RFID In It For The Long Run

Gear from Hewlett-Packard turns Boston Marathon into a high-tech showcase
Legend has it that almost 2,500 years ago, a Persian army invaded Greece, landing its boats at Marathon, about 25 miles from Athens. A fierce battle was fought, and, at its conclusion, a runner named Pheidippides was ordered to sprint to Athens and deliver news of the Greek victory.

Today, we've got cell phones, E-mail, and cable TV, so nobody needs to run all day in order to deliver a message. But we still commemorate the brave act by running for sport and glory, and just last week, more than 20,000 athletes participated in the nation's oldest race, the 108th Boston Marathon.

At this year's race, advanced technology from HP ProCurve Networking permeated the course, whether it was at the race headquarters, in the hands of officials, on the Web, or even attached to the shoes of participants.

This was HP's 10th year sponsoring the race. "We've come a long way from when we used to draw a line in the street with chalk," says Judith Donohue, manager of the HP New England Initiative. At the beginning of the relationship, HP just provided servers to the race. Eventually, it started setting up laptops at the check-in area to automate registration. It also provides wired and wireless network access to the marathon operations center, a remote command post along the track, a press room, and medical tents.

Two years ago, things started getting really high-tech. Race organizers wanted a way to track and accurately time individual runners, as well as share their place on the course with spectators. HP's solution was to tie radio-frequency identification chips into the shoelaces of registered runners. Each chip contains a unique ID assigned to that person, and when he or she runs over special RFID-receiving mats on the raceway, the system logs the runner's location into a database. With that information, organizers can track the progress of racers and, by comparing the time difference between when they hit various mats, estimate their speed and predict when they'll finish.

HP makes that information available in several ways--to organizers and the press on-site, and also to friends and family. On the course, 75 volunteers armed with wirelessly connected iPaq PDAs can answer questions and provide location information to spectators. On the Internet, friends and families of runners can log on to the race's Web site and check on the progress of loved ones or set up automated alerts when a friend is going to finish.

The service proved to be very popular. More than 180,000 alert messages were sent this year, and the Web site served up more than 7 million page views during the race. "It went great technologywise," says John Burgholzer, the marathon's technology coordinator. "We didn't have any major issues, and the Web site worked flawlessly."

But Burgholzer isn't sitting back. In ancient Greece, Pheidippides died moments after he delivered his message. That's unacceptable today, so for future races, Burgholzer's team is looking at ways to track anyone who enters a medical tent and coordinate their medical records.

Meanwhile, HP and the Boston Marathon are racing to keep runners and their families happy at next year's event. "These systems are still relatively new to marathoning, and people are still getting comfortable with them," Burgholzer says. "But the feedback from the runners has been great."