Tech for keeping pace with the marathon trendsetters

February 24th, 2012 by Sandra Barron

A participant in last year's Tokyo Marathon takes the rat race literally. (Mark Thompson photo)

It’s been two years since the Japanese press got all out of breath announcing an “unprecedented running boom,” and yet the spandex-clad pack of joggers shows no sign of slowing down. Though the numbers are down from last year, this Sunday’s Tokyo Marathon still had almost 10 times as many applicants as the 35,500 spots in the race. The increase in women running put the phrase “beautiful jogger” onto the shortlist of top buzz words for 2011. As the marathoners get in their final practice runs and the spectators stake out their spots, we bring you a few of the tech trends that are going the distance for runners in Japan.

Sites like Run Net and Sports Entry make it easy to apply online for the growing number of races held all over the country. Popular races can fill up the same day they’re announced, leaving many would-be entrants hovering over their computer screens like they’re waiting for a starting gun. In addition to dedicated sites like these, runners in Japan are using Twitter to find running partners and groups with hashtags like #run_jp and #running (in both English and katakana).

Running rings around the Imperial Palace

The American fitness app RunKeeper has a loyal following among runners in Japan, even though the interface is only in English. A similar Japanese app called Tweet Runners also maps and shares completed runs on social media and is sponsored by pharmaceutical and supplement company Otsuka. Maybe not surprising for an app from a company better known for products like CalorieMate bars and the sports drink Pocari Sweat than its software, runners find its functions less robust than RunKeeper’s.

While not a role model for every runner, Tokyo Marathon veteran Joseph Tame is showing exactly what is possible when mobile tech is applied to the marathon course. Over the past few years, Tame has made an international name for himself by broadcasting his Tokyo Marathon runs via a wearable Ustream studio cobbled together from various mobile-tech devices. He keeps in shape between races and sharpens his tech capabilities at the same time with his “Art of Running” project: His meticulously plotted routes draw pictures or Japanese characters on the Tokyo map when he’s done. This year, he’ll be broadcasting a live interview with a fellow runner every kilometer of the race.

As a sponsor of the race, Tokyo Metro has put out an Android app for the Tokyo Marathon that helps runners with support info, such as where water is being handed out, and fans, by displaying subway routes between good cheering spots. Though it doesn’t track individual runners the way the marathon’s own bare-bones program has in past years, it estimates when runners should pass certain landmarks based on their self-estimates of how long it will take to finish the race. The course is a standard  42.195 km, which explains the race’s somewhat ungainly website URL and Twitter handle, @tokyo42195_org. The Tokyo Marathon organization has put out a set of marathon CDs to accompany different runs to accompany easy evening jogs or get you pumped up for race day.

One sound you’re not likely to hear during the race is jingling change, as electronic money is sprinting into the running market. The Edy stored-value debit chip, found built into many Japanese cellphone models, is breaking away from its usual place in keitai. Whether built into phones or wallet-size cards, it’s used to pay with a tap (and a distinctive chime) at retailers throughout the country and can be recharged by credit card, bank account or at dedicated machines. The simple rubber wristbands the chip was strapped into during last year’s running accessories boom seem like they were just a trial run. Now there is an Edy Tokyo Marathon 2012 cellphone strap with the race logo on it. The newest model of the Ares GPS watch, which records run data like distance, speed and split time to upload online, has an Edy card built in for quick combini runs.

Finally, for those of us who prefer to keep our runs strictly between the fridge and the couch, there’s the app Flick Run, which lets your fingers do the running through a variety of landscapes.

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