Archive for January, 2013

Big Bend Ultra 2013 – A desert ultra-marathon

Friday, January 25th, 2013

See the video at 

Over the weekend of 19-20 January 2013, I was an amateur radio communications volunteer for the Big Bend Ultra, a 10, 25 and 50 kilometer desert run along unpaved roads in the Big Bend National Park.  There were over 200 runners in all, spread along the three courses.  Ham operators from the local area (which actually means from hundreds of miles around, since the distances are so huge out there), San Antonio and Austin provided communications support. I think I was the only Houston area ham to participate.  Since the drive was 11 ½ hours each way, perhaps this should not be a surprise.  However, given the opportunity to combine several of my hobbies (ham radio, off road Jeeping, emergency preparedness, Wilderness First Aid, camping, etc.) into one event, I could not resist volunteering.  The other hams, many of whom have volunteered for this event for many years, graciously welcomed me to the team and accommodated my request for the most remote duty on the roughest road possible. 

Ham Campsite at Rio Grande Village

 Charlie Land from San Antonio, KC5NKK, tactical call “Rio Grande Village,” coordinated voice ham activity from his camper, above.  The Rio Grande was about a hundred yards or so behind his trailer.  Charlie is also quite a cook and prepared excellent meals for the volunteers on Friday and Saturday evenings, as well as breakfast on Saturday.  Although I did not arrive until late on Friday night, I think a number of the hams arrived on Wednesday and Thursday and spent a good bit of time setting up the mesh network discussed below.

 Another View of the Ham Campsite

Another view of the campsite in Rio Grande Village, looking the other way at the mountains.  This was the group camping area and was set aside for hams and other race volunteers.  A few of the racers set up camp here too.  They tended to be a bit noisier than the ham crowd. 

One interesting aspect of the ham effort for this race was the use of an HSMM Mesh network to stream video from the finish line to the race headquarters at Rio Grande Village. I did not see the entire setup and failed to photograph what I saw, but this is how it was set up.  There was a camera on a tripod at the finish line.  It was connected to a Linksys router with Mesh firmware that was powered by a surplus Belkin UPS.  It was linked to another router at the edge of the finish line site that was connected to a wire dish antenna that looked a bit like a curved BBQ grill.  This dish was pointed to a Mesh node on a ridge between the finish line and Rio Grande Village.  I understand this node was around 10 miles away.  This node connected to the system at the race headquarters.  My understanding is that they had a projector there that allowed the friends of the racers to watch as they crossed the finish line.  A group of hams from Austin worked the Mesh system (and did double duty as voice operators too).  I wish I had more time to learn from them, as they clearly were experts in this new mode.

Voice communications were via a temporary repeater set up by the Big Bend Amateur Radio Club.  Although there is a repeater in the Big Bend area, it apparently does not offer coverage for all the race areas, so the portable repeater was set up on a hill on the Old Ore Road, just off the paved Road near Rio Grande Village.  Although I was a bit scratchy into the repeater on some parts of the Black Gap Road (there was a mountain between me and the repeater), communications were pretty good for the rest of the course and most aid stations were able to communicate via HTs, although some required longer range antennas than the standard rubber ducks.  I was able to raise the repeater on my HT using a rubber duck antenna and high power from Glenn Springs, but for race day, I elected to set my mobile radio and HT on low power and  used the mobile to cross band into the repeater.  This allowed me to move around as I wished without having to worry about hitting the repeater and also ensured that my battery lasted through the day.  I never had to break out my spare.

The Course. (See the race map at

The starting point for the 25 and 50 kilometer courses was the origin of the Glenn Springs Road where it departs the paved road just a few miles east of Panther Junction, the Park Headquarters.  The Glenn Springs Road is a maintained “high clearance vehicle recommended” unpaved road that starts near Panther Junction as described above and runs through Glenn Springs, where springs provide a reliable source of water in the desert, and continues to the River Road, where it terminates.  At Glenn Springs, the 25K course continued along the Glenn Springs Road to the finish line, which was at the River Road intersection.   As the name implies, the River Road generally follows the course of the Rio Grande from one side of the park to the other.  Although it is considered a maintained road, it has some very rough sections, especially on the west end.  Luckily, the areas of the road used for this event were in pretty good shape and appeared to have been freshly  graded.  The 50K course turned onto the Black Gap Road at Glenn Springs, then continued Southwest to where that road intersects the River Road.  Runners went one mile west on the River Road, then turned around and took the River Road east to the finish line at the Glenn Springs Road intersection.  The Black Gap Road is an unmaintained “high clearance four wheel drive required” road and is one of the roughest in the park.  It goes up and down steep inclines and has a section that requires a climb up or down a ledge about 2 feet high, although people have stacked rocks at the drop off to make it passable.  There is also a section where the road narrows and requires that you drive at about a 45 degree incline from side to side for perhaps 100 feet or so, so as to avoid a number of boulders that litter the flatter surface.  . 

