Calculating the Perfect Race

One might think that an open pair of eyes is all it takes to avoid running into a wall; but ...

One might think that an open pair of eyes is all it takes to avoid running into a wall; but apparently, come this year’s Boston Marathon, it might actually be a new online calculator that helps most to avoid “hitting the wall.”

This new tool, meant to calculate the optimal carbohydrate levels for a runner’s muscles, was recently created by Benjamin I. Rapoport ’03, a long-time marathon runner and M.D.-Ph.D student in the Health Sciences and Technology program at Harvard Medical School and MIT. With the input of one’s weight, age, resting heart rate and target marathon time, the calculator projects the needed carbohydrate consumption and potential best marathon performance times. Would-be marathoners, through this model, can more accurately plan their pre-race diet so as to optimize their performance during the race.

Ironically enough, Rapoport’s efforts to further structure pre-race eating habits came completely outside of the original structure of his own research on brain-machine interfaces. “It was quite a funny story, actually,” says Dr. William M. Kettyle, the professor for an endocrinology class in which Rapoport was enrolled. Rapoport explained to his professor that he would be missing a lecture because he was running the Boston Marathon; Kettyle, as a joke, dared Ben to speak about the science of his experience immediately after finishing the race.

“Ben took me seriously and on the day of the Marathon he came to class,” recalls Kettyle. “He gave a terrific talk on the energy management of running a marathon. Every year since then he has come to the class right after running in the Boston Marathon and has given a talk on this topic.”

His passion for marathon running turned into yearly lectures, and these quickly developed into published research, which Rapoport decided to print in the PLoS (Public Library of Science) Computational Biology journal, and then later, due to demand, as an online calculator located at “I had no idea it would get this big,” he says. “I was just expecting a few academics to be interested in it.”

For those looking forward to the Boston Marathon this spring, Rapoport’s calculator may prove helpful; however, it might still be a good idea to watch out for those walls as well.