An endurance competition near Sonoita last Saturday became a race to save lives after a number of participants got lost or stranded in rough terrain during a storm that swept through the region.
More than 150 competitors in the Old Pueblo 50 Mile Endurance Run left the starting line near Kentucky Camp at 6 a.m. under grey and windy conditions. However, by mid-morning the storm that would eventually drop 2.5 inches of rain in parts of Santa Cruz County began to alter race conditions so dramatically that more than half would not finish and many would be left unaccounted for.
At 8:07 p.m. the Sonoita-Elgin Fire District (SEFD) was paged out for a lost party of five walkers and 15 people reportedly stranded between two washes because of flooding.
SEFD Fire Chief Joseph DeWolf proceeded to set up incident command posts at the Kentucky Camp race headquarters and a sub-post at the SEFD station.
Meanwhile, Battalion Chief Kevin Venos made contact with race coordinators, who provided an “incident action plan” that gave information including the coordinates of aid stations. That data helped determine who had not checked in and then narrow down their location.
At the same time, the Pima and Santa Cruz County search and rescue teams were called in along with the U.S. Border Patrol.
As the National Weather Service issued flash flood warnings for Santa Cruz County, 15 racers were eventually located safely sheltered in vehicles at aid stations between Gardiner Canyon Wash and Cave Creek Wash, which was reportedly running with water 35 feet across.
Meanwhile ground crews, including a Border Patrol K-9 unit, searched trails by foot and motor vehicle after worsening weather conditions grounded all air support with the exception of Air-Evac 22 from Sierra Vista, which was able to fly for only an hour.
“All the time in the rain and in the wind. It was terrible conditions,” said Venos, adding that the primary concern was exposure. “We were quite concerned because hypothermia was a very potential problem for the racers because they had been in the rain and cold all day.”
In fact, Venos said, a racer had been brought into the station earlier in the day with hypothermia and had to be transported to Tucson.
As the night dragged on, many of the missing competitors eventually walked in from the cold. Another was picked up off Greaterville Road around midnight.
Because most of the other unaccounted-for racers were from Tucson, emergency coordinators contacted police there, who went out to bang on doors. Eventually the rest of the missing people were found safe at home.
By 7:30 a.m., everyone had been accounted for.
“We’re just glad they are safe,” Venos said.
He credited the use of the Incident Command System that allowed SEFD to effectively coordinate with other agencies throughout the rescue operation.
The Old Pueblo 50 Mile Endurance Run is described as a “challenging 50-mile loop course on forest service roads and trails through the southeastern part of the Santa Rita Mountains” which starts and finishes at the Historic Mining Site of Kentucky Camp.