RFID Makes Running Marathons More Fun

When I ran my first marathon in 1983, I remember carefully filling out all the information on my race number so that when I crossed the finish line the race organizers could actually figure out my time and place.  I can’t remember, but I don’t think any computers were involved; I believe it was entirely a manual process.  Maybe there was an Apple II and a copy of Visicalc or dBase II somewhere behind the scenes, but I doubt it.

2009 Seattle Rock&Roll Marathon

This is a photo of 25,000 people running the inaugural Seattle Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon last weekend.  Each of them is wearing a tiny ChronoTrack D-tag which contains an RFID chip made by Impinj

Now, if you’ve ever run a marathon (or any organized road race), you know that the timing systems have made huge progress in the past decade.  Runners in big races now talk about “chip time” which is the actual time you ran the race; the time it takes from the point you crossed the starting line to the point you crossed the finish line.  No more adjusting your “time” for the 2 minutes and 33 seconds it takes to get across the starting line (or – if you are a back of the pack starter like me, the 10+ minutes it occasionally takes.)

However, if you are like me, you hate the fucking two ounces of plastic you have to tie to your shoe, or wrap around your ankle, or weave into your shoelaces.  It’s uncomfortable, unbalanced (two ounces on your right ankle over 26.2 miles is actually noticeable), and super frustrating when it doesn’t work. Then, when you get to the finish line, you have to get it off your shoe (usually with help from a race helper person) and give it back!  Blech.

The RFID chip approach completely changes the whole dynamic.  It’s light weight (imperceptible), trivial to attach to your shoe, and you can keep it because it’s extremely inexpensive.  Plus, I find it awesomely cool to wear an RFID tag while I’m running (and use another product from a company in which I’m an investor in a way I hadn’t expected.)  Fun!

  • Dan

    I ran the half marathon in Seattle (it was actually on June 27th); the RFID tags were great! I especially liked that you did not need to stand in line to get the chips cut off immediately after the race. That said, the RFID usage is starting to get a little scary. Check out this story about RFID in passports: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/

  • Adam

    Remember ripping the tag off of the race bib? Or in the really big races, where people got corralled into ordered finishing chutes because 1 chute wasn't enough. This is real progress.

  • I so remember the \”not so good old days\” of jockeying around multiple chutes.

  • First 5k: chip + chutes, First 1/2 Marathon: RFID. Very cool 'change of pace'!

  • The "not-so-good old days" aren't so old, either. I ran a race like that on July 4. July 4, 2009.

  • ya know what would be cooler (being a cyclist and all out for very long rides…) is RFID with an integrated twitter/sms feed. or something like that to let people know where you are or are going. not just about an update, but about safety. maybe this exists but if it doesn i haven't seen it.

    i guess one start-up at a time for now…

  • Paramendra Bhagat

    Ugh, the VC won't even let a marathon alone! :=)

    • We love to run them as well as make them better.

  • we are busy looking at a football shoe feature incorporating RFID. football (yes the game you play with your foot) is such a freeform exertion that tracking the relative distance a player travels during a match is highly valuable to the coaching and medical staff. of course we want to bring this data in to a pro's twitter feed that we are sponsoring and we want to be the first to do this type of thing.

  • ran my first race this april (carlsbad 5000) with the RFID, and you are right, not having to bend over and get that chip out of your laces when you feel like your going to pass out anyways – and as a tech junkie – it was awesome to think about it being cheap enough for me to keep and no more cumbersome than a 'over 21' bracelet you get when going into a concert or bar (which i can do because i've got the extra calories from running that race! : )

  • In one of my comp sci classes we discussed the pros and cons of RFID tags and the many applications they have in our society. But what was really interesting was how people could always find problem with their use (leave it to a bunch of privacy conscious geeks to come up with ways to put down a great technology).

    Glad to see their use is starting to have real world application (outside of stopping people from shoplifting).

    • Yeah, the privacy guys can make you really crazy, especially since some of the privacy things are trivially easy to solve.  For example, there is a great “innovation” in the Impinj RFID-enabled drivers licenses where the only time the RFID chip is active is when the user touches the drivers license a certain way! 

  • Some of the privacy things are trivially easy to solve.  For example, there is a great “innovation” in the Impinj RFID-enabled drivers licenses where the only time the RFID chip is active is when the user touches the drivers license a certain way! 

  • we all live in public. Privacy is so 20th century.

  • Jim McDannald

    I haven't had the chance to run a race with those sleek new ChronoTrack tags, yet. I am ready to say goodbye to the bulky chips and the zip ties. As this technology spreads, I am sure the volunteers at the marathon finish will enjoy no longer needing to cut those chips off people's shoes.

  • A very good article, thanks for share.

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