Wednesday, March 15, 2017

I Hate Running

It is not possible to be competitive in a contest without running. You can of course have a lot of fun by cruising the bands and calling who you want, but you will never "win" that way. The greater your antenna farm and power the more of your contacts will (must) come from running. Top contesters are almost always running, using a second radio (SO2R) to concurrently S & P on other bands. Even for the QRPer or those with small stations running is an indispensible tool to run up the score.

The reason is simple enough: rate and reaching out. No matter how fast you S & P (search and pounce) the runner will consistently achieve a higher rate. At my best I can S & P up to 3 per minute on CW and 4 per minute on SSB. However that is unusual, fatiguing and unsustainable. As for reaching out, most participants, casual and semi-serious, focus so much on S & P that unless you call CQ you will never work them. So that is what you must do.

So why do so many contest participants avoid running? Some have convinced themselves that their stations or their skills are inadequate for running. That isn't true: anyone can run. I won CQ WW SSB in 2014 as QRP because I ran. True, calling CQ does not always work out. If the QSOs aren't happening switch bands or do S & P for a time. Just be sure to keep trying at intervals to get a run going. A slow run (1 to 2 QSOs per minute) can be exceedingly boring and seem unproductive yet be better than S & P. If you do not use the clusters and skimmers (assisted category) you will find it difficult to exceed an hourly rate of 30 or 40 QSOs/hour in the latter part of any major contest.

Queuing theory

I like to lean on my academic and practical mathematics experience to explain some of the challenges of running in a contest. There are aspects that are directly explainable by referring to queuing theory. In particular its stochastic nature wherein a fairly predictable hourly rate is not at all predictive of arrival rates of replies to QSO solicitations.

Let's say that your hourly rate is 180. Not only will you not typically log a QSO every 20 seconds, if you did it would be a sure sign to the log checkers that you're cheating! In reality the arrival rate of callers is stochastic: a equation with one or more random variables. In telecommunications we used the Erlang distribution to give the probabilities of intervals between events with a known or estimated long term rate.

What this means is that in that hour you can have a few minutes with no callers at all and at other times you may feel as if you were signing /P5. Even so you can predictably put around 180 QSOs in the log each of several consecutive hours (provided propagation and other factors are roughly equal, and you have not worked out the band). Each CQ or signing TU brings a surprise. You have to be prepared for anything, including typing the call in correctly when you have a caller sending at 32 wpm after two minutes of boring nothing.

Queuing theory is not so reliable these days to predict what you'll experience when you run. Rather than others coming across you as they scan the bands many of the callers are driven there by spots, whether human input or by skimmers. There is a correlation between spots and rate over the next few minutes, except late in the contest when you've worked nearly everyone. Unless of course your call is spotted incorrectly, in which case be prepared for a flurry of dupes! Yes, it really happens, so learn to deal with that as well.

Why I hate running

You don't have to enjoy running to get the benefit. This is as true of contesting as it is of the sport of the same name -- I do both, and hate both. It's about challenging yourself to reach the next level of performance. Even if you dislike the process you can appreciate and enjoy the results. So if contesting matters to you yet you avoid running you need to practice it and do it. There is no alternative if you want to improve your scores.

Everyone has their reason for avoiding running in a contest. My reason can be summed up in the following Youtube clip of a classic comedy skit by Lucille Ball:

Running during a contest is very much like that! Or if you prefer it is like sitting behind the cash register taking customer orders at a fast food restaurant or a cashier at a grocery store. Although you have some control over the situation your performance is measured by how fast and accurately you process customers, and smile while you're doing it. Running is akin to being in a front line service job.

Some love it and some hate it. I am somewhere in between. It's nice to be so well heard and wanted that stations step all over each other in a bid to get my attention. It is incumbent on the runner to process the callers fast enough that they leave satisfied and put points in your log and theirs. As the running station you have a responsibility to do it well.

Others love the attention so much they spend large sums of money to travel to exotic locales and create their own personal contest: the DXpedition. DXers such as myself appreciate that they do this and love doing it, even though I am ambivalent on whether I'd care to be on the DX end running pile ups for hours and days on end.

I feel the same way about those who build super-stations and run continuously throughout a contest. I am building a big station and I know very well that becoming good at running, and doing it lots, is what I will have to do. But I don't have to like it.

It is rare than any hobby or vocation that anyone chooses to pursue is 100% enjoyable. There are always tasks to be done that are not enjoyable. As with contesting it is the net enjoyment that counts. Therefore I can continue to enjoy contesting even though I must run. For others the task no enjoyed might be CW proficiency, SO2R, computer logging/interfacing, tower and antenna building, etc.

Because we enjoy the overall contest experience we accept the need to do the tasks that are not so enjoyable. The willingness to step up makes us better contesters.

