Cold data vs. real people

This morning I used the Boston Marathon’s “athlete tracker” feature to follow two runners. I don’t know either of these people personally, but I’ve come to know them in the virtual world of blogging and message board posting. I was pretty familiar with their training and, even given that our relationship consists of the most tenuous of connections, I had a stake in their races. I really wanted them both to do well today.

One runner had a great race. The other had a terrible one. I don’t know what happened to the second runner, but I’ll find out soon enough.

The tracker provided 5K split times, average pace and projected finish time. With each split update, I’d do the mental math to compare it to the others (and to the time goal each runner had) to evaluate what was happening. I also have a little knowledge of the course from reading reports (and, of course, watching it on television), so I had a good idea of which 5Ks could be “forgiven” for being a little slow.

Watching the dry data — 5K splits appearing every 18-24 minutes — produced the oddest sensation, a cognitive clash between cold numbers and the raw, human experience tied to those numbers. Watching the first runner, I could tell she was having a good day, perhaps even one of those rare “on” days when everything goes right and you run to your full physical and mental potential. For the second one, I watched in horror as he imploded late in the race, dropping from a 6:30 pace in the early miles to close to 14:00 per mile at the end.

Technology is an amazing gift. With RFID chips and Internet-based media, we have an eye in the sky, looking down on our runners of choice. Yet there is also an intensely sad quality to the remoteness in tracking athletes from afar. Their triumphs and struggles are, at best, telegraphed, not shared or felt. We can’t cheer, help or hug. Only watch. And wait for the race reports.

8 Responses

  1. You never now how a marathon go’s!.
    I have run 3 times a marathon and think and feel that i not run but ride whit a bicycle next to my!.
    That where the best marathon to run, you have no pain, you have nothing and at the end you think where is the marathon?.Thit I run a marathon.
    But the most marathons are not so easy to run.
    Boston……nice to run!.
    Rinus.

  2. I was following a buddy on that tracker too – even went so far as to paste the splits into a spreadsheet to get paces between checkpoints. He was heading for a PR, then slowed for the Newton hills, then slowed some more…
    Hm. Going to have to try that course for myself next year!

  3. I remember thinking after passing the first mat in NY, at 5K, that everyone knew that I made it to the start and was in the race.

    Do they have those babies at Newport? And would you tell us if they did?

    • Newport is about 700 runners. I don’t even know that that they’ve got mats other than at the start and finish. But I would let you know if they did. Maybe.

  4. Just in case you missed it, our friend Larry did the commentary on Universal Sports. He did not disappoint; i.e., mentioned the weight of racing flats as compared to slices of bread; suggested we all go to our high school track and run a mile to see…; used the problematic “did ____” (insert name) a couple of times; and identified Salina Kosgei as Ethiopian (more than once), even declaring an Ethiopian sweep.
    Forgive my snark, but it’s just too annoying. But the event was terrific!

    • My favorite moment during Larry’s commentary is a tossup: It was either the reference he made to one of the pushrim racers as having been born with a “genital defect” or his series of detailed calculations concerning just how long a win payout would support a family of four in Ethiopia (I think he’s a frustrated accountant).

      Bonus: He managed to combine the “slices of bread” analogy with “leg turnover” in a single sentence!

  5. Very true. One of my running partners ran the St Louis Marathon yesterday and it was so strange to get the final results online from 1000 miles away just minutes after the race. I imagine it’s going to get even cooler in the future… maybe real-time GPS tracking? Follow them on a map? Still, that won’t help with the impersonal aspect, I’m afraid.

  6. […] even though I should be back, watching live coverage by about 10AM, I won’t track runners I know, as it’s just too […]

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