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Waukesha County's Molly Seidel Takes Bronze In Women's Marathon, As Wisconsin-Made Map Guides Runners

marathon elevation profile map
Provided by Sean Hartnett
Professor Sean Hartnett's marathon elevation profile map, created before COVID-19 delayed the 2020 Tokyo games to this year.

UPDATE: Hartland, WI native Molly Seidel took home the bronze medal in the women’s marathon Friday afternoon U.S. time. Peres Jepchirchir led a 1-2 Kenyan finish, finishing in a time of 2 hours, 27 minutes, 20 seconds. Her teammate Brigid Kosgei was second.

The Olympic marathon competitions in Sapporo, Japan begin late Friday afternoon U.S. time with the women's race. The men's race will take place Saturday evening U.S. time.

You probably don't have to be a student of ancient Greek history to know that both are grueling road ordeals, covering 26 miles, 385 yards (more than 42 kilometers.)

The male champion will likely cross the finish line in about two hours. The top female runners will do so in about 2 hours, 15 minutes.

This year, there are a couple of Wisconsin connections worth noting.

First, Molly Seidel, who was raised in Hartland, is one of the U.S. women marathoners.

Secondly, an online elevation profile map for the competitions has been produced by Sean Hartnett, who ran long distance races for Brookfield Central High School and Beloit College in the 1970s and is now a geography professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

The map spells out many aspects of the marathon route and is part of the technical documents provided to competitors, coaches, media and fans.

Hartnett says course surveyor and designer David Katz reached out to him, and asked for a map similar to what Hartnett created for the 2012 Olympic Marathon in London and last year's U.S. Olympic Trials in Atlanta.

Hartnett tells WUWM that he used Google Earth images to help create the elevation profile map. He says the data from Japan is "extraordinary — at each kilometer, they took a picture of the kilometer mark on the curb with some background information and literally, you could pick out the tree or building in the background and precisely locate that marker on Google Earth."

Provided by Sean Hartnett
Sean Hartnett (left) stands with marathon runners Paul Tergat and Haile Gebrselassie in a 2011 photo.

Hartnett says the next step in the process was to make a profile, including the distance along the course, getting a position at least every 1/10 of a mile and then sample LIDAR data to give elevations to the tenth of a foot. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, LIDAR stands for light detection and ranging, where a laser scanner on an aircraft sends brief pulses of light to the ground. The pulses are reflected or scattered back, and the travel time is used to calculate the distance.

Hartnett says the elevation profile map also includes locations of water and personal food stations, and timing stations every five kilometers. He's also included data on turns in the course. "That's something you're attuned to as runners, particularly as you get later in the race, the turns take away your momentum," he explains.

Overall, Hartnett says, marathoners want to know what's coming. "Runners tend to be a little bit compulsive," he says, laughing. "Sitting and looking at a map — the goal for most runners is to get their mind around a race, to know what to expect."

"In a marathon, you don't want to be confronted with the unexpected — like, 'There should have been a water station here,' you thought, but, 'Actually, it's there,'" Hartnett says.

Chuck Quirmbach joined WUWM in August 2018. He focuses his longform stories on health, innovation, science, technology, transportation, utilities and business.
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