Getting accustomed to running

If your antennas and power are good enough and the band is open you will find it easy to start a run. Just find a reasonably free frequency and call CQ. The trouble starts when stations answer. Here is the typical litany of things to watch out for:
  • Multiple callers
  • Multiple callers on the same frequency
  • Callers at the edge or outside your filter pass band
  • Weak callers
  • QRM
  • Hostile takeovers
  • Boredom
Running takes a lot of practice to do it well. Doing it well means putting QSOs in your log and theirs as quickly and as accurately as possible, and doing so without being evil. An example of the latter is not signing your call often. It is not my intent to explain or teach technique -- there are tools such as Morse Runner for that -- only to provide some guidance on what to expect before you dive in.

Multiple callers

First, about those multiple callers. Pick one and stick with it. If you only get a letter or two send that and, hopefully, only that station will respond. Of course in a contest time is valuable and many are not willing to wait. Just work them one at a time and don't worry about the others: they are not your problem. Should they become impatient and leave they'll soon be back; they want the points, too.

Picking out anything when the callers are zero beat is harder. Often you can latch onto a letter at the end of one call since they typically have different length call signs. Latch onto that when you can. Or send '?' and try again.

About pass bands

A surprisingly number of stations will be below or above your pass band. Try to keep the bandwidth as wide as possible if conditions allow. Otherwise make a point of using the RIT to check from off-frequency callers.

Reasons for the problem include: different pitch/offset preferences for CW; VFO overshoot as they tune you in; USB vs LSB CW receive; someone forgetting that their RIT is enabled; antique rigs, etc. Don't complain; deal with it.

Weak ones

Since you are now a big gun, or even just a medium gun, many of the callers will be weak. You must work them. There are some operators with big stations who refuse to work weak ones. You will never see them at the top of the contest results. I've heard a few so-called contesters telling weak callers to get lost or get an amplifier. They are the losers at that game since they lose the most points, not you. Ignore them, move on and never emulate them. Assuming, that is, you want to do well and not become a laughingstock.

The point is that you must get used to digging stations out of the noise, QRM or whatever receive challenges you might be facing. If you don't dig those marginal signals out for the noise you will lose points, and losing points loses contests. It can be hard work and it take practice. When you can't pull them through after a reasonable time thank them for calling and suggest they try again later. Then call CQ and resume your run.

Even when I ran QRP in the major contests I was surprised at how many weak stations called me during my occasional runs. Sometimes they were also QRP, driven to me by a skimmer spot or they simply had a lower noise floor than I had in my suburban neighbourhood.

QRM and keeping those elbows up

Finding a clear frequency in prime real estate (the lower end of the band) during a major contest is not easy. Nestle too close to a big gun and your CQ won't be heard and you'll have to move. Some runners don't even bother to check if the frequency is clear and will try to set up shop almost on top of you. Don't despair too quickly, but also don't stay with a no-win situation so long they you lose valuable time fighting for the frequency.

The big guns will always win when they persist at taking over 'your' frequency. That's rough play that you have to get used to. Just like in hockey the elbows always come up in the corners. Don't yell at the cat or bang your fist on the transceiver. It won't help. Move and restart your run, whether on the same band or another.

Fighting boredom

Finally, there is the matter of boredom to contend with. Late in the contest or in poor conditions the rate will slow down. Sometime it'll slow down dramatically. You must decide when to stick with the run when you only log a QSO less than once per minute. Depending on the particular situation this may still be better than changing frequency, changing band or switching to S & P.

As in baseball there is a whole lot of nothing happening most of the time. Then when something does happen you must react quickly or you'll miscopy the call or make some other time wasting mistake.

This may be a good time to learn how to do SO2R. Construct your antenna and rig switching accordingly, so you can search for QSOs during those times CQ elicits few responses. Get really good and you can interleave CQ on two bands at once.

At the very least you can feel you're doing something productive when the runs are not very productive. It's better than vaguely worrying that your run might be better done elsewhere or that you are missing an opening or a rare multiplier while you sit there waiting for something to happen.

I have never properly done SO2R. It is on my list for 2017, starting with antenna and rig switching. The setup is very similar to a multi-single operation. Then it's a matter of practice. Not only will the boredom of poor runs be eliminated it can add a lot of excitement when you try to CQ and work a needed multiplier at the same time!

Learn to love it?

As I said: I hate running. Not so much that I avoid it; it's a necessary skill for a contester, even a QRP contester. Years ago when my contest activity was more often as a member of a multi-op team I often volunteered for the graveyard shift when runs were very difficult to establish (this was during a solar minimum). That way I could spend my time S & P for new multipliers and digging weak ones out of the noise. While it might surprise some that was my idea of fun.

When dawn broke and the daytime crew arrived I would step away and watch them start the European runs on the now opening high bands. I felt little regret seeing them log more contact in 5 minutes than I did in any one hour overnight. I would of course do some running later in the day since it was unavoidable when operating as a big gun.

I suppose this is why I am more of a DXer in some respects than I am a contester. Besides, most of the time there is no contest, or one I care to enter, and I can dig away for the rare DXCC entities quite contentedly. Even so, as my new stations grows I will run more, and I will do SO2R. I have to do it and I intend to do it well.

It's results that I want and that drives me to do things I may not love. As our mothers used to tell us, "eat your vegetables, they're good for you."

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