CHALLENGE CUP RELAY
(BAKER TO VEGAS)
By Lt. Jim Duncan, San Diego Police Dept. (RET)
Early in 1986, I was contacted by Chuck Foote, an LAPD officer who was a Director with that department’s athletic association, LAPRAAC. I had known Chuck for several years from participating in the Police Summer Games (Police Olympics). He told me about the Baker to Vegas event and invited me to put a team together and participate against a number of other teams from California. He and another director, Larry Moore, from LAPRAAC, were coordinating the event. It would be 120 miles, from Baker, California to Las Vegas, Nevada. Initially I thought the course would be over I-15, but Foote explained that it covers an old two lane highway that runs west and north from Baker, with lots of steep ups and downs.
Moore and Foote had been coordinating another relay race in Death Valley for several years. In 1985, they decided to expand the distance and leave the National Park. After the 1985 event they wanted to increase participation in the race by inviting teams other than the LAPD and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. The philosophy behind the race is the competition between the agencies, but more importantly it was an event to encourage law enforcement personnel to be more aware of their physical fitness.
So in the Spring of 1986, I had assembled a group of twenty runners from the SDPD. It was 18 men and two women. I had no idea what it was like to try and move that many runners from one spot to another so one runner could run and another could be picked up after completing their run. I had two staging areas for runners to meet and await transport to their stages. Fortunately for me some of the runners had a better idea of moving people around the narrow highway than I did.
One of the people who was very interested in the department participation, not as a runner, but as a shuttle driver for the runners, was Detective Pete Salomonsen. He was Jerry Mills father-in-law. He was probably more responsible for our success than anyone that first year. I heard later that he was hauling runners all over the course in the back of a small Datsun pick-up. Believe me it was cold in the desert after the sun went down and the runners in the bed of that truck were feeling the chill. He helped the team for several years. That first year another person responsible for moving the runners was Jerry Sanders. He also borrowed his father’s RV to use as a staging point. He was the Academy Lieutenant at the time and of course I utilized several of the academy training officers for the team, including W.T. Smith, Joel Bryden and Joe Wood. Sanders always encouraged our participation in the relay and assisted with the event for several years prior to becoming the Chief of Police.
Another person who helped out as a shuttle driver came along early in our history. Sergeant Dan Binkerd was a shuttle driver for many years and a great assistance to our success.
The race coordinators also required that each team have a follow vehicle to protect the runner and illuminate the roadway. That meant that someone had to pilot the vehicle for the entire race over the 120-mile course. I was reluctant to ask anyone to do that so I ran the first stage and the number three runner followed me in our follow vehicle. At the end of stage one, I took over the follow vehicle and remained there for the duration of the race. I also had to keep the team time, although I do not think my timing was as accurate as it is for the current races. The real time was kept by race officials at each stage. It was also my job to furnish water for the runners. Since I was in the follow vehicle by myself that proved to be a difficult task. Fortunately, not everyone was thirsty. It was a very long night.
From that year on, we always had volunteers for the follow vehicle.
The race started well for us. We were in first place, off and on, until stage 17. I think we were all pretty surprised by how competitive we were with the teams from the larger agencies. We finished third overall.
In 1987, our participation was severely limited by Moore and Foote. They said I could only pick from three divisions. Since I was the only runner from my division, that division counted as one of the three. This greatly limited our participation and I couldn’t get a team together. So in 1987, we did not participate. As it turned out the race had to be stopped at the end of stage 16, that year due to heavy snow fall in a mountain pass. Funny though, the race was not stopped until the LAPD team was in first place.
The following year, 1988, Moore and Foote wanted us back so the agreement I worked out was I could pick from three divisions, regardless of the runner’s assignment. So a detective or patrol officer working at Central represented the Central Division, not patrol and investigations. Most of the runners came from the larger divisions. The system worked well for several years, but as the SDPD participation increased I was not limited to the three division rule.
