Experience Trail Running From Your Phone – Forbes

Decades ago I ran the Basic Boulder Mountain Marathon in Colorado. The organizer—an avid rock climber and mountaineer named Neal Beidleman—ripped open a bag of flour and poured it across the road to create a start/finish line. Volunteers had lugged a table up Green Mountain and handed out slices of oranges and apples to passing runners to provide them with an energy boost.
Flatirons and mountain trail in Boulder, Colorado
Runners had no maps. Backbackable water bottles and lightweight headlamps had not been invented and wristwatch monitors would not be sold for another 20 years. There were no electronic chips in race bibs back in an era when just the concept of ‘cutting and pasting’ text via a computer was scintillatingly novel. If runners got lost or injured they would have to shout for help or flag down another runner to assist.
Today, friends of runners can track their locations remotely and immediately via smart phone applications.
Proprietary smart phone applications can also provide instant data for runners. An example comes from the UTMB World Series trail runs that take place throughout the world. The organization will coordinate 42 events this year in Europe, Oceania, Africa, Americas and Asia. The founders created proprietary software that allows the public, via a smartphone application, to track runner positions during any races. Yet the impetus for this app came not from infatuation with statistics or concern about possible cheating. Instead, the founders realized that friends of trail runners worried when those they knew disappeared for long stretches of time.
Isabelle Viseux-Poletti—Director of UTMB Mont-Blanc—is the daughter of the founding couple—Catherine and Michel Poletti. She and her husband developed the Live Trail application that allows participants and observers to find locations and running times of all trail running participants, as well as to read about their previous race experience, tune into live camera video footage, or inspect trail maps for all of their races—whether in Transylvania, Jordan or South Africa this May, or Morocco, Mauritius or Austria in June.
Obernai in Alsace, France
We met while I was visiting friends in Alsace and she spoke about creating the application.
“Twenty-one years ago my parents decided to create the Mont Blanc run. At that time my husband and I were computer science students. My parents said that runners around Mont Blanc are moving for more than 20 hours and family and friends don’t know what happens during that time. It could be a little stressful. We decided to put information about runners onto the internet to allow family members to know where runners are during the race. At the beginning we used a chip in the bib and also a chip attached to their backpack that were detected by mats on the ground and the information was sent via internet. Today my team continues to develop and improve estimations and running times and map displays. We improve these tools to make following runners easier. Since 2009 we have leased the software to other races. About 150 events use it.”
Isabelle Viseux-Poletti – Director UTMB Mont Blanc
Such software can also help ferret out racecourse mischief.
In April of 1980 Rosie Ruiz completed the 26.2 mile Boston Marathon running race in two hours, 31 minutes and 56 seconds and was declared the female winner. Incredibly, she appeared not to be panting or sweating excessively, and her time was a full 25 minutes faster than when she ran the New York City marathon less than a year earlier. Oddly, other runners did not remember seeing her on much of the course and she was absent from photographs and videos. The secret to her success? She took the subway. When her cheating was discovered, she was disqualified.
Unfortunately, such cheating—much of it flagrant—continues in the running world. In the 2011 Kielder Marathon in the U.K., the third placer was accused of taking a bus for part of the race, then hiding behind a tree to let the first and second place runners pass. A dentist from Michigan state in the U.S. claimed to have completed marathons in all 50 states, although one race he was accused of creating himself—and being the sole participant.
In 2018 some 3,090 runners in the Mexico City Marathon were disqualified—many accused of using cars and public transport to reduce the race distance.
Boston Marathon, Massachusetts, USA, 1980
In 2018 a male runner was accused of cheating during a 100-kilometer race in Australia. He was supposed to run a 12.5 kilometer loop eight times during the cool of night, and carried a required transponder around his ankle. Yet his transponder indicated that he passed the halfway turnaround point on his first lap, and first aid volunteers did not see him pass their station.
In April last year a participant ran the Liverpool to Manchester race in the U.K. But after some 25 miles rode in her friend’s car for a few miles before exiting to complete the race and take third place. GPS tracking data exposed the truth.
In this era of digital technology, electronic chips are placed in race bibs. Aberrations in race times can be identified without having to comb through course photos and interview participants. Cheating is often revealed not by race officials but by amateur sleuths.
Tracking technology can also increase the intrigue of the sport of long distance running by providing information on race entrants. Consider a recent series of long distance trail runs in Alsace, France.
Running trail passes Château du Haut Koenigsbourg, Alsace, France
Some of the winding forested mountain roads in Alsace are reminiscent of roads in Washington State in the U.S.—impeccable asphalt, tall and fetching evergreen and deciduous trees and mossy road banks. Locals here are proud of their heritage—including churches, winemaking roots, endemic pastries, and Tyrolean architecture painted a rainbow of colors that match the chameleon hues of some runners’ shoes. In Europe such an event can be about fashion as much as sport, but in the Alsace pretentiousness is rare. Locals will run a hundred miles and then keep quiet about it.
The international flavor of these events was emphasized when Dominik Tabor from Poland won the 34-kilometer run in two hours, 20 minutes and 33 seconds. After completing the run he spoke about initially losing his position which disrupted his strategy, and “then all went smoothly; there was a river running down one trail which was interesting. My next goal: European championship, then the 44 kilometer run at Mont Blanc.”
Wanting to know more about Tabor, I opened the Live Trail app and learned that he ranked second place in a Mont Blanc marathon last year, and participated in seven other events in 2023.
Polish runner Dominik Tabor in Alsace, France
The loneliness of the long-distance runner no longer really exists. In 2022 the International Trail Running Association compiled statistics with data from over 9,000 runners from 104 countries. This data indicates that 82% of participants overall in trail running are male, mostly between 46 and 55 years of age. Most of them began running in their early 30’s on roads, and their motivation is primarily to keep in shape, but also to discover new locations and to get in harmony with nature. Almost 70% train without any coach from four to six hours per week and half travel internationally to races, predominantly by airplane. Most race up to a half dozen times per year, preferring a distance from a half marathon to 50 miles (80 kilometers). Some 60% of runners use a Garmin watch to track their progress, and others use one of at least 13 different brands of smart phones in competition.
In summary, trail runners appear to like travel as much as nature; they also enjoy giving their friends an ability to track their location in real time.
I finished the Basic Boulder Mountain Marathon in less than five hours. Someone took my photograph on a similar but official course that same summer. On one calf is a race number that an official had written using a black marker. Tracking technology—back in the day.

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