I volunteered at the Boston Marathon

I participated in the Boston Marathon this year, though I have never run it…

Amateur radio volunteer at the Marathon, photo by Bud Morton

Amateur radio volunteer at the Marathon, photo by Bud Morton

When I first moved to the Boston area in 1971, I fancied that I might take up running and run the Marathon, because I liked getting physical exercise, and so I Could Say I Had Done It. Well, I tried running! — but I found that I didn’t enjoy it. I expanded my cycling horizons instead, riding increasing distances in the Boston area for transportation, then taking up bicycle touring. I briefly tried training for bicycle racing, but I came to the same conclusion as I had about running: I prefer to exercise at a brisk but moderate pace, rather than to push myself past the pain threshold in the pursuit of a trophy or Personal Goal.

Certainly,  I have enjoyed watching the Marathon. It is a wonderful and beautiful spectacle, and increasingly so over the years, as it is no longer only one race, but several races run at the same time. I tip my bicycle helmet to all the participants, with special thanks to Kathrine Switzer, whose example opened the race to women; to Bill Warner,  handcycle pioneer, who unofficially participated in the race during my early days in Boston; and to the many other competitors in the men’s, women’s, wheelchair and handcycle divisions, some racing for trophies, others only to complete the race. To the Kenyans, Ethiopians and other champion runners who build national pride and invest their prize money at home. To the marathon as a meeting place of people from around the world…

This year I became a Marathon participant, as a volunteer amateur radio operator. I wish I’d started doing this years ago. I got up early on Marathon morning, cycled over to the volunteers’ pre-event meeting, got my instructions and rode on to my post at a water stop in Wellesley, a little more than halfway through the course.  Mostly, things went quietly there. I even lay down and took a nap for a while, asking the volunteer in charge to wake me up if my services were needed. (As I said, I had gotten up early…) Later, I got to make an emergency call when a young girl spectator took ill.

The Water Stop 15 team, photo by Bud Morton

The Water Stop 15 team, photo by Bud Morton (cllck image to enlarge)

I shot quite a number of video clips, and I may get around to posting them online one of these days.

The communications coordinator for the Marathon saw me arrive at the pre-event meeting on my bicycle and suggested that I might be assigned to ride the course next year. That would indeed be interesting, and I look forward to it. I’m ready — I already have an antenna for my bicycle, made by wiring up the pole of a safety flag…

3 responses to “I volunteered at the Boston Marathon

  1. John, organized events have been using ham radio operators for many decades. Why do they use hams in the age of cell phones, when anyone can use his own cell phone? Is it that ham radios are more reliable when the cell infrastructure is overused? The simplicity of “everyone on the same frequency?”

  2. @John Schubert

    John, this was my first year volunteering, and so I’m not superbly qualified to give an answer, but I can think of a few things.

    One is that the amateur radio operators operate as a team. There is a coordinator who listens in on all the radio operators along the route, and communicates directly with Marathon management and emergency services. At each post, the amateur radio operator is known to and coordinates with the volunteers performing other services.

    Also, cell phones operate one-to-one, but amateur radio is one-to-many and so it is possible for the coordinator to broadcast a message to all the operators along the route, or to the attention of a subset of them — for example, one I received and passed along: “the route in Wellesley will close at 2:30 PM.”

    The radio traffic is routed through repeater stations, which operate like cell-phone towers except that the signal they retransmit may be heard by all of the radio operators along a segment of the route. Any individual amateur is transmitting to a number of others, so each one is keeping abreast of developments all along that segment. There are several repeaters on different frequencies for different segments of the route, reflecting the coverage of the repeaters and the need to avoid having too many messages clog any of them.

    Of special importance in case of emergencies, there is no dial-up delay — communication with the coordinator and with other amateurs nearby along the route is immediate — and in the event of a real emergency along a route with tens to hundreds of thousands of spectators such as the Marathon, cell-phone communication is likely to be confused and may get tied up as the number of available channels becomes overloaded. We are called amateur radio operators, but we are operating at a professional standard, with an established protocol as to how to identify our location, and how to report emergencies.

    Finally, while the communications burden at the Marathon is rather light, such events provide practice in case of a real emergency when two-way radio may be the only available means of communication. This has happened repeatedly in the case of earthquakes, ice storms, hurricanes etc. when power lines were down and land-line communication was disrupted, and also for people stranded and in need of rescue.

    Now, maybe another amateur with more experience can chime in and fill in for what I didn’t know enough to say. — John Allen, AA1EP

  3. Having been a bicycle mobile radio operator for charity bicycle rides myself, I see two main benefits to using ham radio versus cell phones:

    1. Everybody on the support team can hear everything. That is especially true here in the Los Angeles area, since with our terrain a single repeater on a mountain top can provide coverage for the whole event, even for long bicycle rides.
    2. Push to talk is easier/safer when on a support bicycle, motorcycle, or van. (Also, here in California, ham radios are exempt from the laws restricting cell phone use in vehicles.)

    Cell phones remain valuable for one on one communications of a sensitive nature which can’t be broadcast for all to hear.

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