Local News

UNC researcher's work helps unfinished Boston Marathon runners find closure

Posted April 15, 2014 5:57 p.m. EDT
Updated April 15, 2014 5:59 p.m. EDT

— A year after the twin explosions at the Boston Marathon, a local statistics professor is helping the nearly 6,000 runners who never made it to the race's end get some closure.

Bev Kesterson was about three blocks from the race's end when, authorities say, two brothers set off bombs at the finish line on April 15, 2013.

Immediately following the attack, which killed three and left more than 260 injured, Kesterson felt immense gratitude that she wasn't hurt.

But as time passed, she started to long for some closure – what her finish time would have been.

"The number gives it a finish for me, and if I didn't have the number, I wouldn't feel like I finished," she said Tuesday.

The Boston Athletic Association – the marathon's organizer – provided an estimated finish time for those runners but then reached out to Richard Smith, a statistician at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to come up with a scientific formula to predict more accurately their likely finish times.

The reason: to determine who would qualify to run this year's marathon on April 21.

"Once I got their email, of course I knew I had to help them," Smith, who is also a marathon runner, said.

"They'd never be real times, but let's try to give the best times we could," he added.

Smith quickly assembled a team of analysts from Harvard and Carnegie Mellon universities and from the Applied Mathematics Sciences Institute in Research Triangle Park.

The researchers adapted techniques used in such contexts as estimating ratings which Netflix subscribers would have given to movies they had not seen.

They then developed an algorithm that looked at each of the last recorded times of the runners from 2013 and at the similar split times of Boston Marathon runners in 2010 and 2011.

In the end, about 150 people, including Kesterson, made the cut.

"That makes me feel absolutely fantastic," she said.

And finished or not, Kesterson says she sees the race as an amazing achievement.

"It was the best run I'd ever run in my life," she said.

Ultimately, the Boston Athletic Association decided to allow all of the runners who didn't finish last year to compete in this year's event.

But Smith said the work he and his team did was still beneficial. In the course of developing the method, they realized there were other uses for it, such as predicting a runner's finish time while a race is in progress.