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March 12, 2009

Racing Innovations

A few weeks ago, I had never heard the phrase “virtual velocity”; two days ago, I started putting it to use.

My friend and fellow Monterey Herald columnist Mike alerted me to the concept after visiting last month's Running USA conference. We included it as a small addendum to an otherwise mindboggling assortment of technological developments that were on display at the conference, and which are described in the Monterey Herald column that follows.

As luck would have it, two days ago I was sitting at a race committee meeting for an annual rinky-dink 5K/10K race in Salinas (obviously, “Rinky-Dink 5K” isn’t the official name, but you get the idea), and mentioned the idea of virtual velocity. The girl sitting next to me happened to be a rabid Facebook user (not only that, but she’s on my friend list!!), and ran with the idea from there. The race is in May; I’ll report back if the Facebook strategy made a noticeable impact for us.

(And yes, I realize that in light of my recent little Facebook rant, this development is terribly ironic. I don't have to like the game, I just have to know how to play it.)

In the meantime, here’s the article that appeared on Thursday.


Running Life 3/12/09 “Racing Innovations”

These days, it seems like technology is taking over every aspect of our lives. Even the sport of running – the simplest activity imaginable – is susceptible to the avalanche of high-tech innovation, as Mike learned at the 2009 Running USA conference in San Diego last month.

That’s not to say that all of the applications are beneficial; in fact, many of them seemingly exist just to make an otherwise basic pursuit overwhelmingly complicated.

For example, you can now download something called iMapMyRun for your iPhone to help measure your distance, speed, and average pace with GPS tracking. Because as we all know, you really can’t have peace of mind on a run unless you’re carrying your iPhone. The product is marketed as “Your Redefined Running Partner,” so be sure to let your current partners know that their services are no longer necessary.

Many years ago, races started with someone yelling “GO!” and the first person to the finish line was the winner. Then we evolved to the more sophisticated method of giving every finisher a numbered popsicle stick. When we first strapped timing chips to our shoes, we felt like we’d entered the Space Age – but nowadays, race timing continues to evolve exponentially.

One company offers modular timing systems that are flexible and scalable. Another uses a disposable RFID tag placed on each runner’s shoe. Another has a J Chip attached to the race bib to time the athlete’s torso instead of his or her feet. We have no idea what any of the technical jargon means – but we’re eagerly awaiting the inevitable ZZZ tag as all the letters of the alphabet are eventually exhausted.

Modern timing systems also allow runners to have their split times during a race e-mailed or texted to their relatives and friends, via desktop, laptop, cell phone, or other hand-held devices. This way anyone wanting to see you at the finish line can wait until the last possible moment to finish their latte before heading to the finish line to scream your name.

Besides being technical, many races are striving to be greener as well – which is the kind of technology we all appreciate. For instance, some race bibs are now recyclable, and others have self-adhesive to avoid the use of safety pins – an especially nice perk for small children doing youth races. You can even buy race bibs that have seeds in them, so that instead of recycling the bib after the race, you can plant it in your garden, water it, and a short time later you have flowers. Honestly, we’re not making this stuff up.

Technology is also changing the way races are promoted. Several speakers told race directors to create “virtual velocity” for their races by generating buzz about the event on YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, blogs, running forums, and other on-line communities. One went as far as to say that, “Any race that doesn’t use virtual velocity is in the dark ages.”

Listen to these sales pitches for long enough, and it seems pretty amazing that we were ever able to run races and enjoy them at all without so many modern advances. While we appreciate any development that improves the experience for race committees or participants – as well as anything that helps the environment – we never want to lose sight of the basic qualities of running that we fell in love with in the first place.


Formulaic 3/12/09, 5:00 PM  

That was a great article!

I really enjoyed it. Hope you don't mind if I forward it on to others (full credit given of course).

Anne 3/12/09, 7:38 PM  

I think I'd enter a race just to then plant my bib and watch it bloom. Now that's cool technology.

Rick Gaston 3/12/09, 8:38 PM  

Alright, which race gave out seeds attached to the bib numbers? I bet it was the Portland Marathon. When I ran it they sent me home with a tree seedling to plant somewhere.

I have been invited to a couple of ultras through Facebook. I think it's great that RD's of small races have advertising/marketing options that is free. I'm also a big fan of webcasts in the 100-milers. I like tracking my friends in their races and I like it when they do the same for me. The afternoon after finishing the Kettle Moraine 100 last summer, I had a bunch of congratulatory comments on the blog. However I do believe that many are forgetting what a recent development and a privilege this is. A good friend of mine was irritated that the IM New Zealand website stopped posting times after the swim. Some kind of delay. I was just glad we got any time at all. Besides it's all sorted out sooner or later.

Rainmaker 3/13/09, 4:05 PM  

Bibs with seeds in them? Wow. All I can think about is an ultra with little flower seeds in them. So when you collapse on the side of the trail somewhere, at least flowers will eventually grow...

Juls 3/13/09, 7:03 PM  

My last BIB is sitting on my dryer. If only it had seeds. Then I'd know what to do with it.

Annette 3/15/09, 7:39 PM  

VV, huh? That's a new term to me, but it makes sense. I'm curious if it will help the race.

Seeds in a bib? Then I'd feel like I had to plant it. I like to keep them. I know, it's a little problem I have. ;)

Dori 3/17/09, 10:22 PM  

Welcome to America, where any good idea is worth beating into the ground...

I was chatting with an 80-year-old cyclist at the coffee shop yesterday. He used to run, until he blew his knees out skiing about 15 years ago, and ran Boston. He was complaining about not being able to PR because the start was seeded and it took 7 minutes to cross the starting line. It took me a while to realize that they didn't have Champion Chips in those days!

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