Nadine Valco
Kiichiro Sato  /  AP
Nadine Valco runs through Sharon Woods Metro Park in Columbus, Ohio. As Valco ran through the streets of New York in the world's biggest marathon last fall, computer chips tracked her progress for her fan base back home.
By
updated 4/25/2007 12:09:08 PM ET 2007-04-25T16:09:08

Brendan Burke's cell phone was beeping within minutes of the start of his wife's marathon in San Diego. A text message arrived with her latest time as she crossed the six timing mats around the course.

It didn't matter that he was across the country at home in New Jersey.

Pushing to make the 26.2-mile races more friendly to fans and runners alike, marathon officials are increasingly offering free online tools to help spectators and loved ones back home track runners along courses that can span entire cities.

"At each point I could see what her time was and I would figure out her pace to see how she was feeling," Burke, 33, said of his wife's debut marathon in 2005. "It really gave me a sense that I was there running with her."

The systems aren't flawless, but they do help fans monitor runners via a Web site, a cell phone text message or e-mail.

No longer must family and friends take their best guesses and wait. And wait. And wait.

During the April 16 Boston Marathon, for instance, the curious can use their computers to check on the progress of up to five runners at a time. Last year, 10,232 Boston marathon runners, or about half, signed up for alerts, up from 9,836 in 2005.

In Chicago, meanwhile, fans can stop by participating Starbucks coffeehouses along the course and ask marathon volunteers with laptops to look up runners on the spot.

Runners are provided with radio-frequency identification chips that attach to shoelaces. As they cross large rubber mats along the course, a radio transmitter inside the chip sends a unique ID number to an antenna, which routes the information to a central database.

From there, depending on which options a runner has chosen, the information is sent to the cell phone or e-mail address on file. Elapsed time: two to four seconds.

Some races put restrictions on who can receive alerts but not on tracking runners online.

As Nadine Valco ran through the streets of New York last fall, her fan base followed her progress closely at home in Columbus, Ohio.

"My friends and family and co-workers were really encouraging with my training, but obviously with the expense and time of getting to New York, they couldn't be there," said Valco, who has run seven marathons. "But they could say, 'Cool, there she is at 5K.'"

New York started using the chips seven years ago to track its runners for timing and online viewing of an athlete's splits. Today, transmitters send automatic updates to the address of your choice — whether on a computer, cell phone or BlackBerry — from 11 points along the course.

"We need to make our events as attractive, as exciting as possible to continue to meet the demands of the marketplace," said Richard Finn, New York City Marathon spokesman. "You've always got to keep on freshening up your event."

A series of triathlons sponsored by consulting firm Accenture sends automated voice updates from several points to spectators signed up for alerts. Last year, the marathon in Green Bay, Wis., posted online splits for runners every mile.

One of the most tech-savvy races is the Houston Marathon, which started an alert system in 2001 and has since added an online map of a runner's progress, an elaborate post-race summary of a runner's results and video clips searchable by a runner's name.

Houston's offerings — free with the $75 entry fee — benefit participants while pleasing corporate sponsors because of high traffic on the marathon's Web site, spokesman Steven Karpas said.

The systems aren't foolproof. Running her first marathon in New York last year, Lara Kail registered her own e-mail address, her brother's cell phone and her aunt and uncle's e-mail.

Kail, 30, got the correct updates which she wanted for posterity's sake. But her brother received just one blank message. Her aunt and uncle: nothing.

"It was a little disappointing," the New York market researcher said. "Lucky for me, I had a good day, but what would have happened if I'd fallen way off my target and they had no clue where I was on the course?"

Image: ID chip
Kiichiro Sato  /  AP
This small device that runners thread through shoelaces contains computer chips that allows fans to monitor a runner on a race day.
Keeping track of a runner can also be costly, a factor as race fees for some marathons top $100. Systems can cost $1 to $2 per runner — charged as part of the entry fee — or up to $20,000 for a marathon with 10,000 competitors.

Major vendors include chip company ChampionChip, of Nijmegen, Holland, and timing companies Active.com of San Diego and Mika Timing of Cologne, Germany.

After introducing text messaging in 2005, the San Diego and Nashville marathons didn't offer any alerts or online tracking last year because of the expense.

This year, both races plan an experiment with real-time tracking of phone-carrying runners via Global Positioning Satellite technology, and they may reintroduce traditional alerts and online tracking after turning to sponsors for help.

The updating adds a space-age twist to an event that legend dates to ancient Greece. The modern race started at the reborn Olympics in Athens in 1896, and early marathons consisted of a few dozen runners at best.

Today's larger races can feature 30,000 or more athletes, all having fans who want results quickly if not instantaneously.

Computer chips were introduced in the mid-1990s to replace results manually compiled from tags ripped from runners as they finished. They also serve as checkpoints as race directors hope to avoid fiascos like the 1980 Boston Marathon, where Rosie Ruiz was crowned female champion after jumping into the race less than a mile from the finish.

The biggest challenge is managing a complex system of electronics within a short amount of time, said Harald Mika, founder of Mika Timing, which times Chicago and about 200 other races a year.

"If you do have a problem, you'd better fix it within two minutes," he said.

In some cases, rubber mats aren't placed correctly; in other instances, a timing company doesn't send the information properly. Sometimes a phone company or e-mail service blocks messages as spam, although race officials try to notify companies that tens of thousands of e-mails may be coming on race day.

While the systems can misfire, sending blank or delayed messages, they can also work too well — coldly updating friends with the details of a poor race.

That's a lesson Valco learned as stomach cramps slowed her time in New York. The chip, she realized, added insult to injury.

"Even while on the New York course I was thinking, 'Everyone in Columbus knows it just wasn't the race I had hoped it would be,'" she said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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