Technology runs the Boston Marathon

RFID and text messages help runners and spectators enjoy the race

The runners took center stage during the Boston Marathon Monday, but behind the scenes of the prestigious road race was an enterprise-class data center capable of accurately tracking more than 26,000 runners and relaying that information to a number of outlets.

To watch a video report click here.

When the runners picked up their numbers a few days before the race, they were also issued a small, white piece of plastic that weighed only a few grams. The tracking chip, made by Mylaps, tied into the runners' sneakers and used RFID technology to track them.

"When the runners go over a mat ... we collect the data time," said John Burgholzer, IT director for the Boston Marathon. "It takes a date stamp and it will wirelessly transmit it to use in the data center here for scoring results."

Along the 26.2-mile race there were 11 mats that collected data from the runners' tracking chips. Unlike previous races, the chips this year were disposable. When runners crossed the finish line amid the high-rises of Copley Square they continued on, received their medals and met up with family and friends. In years past, they needed to stop shortly after the finish and allow volunteers to collect their chips, creating a bottleneck on Boylston Street.

The primary benefit of the chips, which cost the Boston Athletic Association a little more than a dollar each, is that they ensured the runners were timed accurately.

"The tracking device on my shoe will make it possible for the race officials to know exactly when I cross the starting line and when I cross the finish line," said Paul Roberts a few days before the race. "The time from when the race actually starts to when you cross the starting line could be quite considerable."

Aside from the tracking technology, the BAA employed text message alerts so that family and friends of runners could track their progress.

Anyone could sign up on the BAA's Web site to follow any runner. That's a departure from years past when runners could only sign up a limited number of friends or family to receive the alerts.

Because of the change, Burgholzer anticipated many more alerts this year. "Last year was somewhere around 200,000 texts delivered on race day. We're probably going to double that this year."

Roberts, with the lanky build of a distance runner, has competed in two marathons before Boston. During a pre-race interview, he said that he planned to encourage friends and family to sign up and follow him during the race.

The BAA sent text message alerts at four points during the race: 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), 21 kilometers (13.1 miles), 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) and at the finish line of 42.2 kilometers (26.2 miles.)

Sending 400,000 text messages during the race proved to be a challenge for the BAA on race day. Some people who signed up to receive text message alerts never received them, even though the race Web site confirmed that the runners had crossed the checkpoints. In other cases, texts were significantly delayed, some coming two hours after the check points were crossed. Race officials were not available to comment on whether that was a widespread problem.

Spectators could also track runners on www.baa.org, a site Burgholzer anticipated would get 1.2 million hits on race day, have 120,000 concurrent connections and handle 7,000 database requests per second. He anticipated bandwidth usage around 750m bits per second.

While the IT team had a small workroom a few hundred yards from the finish line in the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel, a full data center was 45 minutes west of the city in Marlborough, Massachusetts.

"We have a back-end server. It's a C7000 Blade enclosure and there are about 12 servers in the enclosure," said Kevin Meany with Versatile Communications, one of the companies working with the BAA to provide IT support.

The data center had two database servers, storage arrays, two F5 load balancers, redundant configuration and HP ProCurve network switches, he said.

While all of the attention from Burgholzer and Meany was focused on the marathon Monday, they're already looking toward next year.

In the 5-kilometer race Sunday, the BAA piloted tracking technology that forgoes the shoelace chip in favor of RFID in the runners' bibs. The bibs are the sturdy pieces of paper that display the runners' numbers and are typically pinned on their shirts or shorts. Burgholzer said he thought that marathons in California and Germany had used the bib tracking technology with success.

"If it goes well [during the 5k], we will use it for our half-marathon in the fall and ... our whole goal would be in 2011 to use that for the marathon."

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