Santa Ana Police Detective Eva Lopez was nearly at a loss for words as she recovered from her early morning run in the cavernous convention room at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas.
It was shortly after 3 a.m., and Det. Lopez had run the final leg for the first-ever Santa Ana Police Department’s women’s team entry in the Baker to Vegas Challenge Cup, a torturous 120-mile relay race through deserts and mountains between California and Nevada.
After winding through the streets of Las Vegas, Det. Lopez concluded her 4.6-mile run to shouts and applause from thousands of fans, friends, and family, and into the embraces of her teammates, who gathered in the predawn hours to celebrate a piece of history.
The Foxes, as the Santa Ana team is nicknamed, completed their maiden voyage that began on a two-lane highway about 25 miles north of Baker at 8 a.m. the previous morning. Along the way, the team traversed desolate deserts and imposing mountains before descending into the glow and glitter of Las Vegas.
The Santa Ana women completed the 20-stage race in 18 hours, 40 minutes, 9 seconds.
“Amazing,” Det. Lopez said after her run, nicknamed the Glory Leg or the Hollywood Leg. “It was really nice to be able to support the team.”
“We did great,” Sgt. Maria Lopez said. “Overall, everyone left it all out there.”
While the physical race started less than a day earlier, the road to Baker for the women’s team began in the fall, thanks in part to Officer Daria Osorio. There had been talk about a women’s team in past years, but no one had followed through.
“Officer Osorio took on the challenge. She said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and got it done,” Sgt. Lopez said.
The Foxes competed in a 12-team field composed exclusively of larger agencies, and the Foxes acquitted themselves well.
“For a department our size to get enough women to compete and compete this well speaks volumes about our agency,” Sgt. Lopez said.
The Los Angeles Police Department women’s team won the division in 15:56:39, which was 29th best among all teams in the 234-team field. Baker to Vegas is the largest law enforcement event of its kind in the world, featuring international teams from as far away as Germany and Australia.
Although this was the first race for the new Santa Ana women’s team, Det. Lopez is no stranger to the race. She debuted in 1998, running with the Santa Ana Police Department’s men’s team as its first female runner. This year, she was still recovering from an ankle sprain suffered in training, but was happy for the chance to do her part for the inaugural team.
“I told them I can gut it out,” she said.
She went on to praise the team, which featured “a lot of new girls” with little or no cross-country experience and certainly nothing like Baker to Vegas.
“The important part was to bring the females together and introduce them to what it’s like,” Sgt. Lopez said. “Hopefully we can bring them together again and do even better.”
Win, place, and show
In its 37th year running, but only the second year since the pandemic interrupted proceedings in 2020-21, the Los Angeles Police Department avenged a loss to the L.A. Sheriff’s Department in 2022, winning the overall title in 12:51:06. The New York Police Department, participating for the first time since 2016, finished in second place (13:29:46), followed by the L.A. Sheriff’s Department (13:34:24).
The Santa Ana men’s elite team, nicknamed the Hogs, shaved time off last year’s result, which was run in 105 degree heat and strong winds, but was unable to overcome rival Anaheim. With the win, Anaheim retained a statue of a runner on a pedestal that reads “#1 in Orange County.”
Santa Ana took 12th place overall and 11th in the Open Division, in 15:16:06. Anaheim took eighth overall in 14:42:54.
The event was tough emotionally for team co-captain Sgt. Jim Rose, who ran the anchor leg.
“It was bittersweet. It’s my last one,” said Rose, who is retiring from the department. “I got a little emotional during the run.”
However, he was proud of the team.
“Overall, everything came together and we ran faster than last year,” he said.
Sgt. Dominick Padilla, a co-captain for the Santa Ana Hogs, which has competed in the race for the past 25 years, ran the first leg of the race and admitted before the race that Anaheim probably had the edge.
“It’s a very friendly rivalry,” said Cpl. Luis Galeana, who ran for Santa Ana’s second team.
Before the race between the elite teams, Padilla took time to chat with his opposite on the Anaheim team.
“They’re looking pretty good,” he said, then joked, “We’ve got a bunch of old guys.”
The Hogs also missed several integral runners who either had competing commitments or were running with the inaugural women’s team. Still, Padilla said it was an honor to be involved.
The Santa Ana Police Department’s second team, the Gorillas, finished in 18:43:45. Tustin and Westminster, competing in the 150 Category for smaller departments, clocked times of 18:38:41 and 20:31:35, respectively. In previous years there had been an added 99 category for even smaller agencies, so in essence the two agencies were “punching up.”
Westminster carved nearly 15 minutes off its time from a year ago.
In the battle for Kern County bragging rights, Bakersfield Police Department was outpaced by the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, 16:18:36 to 16:42.26, to the chagrin of Officers Josh Cavazos and Ruben Guerrero. Before the race began, both officers, who say they don’t enjoy running, jokingly said they entered to get a shot at the Sheriff’s Department rivals and avenge 2022.
“The Kern Sheriff’s Office beat us last year, that’s who we really care about beating,” Cavazos said.
Baker to Vegas is notorious for changing weather conditions, from blazing on the desert floor to frigid in the mountains. Last year, temperatures hit a high of 105 degrees on the pavement outside Baker along with strong headwinds. Conditions were so bad the race had to be halted so that medical teams could be deployed to aid struggling runners.
“Today the heat is cooperating for sure,” Galeana said.
This year, temperatures topped out at 75 degrees and dropped only to the low 50s overnight in the mountains. Organizers were also fortunate that the rains that have pummeled California in winter and early spring stayed away.
Pete Demetriou, a reporter with KNX news radio who has volunteered at the race for decades, said the weather was the best he had seen in 20 years. However, conditions were still deceptive, he said, due to the unfiltered sunshine. He warned runners not to pass up water stations and to stay hydrated.
The cool weather helped teams across the board post lower times. The L.A. Police Department’s winning time was more than 30 minutes faster than the Sheriff’s winning time last year and more than 40 minutes faster than its own time a year earlier.
The race is also a logistical marvel. About 5,000 runners, thousands of event personnel and onlookers, and hundreds of support vehicles caravan across the remote area. Along the way, 20 stations are set up with light towers, electronic devices, change-over areas where runners pass batons, and medical personnel and facilities.
“It is amazing they are able to take a barren desert and turn it around,” Rose said.
The bigger picture
Bakersfield Assistant Chief Brent Stratton, who ran the first leg, stressed benefits beyond mere competition and bragging rights.
“It’s just a great opportunity to gather with law enforcement agencies all across the world,” he said.
Stratton, who competes in the race regularly, also talked about the overall wellness benefits.
“For me, the value is preparing all year because it forces you to train and be healthy,” he said, adding that the hope is officers also take off time before and after the race to relax and enjoy some downtime away from the stresses of the job.
Rose said even though teams are competing, the vibe on the course is one of encouragement and support.
“Everyone’s positive and cheering each other,” he said. “Even (volunteers in) the follow vans are cheering the runners on other teams.”
After the race, teams and departments rent suites where they again join in a collegial atmosphere.
“Across the profession you’re interacting with people you’ve never met before,” Rose said. “It’s just a great atmosphere.”
As officers were stretching, chatting, and making or renewing acquaintances before the race, Westiminster Sgt. Bill Drinnin, a 23-year veteran of the event, pointed out the importance of the race to him.
“Look around at all the camaraderie,” he said.