The first runner to arrive in Pahrump during the 34th Baker to Vegas Challenge Cup Relay finished his 5.3-mile journey along Nevada Highway 372, handed off his baton to a teammate and was greeted enthusiastically by his Santa Cruz County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association teammates.
“It’s a blast,” said Billy Burnett, who acknowledged the team doesn’t do very well in the standings. “But it’s still fun.”
“We’re all excited right now,” teammate Troy Zube said. “We started off in the first group. There’s usually about 20 runners in each group that start at certain times. We’ve taken up the lead. That’s a new position for us, we’re excited about it and we’re going to keep it up all the way home.”
Getting 20 runners to agree to run anywhere from 4 to 10-plus miles in uncertain weather over often-lonely stretches of road followed by a slow-moving support vehicle isn’t as difficult as some might think.
“No. 1, it’s the cause,” Zube said. “It supports fallen officers who have passed over the last year. And it’s a team-building thing, too. It’s great to get out here and get out of the law enforcement element at home and come out here. You’re still hanging out with the same people, but in a different environment. We enjoy it.”
The team-building aspect of the race was echoed by Elizabeth Branch, who was stretching to prepare for her run a few feet from where Burnett was recovering from his. Branch was running in the race for the first time with the Kern County, California, district attorney’s office.
“I’m the new attorney, and I just joined in the office,” said Branch, who said she runs twice a week most weeks. “I think this is the office’s second year doing the race, and I thought it was great and would be a good team-bonding experience and all that.
“It’s nice because the office is so big and you really don’t meet everybody, and then all of a sudden you’re mixing with senior attorneys and support staff and all these people that you wouldn’t normally be interacting with.”
Steps away from Branch, three people were huddled behind a table under a tent, trying to keep warm.
“We’re volunteers, and we are signing these young people up to run their little tails off,” said Denise Dole, who, along with Sue Tursi and Richard Croft, was checking in runners for Stage 11 of the race and giving them their numbers to wear.
“We get runners from all over the world,” Tursi said. “Sometimes Australia, New York City, and there’s not just police, there’s FBI and really every part of law enforcement.”
“We got involved through the Good Sam Club,” said Croft, mentioning one of several RV clubs which furnish volunteers for the race. “We come out here and we stay the night and get everything ready, check them in, check them out, then they throw us out.”
“No, then we get to go to Vegas,” Tursi said.
Meanwhile, along the side of the road, Sharon Otellio wasn’t preparing to run but preparing for the unexpected. About 16 volunteers from the Southern Nye County Search and Rescue Unit were on hand, just in case.
“We’re here to make sure that if there are any injuries, if there are any medical needs, we can get hold of emergency personnel right away,” Otellio said.
The prospect of runners sharing the road with automobile traffic is not as much of a concern as it was during the race’s early years.
“In the past there have been a few incidents, but not too many and not for a long time,” said Otellio, who was more concerned with the recent addition of a roundabout at Highway 372 and Blagg Road. “There is someone stationed at the roundabout to make sure runners get through safely. They can be confusing for some people who don’t know about roundabouts.”
Midway along Stage 11, after the race turns onto Nevada Highway 160, stood a familiar sight to relay participants: the Moose Lodge Welcome Wagon. Although Alice Eychaner, who personified Pahrump’s role in the relay to many, was not present after moving to Tennessee for health reasons, her son and his wife, Todd and Sue Bales, flew back earlier in the week to help out.
“We wanted to come out here out of respect for Mom and do this in her honor,” Sue Bales said. “She’s doing well, she’s made some new friends. She’s in an assisted-living place, and she’s doing very well.
“We figured one more time for sure. This will be it, and next year somebody else will be doing the Welcome Wagon. But it will still be here.”
Jim Cornell is helping to make sure of that. In his 27th year volunteering at the race (“Alice nailed me as soon as I joined the Moose,” he says), Cornell was stationed just north of the Welcome Wagon, letting an announcer know which racer was approaching and letting drivers following the racers know a goody bag was waiting for them just ahead.
“We’re giving out cookies, bananas, a magazine to the drivers who are riding behind them,” said Daisy Jackson, who was stationed just outside the trailer the Moose gets each year from the Pahrump Valley Chamber of Commerce, handing bags to riders in the vehicles trailing each of the runners.
“The chamber’s been nice, loaning us the trailer for this every year, which has been a godsend because it’s made for exactly what we need,” Cornell said. “We go and pick up all of the water and cookies and bananas and stuff that has been donated, and Walmart and Albertsons gave us gift cards, and we went and bought what we needed.
“Years ago we used to have the women of the Moose make the cookies, and then we’d go over to Alice’s house, put gloves on and bag them. This year we had wonderful support from Smith’s, Albertsons, Walmart. We had 400 dozen cookies donated by Smith’s. Last year, we paid out of pocket for them.”
Next year, someone else will be handling those chores that have become an integral part of the relay in Pahrump.
“This unfortunately is going to be my last year,” Cornell said, citing health issues. “I don’t have the strength to be lifting stuff and doing much so I kind of have to give it up, which I hate to do.
“I talked to the chamber, and maybe the American Legion or one of those units are going to possibly take this over. I’m going to talk to the chamber next week and then let (race founder) Chuck Foote know what’s going to happen. The chamber told me this will never stop.”
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