‘Unbreakable’: the 48-year friendship forged in the crucible of extreme sport | Australian lifestyle
Midnight in the Czech Republic’s Ore Mountains. Australians Geoff Lawford and Rod Gray pause for food, a brief respite after a punishing 12 hours of racing through the forests. Another 12 hours of competition remain. They turn off their head torches to conserve their batteries. It was pitch black, Lawford recalls. “Although Rod was only two metres away, I couldn’t see him.” And then they hear it, the sound of a large animal running through the forest towards them.
Competitors had been warned of possible encounters with wild boar or deer. Lawford sensesthe animal stop in front of him. Scrambling, he turns on his head torch to discover the maw of a “solid German shepherd cross” inches from his face. “Thankfully, the dog proved friendly,” says Lawford. “We had no idea who owned it, but it followed us for the next hour – through the Czech Republic and on towards Germany.” It’s one of countless anecdotes the two have amassed since teaming up nearly 50 years ago.
Once fierce rivals, this year, Lawford and Gray will celebrate 48-years as sporting partners and friends. Both 68, they’re world champions in rogaining, a hugely demanding endurance sport, and together they’ve competed across terrain as diverse as the Arctic tundra of Finland, the steep slopes of the Spanish Pyrenees and the brutal spinifex and escarpments of Australia’s East MacDonnell Ranges.
Few partnerships boast nearly a half-century together – not many marriages, perhaps some friendships. And fewer sporting teams claim dominance – or consistency – for as long. “We complement each other,” says Gray. “And we don’t argue.”
“At first I didn’t really like him very much,” Lawford jokes (Gray beat him into second place at the 1975 Australian Orienteering Championships). On the podium, Lawford shook Gray’s hand and vowed to himself that next year the placings would be reversed. But in 1976, when Lawford was looking for a partner for a 24-hour walk organised by the Melbourne University Mountaineering Club, he asked Gray. “He beat me in that race, so I knew he was fit.” An introvert, Lawford admits he took a bit of a risk; while they both liked the same sport, it was no guarantee they would get on while doing it non-stop for 24 hours.
Gray remembers the event as a bit of a shock, but not because of the rough going. He recalls falling asleep while walking along and crashing into bushes. “I was that tired.” Miscalculations found them navigating at night, without torches, searching the heavily forested terrain for checkpoints, known as controls, by touch and without warm clothing.
Despite an average race result, the pair were hooked. Since that first time, they’ve competed in 17 world championships, 14 Australian championships and countless other events together despite Lawford’s propensity to faint. “Quite scary,” says Gray. “He goes from flat out to absolutely dead.”
In 2023 they won both the men’s super-veteran (55 years and over) and men’s ultra-veteran (65 years and over) titles navigating the heat, high altitudes and alpine forests of California’s Sierra mountains with only a compass and a map.
They were part of a small cohort of Australians who dominated the 2023 world championships- Australians won seven of the sixteen world championship titles and celebrated several other podium results.
To be successful at the elite level, teams consisting of between two and five people orienteer a distance roughly equivalent to two marathons across 24 hours. Sleep is eschewed, replaced by a commitment to keep going no matter what. Unlike orienteering, there is no set route. Teams plan their own, with maps received a few hours before the start. They decide which check points, known as controls, to visit and in which order. Each control is worth points of varying value. The team that collects the most points from the controls visited, in the time set, wins.
In Australia, it’s one of the fastest growing sports that no one’s heard of. Participation rates are up 10% compared with pre pandemic numbers, with the ACT experiencing an extraordinary 78 percent jump.
Rogaining’s creators, Melbourne siblings Rod, Gail and Neil Phillips, never set out to invent a sport, but rather to meet the growing demand for 24-hour team competitions. Drawing on their experience of the annual events run by their Rover’s crew, in 1976 they organised a 24-hour hike and called it a “rogaine” – using the first letters from their names. It stuck.
A dry sense of humour has been a cornerstone of Lawford and Gray’s partnership, keeping even the most intense moments in perspective.One memorable episode was in sight of the finish of the 1996 Rogaining world championships in Western Australia. Suddenly, Lawford staggered sideways and passed out. When he came to, five minutes later, “There was an ambulance beside us, and Rod had poured Gatorade all over my head and through my hair,” Lawford says. With 15 minutes remaining on the event clock, he recalls Gray enunciating his choices. “You can take the ambulance, or I can carry you, or you can walk to the finish.”
Taking the ambulance would mean disqualification and he didn’t want to get carried by Gray. Lawford got up and hobbled the remaining 400 metres. While he knew Gray would have accepted his decision, he also knew his friend was going to be really disappointed if they didn’t finish. He accepted the award for third place overall and the men’s veteran world championship title with hair lacquered with green Gatorade and red dust. “That was pretty funny.”
Accommodating each other’s idiosyncrasies has been important for their long-term partnership. “We just understand that’s the way we are,” says Gray, whose nausea in the early morning hours of an event is only relieved by throwing up. Lawford is pragmatic. “I just sit by and watch him in his agony and wait till he’s ready to go again.”
Gray describes Lawford as the more easy going of the partnership. But not so when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep before events. These days they don’t share accommodation. “[Geoff] reckons I snore. But I’ve never heard myself snore, so I don’t really believe him,” says Gray deadpan.
For Lawford, a retired land surveyor, maps have always held an allure. His first job out of university in 1977 was making orienteering maps in Sweden. And after years of competition, he says, “I have a few thousand maps and their associated terrains embedded in my subconscious.” He believes navigation is the superpower he brings to their partnership. “[Rod’s] a good navigator, but I think I’m a better navigator,” he says matter-of-factly.
Gray’s strength stems from his affinity with the bush. As a child, he could be found exploring the wilds outside his grandparents’ back gate near Ballarat. Later, as a mining engineer, he spent years working in remote terrain, including in parts of Canada, China and Kazakhstan. In competition, this gives him the ability to choose the easiest path through thick undergrowth using cues from the ground, vegetation and animal tracks. “He’s really fast,” says Lawford.
Gray describes himself as “the bulldozer” of the partnership and Lawford, the driver at the back, directing. “For the first six hours, I’m generally leading,” Gray says. “I like to get out and go.” Lawford will be taking bearings, checking the map and pace counting. They’ll share the lead so that each has a chance to charge their physical and mental batteries. “On the way home, I really bolt too,” says Gray. “The last six hours, I’m pushing pretty hard,” he admits. “And Geoff’s complaining a bit. Sometimes we’re going too fast, but if you want to get to the end, you gotta go quickly.”
While rogaining is a big part of Lawford and Gray’s relationship, both say their friendship is more important. They’ve been best man at each other’s weddings and outside competition taken on extraordinary physical challenges. A milestone in their friendship was a 600km adventure from Papua New Guinea’s north coast to the south coast through jungles, across mountains and down rivers, in 1982. “For six weeks we were making decisions and trying to keep ourselves alive,” says Gray.
“Our friendship was cemented after that,” says Lawford. “It was unbreakable.”
Lawford doesn’t hesitate when asked what he admires most about Gray. “He’s really tough, determined and resourceful.”
Gray is more circumspect. “I dunno,” he says. “We just get on.”