Campus & Community

Wired Marathoner To Spotlight Science

7 min read
GSE student Dayna Muller runs on a treadmill to test her stamina and oxygen use while Peter Weyland from the Harvard Concord Field Station looks on. Photo by Justin Ide.

Dayna Muller will be wired like an astronaut when she runs the grueling 26.2-mile Boston Marathon on April 17. A pillbox-sized sensor on one shoe will broadcast her running speed to a watch on her wrist. A heart monitor strapped to her chest will send her heart rate to the same watch. “They wanted me to swallow a pill like the one John Glenn took to keep track of his body temperature on his last space flight, but I didn’t want to do that,” says the 30-year-old Harvard graduate student.

Muller’s instrumented run is part of a new program to impress on the public how much science is in sports. The idea comes from Matthew Schneps, an educator and physicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“Sports science is a relatively new field,” Schneps notes. “Few people appreciate the extent to which coaches and athletes are turning to science to find ways to break records by shaving fractions of a second off a run, swim, skate, or sail. There’s lots of popular interest in sports and lots of science in sports. Putting them together leads people to science who might otherwise think it’s too dull and difficult.”

The idea occurred to Schneps, who works at the Science Education Department of the Center for Astrophysics, while he was trying to think of ways to use television to get large numbers of people interested in science. “Normally when you have an idea like this in an academic setting, it becomes the subject of meetings, committees, and studies,” he admits. “But this was accepted so quickly and enthusiastically, I didn’t even have time to apply for a grant to fund it.”

Schneps named his project SportSmarts and quickly put together a group of advisers to help him get it up and running. At a meeting, group members discussed familiar sports events that are televised to wide audiences. Patricia Henry of Harvard’s athletic department suggested the Boston Marathon.

The experts also enlisted help from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, specifically a class on designing science television programs, which is taught by Ann Peck, a lecturer on education.

“I made clear to everyone that SportSmarts programs should be for people not interested in science, even those who hate science,” Schneps says. “Science shows like you see on public television and the Discovery Channel are enjoyed for the most part by science buffs. We wanted to build science into things like Monday Night Football, March Madness, and tennis tournaments.

Ann Peck’s class quickly came up with the same idea as the SportSmarts advisors: do a program based on the science involved in running the Boston Marathon.

Choosing the Runner

The class was where Schneps met Dayna Muller, a former elementary school teacher who had run four marathons. Her energy and enthusiasm quickly led Schneps to offer her an internship whereby she could work on a Marathon TV program and receive academic credit.

This program covers the science involved in training for the race and in monitoring such things as heart rate and calorie consumption during the actual contest. The local CBS affiliate, WBZ-TV, agreed to air short segments during the training period and to follow a runner during and after the marathon.

Lots of people volunteered to be the first person to run that famous race for science. Muller was clearly the best choice. She stays in top shape by running, biking, and swimming, but she’s not tall, lean, and muscular like a typical marathoner. “Dayna could be any young woman,” notes Schneps. “Watching her, people are likely to think ‘if she can do it, maybe I can, too.’”

Muller also has a deeply personal motive for participating in the marathon. “I’m running in honor of a cousin who just died from cancer, and for several other friends who are struggling with the disease,” she explains. “I’ll be joining a group of runners who are raising money for the Jimmy Fund, an effort by Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to help patients, particularly children. Two years ago, I raised $4,000; I hope to do better this year.”

Doctors and trainers admire Muller’s ability to stay focused and “up” no matter what physical and mental demands she must meet, but they do worry about a background medical problem. Muller has a history of seizures.

“I don’t have epilepsy,” she explains. “But I have had fainting spells where it felt like I died then came back to life. These can be brought on by exhaustion, stress, dehydration, and low blood sugar. However, I can handle the situation with a balanced diet, drinking a lot of water and juice – things like that. I’ve been free of seizures for five years. It’s still a daily concern, but I know what my body can handle.”

Monitoring Her Run

From a science point of view, her low threshold for seizures makes Muller a more interesting subject to study. Doctors will pay extra attention to the data they continuously gather about her physical condition.

Muller can also monitor herself. “By looking at my special watch, I’ll be able to tell how fast I’m running, and whether I’m going faster or slower than usual,” she explains. “From other dials, I can read my heart rate and the number of calories I’m burning.” (A company called, located in Wellesley, Mass., invented this equipment and provided it without cost to SportSmarts.)

To train for the race, Muller has been running five to six miles four days a week. On weekends, she has devoted one day to longer runs that gradually increase in length as the race day approaches. She rests on the day after these runs, then, on the seventh day, she cross-trains with biking or hiking.

Muller will have her own Marathon cheering squad, including her husband, who is not a runner. Her parents plan to come from Westport, Conn., where she grew up. Students she taught during four years at two schools in Newton, Mass., will also be there as well as her classmates in the Graduate School of Education.

Muller plans to stop along the route to greet young cancer patients who will benefit from the money she raises. And they’ll be the inevitable television interviews to slow her down.

“My fastest time in the Marathon was 4 hours, 20 minutes, and I hope to do a little better than that this time,” she says. “With the equipment and all the attention, that will be difficult, but I’m training harder.”

Muller would need to average just over six miles per hour and burn an average of about 10 calories a minute to complete the race in 4 hours, 20 minutes, according to Peter Weyand, a Harvard research physiologist.

“I felt very excited when SportSmarts picked me to run,” Muller says. “The idea of being famous for a little while appealed to me. I still feel some of that. But I also have the better feelings of raising money to help kids with cancer, and of helping teachers and students get a better understanding of science.”