Big brother is watching: timing and tracking on the London Marathon

Running the London Marathon featured a host of strange experiences (some of which I’ve written about here and here), but one of the weirdest sensation was that I was being watched.

Now, that sounds like an obvious statement. Of course I was being watched: the route was lined with tens of thousands of spectators. But I don’t mean it like that: I’m talking about being tracked by my friends and family.

Like most runs, the London Marathon gives every runner a timing chip – in this case the plastic sort attached by wire ties to my trainers. The course featured timing mats every five kilometres (yes, kilometres, not miles – international use metric timing, probably just to confuse me) – and every time I passed over one, the times were instantly updated on the internet. And that meant my friends and family (and anyone else who cared), could track my progress.

This manifested itself in a few different ways. My big brother amazingly spent his hard-earned dollars frequent flyer miles to come over from Texas purely to cheer me on. He spent the day shuttling around London to cheer me on, heading from Greenwich to the Docklands before heading to The Mall for the finish. To ensure he got his timings right, he tracked my progress on the London Marathon app (see, the blog post title makes sense now!).

When he reached The Mall he headed to the grandstands (the South West Children’s Heart Circle had kindly given me some tickets) to meet my Mum, who had spent a relaxing day watching all the elite race finishes, while also tracking me on the app. I also had some other good friends, who attempted to use the app to follow my progress while out spectating.

Meanwhile, my Dad was at his house, watching the race on television while also constantly hitting refresh while tracking my progress.

There were more. Various other friends and work colleagues admitted to checking up on my progress. The organisers of a rally championship I used to cover while working for Motorsport News (Britain’s best weekly motorsport newspaper!), were actually giving live Twitter updates on the progress of me, fellow MN alum Matt Burt and a handful of rally drivers.


Now, the tracking wasn’t quite perfect: the app proved a little unreliable, which is probably understandable given how many people were doubtless trying to use it in central London last week. For about 15 minutes, it said I was stopped on the Isle of Dogs, which caused some panic for my mum. But, given how many runners there were, the system worked remarkably well.

Still, it was the first race I’ve done where I’ve known people were tracking me throughout – a point hammered home when I crossed a timing mat every 5k. For the most part, running is something of a solitary, private exercise for me. Knowing my progress was being tracked meant I knew people were studying my times. Did my Dad – a multiple marathon runner himself – think I was going too fast early on? Was my brother changing his spectating plans because my pace was too fast or slow? Weirdly, questions such as this kept popping into my head.

There was something else odd, too: while everyone tracking me was getting updates every 5k, my Garmin was set with mile-based splits. Comparing the two sets of split times now gives a very different perspective on my progress: the longer gaps between the 5k splits smooths out the progress a bit, making my speed look a lot more measured. And it also smoothed out my relatively sharp late-race dealing in pace (oooh, my aching legs, etc).

That said, for the slightly weird sensation, online tracking and results showed their worth post-race. When I staggered into Horseguards Parade and found my mum and brother, I didn’t need to tell them how I’d done: they already knew. So did my dad. And my friends. And that was useful, because a mixture of exhaustion and emotion meant talking was a little difficult…

I ran the 2016 London Marathon to raise money for the South West Children’s Heart Circle. It’s not late to sponsor me and help out a fantastic cause – click the Just Giving button for details!
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