When the race began 25 miles north of the California village of Baker, coyotes howled in the Mojave Desert, and the relay runners faced a daunting jog through Death Valley, over the Ibex Pass, and then a gallop into Las Vegas.
It was April 8, and the 120-mile Baker to Vegas run had attracted more than 8,000 competitors from around the world, all of them eager to resume a 35-year tradition that went on hiatus for two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although organizers laud the annual event for fostering teamwork, camaraderie, physical fitness, and fair competition for the coveted Challenge Cup, it’s also a way for racers to honor law enforcement officers lost in the line of duty.
And that’s what brought Michelle Hamilton, her co-captain Elizabeth “Beth” Buck, and their all-female relay team of serving deputy US Marshals to Baker. Hamilton ran the first 5.4-mile leg through the eerie silence of the desert dawn until she saw the team’s vehicle waiting for her.
“The sun is starting to rise a little bit, and you start to feel the heat coming in pretty quickly. The heat is coming off of the hot surface of the road, and you start to get the dry mouth, and so you start feeling all the symptoms, Hamilton said. “So seeing the team waiting for me in the car was a huge sense of relief.”
The relay baton Hamilton carried was stenciled with the names of more than 200 sworn officers who had died in recent years, including six from the US Marshals Service: Joseph “JT” Thornton, Jared Keyworth, Robert “Bo” Barrett, Ryan Marten, Betty Ann Pascarella, and Norman Merkel.
The baton later would be transferred to Buck, who has raced for the team since it was founded in 2015. She dedicates her runs to all of the fallen, but saves a special memory for her former partner, Roy Frakes, who was killed in the line of duty on July 20, 1992, while transporting a prisoner.
“It stays with me even more because that was the first week that Roy was working that prisoner transport where I was not his partner. We had done it together the two weeks prior and this was the first day that I wasn’t there,” Buck told Coffee or Die Magazine.
She’d taken a family vacation that week. Since his death, she’s dedicated her career to being a model for other deputies.
“I try to be a better example because Roy never had the opportunity to be an example at all,” said Buck, the deputy assistant director of the Judicial Security Division of the US Marshals Service.
The captains break the team of 20 runners into five squads, each with four agents. Each teammate will take a leg of the run, putting the most experienced racers on the hardest stages, including two phases straight up mountains and several runs across scorching Death Valley.
The most tested racers share the tricks they’ve learned over the years on the grueling route: gum to fight dry mouth, frozen towels placed on necks under the blazing sun, spare dry socks and extra shoes to don as soon as a runner ends a stage.
“So, it really kind of hits me over and over and over again. That, like, ‘Yeah, we’re doing this. This is brutal, but I’m going to feel so fucking good at the end of this when I’m done,’” said Hamilton, the agency’s executive officer of the associate director for operations. “But these women are so incredibly strong and so incredibly powerful and intelligent and capable, and just badass bitches.”
She told Coffee or Die that, whenever she runs the race, a moment arrives when she realizes that “these girls are really killing it, and I’m so proud to be a part of it.”
“Because we’re a women’s team, it’s really empowering and embracing the women of the agency and creating a culture where we build each other up,” Hamilton said. “We support each other in every kind of way, both on the race course and off the race course, both personally and in our career.”
This year, the 55-year-old Buck drew the honor of running the last leg of the race into Las Vegas.
She remembered taking the baton around 4:30 a.m. on April 9 under a desert night with no clouds, just the shimmering of stars. She let her mind wander back to her partner Frakes and the other fallen officers, and then the neon lights of the casino city flickered ahead.
She quickened her pace. She’d pinpoint runners ahead of her in the distance and push herself to pass them, pounding the pavement until she reached the finish line inside the Rio Hotel Las Vegas. It’s almost a metaphor for a career spent inside a male-dominated profession.
“We have to fight to hold our own,“ Buck said. “I run to set an example for the younger people. Because I think that remaining fit, remaining healthy, remaining engaged in what it means to be a woman in law enforcement is very, very important.”