Tokyo’s Apple-powered marathon man

Roberto DeVido
6 December, 2011
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Joseph Tame is a Tokyo-based digital media producer who has built a reputation for himself as a crazy gaijin who livestreams the Tokyo Marathon while running it himself. He does this using a rig comprising four iPhones on swivel mounts, an iPad, an Android handset, three mobile Wi-Fi routers, a four-in-one atmospheric monitor and a heart monitor. This is his story, as told to ROBERTO DE VIDO

This all started in, I believe it was 2006, when I bought my first iPod. I was at university, a couple of friends had iPods, and I liked the design. I’d had a few MP3 players, but they were terrible, I didn’t like them at all.

My iPod was the 5th-generation iPod Classic, and that was the beginning of the affair, really. The next year, I’d been listening to podcasts, and I decided I wanted to make one. I found that the easiest way for me to do it was with Apple’s GarageBand, which meant I had to buy a MacBook. I bought a white one and I loved it. It was easy to use, and to be creative.

Then in 2008, I got very excited about the launch of the iPhone, but it wasn’t available in the UK, where I was living at the time. In September of that year I moved to Japan, and on the day I arrived I immediately went to a Softbank (Japanese mobile service provider) store and picked up an iPhone 3G.

Mobile phones in Japan are not very foreigner-friendly – and the iPhone was the antidote. It made me feel connected. To be able to be connected to a community in your own language, to access maps in your own language, I felt it really set me free.

Then late that year, a friend persuaded me to start running. I found an app called EveryTrail that would let me log my runs. I’ve always logged stuff; I’ve kept a diary since the age of 10, and with the iPhone I realised I could add photos to my run logs, and build an interesting record not only for myself, but for others. So running became more than just running.

In early 2009 I was persuaded to run the 10K in the Tokyo Marathon, and I had the idea that it would be fun to livestream it. At that point, you had to jailbreak your iPhone to livestream, but I did that, and I figured that by livestreaming my race using Qik, I’d be held responsible if I didn’t finish.

I thought it would be great way to motivate myself. In addition, the Tokyo Marathon is quite popular, and even at that point only around one in 10 applicants was getting an entry slot, so I thought livestreaming would be a good way to share the experience with those who couldn’t get in to the race.

Handicap race. Japan-based expatriate Brit Joseph Tame lines up for the Tokyo marathon in his social-media-to-the-max rig.

Shortly before that race, I wrote an email to The Unofficial Apple Weblog, and they ran a short piece that meant I had around 1000 viewers on race day. I strapped on my iPhone, and because I was completely inexperienced – I’d never run as far as 10K before – I ran the first 5K too fast. If I hadn’t had 1000 people watching my livestream, I would have stopped. But I really did feel accountable, and I managed to finish.

Funnily, after the race, I went to the Apple Store in Ginza (the flagship store in Tokyo) to check the site, and the broadcast was 30 minutes behind real time! Buffering had delayed the broadcast speed so much it looked as though I wasn’t making much progress at all out on the course!

Different and crazy. Tame interacts with the crowd as he passes an Apple Store.

After that, I just kept running. I started using RunKeeper, which is made for runners, and provides a lot more data, and I ran a few more races, but didn’t livestream them.

In 2010, though, I gained entry into the Tokyo Marathon to run the full marathon. I wanted to build on what I had done the previous year, and so I went to talk to the manager of the Washington Hotel, which overlooked the finish of the race. I explained that I wanted to set up a sort of television studio to broadcast my run, and he showed me half a dozen rooms with a view of the course.

We reserved a tiny little room – this is Tokyo, remember – shoved the bed up against the wall, and my friends Steve and Christine set themselves up there to anchor the broadcast.

On race day, I had outfitted myself with an iPhone 3GS, and set up two Ustream  channels on my website; one stream carried the raw feed from my iPhone and the other broadcast Steve’s and Christine’s mix of commentary and on-course reports and interviews from my support team.

At that point, RunKeeper did not yet have a ‘live’ app, and apps like Google Latitude were designed to share data only with people you knew, so I decided to use Glympse, which is live location broadcast software developed for motorists.

Glympse wasn’t perfect, though, so I contacted the developers and they made a few tweaks for me, ensuring that the location data wouldn’t expire after a few hours, as it was designed to do, and developing an embed code that I could use.

I wanted to interact with my viewers and followers as much as possible during the race, and I thought it would be really useful to have an app that could read tweets to me. There were some bugs in the TweetTalk iPhone app, though, and I contacted the developers of TweetTalk to see if they could fix them. They worked overnight and fixed the bugs, but we’d all forgotten the app couldn’t read Japanese!

