CQ DX Marathon

A Year of DX

In 2006, Bob Locher W9KNI pushed for the creation of the modern DX Marathon. He also wrote a book about the experience of participating in the 2007 edition. The preface of the book tells the story of how the Marathon came to be, and it’s excerpted below.

You can buy the book at Ham Supply

Preface to “A Year of DX”

The original DX Marathon began in 1939, was sponsored by Radio Magazine, and was very similar to today’s CQ Marathon. However, it lasted only one year before the advent of World War Two made continuation impossible.

CQ Magazine, Radio Magazine’s successor as an independent amateur radio magazine, restarted the Marathon in 1948, with immediate interest and success. However, at that time the staff of CQ was directly managing and administering the Marathon, and a decision was made to abandon the Marathon format in favor of a new contest, the now classic CQ WW contest. CQ would have liked to continue both events but to do so would have been too great a strain on the magazine’s staff, so the Marathon was reluctantly dropped.

In subsequent years, management of the various CQ Contests, which had greatly expanded, was largely taken over by some very able and dedicated volunteers, relieving the CQ staff of that burden.

In the meantime, the ARRL DXCC program had become the premier DX program, with many thousands of participants. The overall goals were and are in stages. First would be the working and confirming of 100 DXCC countries, thus officially joining DXCC. Then, the operator would continue to add countries to his or her score, continue to submit confirmations, and receive endorsement stickers for their DXCC Certificate. Achievements of endorsements were listed in QST.

The goal of many participants was the attainment of the DXCC Honor Roll, which was recognition that the operator held one of the top ten positions in terms of the number of countries worked. In the early years of the program this listing was very exclusive indeed, and was published monthly in QST magazine. Later, the number of people on the DXCC Honor Roll began to expand rapidly as more and more countries which had once been exceedingly rare became regularly active. Eventually, over 40% of the participants in the program had attained Honor Roll status.

With so many operators already on the Honor Roll, on the air activity in chasing DX countries waned, and even though the number of hams on HF continued to grow, activity on the DX bands actually began to decline.

The situation was exacerbated by the development of spotting networks, originally mostly on VHF packet radio but eventually largely replaced by the Internet. Spotting networks were far more efficient in helping an aggressive DX’er run up a score, instead of slow, careful tuning, listening and looking for that new one. A great many DX’ers would set up alarm programs on their PC’s connected to a spotting net, and let that notify them of new counters on the air instead of searching for them themselves. This also led to a further decline in activity on the HF DX oriented bands.

The American Radio Relay League, the sponsor of the DXCC Program, was well aware of these problems, and explored a number of ways to reactivate operators. One suggestion made was to end the program at the turn of the century and begin again anew. The protests at this suggestion were huge. Few DX’ers wanted to go through the process from ground zero again, especially in terms of chasing the required confirmation QSL’s. Being a democratic organization serving the membership, the ARRL was forced to abandon the start-over idea.

Instead, ARRL added a number of other variations of the DXCC program, including a 5-Band DXCC, with endorsements for additional bands, single band DXCC’s, and the Desoto Cup, awarded annually to the DX’er with the highest number of band countries combined from 160 through 6 meters.

These new awards were partially successful in reigniting DX activity. But, eventually, the active participants had worked everything available on the various bands to the extent possible, and the bands slowly went quiet again. Certainly, if a rare on shows up on the bands and gets spotted on the spotting nets, instant pile-ups are created. But day in day out activity once again waned.

In your author’s view, there was another problem — the Desoto Award is patently unfair in its inclusion of 6 meters. Thanks to the vagaries of 6 meter propagation, it is extremely unlikely that a winner will ever emerge from anywhere other than the American East Coast or Europe. For a national organization to choose to disenfranchise the majority of its membership, let alone any Pacific Rim station, from any hope of winning in its development of an major operating award is simply unconscionable. Fairness could be largely restored by the removal of 6 meter countries from the Desoto Award.

In any case, your author, then unaware of the early history of the Marathon, but also concerned by the reduced activity on the HF bands, suggested to Dick Ross, K2MGA, the publisher of CQ Magazine, a new operating award - an annual contest to work as many CQ Zones and CQ countries as possible. There would be two divisions for the activity, one an unlimited award allowing full legal power and no restrictions on antennas, the other an award where operators could choose to either use simple antennas and a maximum output power of 100 watts, or use QRP power levels and unrestricted antenna selection. QSL confirmations for contacts would not be required, but the amazingly sophisticated log checking programs and other techniques developed by volunteers for CQ Contests would be employed to insure honesty. If the program became successful, other classes of entry could be added, such as monoband awards.

Dick of course was well aware of the earlier history of the CQ Marathon and apprised me of it, and was totally supportive of the proposal for a new CQ Annual DX Marathon. In conjunction with Rich Moseson, W2VU, the editor-in-chief of CQ Magazine, the rules were finalized and the renewal of the Marathon was announced in the spring of 2005.

A search for a Marathon Director was instituted, and John Sweeney, K9EL was nominated and agreed to serve.

Though I believe I can legitimately claim to have developed the concept of the modern CQ Marathon, I felt it would be better for the award if I was not to actively participate in it for the first several years because of my connection to it.

In the mean time my life was changing as well. After a 10 year sojourn in Sonoma County, California, my wife and I had moved to Grants Pass, Oregon with plans of easing into retirement there. I transferred my home-based mail order business, Idiom Press, to my son Rob, W7GH, though I remained active in my other endeavor, Bencher, Inc. Our new home in Grants Pass was of course selected on the basis of a number of criteria, not least its potential as a excellent DX’ing location. We found and purchased a house with a 20 acre lot sloping up the side of a major hill, with a ridge behind the house and underground utilities. DSL Internet access reached the house within a year. I bought a chain saw, cleared trees on the ridge top, which became firewood to heat the house, and began erecting towers.

Competitive new stations never spring to life in an instant. First, you get one antenna up and working, then work to add further capabilities. In a period of about two and a half years, I went from an Elecraft K2 and a Butternut HF9V, with which I worked better than 230 countries from the new QTH, on to having three towers, with a Bencher Skyhawk, a Bencher pre-production 12/17 meter Skylark, and an extremely effective 3 element 40 meter beam, with elements shortened by High Q coils, designed and built by my neighbor, Rich, K7ZV. A new Elecraft K3 replaced my K2, and an Alpha 87A added a significant afterburner to the setup. The setup was easily the best I had ever had.

At the same time, I was feeling a little restless, looking for a new challenge. I wanted to write a new book about DX’ing but had not thought of a suitable theme. While my earlier book, The Complete DX’er, had been successful, I didn’t want to bring out something that essentially was old wine in a new bottle.

One afternoon I was out talking a walk when it hit me- I could use my new station to compete in the CQ Marathon, and write a book about the experience. The working title, A Year Of DX sprang into my mind, and the seeming aptness of the title itself helped organize my view of what the book would be about.

There was a lot of other material I would want to put into the book as well. There would be some operating tips, but that would not be the main thrust of this book. Instead, I wanted to share the great adventure that the chase would surely offer me. There would be discussions on many aspects of assembling a station, and of the gear that we use. I would have a bully pulpit to offer opinions on a number of subjects relating to DX’ing. In sum, my major aspirations for the book would be to encourage all DX’ers to participate in the DX Marathon, to express my love of DX’ing in such a way that other radio amateurs will want to share it, and pass along advice and opinions on things that worked for me.

You, the reader, will be the judge of whether I succeeded.

Bob Locher W9KNI