By Nathaniel A. Lopez
On Feb. 18, in the desert on the outskirts of Oracle, the 23rd annual 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo was under way. 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo is a mountain bike race hosted by Epic Rides that has multiple races throughout it, including the 24-Hour race, where multiple cyclists see how many times, they can complete the 17-mile course throughout 24 hours.
The collective area where hundreds of riders from all around camped out is known as 24HOP Town. The town was not only filled with riders and spectators waiting for the race, but there were vendors selling biking gear and food. Hours before the race, 24HOP Town was buzzing in anxious wait for the noon start of the 24-Hour race.
Placed throughout the course of the event were checkpoints, where volunteers would assure the race was running smoothly, reporting any injured riders to Search and Rescue of Arizona, providing light first aid if needed, or offering some tools for riders in need. These checkpoints all communicated through a radio network. Pima County Communications was at the event, working as net control, meaning they were responsible for controlling all radio traffic between the multiple checkpoints.
Three miles out from 24HOP town, sat checkpoint C, or checkpoint Charlie. Next to the checkpoint, Search and Rescue set up their helipad. Camped out and stationed at checkpoint Charlie were volunteer ham radio operators, Ross Eckert, Hanna Eckert, Greg Eckert and Joan Clarke. These four also volunteer at other special events as radio operators. Brothers Ross and Greg have been interested in ham radio since their youths, and both served in the Signal Corps while enlisted in the Army. Their interest in ham radio showed as they prepared their radios prior to the race, testing their connections, and problem solving when there was some technical difficulties.
Another ham radio operator Walter, known as Walter the Nurse, was also stationed at checkpoint C. Walter got into ham radio through his previous work with Search and Rescue of Arizona. He recalled using his radio to help save some cyclists from a horrible storm during an event up in northern Arizona.
Hanna recalled the reason she got her operator license. One year during the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo race, her husband Ross was out with another radio operator on a call during the night portion of the race, when someone came to their checkpoint to report an injury. Hanna had no way of getting into contact with Ross, except for her phone, so from then she decided it would be best to get her license.
The race started at noon and within 15 minutes, hundreds of riders came rolling past checkpoint Charlie. The steady stream of riders continued, and the radio operators took to their positions. At one point, riders were passing by saying that a rider was injured between their checkpoints. Ross and Greg radioed it in and got into contact with the other checkpoints. Eventually the rider rode into the checkpoint. The rider, who was from Vermont, had taken a fall on some of the rocks, and had received some bad cuts. Walter and Joan tended to her wounds and got her bandaged up. Once she was gone, they radioed to the next checkpoint to keep an eye out for the rider. Checkpoint Charlie was in full operation until noon the next day.
The ham radio played a very important role in providing reliable communication between emergency services and volunteers for the race, to assure safety for the riders.
Ross Eckert is a former resident of San Manuel, working for Magma Copper Co. back in the day. He and Hanna have volunteered at many past events in the Tri-Community including the Mt. Lemmon Gravel Grinder and other bicycling races.