Midnight in the Ore Mountains of the Czech Republic. Australian athletes Geoff Lawford and Rod Gray take a break from their grueling 12-hour race through the forests. With another 12 hours to go, they switch off their head torches to save battery power. In the pitch-black darkness, Lawford can’t even see Gray, who is just two meters away. Suddenly, they hear the sound of a large animal approaching. Competitors had been warned about possible encounters with wild boar or deer. Lawford senses the animal stop in front of him, and when he switches on his head torch, he finds himself face to face with a “solid German shepherd cross.” Luckily, the dog turns out to be friendly and follows them for the next hour as they continue their race through the Czech Republic and on towards Germany. This is just one of many anecdotes Lawford and Gray have accumulated in their nearly 50 years as sporting partners and friends.
Lawford and Gray, both 68 years old, are world champions in rogaining, an extremely demanding endurance sport. They have competed together in various terrains around the world, including the Arctic tundra of Finland, the steep slopes of the Spanish Pyrenees, and the challenging landscapes of Australia’s East MacDonnell Ranges. Few partnerships can boast nearly half a century of collaboration, whether in marriages or friendships. And even fewer sports teams can claim such dominance and consistency over such a long period of time. Gray attributes their success to the fact that they complement each other and never argue.
Lawford jokes that he didn’t initially like Gray very much, as Gray had beaten him into second place at the 1975 Australian Orienteering Championships. However, when Lawford was looking for a partner for a 24-hour walk organized by the Melbourne University Mountaineering Club in 1976, he took a risk and asked Gray to join him. Gray had beaten him in their previous race, so Lawford knew he was fit. Despite their initial rivalry, they found that they got along well during the 24-hour walk, and since then, they have competed in numerous championships and events together.
In 2023, Lawford and Gray won both the men’s super-veteran (55 years and over) and men’s ultra-veteran (65 years and over) titles at the world championships in California’s Sierra mountains. They were part of a small group of Australians who dominated the championships, with Australians winning seven out of the sixteen titles. Rogaining is a sport where teams consisting of two to five people navigate a distance roughly equivalent to two marathons in 24 hours. Unlike orienteering, there is no set route, and teams must plan their own route using maps provided a few hours before the start. The team that collects the most points from the checkpoints visited within the set time wins.
Rogaining is one of the fastest-growing sports in Australia, with participation rates up 10% compared to pre-pandemic numbers. The Australian Capital Territory has experienced a remarkable 78% increase in participation. The sport was created by Melbourne siblings Rod, Gail, and Neil Phillips in response to the demand for 24-hour team competitions. They organized a 24-hour hike in 1976 and called it a “rogaine,” using the first letters of their names. The name stuck, and the sport gained popularity.
Lawford and Gray’s partnership is characterized by their dry sense of humor, which helps them keep even the most intense moments in perspective. One memorable incident occurred during the 1996 Rogaining world championships in Western Australia. Just meters away from the finish line, Lawford suddenly passed out. When he regained consciousness, Gray had poured Gatorade all over his head. With only 15 minutes remaining on the event clock, Lawford had to make a choice: take the ambulance and be disqualified, get carried by Gray, or walk to the finish. He chose to hobble the remaining 400 meters, knowing that Gray would be disappointed if they didn’t finish. Lawford accepted the award for third place overall and the men’s veteran world championship title with green Gatorade and red dust in his hair.
Accommodating each other’s idiosyncrasies has been crucial for their long-term partnership. Gray experiences nausea in the early morning hours of events and finds relief in vomiting. Lawford, on the other hand, is more easy-going but places great importance on getting a good night’s sleep before competitions. Despite their differences, they have learned to understand and accept each other, which has contributed to their success as a team.
Lawford and Gray’s partnership is a testament to the power of friendship and collaboration. Their shared passion for rogaining has taken them to incredible places and allowed them to achieve remarkable feats. As they continue their journey together, they inspire others to pursue their own passions and embrace the strength that comes from working as a team.