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June 22, 2009, 12:20 p.m.

Run Well: The New York Times branches out into a web app to manage your marathon training

Running a marathon this fall? The New York Times wants to be your coach.

The Times recently debuted what may be a first for a traditional newspaper: an interactive marathon training application called Run Well. It lets you choose an upcoming marathon to run and offers six training programs — from famous coaches including Greg McMillan and Jeff Galloway — tailored to a reader’s running experience. Once you chose a program, the tracker displays a full training calendar, a progress chart, and detailed information about each day’s run. You can log each day’s workout, adding any specific comments you’ll want to remember later.

The Times has featured a lot of marathon coverage under the Run Well brand in past month, starting with Well blogger/columnist Tara Parker-Pope’s first post in May announcing her own plans to run the New York Marathon on November 1. There have been running-tech reviews from the Gadgetwise blog, fitness-advice pieces from the Personal Best blog, and a photo profile feature called Running Voices. But, while a web app to track runs may seem like a departure from the Times’ traditional content, Pope sees it as a natural offshoot of the Well blog, which has been one of the Times’ biggest blogging successes.

“If this didn’t fit with the Well blog, then we wouldn’t have done it this way,” she told me. “We realized that the project was very consistent with the mission of Well, which is to empower readers to take charge of their own health.”

The app was built by in-house by Alan McLean and Ben Koski of the Interactive Newsroom Technologies group, with assistance from the Times’ graphics department. It is not the first run-tracker on the web (see Nike’s Training Log, the Runner’s World guide, and others) but it appears to be a first for a news site.

Building a loyal audience

Pope said readers of the Well blog are a perfect audience for this kind of tool, since many are already engaged as frequent, repeat commenters. “We have built a definite relationship with Well readers,” she says. “The blog is a place where readers have a conversation. It’s a very interactive place.”

Pope’s strong personality on the blog reinforces the idea of community. She often responds to commenters’ posts, addressing issues from how to operate the tracker feature to a recent complaint that the blog does not feature enough female coaches. Her prominent role goes back to her original post, when she identified herself as not merely a writer, but also an enthusiastic participant in the running community. She has subsequently offered further glimpses into her own training.

“I’ve had many readers say they are going to start training because I said I was doing it,” Pope says. “Others tell me how excited they are to cheer me on. But I don’t think it is catching on because it’s me. It’s that I am experiencing the same thing that other people are experiencing.”

Popular Science editor Mike Haney, who is training for the New York Marathon, gave the new feature a thumbs up:

I’ve used other online training tools, including the highly graphic one from Nike+, but Run Well’s flexibility and simplicity makes it my favorite so far. It’s also, conveniently, on a site that’s constantly open in my browser anyway, so it’ll be harder for me to “forget” the week’s runs.

Service on a news site

Haney’s last point is not missed by the Times, which like all news sites is searching for ways to keep readers coming back more often. Runners can opt to receive daily e-mail training reminders, which will link them back to the content on the blog — reinforcing Run Well as required reading for runners.

“Our feeling is that the readers are on the Times site for news and information on a daily basis,” Pope says. “The goal here is really to give readers one place where they can check in everyday.”

So will the Times be offering more reader-service features like Run Well? “I wouldn’t say the Times is moving in one direction or another,” Pope says. “Our goal is to provide quality, accurate news and information to our readers. I think service journalism fits in there. We are not just serving readers but capturing and organizing the knowledge of the readership. Readers take stories to a new level because they have so much to contribute.”

The Times wouldn’t release early traffic numbers, but Pope says that readers have already logged nearly 20,000 training miles and have more than 2.8 million miles planned. (That number likely puts the number of runners signed up somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 to 4,000, depending on what training program they’ve chosen.)

As for Pope’s own training, she says there are good days and bad. Nonetheless, she remains excited and is already setting goals for November. She hopes to finish under five hours, the cutoff imposed by the Times for printing results.

“I’d like to get my name in my own paper.”

POSTED     June 22, 2009, 12:20 p.m.
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