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.
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.