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Oldest Marathon Uses Newest Technology To Handle Crowds

April 10, 1996

WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) _ Months before the starting gun was even ready to be fired, runners by the thousands poured across the finish line of the 100th Boston Marathon.

They were computer simulations in a university laboratory 40 miles from the course, where engineers were calculating just how many people will complete the race at any given time _ and how many will have blisters or more serious medical problems.

The sophisticated forecasting is only one way organizers are relying on technology to help them plan for the unprecedented crush of people entered in the landmark running of the world’s oldest annual marathon.

``We are definitely breaking some new ground,″ said Kevin Siszewski, a Worcester Polytechnic Institute chemical engineering major who worked on the projections.

Each of the expected 37,500 entrants will be tied to the Internet by their shoelaces, for example. Tiny black or yellow computer chips on their shoes will track their time from start to finish, activated when they cross a sensor in the road, and the results will be immediately posted on the World Wide Web.

``Granted, it’s an unprecedented number of athletes, but I think we’ve planned for every contingency,″ said Phil Graceffa, systems manager at the Massachusetts General Hospital and the marathon’s computer consultant. ``Everything is new, on top of the fact that the field has quadrupled, and that has definitely added to the burden. But unless there’s a tornado, we’re confident we have everything covered.″

The timing chips, which were introduced at the 1994 Berlin Marathon, can handle up to 1,000 finishers per second, according to their Dutch manufacturers. They were tested successfully last year in Boston’s wheelchair division.

WPI engineers project that 350 people per minute, or nearly six per second, will finish this year’s Boston Marathon during the peak period beginning three hours and 30 minutes after the race begins.

That’s important to know, not only to be sure that the computer chips will work. It also tells medical planners what to expect _ and when.

``It’s a reasonably good projection,″ said Dr. Marvin Adner, medical director. ``It isn’t perfect, because we don’t know the slowdown effect″ of the crowd of runners on a relatively narrow course.

About 5 percent of entrants are expected to need medical attention if the day of the race is cool, 8 percent if it’s mild and 10 percent _ about 4,000 people _ if it’s hot.

``The concern was, is that rate (of arrival) going to be so high at the finish line that people are going to get there and have no place to go?″ said Frank Noonan, a WPI professor of industrial and engineering and risk management who supervised the forecasting project. ``Are they going to have enough space? Are they going to have enough cots?″

In a word, yes, said Adner. ``We have everything in place for the worst case.″

The marathon is fielding the biggest medical operation in the city’s history. It has about 1,000 cots in three medical tents, and 2,500 volunteer doctors and nurses drawn from the area’s prestigious hospitals and medical schools. A trauma team is to be stationed at the starting line to treat falls caused by the press of runners.

With help from military medical recordkeepers, planners estimate that someone with a blister needs 15 minutes of attention. Dehydrated runners spend an average of 54 minutes in the medical tent and people who have heat prostration need about 90 minutes there.

``We saw some graphs that really surprised the medical staff and surprised us,″ Siszewski said. ``We looked at the possibility of 50,000 runners with temperatures in the 70s, and it really started to get, like, wow. It would be a very, very big challenge.″

Area paramedics and hospitals would take up the slack if the crowds of ailing runners grow beyond the marathon’s ability to handle them.

As for Siszewski and his classmates, they’ll be waiting on the finish line to document their research.

``We’ll be there in the medical tents, counting the empty beds,″ he said.

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