Mark Challender has for two decades served as an enthusiastic and significant supporter of Ski to Sea, even though he spends race day at home on the south side of Bellingham.
Challender, 59, is president of Whatcom Emergency Communications Group. He has found his niche in monitoring radio communications from volunteers, along with life partner Ruby Haner, on three legs of the rugged race — downhill running, road biking and canoeing on the Nooksack River — where cell phone service is often non-existent.
He made an invaluable contribution, using existing technology to help provide much quicker race results from the end of the challenging downhill run, the eight-mile third leg that ends in a cell phone dead zone.
In addition, about 40 amateur radio volunteers “are there to support the health and welfare” of competitors in a race that can and does produce injuries, he said. If anyone gets hurt or otherwise in trouble, search and rescue help can quickly be summoned in a way that would otherwise not be possible without good old-fashioned radio.
“I became involved in amateur radio eight years ago,” said Challender, who is director of technology services for Mount Baker School District.
A lifelong technology enthusiast, he soon found a way to support the thousands of competitors.
Because it took so long to physically transport third-leg data on old-fashioned Palm Pilots to geographic areas where the data could be put on line, he learned to use an existing technology to send data to e-mails directed to Mt. Baker Ski Area, where the race begins with the cross-country ski leg.
“Racers (beyond the third leg east of Glacier, ending at a Department of Transportation station) now learn how they stand (using cell phone applications) much faster,” he said.
This year’s Ski to Sea will help provide preparation for Cascadia Rising, a mammoth Northwest drill June 7-11 involving thousands of people in a training exercise to cope with the effects of a potential 9.0 magnitude earthquake.
Challender’s Ski to Sea communications haven’t always been ultra modern. He recalls seeing a photo of himself, using a toilet tank as a “desk” for his laptop in order to try to deal with corrupted data.
“I wish I had that picture,” he said. “That’s the greatest memory.”
Challender originally came to Bellingham to study political science at Western Washington University. He settled in Bellingham for good in 1987 and pursued several livelihoods until he joined Mount Baker School District 10 years later.
“Now we have 1,800 computers,” he said, proud evidence that the Deming-based district’s students do not lack for modern teaching methods.