Musings of Captain Justice a/k/a Gil Jones

Chasing Ultra marathoners in the Bandera brush and cedar breaks

Runners at Bandera 100K

Runners approach "Crossroads Outbound" aid station

I have taken up a new sport, of sorts:  chasing marathoners. Ultra Marathoners to be exact. Hey, that’s not easy. They are able to run for a long, long time.

(click images to enlarge)

The event was the Tejas Trails Bandera 100k of which the  2012 USA Track & Field 100km Trail National Championships Montrail Ultra Cup was a part. It was held near Bandera in the 5400 acres of the Hill Country State Natural Area. It is a wild area with many outdoor activities and interests of a “rustic” nature. Approximately 800 Ultra Marathoners had converged from every corner of the country to go head-to-head with a hostile environment.

The events included 25k, 50k and 100k courses. For you imperialists, 100km = approx. 62 miles, thus a 25k is a tad over 15 miles. In the hills. Having run a 5k I find a 25k to be daunting in mere contemplation and 100k — well, I just can’t wrap my mind around that.

Ultra Marathoners not only run for a long time, but some of them do it rather quickly and there I was — expected to chase them. The results were that the top male did it in 8:28. 8 hours, 28 minutes to run 62 miles. That is about 7.3 miles per hour. In the hills. Check a topo or terrain map such as Google maps. The #26 place male finished in 20:36. That’s about 3:30 Sunday morning. A 62 year young male did it in 17:50! The slowest male was 23:06 — just under the 24 hour limit while the slowest female finished in 22:46. 72% of the 212 starters in the 100k finished it.

EmComm trailer station 3

One of several operating positions

So I’m supposed to chase these people, right? Well I did — we did — using radios. Brooks Blake, Rik Chapman and I joined the Hill Country React team to support the race with communications and safety. Following a complex communications plan — see my radio blog for details — we manned one of the checkpoints associated with an aid station. Ours was the “Crossroads Out(bound)” location which was co-located with “Crossroads In(bound).” Being two aid stations/checkpoints in one, this was a busy place. Here is what it looks like on paper (click to enlarge):

Bandera 100k crossroads

Bandera aid station

Aid station at Crossroad checkpoint

There were five such locations where the Ultra Marathoners were logged by their bib numbers into a computer spreadsheet that linked via “packet radio” back to race headquarters so that each runner was accounted for through each checkpoint. Packet radio techniques wed a computer to a radio and an additional device that sends “packets” of digital data over the air.

Comm trailer

We were set up in the EmComm (Emergency Communications) trailer that belongs to our Highland Lakes Amateur Radio Club which is not trying to emulate a porcupine — those are antennas on the top. It has a wide variety of radios inside for communicating all the way from high frequency (HF) bands to very high and ultra high frequencies (VHF and UHF). Brooks pulled it to the site and I pulled my travel trailer in order to have some creature comforts. We had a rather nice complex put together.

"Packet" station - computer and radio gear

Brooks and Rik wound up with the #2 pencils and Big Chief tablets jotting down the bib numbers and times. A ham from Houston and I got the briefing on how to enter that data to an Excel spreadsheet that was then transmitted by radio using “packetized” methodology through an amateur radio repeater to race headquarters several miles away. The resulting master spreadsheet was the tool to account for the last known location of any missing runners — and it was utilized several times.

About 2am I was wondering how a simple inquiry to the head duck of this communications effort had turned into this extended endeavor in the middle of nowhere! But the fact is that it was a rewarding public service and we made a bunch of new friends. Just as with my cycling hobby, amateur radio is populated with some tremendous people.

One runner was tracked through the checkpoint prior to us but was not located thereafter. The horse-mounted search and rescue — the Horse Patrol is a part of the Hill Country State Natural Area Partners, www.hcsnap.org — was about to be deployed — in the dark — when contact was finally made with a runner who had gotten off course which caused him to skip several checkpoints.

Runners approach the "Crossroads Out" checkpoint

Rik and Brooks brave the dark & cold

Night fell and temperatures began to drop but the runners kept coming, and going. When it was hard dark we would first see them coming by spotting their headlamps bobbing up and down through the cedar brush. Then they would come into full view looking like a pack of jittery trains on a wobbly track.  By then, having started at 7:30 Saturday morning, some were moving more slowly than others. The gear in our EmComm trailer continued to work flawlessly. Many hams from other locales came by to admire our rig.

Why do we do this? Why pull two trailers 109 miles and work Friday afternoon following by 25 hours straight to assist a bunch of testosterone-crazed fools and their female counterparts fling their bodies through the cedar thickets among flora and fauna that wants to bite, sting, stick, scratch, itch, eat, or otherwise irritate them?

It is practice for assisting communications during a disaster that has wiped out or outstripped the capacity of commercial and government systems. Cell phones are the first to go and fixed locations of radio gear can be damages. The Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) is comprised of a wide array of hams with highly portable gear. As the saying goes, “When all else fails, amateur radio works.”

Oh, the results? We chased them all. 800 runners accounted for and safely home — albeit totally wiped out. These Ultra Marathoners are amazing. In addition to our ARES training opportunity it was a lot of fun seeing what the human body really can do.

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2 thoughts on “Chasing Ultra marathoners in the Bandera brush and cedar breaks

  1. Jim Wreyford

    Nice article Gil, sounds like fun except for the up for 24 hours after getting there, cold weather, lost runner and things trying to bite sting … well you get the idea.

    In short it sounds a lot like half a weekend of Civil Air Patrol Emergency Services training.

    Thanks to the whole crew from Highland Lakes area sounds like you have fun and a good shakedown for the trailer too.

    Jim K5JSW

  2. Michael Perez

    Was at same event and worked the Lodge with Loius Upton helping Net Control and thus did not have time to stop by and introduce myself.
    I loved your blog about this event. I love doing these Ham Radio functions in particular at the Bandera Natural Area. 2nd year for me.

    I hope th meet you guys next time. ’73
    Michael Perez W5ZAP

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