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Dr. J. on Running

Millenium Bug

Knees Quiver Over Y2K

Published May 10, 1999, in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

Computer operators around the world worry about the millenium bug, also known as the Y2K problem. Instead of changing to 01/01/2000 at midnight on December 31, 1999, calendars on some older computers will reset to 01/01/00, or some arbitrary date like 07/01/81. This error can wreck havoc in programs that rely on date differences, such as computing peopleís ages and interest on bank deposits.

Although Congress has attempted to legislate away the Y2K problem, many computer programmers have earned a fortune rewriting old software to fix the dates. For its part, the running community remains apprehensive of Y2Kís potential impact on our sport. Besides our heavy reliance on computers for timing races and generating results, running maintains a natural affinity to the flight of time and the change in centuries.

For historical reasons, athletes in the Northern Hemisphere circle the track in a counter-clockwise direction. The significance of the direction of running may escape the X-generation kids who have grown with digital watches, and have never seen a watch with handles. Any way, we run counter clockwise for sentimental reasons, symbolizing our race against the clock.

Drawings of the early Olympics showed athletes running on dirt tracks in both clockwise and counter-clockwise directions, judging from the sundials used for timing. Since it is customary to switch the direction of running around the track every century, the first Olympic Games in 1896 would have been run in a clockwise direction. In addition to reducing left-knee illiotibial injuries, alternating directions brings equality to the left-footed minority.

As track designers salivate at the prospects of repainting thousands of tracks in the Northern Hemisphere, the planners of the Sydney Olympics have already pre-painted their new track counter-clockwise, which will be the correct direction for running in the Southern Hemisphere in the next century. However, the designers of Sydney track seem to have underestimated the capacity of its sewer system in relation to Aussiesí beer drinking ability.

The Y2K problem threatens race timing in uncommon ways. Race directors have been strongly cautioned not to schedule any track events that span the centuries to avoid any uncertainty in finish times. Locally, a 10K race planned at the New York State Fair to celebrate the new century has been separated into two 5K races, one in the first 2K and the second in the next 2K. This ensures that the times for the first 5K are safely recorded before midnight.

Another area of race automation that awaits certification for Y2K compliance is the use of electronic timing chips attached to runnersí shoes. These chips are in wide use at large races such as Boston and Marine Corps Marathons, and simplify greatly the task of tallying results. To play it safe, race directors are advised against using the chip on New Year races that span across time zones.

At a recent college invitational, the Y2K bug reared its ugly head during the sprint preliminaries. The fully-automated timing system erroneously shifted the lane assignments of all the sprinters by one lane, giving every runner his neighborís time. Fortunately, the finals were held before the end of the year, allowing the frantic race officials to manually fix the problem.

As financial institutions and hospitals race against the clock to certify their computers for Y2K compliance, a leading manufacturer of medical prostheses gives an ambivalent reply to athletesí concerns with their heart pacemakers. Since most pacemakers are non-Y2K-compliant, we advise these athletes to avoid training with the heart rate monitors, which are Y2K-compliant, to eliminate any uncertainty in the readings.

The only good news in the Y2K bug is the unique opportunity for all runners to reset their PRís, and blame it on computer non-compliance. This way, all personal records achieved in the twentieth century must be committed to history, rather than carried over into the next century. This gives us all a golden opportunity to start all over again and run countless PRís.

Kamal Jabbour plans to exchange his computerized running shoes for the Y2K-compliant EVA variety. His often-serious RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He receives email at jabbour@syr.edu (through December 31).


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