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Time-Sensitive

Whiners about inexact clocks get a new high-tech toy at this year's marathon.

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In addition to the usual indignities that await New York City Marathon runners at the finish line -- blistered feet, blackened toenails, the particularly unpleasant chafed nipples -- there has always been the vexing knowledge that official finishing times aren't quite as accurate as they could be.

Before the race, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is a shoulder-to-shoulder crush of 30,000 athletes; when the gun goes off, the runners -- except for the handpicked elite who start at the front -- begin a slow shuffle toward the starting line that eats up precious time. "It's never more than five minutes," insists Road Runners spokesperson Paula Turner. But, she admits, "it definitely feels a lot longer."

To compensate, weekend warriors typically subtract as many minutes as necessary to get their "real" time. Ask a finisher how he did and he might say, "Well, the clock said 3:41, but on my watch it was more like 3:37." A few minutes may not seem a big deal in a race that lasts all day, but for most marathon runners the race isn't against the guy gasping just behind you but against a hoped-for finish time that has been carefully calibrated, practiced, and prayed over for months.

This year, the grumbling should stop. Each runner will have a computer chip (something like an E-ZPass) tied to his or her sneaker. At the starting line, the finish line, and the ten-kilometer, half-marathon, and twenty-mile marks, they'll cross timing mats with antennae embedded in them. The antennae will pick up every chip, and each runner's time will be posted on the Internet minutes after he or she completes the race. On each finisher's certificate, there will be two scores: the official gun time, on which awards are based, and the real time, suitable for bragging, qualifying for Boston, and resting easier at night.


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