The Jeep.

 The Jeep

Parked at Glenn Springs for the Saturday Communications Check.

I drove to Big Bend in my 2006 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon.  It has a 4 ½ inch lift, Body Armor bumpers, a Warn 9.5 ti winch, and Goodyear 33X12.5X15 Wrangler MT/R tires with Kevlar sidewalls.  It is a great off road vehicle for areas like this, but it is not a comfortable road vehicle.  The tires are noisy and the ride is rough.  It is very tiring to drive it all day.  At 70 mph, it gets about 13.5 mpg.  At 75, it gets less than 10.  Either way, you never pass a gas station in West Texas without filling up and when you hit Fort Stockton or Alpine headed toward the park, depending on which way you are going, you fill up the two 5 gallon Jerry cans that mount on the spare tire carrier.  Although there is gas available in the park, if for whatever reason they ran out, you could get stuck there.  For ham radio equipment, I have a 3/8 X 24 threaded antenna mount centered on the spare tire carrier.  I mount my High Sierra Sidekick screwdriver antenna with a 5 foot whip to this mount.  Above each rear turn signal is an NMO mount.  For this trip, I had a Larson dual band antenna on one side and a Larson 5/8 wave 2 meter antenna on the other side.  I had my Yaesu FT-8800 connected to the dual band antenna and my Icom 7000 attached to the screwdriver and the 2 meter antenna.  I also had my Yaesu VX-6 handheld and as noted above, by using the crossband repeat feature of the FT-8800, I was able to use the handheld radio in my vest pocket with its speaker-mike and relay to the race repeater through the Jeep.  One item to get for next year is a trailer so that I can pull the Jeep out there and back from the quiet comfort of my Expedition EL. 

My job. 

 Aid Station 2

Race day at Glenn Springs. The runner on the left is headed down the 25K course.  The 50K course went to the right of the mountain in the background, then around it and met back up with the 25K course.  A simple 25K detour.  There is a lot of nothing in this part of the desert.

I was assigned to maintain communications and log runners at Aid Station 2, which was located at Glenn Springs.  I was positioned at the split in the course and although there were signs, I was supposed to ensure that runners turned the correct direction and to note the number of each runner and which way they went.   After the last runner cleared the intersection and the sweep vehicle for the 25K course went by, I was assigned to “sweep” the 50K course, so I set off down the Black Gap Road to do that. 

Typical Scene on the Black Gap Road

Perhaps this photo gives a sense of what a drive down the Black Gap Road is like.  At this point, the Jeep is pointed steeply downhill, with flatter ground at the top of the photo.  There were lots of washes and rocks along the way.

I did not catch up with the last runner until I reached the River Road.  There was an aid station where the Black Gap Road met the River Road and I had heard them report that the last runner had come through their station.  Nevertheless, I elected to head west on the River Road to the turnaround one mile down so that I could say that I had swept the entire course.  I was glad I did, as I encountered a runner on this segment.  He was the last runner on the course and I later learned from monitoring the radio that he was about a half hour behind the next to last runner.  I did not want to crowd the runner by following him to closely, but did not want to be too far away from him if he became distressed and needed help.  At that point, he was walking most of the time rather than running.  I cannot criticize him in any way, because he was doing something I certainly was not prepared to do and he was not giving up.  I would pull up about a hundred yards behind the runner and stop, trying for a place that would let me watch him for some distance.  I would then read a chapter in a book I had bought at the visitor’s center, then drive until I caught up with him, then repeat the process.  He eventually reached the finish line after 9 ½ hours.  The winner crossed the line in 3 hours, 40 minutes. 

 I visited with the last runner at the finish line as he was sitting and resting for a bit.  I told him that I was the guy in the red Jeep and that I did my best not to crowd him.  He said that he appreciated that, but jokingly said he still viewed me as the vulture that would periodically land on a tree behind him to see if he was going to die.  I did not have the heart to tell him that the book I bought in the visitor’s center was called “Death in Big Bend” and each chapter was devoted to somebody who bought the farm or came close to doing so at the park.  Thankfully, no chapters were added to the book during this event.

After reaching the finish line and being dismissed from my communications duties, I still had to drive back down the River Road to Rio Grande Village and my campsite.  It is a three hour drive from there to Fort Stockton, which was the first town likely to have a hotel room, so the question was whether I wanted to break up camp and drive for three more hours that night.  I decided to have a quiet dinner, stay the night at Rio Grande Village, then hit the road the next morning, which I did.  I got up, broke camp and was on the road by 7.  I reached Houston around 6:30 that evening, having stopped only for gas and food I ate in the Jeep as I drove.  It was a long, but great weekend.  I look forward to doing it again.