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.
“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.”
Race Day Approaches
In 2002, Cisco provided basic IP connectivity for the marathon and, after witnessing the chaos surrounding the land-line wires, approached the Marine Corps with the idea of setting up a wireless network for the 2003 race.
The San Jose, Calif., networking company put together a 50-member volunteer team from around the country and began planning a temporary wireless network for the race with the Marine Corps early that year. Cisco also coordinated plans with ChampionChip, which provides the timing chips worn by each runner, and with Do It Sports Inc., an online event management company that set up a system to track splits and finish times.
A week before the race, Cisco engineers began setting up a network of wireless access points using Cisco Aironet 1300 equipment. With the hub in the IT trailer at the finish line, Colella and his team put in five access points using a Cisco AP 1231 and six Cisco BR 1310G bridges around the start and finish lines. Cisco provided volunteers with mobile phones and each of the eight support tents at the finish line with an IT phone and a laptop with a wireless connection.
More than 40 Cisco volunteers roamed the course carrying wireless clients. The Cisco network transmitted data from Champions timing chips and from Do It Sports tracking system to the Web.
Cisco also worked with the Marine Corps to set up a Check Your Runner tracking registration page on the Marine Corps Marathon site through which people could sign up to receive split and finish times sent to them via text message, pager or e-mail. More than 17,000 people signed up online to receive runner data in 2003, and Huss expected the number to hit 20,000 for this years race.
“You can be in Texas, and if your daughter is running the marathon, you can check online to see what her times are at each of the mile markers in the race,” Colella said. The Marine Corps reported 360,000 Web queries on the Check Your Runner page on race day 2003.
Last year, Cisco also set up stations at four locations along the course where Cisco volunteers tracked runners for people on laptops. “Now we can get race data to the runners and their families much faster,” Huss said.
For this years marathon, Cisco provided the same services and added connectivity for a MapTracker feature from Do It Sports, which allows people to plug in a runners bib number and check on the runners time and location.
“Large marathons are very competitive in terms of technology, and Cisco has helped us stay at the top of the game,” said Huss.
Free-lance writer Simone Kaplan can be reached at [email protected].
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