Tracking racers, shoe by shoeIntranet offers data on runners
By Shira Springer, Globe Staff, 4/13/2000
aiting three blocks from the finish line, you begin to worry and glance nervously at the stopwatch on your right wrist. The minutes flash by. More than four hours ago, you watched your husband start the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton. You kissed him and wished him good luck in his first marathon. He spent nine months training for the big event and expected to finish in 3 hours 30 minutes. Although he labored past the 16-mile marker, he was ahead of schedule. Now, well past the time he planned to triumphantly stride down Boylston Street, you can't find him.
Did he drop out? Has he been taken to a local hospital? Is he nursing a cramped calf on a side street in Newton? Or did he simply slow down and fall off his pace?
Need to find a missing marathoner on Monday? No problem.
This year, Boston Marathon officials are using computer technology to keep track of more than splits and finish times. An Intranet will link anxious friends and relatives with their marathoner of choice. Whether it's a woman who can't find her husband, a worried mother trying to figure out which hospital her daughter was taken to, or someone tracking a training partner, the Intranet system should help locate them. Essentially a localized Web site, the Intranet will provide detailed information about each runner at kiosks in the family meeting area.
Families and friends worried about racers will enjoy the short-term benefits of the new Intranet service on Monday. And the future study of medical information should help the marathoners in the long run.
''The primary reason we're recording that information is to be able to start tracking medical issues,'' said Philip Graceffa, who handles technology and computer resources for the Boston Marathon. ''We'll be building on the data we collect this year so we can start doing some medical analysis. Let's say on average we use two bags of saline per casualty in the tent. That'll give us some idea of where we can start focusing our efforts in terms of supplies and personnel. Let's say we're getting more casualties in medical tent B than medical tent A. Then, we can halve the size of medical tent A and expand medical tent B. But that's all down the road.
''Right now, the only thing people are going to be interested in is whether they're in the medical tent, they've left the medical tent, or they've left the medical tent and been transported to a local hospital. There's patient confidentiality, just like it was Mass. General Hospital. We're providing information just to ease the runner's family's minds.''
In recent years, new technology (tracking chips attached to runner's shoelaces) and the Internet have helped provide faster, more accurate results for large-scale marathons. Friends and family who cannot travel with an athlete to big races can find out how their favorite competitor fared within a few minutes. The Boston Marathon has joined forces with AppliedTheory to insure technology used for the 104th running can handle 10 million hits expected on race day at www.bostonmarathon.org.
''We're making it a heck of a lot more efficient for the people,'' said Brad Washburn of AppliedTheory. ''People will be able to get information in close to exact or real time via the Web.''
But, ironically, as marathon technology improves and as event organizers pursue medical and logistical benefits, races are returning to the original use of the computer chip. The notion of using chips to monitor racers originated in the Netherlands. On cow farms, transponders were used to track how much feed particular cows ingested and, as a result, how much milk they produced. Transponders helped the cows receive the mix of feed that made them most productive. Efforts to improve future medical care for runners using chips follows the same philosophy. Someday, more personalized runners' chips will not only relay medical information but also record workouts and store past results.
''There's a lot of positive feedback that's going to come back to the runner in the future from the chip,'' said Graceffa. ''It's all to benefit the end-user, who is the runner.''