Discovering 49 Years of Historical Data from The Sun-Herald City2Surf

With this year marking the 50th running of The Sun-Herald City2Surf, I was fortunate to explore three different perspectives of this historic event during the latest episode of the Best Run Podcast. I spoke with Jeremy Kann, Director of Global Partnerships for Ironman Oceania; Chris Edwards, author and City2Surf Legend; and Brian Orloff, Business Innovation Strategist for SAP.

Jeremy noted that he’s been working in sports-marketing roles for 30 years, joining Ironman Oceania last year. “Ironman started out as an iron-man event in Hawaii back in the 70s and is now a massive global mass participation event from triathlons to iron man, road running, trail running, cycling and mountain-biking events across 57 countries and with over one million participants per year.

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“We’re fortunate to be part of Sydney’s City2Surf – the world’s biggest fun run, which last year had over 85,000. We were hoping to get the same numbers this year, but it’s running as a virtual event this weekend.”

Chris explained that the City2Surf legend title was given in 1985 following the 15th annual event. “There were 54 legends – people who at the time had run all 15. I think there are 24 of us left now who have done all 49 runs.”

Brian highlighted his role in helping SAP customers leverage innovation by providing, “new and emerging technology to help them orchestrate their business processes in a more intelligent manner and leverage data and analytics for better outcomes,” he said.

“I have a passion for data and analytics and a passion for sports, so it gives me an opportunity to bring those two together and participate in events like The Sun-Herald City2Surf to try and analyse the information and try to pull out interesting facts and insights to help – whether you’re a race organiser or a runner – actually perform better.”

According to Jeremy, Ironman events have been postponed since March, but events are slowly coming back as the Gold Coast 70.3 and Cairns Airport Ironman events were recently held. “Our international audiences are unable to participate, which certainly affected our Cairns event numbers,” he explained.

“However, our operations team had done an amazing job in managing the documentation and executing other requirements to run a COVID-safe event – from social distancing to hygiene. We’re also fortunate that NZ is in a very good place in relation to COVID, so we’ll be running Auckland and Queenstown marathons next month, which is a great for our company.”

As global public events face uncertain and challenging restrictions, Jeremy noted Ironman’s entry into the VR arena to digitalise physical events while maintaining safety of participants, organisers, and spectators. “Our global team had pivoted exceptionally well in running a VR Ironman event series and are still doing that currently. The team would’ve been in Kona for the Ironman World Championships this week, but there’s an Ironman VR Kona series going on as we speak.

“We’ve learned a lot of lessons running a VR campaign, so the marketing team did a great job of putting a plan together with a VR component in place. We’re delighted that the numbers are looking really strong – there will be tens of thousands of people running around Australia and the world in a VR capacity, which is great for the company in putting on an event in some description.”

While it is unfortunate the City2Surf is unable to celebrate its milestone anniversary physically, runners like Chris are still able to connect with one another and participate via the City2Surf VR component and wider community.

“We sort of celebrated the 50th event on Father’s Day in September because that was when the first one was held – 5th September 1971,” Chris said. “They since moved it forward to get out of the hot weather. A few of my friends went and did it on that day and one of the legends actually ran the course on that particular day just so that he could say he’s done his 50. I’ll be taking it easy and just doing it with a few friends around Canberra this weekend.”

The Sun-Herald City2Surf team wanted to understand its history of results from the past 49 years’ worth of results, according to Brian. “From 1971 through to 2019, they wanted to understand the demographics, who’s running the race, where they’re from, what’s their performance. One of the key questions was also how many people had run the event multiple times.”

“The data that was collected from the early days until now was in different shapes, formats, and sizes. From 1971 to 1999, most of the results that we received were in a scanned-newspaper format. There were other types of format available, but the most comprehensive were from printed results published in the newspaper. We had images, text files, Excel files – different formats over the years. We used various technologies to look at the images and read them through machine learning, use artificial intelligence to extract names and numbers for where they placed and the times they ran the race in.”

Brian said the results were then cleaned up to be more comprehensible for people and technology alike. “We were then able to ingest that data using data intelligence (our data pipelining tool) into the common repository, which is SAP HANA Cloud. From there, we run some additional machine learning algorithms to identify names and determine if they’re the same person through attributes we have such as date of birth, since postcodes and last names can change. We’re using a combination of different techniques to try and create that list.”

To understand more about how data visualisation is helping The Sun-Herald City2Surf event become more intelligent and interactive, listen to our latest episode of the Best Run Podcast. We discuss the event’s venture into VR, the changing history and statistics behind this historic event, and how COVID-19 has impacted on sporting events like this Sydney institution.