Sunday, November 5, 2006
By ALEX NUSSBAUM
Gary Swangin should be easy to spot in today's New York City Marathon.
He'll be the runner with the earphones and microphone strapped to his head. And most likely, the Paterson teacher will be the only one uttering this mysterious code as he pounds the pavement: "K21TT-59- 1 ... K21TT-59-2 ... K21TT-59-3 ..."
"K21TT" is Swangin's ham radio license number. "59" is ham-speak for a clear signal. And the final number will mark each mile of his progress on his 26.2 mile jaunt through the five boroughs.
Swangin, the director of the Paterson public schools' planetarium, is hoping to go where no amateur radio operator has gone before: broadcasting the entire length of the marathon to test the potential of ham radios to fill in for cellphones and other communications links during disasters.
He concocted the idea earlier this year while watching a show about Hurricane Katrina, and the communications blackouts that followed the storm.
"I said, 'Gee, I wonder what would happen if it were possible for a person to have a miniature transmitter and be able to relay out information to the rest of the world," he explained Saturday, as he rested for the race at his rural Warren County home. "You can equip somebody with a unit and they can be the eyes and ears for the rest of the world."
The 64-year-old was planning to run his second New York City Marathon and figured it would be the perfect test: The city's full of radio obstacles, from high-rises to underground electrical cables to all the other broadcast traffic clogging the airwaves. And as Sept. 11 showed, it's a likely target with a need for communications backup.
Icom America Inc., a maker of communications devices, based in Bellevue, Wash., bought the idea and donated the equipment, including the two miniature VHF/UHF transceivers Swangin plans to run with today. Each is about the size of a pack of cigarettes.
The radios will beam to a "chase vehicle" in Weehawken driven by Mark Sherman, a fellow ham operator and vice principal of Paterson's Martin Luther King Jr. educational complex. The vehicle is a portable high-frequency radio station that will bounce the signal to the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, another of Swangin's ham buddies, Ronald Blanchard of West Orange, will track him through the race and supply radios with batteries, as needed.
Swangin compares himself to a NASCAR racer: "It's not really the driver. It's the pit crew and all the people surrounding you that make it happen."
Amateur radio is hardly new technology, of course. But technical advances have shrunk the equipment into smaller and smaller packages in recent years, opening the way for ideas like Swangin's.
On his run, he'll be looking to test for radio dead spots in the city, as well as how long batteries last and other details.
For Swangin, the experiment marries two passions, running and radio. The Morristown native built his first crystal radio set as an 8-year-old and was hooked. He got his first ham radio 49 years ago.
He's also run five marathons, including New York in 2004, when he finished in 5 hours and 9 minutes.
Both pursuits spark the same sense of adventure that led him to a career in astronomy, said Swangin, who lives in a modest one-story home in Stewartsville. In addition to heading the Paterson planetarium, he's an adjunct instructor at Passaic County Community College, has taught astronomy at Rutgers and Farleigh Dickinson universities, and has advised planetarium builders from Baltimore to Denmark and Japan.
Swangin expects his radio buddies to give him some pep talks over the air today. But don't expect a detailed travelogue on his end. He'll need all the energy he can muster to finish the race, he said, so his comments will be limited to that once-every-mile code, a message to radio listeners about how clearly their signals are coming in.
The mild-mannered runner says he's excited, and a little anxious about competing with the radio world "watching" him. But the distraction of his experiment may do him some good as well, he said, by taking his mind off the miles.
"I like doing stuff that's new," he said. "It's like finding a new frontier."
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