Posted: November 14, 2002:
Athletics: The Early Use Of Computers In Road Racing - Ottawa, 1975
A Look Back At Race Timing By Ken Parker
In 1975 the first National Capital Marathon was held in Ottawa, Canada's capital. The event attracted 146 starters and was Canada's largest marathon - how times have changed! The marathon is now entering it's 29th year and has a strong history, having hosted two Olympic and one Commonwealth Games Trials and several Canadian Championships. The event has grown to incorporate a "race weekend" with a 10K, 5K, and half-marathon as well as the full marathon.
Today race registration and results are handled by SportStats, a professional race services firm based in Ottawa. They use Championchip technology for timing. Runners have become accustomed to the use of the chip technology which provides fast accurate results.
Back in the early 1970s the use of computers for races was almost unheard of - registration and timing were done manually. The Boston Marathon, considered the premier running event of any distance in North America, did both registration and timing manually and then keyed the results onto punch-cards for sorting and printing the results.
The organizers of the 1975 National Capital Marathon decided to use available technology to its fullest. We engaged a computer service bureau from Toronto, I.P.Sharp, as a sponsor who provided time on their mainframe computer. We had dial-up access from portable terminals. Programs were written to allow registration data entry, finish time entry and a number of reports to cover the requirements from registration, label printing for race numbers, through to results lists for the awards ceremony and printing of a results booklet.
With only 146 competitors we were also able to plan for the manual capture of enroute split times which were radioed back to the computer room (actually a Molson's van) at the start/finish line. These times were entered into the database and by using a marathon pace modelling program, projections were done for each athlete for the upcoming check points and the finish line. Friends of runners were able to ask about the whereabouts of a runner and get a "position report" and projected times.
As the number of entrants grew the ability to capture enroute times manually was lost and we could only capture finish times and race numbers.
As the PC computer came into use, we abandoned the mainframe and used the PC. I can remember lugging a Sperry-Univac PC, on which the hard drive had be manually locked before transporting it, to the beach at Meech lake for the Ottawa Athletic Club Triathlon. My back has still not recovered. We needed access to an existing electricity source or had to use a gas-powered generator to provide power. When portable lap-tops came available we started using multiple lap-tops along with using multiple finish lines, to capture race times and race-numbers.
Along with the use of computers we maintained manual systems, using up to three separate teams to capture date from the finish line which could be used to resolve ambiguities or - in the case of power or equipment failure - be used to compile results the old fashioned way.
As the number of entrants continued to grow it became increasingly difficult to capture the finish line time and race numbers because of the clustering of finishers, for example 8 runners finishing in the same second. At the time, I was a computer specialist working at Agriculture Canada. As I had responsibility for computer programs relating to animal genetics used for breeding, I was aware that the cattle industry had implemented the use of technology to track the shipment of cattle. Transponders were implanted into the necks of animals and readers were installed at rail yards. The animals were funneled through a chute where their ID could be read. I remember commenting to a sports reporter that we should adopt this technology for road racing. We could implant transponders into the necks of runners and at the finish line this would clock the time and ID of each finisher. When I approached some runner friends, however, they were not too keen on the idea of having what I considered minor invasive surgery prior to racing!
Today the wearable chip and the receivers embedded in rubber mats on the road serve the same purpose as this 1970 cattle industry technology.
With the use of Championchip technology and the world wide web we can now access results from events around the world within hours of event completion and in the case of some triathlons, get splits of the swim, bike and run portions as the event is in progress.
Ken Parker was a founder of the National Capital Marathon and race director of many road races in Ottawa in the 1970s and early 1980s, including the Avon International Marathon for Women in Ottawa in 1981. He was a marathoner for 13 years with a PB of 2:42 and has coached for 30 years. He was a founding coach of the Ottawa Lions Track Club and in 1981 he founded the Ottawa Athletic Club Racing Team, a women's road racing and triathlon club, which he currently runs. He created and maintains a non-profit web site, the Runner's Web, a running and triathlon resource portal. In his "real" life, he is the president and CEO of Sirius Consulting Group in Ottawa.