As I mentioned, the first team was comprised of 18 men and two women. The women were Dalana Pursel and Becky Ellis. Both were very competitive runners. Of the 18 men, some remained on the team year after year. Manny Guaderrama, Manuel Guaderrama (father of Manny and Albert) and Jerry Mills were original team members. Some others, Paul Dyresen, Joe Ramos, Albert Guaderrama, Randy Levitt, Jim McGinley, Greg Hewitt, Dave Bautista, Dan Vega, Bill Taitano, Walt Vasquez, Mike Hentigan, John Serrano, Dave Nisleit and Larry Leiber came along later, but participated for many years. Over the course of SDPD history in the event, some of the runners competed for several years and decided they had enough or could not coordinate their work or family schedules or events for the time off. Participation was always good for the nucleus of the team, but from year to year I usually had to find one or two new runners for one or two of the stages. Several of those runners included Boyd Long, Mike Gallivan, Brian Ahearn, Mike Hurley, Mike Stacy, Ken Stewart, Brett McFarland, Jeff Gross, Andy Hoffman, Dean Thomas and Chuck Belletti. One year when Hoffman was running stage 19, we passed then LAPD Chief, Daryl Gates, who always ran 19, for the LAPD open team. Later at the award ceremony Gates commented on the toughness of the race and how difficult it had been for him. He said, “I knew I was in trouble when San Diego PD passed me.” Of course when we passed him we yelled a few choice words of discouragement at him. He was always a big supporter of the run and attended for years after his retirement.
The early teams always did well. SDPD was always a top ten team and very competitive. There were a couple years where we were closer to the bottom of the top ten than the top, but generally we placed in the top five.
As the race progressed it grew. The first year we participated I think there were 60 teams. Chuck Foote told me he didn’t think the course could handle more than 100 teams. He was so wrong. The event fields over 250 reams now with several from out of the country and other parts of the U.S.
SDPD had more than one team starting in the early 90’s. Two women initially helped out the men’s team and then organized the first ever all woman’s SDPD team. Detective Cyndi Stetson and Officer Theresa Kinney were the initial coordinators of the team starting around 1992. Lieutenant Sharon Smyth later became involved as a runner and later in coordinating the team. Lieutenant Andra Brown is the current team captain. At least for one year, there was a woman’s 800 team also.
For several years Sergeant Marc Pitucci coordinated and ran on a team made up of personnel primarily from the Narcotics Unit. Pitucci was also instrumental in coordinating a golf tournament which greatly enhanced the finances of all the teams.
Of course as the race has grown, so did the sophistication of the equipment needed to participate. The major difference is the follow vehicle. The first year the vehicle had no warning lights or signs. Now all of that equipment has become more elaborate. SDPD needed a person who could install and maintain the follow vehicle equipment and we got a volunteer. Detective Tom Levenberg has been the equipment coordinator for many years and as of 2018, still takes on that responsibility. After he installs the equipment he becomes one of the shuttle drivers for the runners. For years he stayed out all night, but more recently he stays only half the night.
I was the team captain and a runner from 1986, until my final year on the department, 2003. I would be retired just prior to the 2004 race. Joe Ramos had been the co-captain for several years and for the 2003 team he gathered a group of runners that were extremely competitive. The team included the ever present nucleus of runners who had participated for years, but there was some new blood as well. Including Steve Markland and Brad Rechtfertig, two excellent athletes. As it turned out it was a great team.
After 17 years, we had the winning team, we were number one. It was an emotional event for most of us that year, but me especially.
We had been second place on several occasions, even broke the 13, hour barrier one year, one of only four or five teams to do so, but never the Winner. 2003 was different. We were the team that got the coveted first place belt buckles. It was an awesome finish to my career involvement in the Challenge Cup Relay. The team went on to win in 2004 and 2005 also, but I was retired by then and certainly not as competitive a runner as the members of those teams.
It is still a great event, one of the largest law enforcement athletic events in the world and SDPD is still an important competitor. I still volunteer in the follow vehicle for the open team.