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Technology keeps HP Houston Marathon running

Jan 19, 20044 mins
Enterprise Applications

* Technology in action at the HP Houston Marathon

As further proof that technology is becoming more entrenched in every aspect of our lives, even sporting events have been totally transformed by IT.  I cite the HP Houston Marathon as a proof point.  The marathon, just completed on Jan. 18, was a true showcase of the technology provided by the lead sponsor, HP, as well as technology partners ChampionChip, online events management company Do It Sports, and Smart City Networks, which provides infrastructure services to convention centers.

I had an opportunity to chat with Michael Gnoinski, president of The Right IT and technology chair for the HP Houston Marathon.  Gnoinski played the role of lead systems integrator, making sure the technology from the four major providers ran as smoothly as the participants  (sorry, I had to get that pun in somewhere).

The technology planning for an event such as this marathon starts about a year in advance.  Gnoinski approaches the project just as you might approach a major implementation in your IT shop.  There are several major applications needed for this event and it takes time to build and integrate them.  Let’s take a look at some of the systems that allowed the HP Houston Marathon 2004 to support its 12,000-plus runners, which by the way represents about 130% growth in the number of participants over last year’s event.

The registration system is the first application a participant sees.  All runners register via the HP Houston Marathon Web site for one of three events: the HP Marathon, the Halliburton International Half Marathon.  This site is really an extensive portal that supports registration, accounts receivable, order entry, e-commerce, text messaging and an inventory system.  As Gnoinski says, “The level of sophistication is growing year after year.” 

Once a runner registers for a race, he can also sign up to support a charity of his choice.  The portal allows friends of the runner to make and pay pledges online to support the runner’s charity.  The runner can state a fund-raising goal and watch as his pledges add up.

Volunteer positions are handled through the portal, too.  It takes hundreds of volunteers to support a major marathon.  They all register for positions and receive their task lists through the event portal.

Onlookers can use the portal to sign up for e-mail alerts of a runner’s progress during the race.  This is possible through another innovative use of technology during the marathon: the shoe chip.  Every runner gets a computer chip to attach to his shoe.  As the runner passes over a timing mat, the mat accumulates data about the runner.  (You can liken this to a toll road with an electronic pass that detects when you pass through the toll booth.)

Information is collected from the timing mats throughout the race course, sent via cellular service to a database server, and then published to a Web site.  An onlooker can enter a runner’s name and see where he is on the course.  The “athlete alert” application, first implemented in 2002, uses data from the timing mat to send e-mail alerts about a runner’s status.  At the 2004 marathon, scores of volunteers carried HP iPAQ handheld computers, and onlookers could ask a volunteer to look up a specific runner’s location.  The races’ official scoring systems, as well as television announcers, depend on data from the timing mats as well.

The technology behind all of this includes two database servers, two Web servers, fiber throughout the race headquarters (the George R. Brown Convention Center), wireless access points along the route and at the finish line, scores of laptops and other client devices for access, and cellular communications.  The event portal is hosted on an HP 9000 running Debian Linux.

“We’re proud of the extensive amount of interaction we’ve built into this system,” says Gnoinski.  “Not only can the runner, but his supporters as well, be actively involved in the race.  If they have a very good experience, they’ll come back next year,” Gnoinski says.

Based on this year’s success, I’d say the coordinators better hit the ground running to get ready for next year.

Linda Musthaler is vice president of Currid & Company.  You can write to her at