RunKeeper’s Mad Dash to the Marathon Finish: Of Foot Injuries, Viral Video, and Dressing Up as an iPhone

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an overuse injury (plantar fasciitis) in one foot, and he hasn’t done any serious marathon training since. His Chicago time didn’t qualify him for the Boston race. Luckily, he was able to obtain a coveted marathon bib (the number is 22790, in case you want to track him on Monday) through Boston’s Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital when one of the people running for its fundraising team had to pull out. Not so luckily, he reinjured his foot during a recent 12-mile training run. So he’s been going to rehab and staying off the foot, and will be running the 26.2-mile race in what could charitably be called non-peak condition. (“Delusional” might be another word for it.)

“It’s an extremely aggressive timeline,” Jacobs acknowledges. “There are all kinds of logistics that need to go into it from a marketing standpoint, and I’m already undertrained, and now I’m battling this injury. I would have been worried just from an endurance standpoint, but I can’t even worry about that now, because I have to stay off my foot between now and the race. There was so much drama that we made the decision that we were going to film the process of pulling together the campaign.”

In other words, Jacobs and the Emerson team are intentionally positioning the RunKeeper videos in the realm of what you might call reality-show unreality. It’s a meta-media-land where the videos are partly about the making of the videos, complete with hand-held shaky-cam videography, rock music in the background, and confessionals where the students share their doubts about whether Jacobs can finish the race—or whether, indeed, the whole project is going to blow up in their faces. The campaign clearly and cleverly targets smartphone-owning twenty- and thirty-somethings whose tastes in video have likely been shaped by shows like “The Apprentice,” “The Real World,” and “Behind the Music.”

Taping a RunKeeper Boston Marathon campaign videoThe Emerson team plans to film Jacobs’ run from at least three locations during the marathon and produce a wrap-up video that will appear sometime after Monday. They’re also helping to staff the FitnessKeeper booth at the John Hancock Sports & Fitness Expo, a free event at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center running today through Sunday. And they’re promoting the whole effort vigorously on Twitter, on the RunKeeper website, and through e-mail newsletters distributed by Waltham, MA-based e-mail marketing company Constant Contact.

Of course, there’s also a charitable cause that gives the RunKeeper campaign a humanitarian spin: Jacobs is running the marathon as part of “Race for Rehab” team at Spaulding, which also happens to be the institution treating his injured foot. As of Thursday afternoon, Jacobs had raised $2,226 toward his goal of $10,000. (You can donate here.)

So, will Jacobs finish the race? How much money will he raise? If his foot holds up past Heartbreak Hill, will he survive the media attention, the hypothermia (Monday’s forecast calls for showers and a high of 46 degrees), and the race’s other hazards? Perhaps most important, will the madcap, last-minute marathon campaign boost RunKeeper’s brand, or just come off as goofy?

You’ll have to watch next week’s video and judge for yourself. “Honestly, my biggest concern about having Jason run 26 miles in an iPhone costume is chafing,” jokes Gerzof.

Whatever happens to Jacobs—and whatever kind of buzz the campaign generates for RunKeeper—the project has already been good experience for the Emerson team, and it illustrates how quickly savvy marketing professionals (and those who train them) are shifting toward Web-based communication. When these students graduate and put “social media consultant” on their resumes, they’ll have a real example to point to.

“It was nice not to be stuck in a classroom writing a media plan, like we’ve done in every other class,” says Emerson’s Marre. “It’s been really interesting to work with somebody on a real-life timeline and put things together that have the potential to be big for a real-life company.”

Says Jacobs: “These students have really stepped up. They are super into it, and probably doing five times the work that would be required for the class, and they’re not even getting paid. But we’re having fun and learning a lot. If I don’t finish the race, it doesn’t affect the story that much—except that the hero might not emerge victorious.”

[Addendum, 7:45 a.m. April 17, 2009: Mass High Tech also features Jacobs in a piece today about technology executives who are running in the Boston Marathon.]

Continue to page 3 to watch Runkeeper’s Boston Marathon videos.

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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8 responses to “RunKeeper’s Mad Dash to the Marathon Finish: Of Foot Injuries, Viral Video, and Dressing Up as an iPhone”

  1. Staffan says:

    I will definitly check out this application as soon as I exchanged my old cell for an iPhone.

    Feel free to check out my blog about running

  2. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    A humorous addendum: Bet you didn’t know I’m not just a journalist…I’m the world’s fastest human!

    I had RunKeeper Pro going on my walk to work this morning — you can check out the map, the split times, etc here:

    Problem is, the GPS signal was weak, and has me jumping around downtown Boston. My walking pace is generally 4.0 to 4.5 mph, but if you look at the speed graph, I briefly peaked at 18.9 mph! Guess I’m in better shape than I thought!

    All of which goes to show you — fitness tracking apps are only as reliable as the underlying hardware. The iPhone has such a tiny GPS antenna that it’s never going to give you the world’s most reliable location readings.

  3. Wade,
    Thanks for the great piece! The whole team, both Emerson and FitnessKeeper, enjoyed reading it immensely.

    We took a look at your route, did you remember to turn wi-fi off? Was GPS filter on medium? Those are 2 easy tips that lead to much improved GPS tracking in most cases. We have also made several improvements in our latest release (1.4.8), that have improved tracking quite a bit. This release is live on RK Free, and we have been receiving great feedback from our users. This release is not yet live on RK Pro (it is in the queue with Apple), which explains why you don’t have it.

    In terms of the underlying hardware, while the iPhone is a new platform and does have a few kinks to work out, it is actually pretty good overall, especially for a first pass. And the good news is it continues to get better with every new iPhone OS release (we have noticed significant improvements, even in the under a year that the iPhone 3G has been available).

    This is only the beginning of the smartphone revolution. Like any new technologies, things won’t be perfect from the beginning, but I think it is clear that the center of gravity is going to continue to shift from PCs and expensive standalone devices to the device that is in your pocket—your phone. These mobile devices are far more powerful than they have ever been before, and this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is possible.

    On a lighter note, we’ll make sure to send you the 3rd and final video when it is completed!


  4. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    Jason — thanks for the tips. The GPS filter was on medium, but the Wi-Fi was not off. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was getting positional interference from every Starbucks I walk past on my way to work (there are three of them!). I look forward to trying the 1.4.8 release. Good luck on Marathon day!

  5. Mary Scott says:

    What a great experience for not only RunKeeper but for the students. As a business owner you have to continue to become more and more creative to survive. This story has inspired me to encourage myself and my staff to think outside of the box to develop our next marketing campaign.