Perched at the start line, the runners stare out at a barren landscape. Ahead of them stretches a ribbon of highway cutting through the yucca, creosote, and Joshua trees that dot the Mojave Desert, disappearing into the parched hills of the Nopah and Clark Mountain ranges.
It seems a hard place to love, unless you are among the more than 260 teams and 8,000 runners, staff, and supporters of the 120-mile Baker to Vegas Challenge Cup Relay for law enforcement.
If that’s the case, you live for this.
Detective Michael Nguyen of the Anaheim Police Department admits the event looks crazy “from the outside looking in.”
But every year around this time, there is nowhere he and the others who sign up for the punishment would rather be.
On March 24 and 25, in his first year as the captain of the Anaheim Police Department Baker to Vegas team, Nguyen helped lead his 20-person team to an eighth place finish overall among 262 teams in a time of 14 hours, 9 minutes, 57 seconds. The Los Angeles Police Department won for the seventh straight year with 12:37:29.
Although Anaheim dropped three spots from fifth-place finishes in 2016 and 2017 and a fourth in 2015, the team’s time was actually three seconds faster than last year.
With six runners from last year’s team injured, Nguyen was happy with the finish.
“I still don’t know how we did it,” he said.
More important, perhaps, the finish gave Anaheim bragging rights for Orange County departments for the fourth straight year, as they edged out Santa Ana Police Department, which took 10th overall in 14:16:29.
Prior to Anaheim’s recent run of success, Santa Ana PD had defeated its law enforcement rivals to the north seven straight times.
Nguyen, who started running in the race as team captain of the much smaller Westminster PD, said moving up to lead the Anaheim squad was, “a dream come true.”
Then he adds, “And, of course, beating Santa Ana.”
Through the years, Anaheim and Santa Ana have staged a spirited competition for running supremacy in Orange County.
“Santa Ana owned us for many years,” Nguyen said. “Fortunately for us, we’ve had their number for the last couple of years.”
As often happens, the two teams were neck and neck for most of the race.
Nguyen, as he began the 6.1-mile sixth leg of the race, was slightly behind his Santa Ana counterpart. Nguyen was able to pull ahead but said, “I could hear the music from his follow vehicles the whole way.”
According to Nguyen, Santa Ana regained the lead until the 14th leg. That’s when Anaheim’s designated billy goats, officers Ryan Gurley and Jason Smith, took and secured the lead for good through steep terrain and in freezing temperatures.
“They gave us a really good run,” Nguyen said. “Gurley ran past everyone and Smith extended it. It was tough. (Santa Ana’s) end runners are really strong.”
Gurley and Smith are regular standouts on the team and, according to Nguyen, the more intense the better for those two.
That Anaheim and Santa Ana, with forces of about 300 to 350, can compete with teams such as the Los Angeles Police Department with a force of about 9,000 to choose from is a testament to both departments, Nguyen said.
Although the rivalry with Santa Ana is heated and tough, the teams are friendly afterward.
“They showed up at our team party,” Nguyen said of Santa Ana and the post-race celebration. “It’s a healthy rivalry.”
Beyond the cross-county rivalry, the race also helps strengthen internal bonds on the forces.
“We have a big department, so a lot of us don’t see each other through the year,” Nguyen said. “It’s great to gather for the common good and the camaraderie. We want to keep the tradition. It’s huge for us.”
The Baker to Vegas run was started by the Los Angeles Police Revolver and Athletic Club in 1985 and included the Anaheim and Santa Ana teams. Since the first race, featuring 19 teams, the event has grown over its more than 30 years to include more than 250 teams each year in a variety of divisions. Anaheim and Santa Ana usually square off in the Open division, the most competitive, and occasionally have secondary squads in the Invitational division.
Officers try out for the teams in 10-kilometer races, with the top 20 making the teams, plus alternates. The teams also bring along support crews of 10 to 15 volunteers to drive support vehicles, man stage stations, and handle logistics.
Over the years there have been modifications to the course layout, although it has remained at the original distance of 120 miles broken into 20 stages. Individual stage length can vary from about 4 miles to more than 10 miles, and from relatively flat to rugged and mountainous.
Over the years, temperatures have spiked above 100 on the desert floor, while freezing temperatures in the mountains are often expected. One year, a winter storm shut down the mountain stages.
Also representing Orange County were the Newport Police Department, which took 26th overall, but second in departments of 150 or less sworn officers in 15:15:40. They were led by Dave Miner, who took fifth in the opening leg. Orange PD (43rd in 15:35:33), Huntington Beach PD (54th in 15:46:52), Fullerton (67th in 16:01:04), Irvine (99th in 16:34:33), and Westminster (229th in 18:54:05) also competed.
There are times Nguyen admits to wondering whether it is all worth it.
This usually happens about the time he crosses the line at the end of his stage and is splayed out on the Mojave dirt.
“I’m thinking, ‘Man, I’m getting too old for this,’” he says.
But it is only momentary and soon he his thinking about next year’s team.
Will his team be able to pick off another of Santa Ana’s stars, like Pete Picone? Are there any promising youngsters coming out of the police academies? What about the six injured runners?
With those thoughts swimming in his head, Nguyen again sees something beautiful in the hardscrabble landscape between Baker and Vegas.