The times are in, the antibiotic ointments have been applied, and the elastic bandages have been wrapped as the 36th Baker to Vegas Challenge Cup is in the books.
This year, after a two-year hiatus, the 120-mile relay race for law enforcement teams hit the blistering tarmac on the desolate back highways between Baker, California, and the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas.
A field of 216 teams of 20 runners each tackled a course that featured 105-degree heat in the day, headwinds, and thousands of feet of elevation gain and drop along the western side of the Spring Mountains.
The torturous run, broken into 20 stages of between 4 and more than 10 miles, takes teams anywhere from about 13 hours to upwards of 24 hours to complete.
“This was probably one of the hotter years we’ve had. Coupled with the headwinds it made for tough conditions,” said Race Director Amanda Lankford.
The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Elite Team won this year’s race with a time of 13 hours, 23 minutes, 37 seconds. That was good enough to beat the Los Angeles Police Department’s top squad at 13:33:41.
Those times were considerably slower than the last time the race was held in 2019, with a much larger field and less severe conditions. In 2019, the Belize National Police won in 12:49:44, narrowly beating the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, which were second and third, respectively. All three teams finished within 1 minute, 1 second of each other.
In this year’s race, Santa Ana Police Department lost out on Orange County bragging rights to rival Anaheim PD. In 2019, the two agencies created a trophy to indicate county supremacy.
Anaheim hit the tape in 14:58:31, taking fourth place in the Open Division and fifth place overall. Santa Ana finished in 15:53:21, seventh and 13th, respectively.
Surrendering a trophy that was forged in 2019 and resided at the Santa Ana PD for the past two year has given Santa Ana fuel to avenge the loss.
“We expect to come back strong,” Sgt. Maria Lopez said. “When you get that feel for winning and then you lose, it makes you hungrier.”
The Hogs, as Santa Ana’s elite team is named, featured five first-time runners this year, plus a pair of new alternates. Lopez expects the experience of those runners, under extreme conditions, will help them come back with an even better effort next year.
Lopez said the event fosters unity within departments.
“Just the environment it creates in the agency,” she said of having a shared goal. “It’s nice, everybody talks about it.”
Santa Ana and Anaheim each fielded two teams. Santa Ana’s second team, the Gorillas, finished in 18:15:39, ahead of Anaheim’s B team in 18:29:42.
In the battle of Kern County, the Kern County Sheriff’s Department held onto the trophy it holds in a longstanding rivalry with the Bakersfield Police Department. The Kern County Sheriff’s Department finished in 17:04:36, beating Bakersfield, at 18:11:00.
Although there was some discrepancy in the time, Sgt. Nicole Anderberg, who captained Bakersfield, was proud of her team’s effort.
“Eleven of 20 were new runners thrown in with about a week’s notice,” she said. “Given all the issues, I’m very proud.”
At 5:35 p.m., the race had to be stopped for 45 minutes along one section to allow sufficient medical coverage due to conditions. Lankford said several runners had to be treated and transported with heat exhaustion and other ailments, although none were life-threatening.
This held up teams for varying lengths of time depending where they were, and Bakersfield was held up by 22 minutes, which Anderberg said had yet to be corrected when she was heading home.
The difference was important, she said, because it could affect whether her team got “mugged,” the term for teams that finish in the upper portions of their divisions and rewarded with large drinking steins.
“I’ve run in the race nine years and never been mugged,” Anderberg said.
That setback notwithstanding, she said, “In my eyes, overall, I’d say we are all winners. It was very satisfying.”
Several other Orange County agencies had notable results as well.
The Tustin Police Department missed out on its goal of “mugging” by one position, finishing sixth in its category with a time of 18:42:07 in the 99 Division, for smaller police agencies.
However, Sgt. Ryan Newton pointed out that Tustin PD beat its rival Laguna Beach PD, adding “they didn’t compete this year, so we beat them.”
This year, Police Chief Stu Greenberg ran the final leg of the race and about 40 Tustin officers lined up to greet him at the finish.
Newton said weather conditions were particularly tough this year and one runner had to retire with cramps, which cost the team a 20-minute penalty, but otherwise the team emerged unscathed.
Westminster did not mug either, but in the words of the team captain, “everyone left it all out there and I’m proud of all of us.”
The team finished in 20:45:01.
The runners were impressed with the effort of Chief Darin Lenyi, who volunteered for a tough hilly section of the race.
“He blew us all away. He’s a machine,” Officer Mike Gradilla said.
The Chief capped his leg by sprinting the final 100 yards in a duel to beat a rival runner to the line.
“He did really well,” Gradilla said. “He definitely leads by example.”
Baker to Vegas has a notable history in law enforcement ranks. The competition draws teams from all facets of law enforcement, including at the federal level, such as the FBI and U.S. Marshals, and even law enforcement in the Postal Service. Crime labs, coroners, district attorneys, and probation are among other departments represented. Over the years, teams from Belize, Australia, Germany, and Canada have run. The Navajo Division of Public Safety is also a regular competitor.
This year, organizers say that continuing uncertainty about the lingering coronavirus pandemic stopped a number of teams from competing in a field that had averaged more than 280 teams in many years.
However, hope is high going forward.
“We’re happy to come out of the pandemic and have a successful race,” Lankford said, adding that the race was gearing up to move back to pre-pandemic numbers in coming years.
Newton was also happy to be back.
“It’s nice to feel normalcy again,” he said. “It was great to be out there again and have that overall sense of brotherhood.”