Stunning natural beauty, exotic wildlife and extremely cold temperatures created unforgettable memories for a team of Ventura County Sheriff’s Department leaders running a marathon in Antarctica to raise money for worthy causes. It also marked the finish line for a goal to compete on all seven continents by Cops Running for Charity.
Retired Thousand Oaks Police Chief Randy Pentis experienced a landscape more hospitable for native wildlife than for humans. “The pristine beauty, the stark white snow, the seals and sea lions, literally thousands of penguins that seemed more interested in looking at us than we were of seeing them,” said Pentis. “It was truly a gift to see that kind of wildlife in their natural habitat.”
CRFC members first steps on the ice of Antarctica, getting "landlegs "
after many days crossing the wild southern ocean.
The temperature hovered around 1 degree Fahrenheit, but with 25-knot winds it felt more like 20 below zero. It snowed nearly the entire time they ran the challenging course. The power of nature surrounded them. “You could hear avalanches,” said Pentis. “It sounded like a thunderstorm.”
Fortunately they were well-prepared for the extreme conditions they expected to encounter. “It was windy and cold but we had the right clothing so we were comfortable in that way, which was critical. We just had to tough it out,” said Pentis.
Traveling to Antarctica required more planning than past adventures, which have included a marathon on China’s Great Wall, an ultramarathon across the Sahara Desert, and marathons in Myanmar, New Zealand, Ireland and on Easter Island.
The two-week journey began with a flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where they had a practice run to stay physically prepared in the midst of their travels. Then they took another flight to Tierra del Fuego. That’s where they boarded a Russian icebreaker for the voyage across the stormy Drake Passage. Sailing between South America and Antarctica took several days each way.
The other members of the team who completed the March 9 Antarctica Marathon were Thousand Oaks Chief of Police Tim Hagel, Ojai Chief of Police Capt. Dave Kenney, retired Sgt. Frank Underlin and retired Capt. Paul Higgason.
Cops Running for Charity has contributed more than $300,000 since they started accepting pledges over 10 years ago. Since they pay all their own travel costs and expenses, almost all the money they raise goes directly to charity.
The idea for starting a charity that involved their love for running was formed around 2002, inspired by difficult things they dealt with on the job.
“I had a child pass away in my arms in Newbury Park, a baby who died from croup and pneumonia,” said Pentis. “We saw a lot of victims, of a lot of different causes, including medical causes and criminal causes. And when people get into law enforcement, one of the reasons that they do, is that you want to improve the quality of life for people. You want to have an impact for people, so we chose running to do that.”
They began with marathons across the Unites States, including Chicago, New York and Boston. Visiting race expos with booths beckoning to more exotic contests around the world broadened their horizons. One involved an ultramarathon across the Sahara Desert where competitors run 85 miles over searing-hot sand dunes for four days.
Cmdr. Randy Pentis, Capt. Paul Higgason, Cmdr. Tim Hagel, Capt. Dave Kenney
and Sgt. Tim Hagel prepare to run across the Sahara desert in Tunisia.
Hagel says that’s when Pentis had the idea that would change the scope of their mission for years to come. “Randy walks by us and says, ‘We’re doing this! If everybody else is challenged every day of their life, why can’t we challenge ourselves to run across the Sahara Desert,’ ” said Hagel.
When they reached Africa during 2006, they had trouble getting through the airport in Tunisia because of tension in that nation. They were even worried about being taken hostage. They had a plan in case that happened. “We made a pact. Basically, if something happened you are not going to see us on CNN reading a disclaimer against the United States,” says Hagel. “While it sounded funny at the time, we were serious.”
Once they reached the site of the race in the middle of the desert, the locals were more welcoming, including nomadic tribespeople. “The Bedouins were the nicest people, the most helpful. We’d run though flocks of goats. I still don’t get how they were surviving because it was pure sand and rock,” says Hagel. The race was supported by camels, and even the tents they slept in were made of camel hair.
They faced some extreme challenges even during times when they were not racing over barren sand dunes. “We got in a terrible sandstorm and our tent collapsed in the middle of the night. It’s 30- to 40-knot winds. Our tent blows to the ground. Camels are running all over the place. We decide the safest place for us is to just stay under the collapsed tent. And it’s got camel hair 1 inch thick. It’s not a cotton or nylon tent, so we just slept in the sand. We had to put our burkas on, and ski goggles because of the sand,” said Hagel.
