The scenery was wide open, rolling grassland, interspersed with large pine forests and some mountain terrain. It reminded me of the movie “Dances With Wolves” in places. It just felt big. We were at the Mogollon Rim, a large wilderness of Arizona. Gary Thompson and I had come out to this place eighteen years ago to compete in the annual ROGAINE national championships. A Rogaine is a twenty-four hour wilderness trekking and navigation competition. We had competed in a few of these before in various places around the country ranging from upstate New York to Washington State and had done fairly well, placing second in most, prompting us to adopt the name “Bridesmaids”. Our base of skill and practice had come from decades of orienteering competitions. A ROGAINE is basically a long ass orienteering meet set out across a huge amount of land. It is required to be done in teams of two or more for safety reasons. If someone had an injury and couldn’t move forward, there would be no way to find them.
We had no preconceived notions of how we would do at this particular event but we felt fitter and better than ever before.
Early in the beautiful, clear morning, they gave us our maps, and thus started the one hour planning period. In this short time before they say “go”, Gary and I decided to pursue the checkpoints that were scattered around in the flatter and more open terrain by daylight. We would then tackle the more rugged area at night. This turned out to be a good strategy as our feeble headlamps would not be able to reach across the more open distances, thus making it hard to match up the terrain with the topographical lines on the map and thus keep track of where we are. Headlamps have now become so many times more powerful than what we were using here. Hiking up a small rocky canyon in the moonlight turned out to be another benefit of this plan, creating one of the memories that get etched in your mind like a photograph. You can never tell what is going to cause that mental camera shutter to click.
After the whistle blew, Gary and I ran with reckless abandon because ‘this was the Big Leagues now’. We promptly got semi lost going to the very first checkpoint and wasted ten minutes or so. The timing of this turned out to be good because it advised us to calm down and do it the way we know how. The rest went well. At one point we had to filter some nasty water for drinking and another point we felt compelled to turn our headlamps off at night to avoid giving away a location to another leading team.
Gary and I were very happy with our performance and finished second overall (first in our division). Elated were we even. The only trouble was that the time gap was just small enough for us to start thinking about ‘would-of-could-of-should-of’ scenarios. I’ve heard that the least happy person on the podium at the Olympics is the Silver medalist. The Gold is happy that they won. The Bronze is just happy to have made the podium. The Silver…?
This Western wilderness was a very enjoyable place to be as the woods and meadows were open enough to be able to travel rather fast through them. I suppose that one could say that it doesn’t really matter because all of the competition has to deal with the same thing, but there is just something nice about being able to travel fast and freely. Having a friend along doesn’t hurt.
I returned to the area of Mogollon Rim, Arizona three years later to compete in the World Rogaine Championships, first time held in this country. This time I paired up with ultra distance running legend Blake Wood. I had read about him in magazines but had never met him until the morning of the race. He had won some of the hardest and most prestigious wilderness running races around. What he lacked was navigation practice as his specialty was running on marked trails. I find that ultra distance runners are perhaps a little different, and are rather pleasant to be with, at least Blake was. Along with his athletic accomplishments Blake was a nuclear physicist at the Los Alamos Laboratories. We got along well and his conversation was very interesting. In this competition, Blake and I finished as the second US team and fifth overall. We were happy with that.