RFID helps the Boston Marathon run

For the approximately 23,500 registered athletes competing in next Monday's Boston Marathon, additional measures are required beyond proper training, good running shoes and a carbohydrate-laden pre-race dinner. Technology is now as critical as stretching, and will play a role in the race's 111th iteration.

Athletes can share the URL of the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), which runs the event, so that family and friends can monitor the participant's progress online. On race day, the BAA will post the progress of the legal runners at 5 kilometer intervals on its Web site. Mobile and e-mail updates are also available. The BAA allows runners to register up to three e-mail addresses or wireless devices. The alerts are sent from the 10-kilometer, half-marathon and 30-kilometer points and finish line.

And, of course, essential to timing the athletes on their 26-mile jaunt are the RFID (radio frequency identification) tags they need to pass through their shoelaces before tying their shoes.

Considered one of the world's top marathons, the Boston Marathon is steeped in history. The course has not deviated from its original route, allowing athletes to follow the path of running greats like Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit Samuelson. This fabled past helped foster the BAA's adoption of technology in order to accommodate the anticipated turnout for the 100th marathon in 1996.

"The centennial was coming like a freight train," said Jack Fleming, director of communications for the BAA. The previous system of timing runners was not "going to hold up for the density we were planning for in 1996," said Fleming "We planned for 40,000 runners."

The BAA studied the 1994 Berlin Marathon's use of RFID tags for timing and tested the technology on the wheelchair division race in the 1995 Boston Marathon. In 1996 the BAA made wearing RFID tags mandatory for all race participants, making the Boston Marathon to first major U.S. marathon to use the device, Fleming said.

Runners initially worried that the tag's weight would impede their performance and did not fully understand the device's purpose. They eventually accepted their role as early adopters, according to Fleming.

Runners obtain their RFID tags when they pick up their race packets in the three days before Monday's race. Security concerns over data contained in the tag is not a concern, said Fleming, since they only contain a unique identification number.

The tags remain inactive until they are passed through a magnetic field, which allows a coil in the tag to generate a current and power the tag's microchip. The marathon's course uses 13 rubber mats, which contain antennas to create the magnetic field and collect the tag's number. The tag transmits the identification number through its antenna to an antenna in the mats, which are spread throughout the route. Computers at the mat locations gather the data and send it via modem to race headquarters at the finish line. The BAA's database then matches the tag number with a runner's record.

While the BAA has used wireless data transmission, it prefers landlines in the marathon because "there are too many variables on race day" that could interfere with wireless, said Fleming.

Prior to timing runners via RFID, a timing method involving manual entry was used and ultimately produced estimates, said Fleming. Using RFID tags produces accurate results because runners are not timed until they cross the starting line mat, he said.

Data gathered by the tag has allowed the BAA to change race operations. The BAA found that some runners weren't crossing the starting line until 30 minutes after the gun sounded, due to the number of participants. Last year's race was started in two waves with runners no longer lined up curb to curb in the street. These measures allow runners to have more space to run free of the pack and reduce the time needed to cross the starting line, said Fleming.

Since adopting RFID technology, the BAA has never had an issue with the tags. The only IT glitches come from handling site traffic on "Marathon Monday," when its page receives 500,000 visits, according to Fleming.

Like its corporate counterparts, the BAA uses IT to help maintain an advantage in a market filled with myriad customer options.

"It is a competitive industry now. In the last 30 years, there are three new marathons a year. People have a choice. We know that," said Fleming. "It is our job to deliver the 'Boston Marathon experience.' The technology is there, we're confident in it, let's use it any time we can."

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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