This past month I had the opportunity to be a Communications volunteer for the Hardrock 100 race. When I searched for more information about what this sort of role entails, especially on the Ultra Scene, my search came up short. Hopefully this will provide some helpful information about what to expect when you volunteer to do communications.
For those that are unfamiliar with Amateur Radio (Ham Radio), it is a hobby where individuals use an amateur radio station to chat with other radio operators. There is a formal use for HAM operators, as they are vital in disaster scenarios when telecommunications are down. Further, radio operators are required when transmitting and receiving from satellites, and even the space station. However, for the most part, getting your amateur radio license just means you will be chatting with old guys or using it as a security measure in backcountry.
A little bit about the Hardrock 100, its considered to be one of the toughest races in the country, with 66,000 ft of vert over the course of 100 miles with an average elevation over 10,000. I was assigned to work at Pole Creek aid station, and with the direction of the course this year, that put the aid station roughly around mile 20, so the runners we saw were pretty fresh. Pole Creek is one of the few aid stations that does not have any service, and thus the amateur radio operators play a crucial role in updating race management about the status of the runners.
To get to Pole Creek, you need to drive up this godawful off road trail that’s several miles long. I put my Honda Accord through a lot, but if you do not have a car meant for off-roading, do not even bother. The incline of the road, the general rockiness and unevenness of the trail, make for a very slow ascent. Following the off-roading, the trip to Pole Creek is roughly 4 miles, 5 miles if you take a wrong turn. The trail is well maintained, and for Silverton, as flat as it really gets. During July, there was 1 required creek crossing (knee deep) and several times stream hopping was required.
After a much longer than anticipated journey, we finally made it to pole creek. The repeater that is used for this Hardrock station is the Buffalo Bill Repeater. I was able to hear the repeater fine on my Baofeng UV-5R, but I was not able to transmit clearly to the HQ. For future HAMs at pole creek (or HAMs volunteering in backcountry), I would recommend bringing your own antennae with you. We hoisted it high by throwing a rock tied to a string and catching it on some branches nearby. After we verified that HQ could hear us, we pretty much twiddled our thumbs until race day the following day.
Communications at HardRock is a pretty straightforward process. Whenever a runner comes into the aid station, you write their bib number down on a sheet, and the time they arrived. When the runner leaves, you write down the time. If they have a pacer, you make a special note if they came with a pacer, and if the pacer left with them. Then, ideally in sets of 5, you radio to HQ and report the runners bib number, time in, and time out. To get teh HQ’s attention I said:
Silverton this is Pole Creek with 5 runners to report
An example of what I would say when reporting was
First Runner, bib number 118 time in 1045 time out 1048
and so on.
In theory, this should not be hard to mess up, but once runners started coming into the aid station in groups, it got quite messy. As the weather got shittier, runners would put on windbreakers and jackets, which would cover up their bib number. They would also bolt towards the aid station, which would sometimes make seeing their bib number, or keeping track of who’s who very difficult. To make matters worse, some of the numbering of the bibs means that a runner number 10 and runner 110 could be at the Aid Station at the same time, which got confusing very quickly. Midday we had a windstorm with some rain, which made it impossible to report to HQ as the wind would whip so loudly it would obscure what we were saying. We ended up having to report 60 runners in one go as the runners piled up while we didn’t transmit.
I thought we had done a pretty good job, but as the day wound down, we lost a runner entirely (I maintain this person straight up did not exist). Our aid station formally closed at 9:05pm, as the station cannot close until every runner has made it to the next station. The upside of Pole Creek’s remoteness is you get some excellent stargazing, so as we packed out to the parking lot, we enjoyed the night sky.
Volunteering to do communications was really fun, and if I can get the time off, I would definitely volunteer for Hardrock next year. Bringing an antennae is vital for an aid station like Pole Creek, and it was super helpful to have helpers spotting bib numbers of the runners while I filled out the records. If you have basic backpacking experience, the pack out to Pole Creek was not bad (I was bootlegging with a 35L climbing rope bag), and if you don’t have basic backpacking experience, this trip would be a good introduction.