Leveling The Complaining Field

(Note: This was originally published on BeAlmighty.com.)

We’re pretty proud to have shipped this new Trained Tough? app for New Balance this week, just in advance of the running of the 2011 Boston Marathon a week from today. Here’s what it’s all about:

Everyone who qualifies for the Boston Marathon has without question accomplished a meaningful, significant, praiseworthy feat. It doesn’t matter how you get there, or where you are in the pecking order. Qualifying is hard. Training is hard. Even in the best possible circumstances, it’s a huge accomplishment. You’re made as a marathoner by toeing the line at this race, whether it’s your first or your thirtieth.

Tougher than...easier than...

But runners like to compare notes on all manner of things, and everyone likes to kvetch every now and then. Within the offices of New Balance, where more than a few associates themselves compete in the marathon each year, there was a feeling through the fall, winter, and early spring that the particular level of brutality of this year’s New England winter turned any possible advantage of being from near where the race takes place, into a decided obstacle to be overcome during training season. We even heard of one associate having to dodge double-parked cars, snowdrifts, plows, and ice hazards on a few of her long runs.

Together, and with the help of Incredibly Lifelike, we built a web app to help celebrate Boston’s emergence from the harsh winter and settle (or perhaps fuel) those bar bets between runners. Oh, precious Michiganders, or Vermonters, or Alaskans, did you have to battle more snow and rain and cold than we did? Let’s ask the app and find out.

Under the hood, we tried to keep it as simple, verifiable, and transparent as possible. It has 3 indices, (a)number of snowy days in the training season, (b)number of rainy days, and (c)average temperature. The cities it ranks are all of the zip codes the participants in the Boston Marathon listed as their address, which covers roughly 26,000 people and numerous cities and towns all over the world.

All this creates a fun exercise for anyone getting ready to run the 26.2 in Boston. If your area is listed, you can see where yours ranks given those three factors, just what kind of a winter you faced, and which cities had it easier and tougher than you. Because everybody likes single numbers that they can compare, it also offers a good-natured weather “handicap” that suggests how many minutes out of a possible five you can shave off of your final time, to make up for the snowy, cold, and rainy training you may have had to endure. If you’d like to get a sense of where runners hailed from this year and what their training conditions were like, you can also browse the map view.

map view

Some notes about the data and things we might like to tweak if we do another rev, in case you’re curious:

  • It doesn’t take in to account things like amount of rain and snowfall (only number of snow and rain days), because we had a hard time verifying that for all the locales consistently. More and better data sources in the future would get us some more variables to play with.

  • In future we could create a pathway for runners to suggest a place that they trained that’s not in our data, because we know some people will have done most of their training somewhere other than their home town. Somehow we’d have to then change the rankings on the fly, and users would have to be ok with the fact that their ranking may change as new cities are added.

  • We could add a “deeper path” for runners who have saved their rich training data using something like a Garmin, Polar, or Nike+ device, or Dailymile.com. This would allow us to take more personal factors into account, and maybe draw some other conclusions about the field overall. We could even read GPS from some of these files to know more particulars about where people trained.

  • Since there are always anomalies and errors in any data set, it would be nice to have a system for users to report that stuff to us, in case we missed it in our testing, so we can fix it.

  • There was one place folks said they hailed from that we decided to remove – APO or military post office. APO isn’t a particular geographical place. It’s an administrative address that helps route mail to the right place for our working military serving overseas. Unfortunately, we don’t know where these folks are serving from the data, so we don’t have something to display for them, although no matter where they are their training is no doubt just as rigorous as an icy, snowy Boston winter or more so. There were 10 runners who had APO listed as their home town.

  • It’s really fun to have access to this much simple data about a sizeable set of people. Lots of ideas came up along the way for what useful insights or perspectives we could draw out of it, whether as part of or in addition to the main app experience.

What else would you like to see in a next rev?