Marathon will be a high-tech affair

Marathon will have real-time links for runners, officials, fans

Boston Marathon racers stormed across the starting line last April in Hopkinton.
Boston Marathon racers stormed across the starting line last April in Hopkinton.

Katie Preston has not decided on her running wear for her first Boston Marathon next month, but she does have her tech gear all set.

She will have an iPhone 4s attached somewhere to her body. On it, an app called RunKeeper will broadcast her location via Twitter and Facebook so her friends and family back home in Atlanta can follow her progress. She will wear at least one ear bud, so the app can deliver periodic updates, such as her time and average speed.

Then there is the all-important watch. It is a TomTom Multi-Sport GPS. On that, Preston can see her heart rate, running speed, and distance covered — all in real time.


And who can go four-plus hours without Twitter? Not Preston. Her iPhone will be programmed to audibly read the occasional tweet as she cruises along the course.

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Even something as arduous as a marathon could not persuade Preston, 34, to leave the gadgets and technology behind and just focus on running.

“I’m just not that type of person,” Preston said. “I love having the information in real time while I’m out there on a run to give me a sense of how I’m doing.”

Indeed, technology will underpin just about every aspect of Marathon Monday this year. Runners will be covered in cutting-edge gadgets. A thin radio transmitting tag attached to their bibs will record times. The audience can track favorite runners or family members in the race via smartphone apps and text messages.

There’s even a mobile app from the Boston Athletic Association for runners not at this year’s Marathon to participate virtually. Those runners can win badges and certificates for training runs they complete and record in the app, which also provides them with tips from professionals.


And then there is the massive computer infrastructure that ties everything together, from the recording of official race times to the linking dozens of public safety and medical personnel monitoring events as they unfold.

Technology will be even more of a factor this year because of the heightened security around the race after last year’s bombing attacks. There will be dozens more video cameras along the course, as well as sophisticated hazardous materials sensors. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency will use multiple Web tools to follow and record all incidents along the route — from suspicious packages to fallen runners — and will be sending alerts to the smartphones that organizers and emergency officials will be carrying.

Because of the strong emotional connection and symbolism associated with the race, organizers anticipate that nearly 1 million people will visit the course. And to handle the influx of spectators anxious to quickly post photos on Instagram or Facebook, telecom providers are boosting cellular capacity.

AT&T will roll in two mobile cell towers to accommodate the additional traffic, one at the starting line, the other at the finish. AT&T, the Marathon’s official wireless provider, will also offer free Wi-Fi service at the beginning and end of the course.

And once again this year, AT&T will offer a service that will send text messages alerting spectators on the progress of their friends or family members running the race. Last year, about 75 percent of all runners were being tracked through the text alert system.


“It kind of makes you wonder how they did it just 15 years ago,” said Patricia Jacobs, president of AT&T New England.

To handle the influx of spectators anxious to quickly post photos on Instagram or Facebook, telecom providers are boosting cellular capacity at the Marathon’s start and finish lines.

To round out the digital Marathon experience, for the first time AT&T will broadcast video messages to runners on big screens at the Athletes’ Village in Hopkinton.

On Monday, it will begin traveling to running clubs and college campuses in the towns along the course to collect those short video messages. It is also inviting people to submit short videos on Twitter using the hashtag #ItsOurBoston and on a website set up for the video project,

Beyond the technology that people at the race will see or experience, there is an another layer of it that will remain mostly hidden.

“There are a lot of other technologies out there that we are using that we’re not really talking about,” said Kurt Schwartz, the state’s undersecretary for Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

That will include a vast connected system for emergency personnel and police officials to track the goings-on at the race from a command center in Framingham. On race day, about 250 people from dozens of agencies will be working in the center and communicating with numerous mobile command centers along the course.

Schwartz said that those units will monitor hundreds of video cameras and track runners in real time on a detailed map of the Marathon route. If there is an emergency anywhere along the way, they will know it instantly.

But for all this technology that will be turned on during race day, Schwartz said, it is often just something as old-fashioned as public awareness that can make a difference. “If they see something suspicious, just simply call 911,” he said.

All the added attention to this year’s Boston Marathon is bound to make it a major social media and Web happening.

So for runners like Preston, who has been blogging about the race and using apps to connect with other runners, being able to share that experience online is all that more important.

After all, it was a Twitter contest conducted by, the fitness app company, that scored her one of the hard-to-get bib numbers in the first place. She was selected after retweeting a contest post by

With several marathons under her belt, Preston had always wanted to run in Boston but figured it would be out of the question this year. Even though the Twitter contest was a long shot, she gave it a try. Within minutes, iFit responded that she had won.

“I kind of freaked out,” she said. “I was screaming and crying and freaking out all at the same time.”

Michael B. Farrell
can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMBFarrell.