Marathon Apps, why do they fail so often?

2015-04-12 19.24.49Today the Rotterdam Marathon took place. Also for this marathon, a smartphone app had been developed. I think most users for such apps are the supporters, who want to track their favourite runners, along the side of the route or from home.

There is some innovation, but clearly not much thought was given to how this app would be used, and how this could be made more easy.

Why is this format not good, and how can it be improved?


First the innovations. At previous apps, I have seen there was a map of the route, but what was new to me in this app, was the ability to see the position of the runners—at least, the last tracking point where they passed. According to the map, the runners I was tracking were now, hours after the finish, still at the 40 km point, but the principle is nice.

It can be made even better: instead of the position of the last tracking point, present the position where they are now, assuming they continued running at the same pace. When you are watching along the route, that would make it easier to estimate when they will pass.

Another nice feature is that, if a runners brings along his smartphone, it can be tracked using its GPS. None of the runners I was tracking used this, so I cannot say how it worked, but I like the idea.


But live tracking runners remains a problem. It starts with getting regular updates. Today, during the first hour it was fine, after that no more updates. During the remaining part of the marathon, one or two times only a single passing of a tracking point was reported. Only half an hour after they finished, it was shown in the app. Why can this not be arranged reliably?

Few things are as predictable as the number of runners that pass a tracking point during a marathon, and with current cloud services, one can buy as much computer capacity as needed just for those hours that it is needed. So no reason why tracking the runners can not be done reliably and send to an app immediately. Still, it often fails. Why ???

Overview not clear

List of tracked runnersWhat if tracking goes well, and the information comes to your app nicely in time? The first thing you see it the overview of the runners, as in the picture. By now, they have all finished, showered and are home already, but the location indicated in the app still says they are at the 1/2 marathon point.

If this would be working well, it would be the only indication that new information has arrived, but in practice, you keep clicking regularly on each runner to see if there is an update. Cumbersome, while it could be so much easier:

  • Sort the running in order of the latest information, so as soon as one passes a tracking point, he goes on top of the list, and gradually moves down as other runners pass a point, until he passes the next tracking point. You will see immediately if there is new information.
  • Show the most relevant information in this view, e.g. the expected finish time, based on the last measurements. Suppose a runner passes 25 km in 2:02:12, and 30 km in 2:26:39, one can calculate that the expected time to finish is 3:26:16, assuming he continues running at the same pace. This will usually be the most relevant information, and by providing this immediately, you don’t have to click on the runner first.

Useless informationInfo van een loper

After clicking on one of the runners, you see a table with the information as it is registered by the tracking system, but not immediately useful. First, you have to calculate to make any sense of it. But isn’t calculation something an app can do much better than we can?

The time is the the moment that the runner passes a tracking point. That is only useful if you are watching along the route a bit further on, so you can calculate when to expect him.

Even then: the smartphone has a GPS, so the app can know where you are and calculate immediately when one of the runners will pass by, and show this time, perhaps even give a warning a little earlier.

What is actually useful to know:

Timing point Net time Pace
5 KM 00:24:14 04:51
10 KM 00:48:23 04:50
15 KM 01:13:13 04:58
20 KM
1/2 Marathon 01:43:07 04:54
25 KM 02:02:12 04:53
30 KM 02:26:39 04:53
31 KM
33 KM
35 KM
40 KM
Finish 03:26:16 (expected)
  • Net time for the distance so far, so you can compare with the planned or expected schedule
  • Split time, the time between the last tow tracking points, so you can estimate whether the runner can still maintain the pace, or
  • Pace (time per km), for the same reason, but easier if the tracking points are not at equal distances.

Do I need to explain that, with the information under Timing Point, the Distance column is largely redundant? Except for those that do not know that a marathon is 42.195 km, and therefore a half marathon is 21.097 km, but this information can be placed in a footnote.


Actually, it is a really nice system, running with a chip so your supporters can track you. Recording and storing the information seems to work fine, I can not recall any recent issues with that. But sharing in real time via Internet is still troublesome, and it should not be with the currently available technical options, and more thought should be given to make the apps really user friendly.

BTW: I guess that if you are used to run 26.2 miles instead of 42,2 km, you still get my point 🙂

This post is also available in: Dutch

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