to Frank Shanley, who just finished high school at Moriarty. Shanley’s time of 35.84 edged out Clovis’ Devin Sweet, who had a time of 36.22 seconds. Glenn Russ of Portales finished third with a mark of 37.66.

“My cousing Coby won it last year, so I figured I’d just come and give it a try,” Sweet said. “It ain’t as easy as it looks. It’s pretty tough.”

Fort Sumner’s Sandy Fortner, who just finished up her first year with the University of New Mexico track team, won the women’s event, which paid $650 to the winner. Fortner said she only planned on telling her track coach at UNM if something went wrong.

“She doesn’t know yet. I wasn’t going to tell her unless I got injured,” Fortner said.

The event helped finished off a day full of activities, including a horseshoe tossing contest, a tug-of-war, a car show and an arts and crafts fair.

For the tombstone races, one of the women’s entries Christine Adelhardt, 41, who was part of a German television crew filming a 45-minute piece about New Mexico.

Adelhardt finished seventh in the women’s race.

“It’s harder than I thought. I did a little training at the beginning and I thought, ‘Oh, this will be easy,’” Adelhardt said. “I’m a quite competitive person, plus this is a chance of a lifetime — something I can show my kids.”