So once I got out on the course, the TweetTalk stream started to dry up as I got more and more support via Twitter from people in Japan. It was helpful though, when I inadvertently hit the mute button on my iPhone microphone. Not long after that, TweetTalk read me a message saying, “Joseph, we can’t hear anything.”

On the day, I had 13,000 viewers, and the technical production was very challenging for Steve. First of all, the live stream went down quite a lot. The technology was a lot less robust then than it is now. And although the iPhone 3GS was an incredible device, we really were pushing it well beyond what it was designed to do.

On top of juggling the two livestreams, Steve was also trying to coordinate my meet-ups with supporters on the course, and to edit together a broadcast that resembled a professional sports broadcast, but that had been produced using everyman technology. For me, the interactivity with viewers and Twitter supporters, as well as my team, was overwhelming and confusing at times. And the technical problems were frustrating. But afterwards, the feedback was great.

Later in 2010, I took it to another level. At the time I had only the one iPhone, which at the start I had strapped to my head in a waterproof case. The case fell apart, though, and I ended up carrying the phone in my hand. What that allowed me to do was show a lot more than just what my head was pointed at. And I found that people liked seeing the race from multiple angles. That’s where the idea came for iRun.

I bought a couple of cheap and lightweight IKAN Recoil camera mounts, and I built a rig that comprised four iPhones on swivel mounts, an iPad, an Android handset, three mobile Wi-Fi routers, a four-in-one atmospheric monitor and a heart monitor.

One iPhone 4 camera faced forward onto the course, another one was mounted so viewers could see my sweaty, gasping face, and two older iPhone 3GS units were employed to upload RunKeeper data and manage incoming and outgoing phone calls and tweets.

I used the Android handset to upload data from the atmospheric monitor recording CO2 and NOx levels, as well as humidity and temperature readings. I used the Skypevideo application on the iPhones, and again used Ustream for the broadcast.

The iPad I used to display live tweets from supporters, but the first-generation iPad was quite heavy – from the marathon runner’s standpoint – and halfway through the race I gave it to a friend who was running with me. He ended up using it to check Facebook while he was running. The whole rig weighed around 7kg, and during the race it just seemed to be getting heavier and heavier.

We had enormous technical problems during the race. The batteries ran out much faster than I expected, and of course we couldn’t recharge them quickly enough during the race while they were in use. On top of that, one of the external battery packs failed completely before the start and was never available to us.

In the studio, things were very challenging for Steve. We had huge problems connecting the livestreaming, and for the first 10K, we weren’t able to do much broadcasting at all. After the 10K mark, things started to come together. Friends bought batteries at a convenience store, and Steve managed to get the livestream pretty stable.

During the race I had over 1000 tweets an hour coming in, including messages of support from Australia, Portugal, Russia, Brazil, the United States, across Europe, and of course Japan. We also had guests in the studio and, pretty crazily, television crews from CNN and two Japanese television stations. I got so confused that after the finish I gave an interview to CNN in Japanese, and didn’t realise it until afterwards!

Wild for Tame. Livestream hosts, support crew, guests and TV crews celebrate as Tame crosses the finish line.

We ended up with around 14,000 viewers of the livestream, which was a slight increase over the previous year, but we had much more interactivity. We had a lot of ‘real world’ interactivity as well, thanks to the spectacle I presented running through the streets wearing all that gear. I had started at the back of the field, and because we stopped now and then to conduct interviews with the support team, and to repair the rig and change batteries, I spent quite a bit of the race worried that I would miss one of the cutoff times and be prevented from finishing the course.

Toward the end of the race, though, with many of the people around us walking, and the spectators who had been out there for hours pretty quiet, the crazy iRun spectacle managed to energise people on both sides of the barriers. In Japan, people are generally very appreciative when you take on a big challenge; they like seeing people doing something different and crazy.

Because the Tokyo Marathon is such a big event – it’s limited to 32,000 runners, but nearly 300,000 applied for this year’s race – our broadcast got a lot of attention. Some of the feedback was negative – people saying, “You’re an idiot, don’t you have anything better to do?” – but most of the feedback was positive.

Initially, my wife Satoko was … wanting to distance herself from this craziness, but now that she’s seen how it’s been received, she’s very supportive. I think she’s seen that maybe it’s not just an excuse to spend money on new technology, which initially it might have been!

With iRun, I can combine technology and sport, and knowing that people are following my runs keeps me motivated. I’m one of the lucky ones to gain entry to this year’s race (on February 26), and I’m determined to do something different. The livestreaming will be a part of it, but not the major part.

Joseph Tame is a 34-year-old digital media producer from Hereford, England. He has lived in Japan for five years and can be found on Twitter as @tamegoeswild and on the web here.

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