Commentary

Technically, it's more than a race

Behind the scenes, wires, modems and tech geeks are running the show

Updated: April 12, 2013, 11:51 AM ET
By Jack McCluskey | ESPNBoston.com

Time changes all things, even those that seem to stay the same through the years. The Boston Marathon is one of those things. Even in the venerable race, changes are apparent -- if you know where to look.

The course is slightly different now, starting in Hopkinton instead of Ashland. The start time has been moved up from noon to 10 a.m.

But the biggest changes may be the ones modern marathon fans take for granted.

Gone are the herds of official timers, clipboards and pens in hand, who would track the runners' progress along the course (although they remain at the finish, part of race protocol). Gone even are the clunky transponders that runners first had to tie into their shoelaces when the race timing finally went digital. Both have now been replaced by small chips that attach to runners' bibs and send out timing information via radio frequency identification.

Also gone is the mindset that the Internet is an ancillary luxury, an unimportant consideration in putting on a massive -- both in field size and popularity -- road race.

When he started working Boston in 1997, Kevin Meany knew he was an afterthought.

"Oh, those are just the tech geeks," the race director might as well have said. "Who cares about them?"

"Now we show up and it's like 'Hey, when am I getting my Internet?'" Meany said by phone last week.

[+] Enlargechip
John Bohn/The Boston Globe via Getty ImagesFifteen years ago, runners had to attach these clunky transponders to their shoelaces in order to have their time recorded.

Meany, director of technical services for Marlborough, Mass.,-based Versatile Communications, and his team are tasked with providing the IT infrastructure that allows the BAA to track runners in near real time (there are 11 splits on the 26.2-mile course, providing updates as runners cross each one) and to send the results out to the watching world.

"We're real behind-the-scenes guys," Meany said, "so we say 'If you don't see us, we're doing our job.' If you see us running around, you know we've got problems."

The technology has come a long way since Versatile started working the marathon.

In 1997, each of the 11 splits (at the start, 5k, 10k, 15k, 20k, 25k, 30k, 35k, 40k, 45k and finish) consisted of a black timing mat linked directly to a modem, which in turn was directly connected to a nearby telephone pole. That connection had to be checked, which meant Meany would have to send workers to each split just to check on the wiring.

Cellphone technology has changed that (though there is still an analog connection to serve as a backup in case the network fails), but there is still a lot of legwork to do to provide viewers with the best experience possible on race day.

"It's all temporary," Meany said. "You kinda fight this battle of you have to provide this rock-solid infrastructure but you're doing it in some sketchy areas."

Lest you think Meany was trying to cast aspersions on the towns along the marathon route, BAA IT director John Burgholzer clarified that comment.

One of the "sketchy areas" is around the 30k split in Newton, where cellphone service could struggle to keep up with the demand. The reason for that is simple.

"No one wants a cell tower [around there]," Burgholzer said. "If you have a $2 million home, the last thing you want to look at is a cell tower."

Happily for Burgholzer and the BAA, wireless capacity has increased to the point that the built-in analog connection hasn't been needed in recent years.

"We have to have this highly available, highly redundant, highly performing network for what we call a six-hour window," Meany said, "but it's really about a two-and-a-half-hour window [while the elite runners are on the course] where we just can't have interruptions."

If there were interruptions -- if, say, someone were to trip over a wire connecting one of the timing mats to the communications box that sends the data on to the data center and temporarily pull it from its plug -- it would be immediately noticeable, both men said. While the data would still be recorded and stored, it wouldn't be transmitted and a bottleneck would build up.

That's because in addition to sending the data to the data center, the BAA also sends hundreds of thousands of text updates to people tracking runners (elite or otherwise). Burgholzer estimated the BAA sent half a million such updates in 2012.

"We don't send alerts for every split," he said, "but we do for the 10k, half, 30k and finish. If we lose one of those splits, the system gets bogged down. And if you back up 20,000 of them, it's like a snowball. We've designed it so we can catch up, but it's not a good place to be.

"If we lose our data connections, we're in trouble," he said.

Meany and his team moved into the basement of the Fairmont Copley Plaza on Monday, a week before the marathon. They'll set up everything they can ahead of time, but there are some things (the announcer's stand, the hospitality tent) that don't go up until the morning of the race.

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Bill Greene/The Boston Globe/Getty Images These days, small digital chips attached to runners' bibs send out timing information via radio frequency identification.

In the beginning, they handled the demand for bandwith with a T1 line out of the back of a trailer that sat outside the Boston Public Library in Copley. That trailer didn't arrive until the Friday before the race, limiting setup time beforehand.

Now, Meany said, they got the trailer in on Wednesday. And, of course, they need much more than a simple T1.

"A T1 is nothing these days for bandwith," Meany said. "We're aggregating bandwith together, chaining DSLs together."

"Ten or 12 years ago we were probably lucky that the demand wasn't as great as it is today," said Burgholzer, who estimates the BAA website will host more than a million visitors on Marathon Monday. "If you look at the user experience, we can deliver more because of the capacity."

This year, the BAA has designed a mobile app that Burgholzer said would further streamline the organization's mobile offering and present the information in a (hopefully) more appealing way.

The improvements in technology mean the BAA can provide updates on all 27,000 entrants in close to real time. But, Burgholzer admitted, they can't quite say they're at real time yet.

That is undoubtedly where the technology is heading, though, with GPS the likely solution.

"We've been playing around with putting GPS on the lead vehicles, doing that type of stuff. But we haven't been able to do it well enough to coordinate it that it brings a lot of value," Burgholzer said. "The Tour de France guys do a great job of that. We have looked but haven't been able to figure out how to do that in a way that has tremendous value."

The biggest problem to date, Burgholzer said, is cost and scalability.

An RFID tag (which is a passive technology) costs $1, while a GPS transponder (an active technology) costs $95.

Then there's the fact the Boston Marathon has far, far more data points to track than the Tour de France does.

"You can't get in the way," he said, noting that the Tour de France can deploy motorcycles ahead of the peloton in a way that's not feasible for the mass of participants in the marathon. "We've gotta do it in a way that doesn't get in anybody's way.

"GPS for us would be leaps and bounds, if we could show the leaderboard where they are on the course," he said. "As it is, we're showing you what's going on, but we're not showing in-between."

Because updates come only when runners cross the timing mats on the course, the BAA can't accurately show when and where a runner makes a move or drops off the pace. GPS could change that.

"That's what we've been trying to focus on but we haven't been able to figure it out technically," Burgholzer said. "And then it has to be useful. That's one of our biggest challenges. We've got a lot of data, the question is, do people want to see it.

"Or how do they want to see it?"

That is the more accurate question. Because while many things have changed in the 13 years Burgholzer has been the marathon IT director, one thing definitely hasn't: The Boston Marathon is something people definitely want to see.

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.

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