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Dr. Andrew Bailey, left, and Dr. Eric Hungenberg talk Monday, Feb. 29, 2016 at UTC about headgear that will be used in the upcoming Chattanooga Marathon to track brain activity.

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Geared up to run: UTC and partners develop 'cool' marathon project

Gary Liguori received a simple prompt.

"Can you do something cool for the Chattanooga Marathon?" Chattanooga Sports Committee President Tim Morgan asked Liguori last spring.

Liguori, who heads up the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Health and Human Performance Department, is answering the call with a team of sports, tech and health enthusiasts who are hoping to provide a rare glimpse into the brain activity of marathon runners.

Two runners in Sunday's inaugural Erlanger Chattanooga Marathon will wear headgear equipped with sensors that will relay raw data about their brainwaves through Bluetooth, onto an iPhone application and into a server.

From there, the data will be broadcast live on a website developed specifically for the race that will be accessible through chattanoogamarathon.com and shown on a monitor at the First Tennessee Pavilion race hub.

The project is largely for entertainment, but it's also a dive into the scarcely explored relationship of neuroscience and endurance sports, which could lead to more substantive research.

"During the marathon, we're hoping that to some degree the outputs can show what the person is thinking," Liguori said. "Not their literal thoughts, but more in a figurative sense. Are they concentrating really hard? Are they relaxed? Falling asleep? Is there a specific part of the race where it becomes really stressful?

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"So basically, we take the outputs and link it to the emotions based on where it comes from in the brain and the ray of activity."

Developing the idea into something deployable during the race took a collaboration of minds and skills, and a couple of "guinea pig" runners willing to wear devices that look like they came straight from the set of a science fiction movie.

UTC sports management professor Eric Hungenberg will wear the device in his first marathon, while physical activity and health graduate student Kelsey Cline will wear it during the half marathon.

"I have no idea how my body or mind will respond when I get to miles 18, 19, 20 and beyond," Hungenberg said. "So for that to be put on display, it will be interesting."

California-based Emotiv develops the devices, which retail for $400-700.

Alex Cruikshank, a programmer for Carbon Five, a tech company with a Chattanooga office, created the iPhone app and designed the website, and EPB is supporting the project.

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Both came on board through UTC's partnership with the city's Enterprise Center.

"None of us could have done it on our own," Liguori said.

UTC sport and leisure professor Drew Bailey's experience toying around with body-monitoring devices and using them to learn about what goes on inside the bodies and minds of adventure sports participants made him a crucial partner in the project, too.

When Bailey learned of Liguori's task to create a project for the Chattanooga Marathon, he searched EEG brain sets. EEG is short for electroencephalogram, which is a test used to monitor the brain's electrical activity.

The Emotiv sets popped up, and the project started coming together. Bailey hopes to keep using similar technology in the future.

"I'm interested in the health aspect of both physical activity and physical activity in the outdoors, especially because we're in Chattanooga and if you go 10 minutes in any direction you're in a world-class outdoor area," Bailey said. "I think there are health benefits to that, and I think it needs to be explored more thoroughly.

"Right now, we just think of the physical health that comes with being outdoors, but there's actually some mental health benefits, as well."

Marathongoers will be able to try on the devices for themselves at a display in the First Tennessee Pavilion on Sunday.

And in a running world where heart rates, calories, times and distances are easily tracked through mainstream wearable technology, they'll get a deeper glimpse into the science of endurance running.

"That's what we want to show the people who are watching the marathon," said Cruikshank, the app and website developer. "We want them to remember that these racers aren't just doing something physically hard.

"They're having to work through their own mental issues to get through to the end, and we want people to somehow be able to see that."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6249.

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