Running on Appy! Times Connects with Marathoners Thanks to Interactive Crew

c marathon 4 Running on Appy! Times Connects with Marathoners Thanks to Interactive CrewA couple of months ago, New York Times health writer and “Well” blogger Tara Parker-Pope realized that she wasn’t being very, well, healthy.

“I kind of woke up one day and thought, ‘The biggest problem with the Well blog right now is the Well blogger is not taking care of herself,’” she told The Observer in an interview. Ms. Parker-Pope admitted she had abandoned the gym—at a time when she was trying to include more fitness coverage on the blog.

So Ms. Parker-Pope, who left The Wall Street Journal in 2007 to write about consumer health for The Times, signed up for the ING New York City Marathon. She has until Nov. 1 to train. “If I made it part of my blog, I would actually do it,” she told The Observer. “I thought it was the ultimate multitask.”

To help keep her, and her readers, on task, The New York Times’ interactive news technologies team created Run Well, a Web-based application that allows users to compare marathon training programs, customize their running regime, track their mileage and access other relevant content from the Well blog and NYTimes.com. It’s a kind of home page for Times readers in marathon training.

Online tools from Runner’s World, Active.com and Nike have similar programs, but The Times’ application is specifically for first-time marathon runners and beefed up with specialized editorial content.

“The main feeling is that we cover the marathon really well in the fall when it’s happening, and the build-up to the marathon, but our readers who are participating in the marathon start thinking about it in March or April or May,” said Ms. Parker-Pope. So Run Well extends her coverage. But it’s also a decidedly service-based application—a somewhat new venture for The Times’ interactive department.

Launched quietly during the first week in June, Run Well was built in two and a half weeks by two interactive engineers Ben Koski and Alan McLean, who both decided to sign up for their first marathon by the time they were done coding the application.

They said they had hoped to integrate more social capabilities, like Facebook Connect, but there wasn’t enough time. They told The Observer they eventually plan on extending the application so runners training for 5K, 10K and half-marathon races can use it, too.

“Interaction is more than what you see in a multimedia piece [like a graph or chart],” said Mr. Koski. “There’s this issue we’ve tried to engage in—how do you have a more sustained interaction?”

In other words, how do you create applications in the Web world that build closer relationships between The Times, its writers and its readers so that they keep coming back?

“There are people who are just dying to have a venue, a way to talk to us and for us to talk to them and for them to talk to each other, and we’re not really doing a whole lot right now to do that for them,” said Aron Pilhofer, editor of the interactive newsroom. Most of the articles on the Times site, for example, don’t even enable comments.

But for glimpses into the future of these features, see the NYTimes.com’s Oscar ballot feature, NCAA basketball bracket interactive, photos submitted to the Lens blog, and “Readers’ Reaction” sections from Michael Jackson’s death and the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings.

Mr. Pilhofer said the interactive team has only taken “baby steps” in this direction and is still “kicking around” ideas on what they could do for more Web-based features and even mobile applications. One Times tech whiz created prototype, servicelike iPhone applications—one called “Magic Eat Ball,” which would allow users to shake their phone and find a local restaurant, he said. Another would allow users to tap into Flickr with a few clicks and find photos of nearby sites based on their location. But none of those were released.

The Times team would not say how many users have signed up for Run Well. (“I thought we would be lucky to get a couple hundred active users, and we’ve done quite a bit better than that,” Mr. Pilhofer said.) But Ms. Parker-Pope said the response has been positive. She recently visited a running gear store by Princeton University, and a clerk started talking to her about Run Well, without knowing she was from The Times.

And as a bonus, she’s back on the running wagon, competing in races, although she usually comes in at the end with the rest of the stragglers.

“I wish I was a more experienced runner by now,” she said. “I’m still very new and very slow,” she said. Wait till November!

greagan@observer.com

Correction appended: Alan McLean’s name was misspelled in an earlier verison of this article.