When Chip Timing Fails - It can happen to anyone (even the New York Road Runners)
Chip Timing Fails at Coogan's 5K Race - What's it all about?
by John Elliott
When a major running organization experiences a total failure of their chip timing system and all times are lost, it seems like the perfect opportunity to remind runners that for all of its benefits, there are risks to technology.
When Bad Things Happen - No Times!
It wasn't their marathon (thank goodness), but the chip system of the New York Road Runners failed (this Sunday, March 7, 2004) to record the results of approximately 3/4 of the 2,000+/- participants in the club's annual Coogan's 5K roadrace. The club was forced to put an apology on their website, and an explanation that results would not be available - although participants were invited to send in their own unofficial reckoning of their times (the first self-timed honor system race?). It's bad enough when times are not available, but the race in question also had prize money to be given out: money 4 deep for men and women and prize money to the top three male/female running teams - we can only imagine that it was easy to identify the top men (and maybe women?) and prizes awarded there, but certainly the teams that appeared for the event will all have gone away empty-handed (not to mention the regular age-group award winners). We hope that most runners looked at the clock and remembered their time, but since the race was not promoted as a fun run, participants expected their times to be available later and were disappointed.
Note that we're not picking on the NYRR[C] - we just want to help set the record straight that chip timing is a good thing sometimes and not so good other times - the above is an example of where reliance on technology (chip timing) is much worse than sticking to the old system.
Chip Timing is not a Magic Bullet
So, if this can happen to the New York Road Runners, can it happen to anyone? The answer is: if there's no manual backup - which is most often the case, then yes... And, in fact, it happens to some degree more often than most people realize. Many races experience partial failure of the chip timing system, and here are some situations that we've witnessed: i) chip mats that have failed to get the starting time of half the starters, so net times are not available for everyone; ii) intermediate chip mats that didn't record any times, so split times - as advertised - were not available after the race and iii) a multi-lap marathon where the chip system failed midway through the race and no one actually knew what runner was on what lap. Races are careful not to let these stories out and fortunately the type of calamity where times are completely lost are rare - but the possibility is always there.
When is Chip Timing Really Useful?
For large/major races where net times are important - the answer is that chip timing is essential. At the 2003 Chicago Marathon, the average runner didn't cross the start line until more than 8 minutes after the starting gun fired, and some at the back of the pack didn't cross the start until more than 25 minutes after the start. In that type of event, your net time is going to be significantly different than your "gun time." But, truth be told, in a large event like the Chicago Marathon, your net time won't be a good measure of what you can do anyway as your first miles will be slow as you move through packed streets - but it's certainly better than no net time!
When is Chip Timing Nice?
Chip Timing is nice for any mid-sized and above event, but not at all necessary for smaller races or even mid-sized marathons (where just a few runners cross the finish line each minute - that's easy to track manually!). Besides the net times, chip timing solves the issue of bandits affecting finish results (bandits don't have chips), chip timing helps simplify large-race finish line logistics (where runners don't follow instructions and leave their designated chute) and chip timing can help get results out quickly. Chip timing can also allow intermediate split times - another cool feature - but if you really want that, why not just wear a Timex watch and record your own splits (that's what I do)? But chip timing (especially with real-time splits) can be expensive, so don't complain when your favorite race raises the entry fee by $5 when they add chip timing and multiple splits to their results.
Who Cares about Chip Timing?
We hear that runners often ask whether a given race has chip timing, and lately we got a call from David Hatfield that illustrates the point and really prompted this article. David Hatfield is a member of the famous feuding family and race director of the Hatfield-McCoy Marathon - a quality smalltown marathon held each June that will have 300 marathoners this year. David told me that the Hatfield-McCoy Marathon will have chip timing for the first time this year. Runners have asked whether the race will use chip timing, so David decided that the answer should be yes. But, truth be told, except for the marketing value - there's really no benefit to the runners. In a race this size, all runners will cross the start line within a matter of seconds, so net times really don't matter.
The Moral of the Story
The bottom line is that runners should know that the primary advantage of chip timing is to the timing company - the technology helps generate results quickly, eliminate cheaters and reduce clutter/confusion at the finish line. For the runner, the ability to generate net times is a nice feature in the crowded races - where your time will suffer from the crowds anyway. For smaller, uncrowded events, the benefits of chip timing are negligible if there are any. And, as we've seen with the 2,000 person Coogan's 5K, chip timing can sometimes fail with disastrous consequences - whereas, for all of its limitations, manual timing should always work.
The Moral: when you're choosing your next marathon, please ask about the course, the organization, the on-course fluids, etc. - but don't worry about how your time will be recorded, just worry that it will be...
More Information about Race Timing/Chip Timing:
Traditional Race Timing
Chip Timing - What it is/how it works