As in past years, each of the 18,000 runners in Sunday's Marine Corps Marathon will cross the starting line with a little something extra: a bright yellow tag with a computer chip that will help track their progress through the 26.2-mile course.
Threaded through their shoelaces, the wafer-thin ChampionChip was initially intended to detect runners trying to cut corners -- and sometimes miles -- to win.
It will still do that Sunday. But for the first time at the Marine Corps Marathon, the chip will also relay data to a wireless computer network that will enable friends and family members to track runners' progress during the race. Computer stations at the Iwo Jima Memorial, plus some laptops and handheld personal devices scattered along the course, will allow spectators to check runners' times. (The system can also be accessed on the Web at www.marinemarathon.com.)
Originally developed by Texas Instruments to track cattle on the range, the chip technology moved into the running world in the mid-1990s. "It was perfected in Europe and the Netherlands," said Rick Nealis, director of the Marine Corps Marathon. "We started using it in about 1996."
At first the location of the rubber mats that pick up a signal from the computer chips was a secret until the race was underway. "But now that we can get a pace time from the chip in real time, we don't need to keep the placement a secret," Nealis said. Mats will be placed at the start, the finish, the 10 kilometer mark near the Pentagon and at the halfway mark.
The system works like this: Each one-ounce chip contains a transponder with an ID code matched to the runner's race bib number. As runners cross each of the rubber mats placed along the marathon course, an electrical signal is relayed to the mat, which in turn sends it to a computer that records the time and calculates the speed of the runner.
The process "takes a few thousandths of a second," said Mike Burns, president of Burns Computer Services and ChampionChip USA, the companies that rent the system to 1,400 races annually in the United States. "The mats can read in excess of 2,000 runners a minute."
That enables officials to track runners whose time inexplicably drops from, say, seven minutes a mile to four -- a sign that corners have been cut. Unlike other major races, there is no prize money involved in the Marine Corps Marathon, which is the sixth largest marathon in the United States and tenth largest in the world. (Race coordinators turn away about 13,000 runners every year.)
But the results are prized for another reason: They're used as qualifying times for entry into the elite Boston Marathon. About 120 to 180 runners are disqualified from the Marine Corps event each year, either because they drop out of the race or because they cut corners in an effort to get a faster time.
"It's a little bit sad and comical," Nealis said. "I call up the cheaters after the race and they say things like, 'I took an energy gel that made me go faster.' "
-- Sally Squires