Wireless Network Goes the Distance

Friends and family track marine marathoners on Web with Cisco-built WLAN.

Every year, on the last Sunday of October, more than 150,000 people descend on Arlington, Va., for the annual Marine Corps Marathon. Its a test of will and endurance for athletes, spectators and volunteers alike.

Theres no easy way to keep track of 20,000 runners and 3,000 volunteers in the melee of people and tents that throng the finish-line area in Arlingtons Crystal City neighborhood, or to stay on top of the crowds demand for real-time information. Despite the fact that planning for the marathon begins a year in advance, the potential for race-day chaos is high.

In an effort to streamline communications on race day and get real-time race data to spectators, athletes and their families, the Marine Corps partnered with Cisco Systems Inc. to set up a wireless network in the 1-mile area around the finish line.

Before partnering with Cisco for the 2002 marathon, the Marine Corps faced several logistical challenges leading up to race day. To push up-to-the-minute race data out to the thousands of spectators and athletes at the finish line, the Marine Corps set up telephone land lines between each of the eight support tents on the hill above the start and finish lines to enable Internet connectivity.

Race organizers found themselves stringing miles of phone cords around the area so that volunteers could communicate and race data could be uploaded to the Web.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read how one auto racing team is using wirelress technology to improve performance.

"There was always a question of what to do with the wires," said George Colella, a Cisco systems engineer on the marathons volunteer support team. "Do you string them up high or try and put them under mats on the ground so no one trips over them?"

Setting up the wires and dealing with phone company bureaucracy sucked up a lot of valuable time in the week before the race. "Frequently, the phone company wouldnt set up the lines where we needed them, or they wouldnt do it in enough time before the race," said Angela Huss, business manager for the marathon. "I want things in place beforehand so you know it works. If a line goes down, you can miss several seconds of timing and that makes a big difference if youre talking about thousands of runners crossing the line in that short time."

The network crashed fairly often, usually because a spectator tripped over one of the wires or the jury-rigged wire connections didnt hold up. "If you have wires strung over trees and on the ground, the weather can make problems or the lines just cut out," Huss said. "Putting in a wireless network completely negated the problem."

Next Page: Race Day Approaches