That wasn’t the only thing that scared Hagel while they were camping in the desert. “There’s a guy charming a cobra out of a basket. And I’m having this nightmare that the basket is going to blow over,” said Hagel.
After returning from Africa, supporters started asking Pentis what their next adventure would be. “The problem that caused is, people said, ‘What are you going to do next?’ So we had to top the Sahara Desert. So we did the Great Wall of China in 2007. We did an ultramarathon in Iceland where it was 22 degrees and snowing. We did Patagonia in Argentina. We did Easter Island 200 miles off the coast of South America,” said Pentis.
The race in China was a major challenge because it begins and ends over jagged steps on the Great Wall. “You’re talking literally tens of thousands of steps,” said Hagel. “How everybody doesn’t break a femur is beyond me. There’s nobody there to rescue you.”
Interacting with people from other cultures has been a highlight of traveling the world. Some people in Chinese villages had never had contact with westerners. “What amazed me was the rural nature of a country with a billion people. It blows my mind. We were a novelty. People just wanted to touch us,” said Hagel.
Charities that assist sick kids have inspired them to keep training. “All of us have children …. Once you hold your child for the first time, it changes your perspective on the world,” said Pentis. “So we looked at things like the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. There’s a personal story for all of us involving each one of these organizations.”
Children’s Hospital Los Angeles has treated the most complex pediatric cases for over 100 years. Cops Running for Charity have donated $50,000 to the hospital since 2006. Senior Associate Director of Major and Planned Giving Sarah Todd is happy to have been chosen. “It’s fantastic. We are so proud that this group is charitably inclined towards us,” said Todd. “We are honored to have their support, and also think the way they go about raising money is incredibly inspiring.”
Todd says that knowing people care assists their patients. “Having people out there who are on your side and supporting you helps children recognize that life has challenges, and that they can be overcome. And obviously, running in Antarctica is a huge challenge. It’s something that these individuals have taken on to give children something to aspire to,” said Todd.
Another charity they support is Make-A-Wish Tri-Counties, which provides uplifting experiences for children with life-threatening conditions. It has received $13,000 over seven years. CEO Shanna Wasson Taylor says consistent support from groups like Cops Running for Charity is critical for their mission.
“Every year we commit to granting every eligible child’s wish who comes to us. Every year we are never really sure where that money is going to come from. So groups that continually come back year after year, and fund us, help us have a little more confidence about going out there with such a bold mission that we’ll grant every single one,” said Taylor.
While they enjoy hearing about the exciting adventures that inspire donations, it’s the sentiment behind the efforts that Taylor finds most heartwarming.
“It’s kind of fun for us to think about them going to all these different places, but I think we spend more of our time thinking about all the compassion these men have for our kids. It’s very nice to see people doing that, going out of their way for people and kids they don’t even know. Stepping forward for blameless children is perfect for them. We’re very grateful,” said Taylor.
In addition to planning exotic trips, Cops Running for Charity has staged a fundraising race closer to home called the Santa Cruz Island Eco Extreme Trail Half-Marathon since 2011. The challenging course begins at Santa Cruz Island’s historic Scorpion Ranch and ends at Prisoners Harbor. Runners encounter steep mountains and rugged valleys. They take in amazing ocean views and pass by oak and pine forests.
It’s the only organized race that’s been allowed at Channel Islands National Park. They were granted permission because of their charitable mission and since some of them worked for the Sheriff’s Air Unit and were involved with rescue missions there. Runners also pledge to protect the environment.
It’s made possible by support from numerous businesses, including Island Packers Cruises. Runners enjoy a catered lunch on the island afterwards with a festive atmosphere. Other sponsors last year included Aloha Steakhouse and Firestone Walker Brewing Co.. Free massages are even offered to tired runners.
Since space is limited on the boat, the number of participants is capped at 120. It fills up quickly so runners sign up for an email list to learn the exact moment to register.
“They love it because how many times can you run on an island off the coast of California? You just don’t get that opportunity. It’s unique. They love the beauty and the peacefulness of the island. It’s very unusual to do an athletic event in that environment,” said Pentis. “And we love unusual events, as you know from some of the events we’ve done.”
Even though they’ve now accomplished their goal of running on all seven continents, they’re not done planning future adventures. A race in South Africa across a game reserve is a possibility.
They believe their mission is summed up by a famous quote by Winston Churchill, included on their fundraising materials, that expresses their motivation. “We make a living by what we get but we make a life by what we give.”