I spent much of the weekend near Ashbourne in the beautiful Peak District this weekend, volunteering as a bike marshal at the Care Construction Challenge.
The event saw more than 50 people assemble as teams and take to Carsington Water in kayaks. Then jumping on mountain bikes for a 21 miles cycle on roads and trails; stopping off for a 5 mile run up and down and up a nettle-filled river path, and tackling mental, physical, memory and teamwork challenges along the way.
Everyone was there to support the work of Care International, a charity that currently works in 74 countries helping people find their way out of poverty. They provide immediate life-saving assistance and are often the first on the ground after natural disasters like the earthquake in Nepal and help people rebuild their lives afterwards.
I got my marshal briefing notes via email before I arrived. It was a comprehensive document detailing roles, responsibilities, tasks and timings. With a large team of volunteers and a lot of ground to cover, many of us were taking on different roles in various locations throughout the day. On reading the notes, I remarked that everything had been planned like a military operation. I later learned the writer was a former Marine.
These communications were ideal for me. As a great reader and traditional verbal learner, I was able to retain and repeat the information, even down to the important detail that packed lunches would be available on the day.
The teams took part in a number of communication challenges throughout the day, including one where a team member had to instruct their team on how to construct a model house out of straws and tinfoil without talking to them.
But the biggest communication challenge was provided by our environment. Despite being well equipped with radios, spare batteries and multiple mobile phones, getting messages between the various marshal points was very patchy due to the undulating hills and dales.
I arrived at my first marshal point to find that no one could hear to respond to my radio call, and that with only minimal signal on my mobile phone, I could only send text messages, and they arrived hours after being sent.
We’d marked out the cycle route the previous day using orange arrows – no text or words needed. These were visible in the misty morning and (mostly) sent competitors in the right direction.
Standing at the road crossing, ready to count all the riders through and direct them onto the next part of the trail, I was able to hear them approaching long before I could see them as they toiled up a series of climbs, encouraging each other and issuing huge sighs of relief when the ground finally levelled out.
The team who turned up wearing dresses over their cycle gear were communicating that they were out for a good time and had a joke and smile at every check point. Those kitted out in team hoodies were well organised and supportive, sticking together, helping each other on the tough climbs and generally being all round good sports. They deservedly took home the trophy for best fundraisers.
Even when no one was speaking, there was communication through touch and body language – a pat on the back after a tough section, a hand up out of the ravine, or a wry roll of the eyes at yet another hilly section.
These very human, simple, one-to-one communications were ultimately the most successful. They were slower paced than modern technology usually allows, but no less effective for it. Messages were relayed along the route, radio to radio, or person to person via bike and car, keeping the communications moving along the line.
After testing endurance, memory, communication and teamwork, everyone made it to the finish, and all had a story to tell.