FORT BENNING, Ga. (April 13, 2012) -- The crowd gathered before sunrise and the sergeant major of the Army fired the starter's pistol as the 2012 David E. Grange Jr. Best Ranger Competition kicked off Friday just outside Camp Rogers.

The 50 two-man teams battling for this year's crown raced off on a 2.1-mile buddy run first -- their breathing was clearly visible in the chilly morning air when they came back around the compound. But the Soldiers quickly tossed on 60-pound rucksacks, collected themselves and set out on a 15-mile road march to Camp Darby, where the infamous Darby Queen obstacle awaited.

"Once they get there, this event will spread the field out … and they'll immediately go through the hardest obstacle course in the Army," said Col. John King, commander of the Ranger Training Brigade, which has mapped out a course that will carry competitors about 45 miles Friday -- if they make it that far.

Yes, the three-day grind is well under way.

King said organizers "stacked Day 1" with grueling tasks such as the Darby Queen, day orienteering, an urban obstacle course and a second road march back to Todd Field. To keep the teams guessing, competitors weren't told how much ground they'd have to cover.

That'll be a common theme throughout, the RTB commander said. Officials plan to shuffle a few events around and keep routes and distances unknown, which figures to raise stress levels even more and take a psychological toll, along with the lack of sleep.

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler III got the Best Ranger Competition's 29th chapter cranked up during the opening ceremony at 6 a.m. Friday. He said the event remains "hugely relevant" to today's Army.

"We're a competitive breed by nature, so anything that's promoting competition … in identifying someone as the best is part of everything we do," he said. "The (BRC) is one of those things we use to set ourselves apart from our peers and demonstrate our professionalism. … It really shows us the best Ranger we have, and that's a pretty awesome thing.

"I'm not a Ranger, but I admire those who are. It's about the spirit of competition and what Rangers provide to our Army. It's really about that small-unit leader. If you're not in the Ranger Regiment, but you have earned the tab and you are in an organization, you are going to make a difference in that organization's success."

The Best Ranger Competition challenges duos in events that test their physical conditioning, mental endurance, tactical proficiency and team strategies. The scenarios and tasks are purposely scheduled back-to-back and around the clock from Friday's start to Sunday's finish. Historically, 60 percent of competitors don't finish the BRC, with most being eliminated or withdrawing due to injury.

King said those who best manage the pressure could survive the weekend. By Saturday morning, however, he estimated the field would dwindle to 30 to 35 teams.

"These guys have to carry large amounts of weight over great distances. It's a combination of that and the mental stress of not knowing what each event is," he said. "You don't know how fast to pace yourself. You don't know the distance you're going to travel or what you're going to have to do. You've got to conserve your energy, but to the right point of knowing when to accelerate."