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.